Georgia and China are facing the same educational problems, local educators discovered last week.
More than 30 Georgia and Tennessee teachers, administrators and policy makers traveled to schools in China to learn about the Chinese culture and education system. The trip, set up by the Georgia Appalachian Center for Higher Education at North Georgia College & State University and Kennesaw State University's Confucious Institute, encouraged educators to look for "best practices."
The biggest surprise was the similarities, said Darren Berrong, principal of Towns County Middle School in Hiawassee.
"I saw my kids there with Chinese faces. It was just like a class I would have," he said. "The impression that their kids are smarter comes from comparing our education system to theirs in high school. It's like comparing apples to oranges and not really a fair comparison."
After middle school and high school, Chinese children take tests to determine the next step. After the middle school test, only the top 70 percent move to high school. The others start trade school or a job. The high school test determines eligibility for colleges.
"The performance determines their future, and it's very competitive because occupation and career can be guided by those options," Berrong said. "Someone made the comment that the test is so important that parents stand outside of schools, waiting for their students to come out and tell them how they did."
Berrong said he sees the same tests in other countries. Through the Appalachian Center program, he has also traveled to England and Argentina to study their educational systems. In England, a test after the 10th grade determines whether students transition to trade school and jobs or study specific subjects before moving to the university level.
"When you're basing their future on one test score, it's hurting the kids, in my opinion," Berrong said. "Here, our philosophy is to educate everybody, but they have more of a focus on pushing the highest kids up and everyone else moves on to work. It's really a difference in philosophy."
Berrong did note the heavy focus on academics for the high achievers.
"They don't do as much in terms of drama, the arts and sports," he said. "They're always amazed at what our football stadiums look like and that so many people come out and watch high school games. It's just not a focus they have."
The biggest surprise? Many classrooms had little technology.
"In a middle school classroom, there wasn't a computer or projector, like we expect to have here. There was literally just a chalkboard and chalk," he said. "That's what they do — the teacher goes in and has chalk. I was expecting more technology."
Another surprise? Chinese teachers want to learn how to incorporate some U.S. practices into their classrooms.
"They're trying to change to be more like us. What they typically do is lecture and pound facts into kids' heads," Berrong said. "They want to do more group activities, which allows for creativity."
The 10-day trip took the group through Beijing, Shanghai and other major areas, and educators came back with ideas in mind. Berrong said a seventh-grade teacher from his school wants to do video conferencing with a class in China to introduce students from different cultures.
Other teachers want to set up a partnership with sister schools to exchange books and reading packets. Education goals in both China and Georgia have prioritized the ability to read in elementary school, said Susan Walker, director of policy and research for Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan group that helps educators across Georgia understand current issues.
Walker, who approached the trip with an eye on policy-making, was struck by the parallels between the countries.
"We have so much focus in Georgia on the international and global competition and how the world is flattening," she said. "To see firsthand that China is dealing with the same issues made me realize it's less of a competition and more of ‘How can we learn from each other?'"
Walker was also encouraged that Chinese school systems are looking at the American model of supporting students in various pathways.
"There's been so much focus on accountability and passing the test here in Georgia," she said. "It made me realize that as much as we need to continue doing that, we shouldn't abandon our efforts to encourage students to pursue what they want and be creative."