By Steve Kelman
I have been lucky enough to have an opportunity to visit a Chinese high school, the High School Affiliated With Renmin University (RDFZ). It is considered to be one of the best high schools in China, so not a typical one, but nonetheless my visit taught me a lot. I sat in on English and Chinese literature classes for 15-year-olds, spoke with some of the English and American faculty at the school, and ate lunch with some of the students.
One of the interesting things about the school is that it is actually divided into two programs. The larger regular program has a Chinese national curriculum, but there is also a smaller program (which is the one I visited) that is specifically designed to prepare students for applying to universities in the US and the UK. Indeed, these students do not take the Chinese national college entrance exam (their curriculum doesn’t fully prepare them for it), so they are not even able to attend a Chinese university after graduation. On the wall of the entrance to the section of the school for this program are listed the names of the previous year's graduating students and the American or British schools to which they were admitted. I noticed admissions to Boston College, Boston University, and Brandeis.
Fees for this program are high – about 100,000 RMB (over $15,000) a year – much higher than for the regular program, although the school is a public (government) school. Parents are told they should have a million RMB in the bank to send a child into the program, since the parents will need to pay American college tuition, with few scholarship prospects. I was told that when school is over, many parents pick children up in fancy cars. When I made a reference to people picking up kids with Audi 4s, I was told that parents who have an Audi 4 -- the car China provides for lower-ranking government officials -- don't earn enough to afford the program – they would need enough income for an Audi 6 or an Audi 8.
The existence of this program shows the real attractiveness of Western education (and more broadly of the West) for many Chinese. One of the students with whom I ate lunch told me that she had spent a year attending fifth grade at a school in Buffalo, New York, and her parents accompanied her from China for the whole time to establish their residency and allow her to attend the school.
Attending the classes was fascinating. The classroom was spartan, brightened up mainly by English-language sayings written in colored chalk on the back blackboard, such as “Never underestimate your power to change yourself” and “Four short words sum up what has lifted more successful individuals above the crowd: never never give up.”
In the English-language class, I was very impressed by the English-language skills of these young students. The passages they were reading included quite complicated words and concepts. There was, however, a lot of emphasis on recitation and memorization. Students were asked to repeat long paragraphs from a reading, which they seem to have memorized, and repeated without much emotion. On the other hand, I liked that both teachers at various points during the class had smaller groups of students discuss a topic among themselves. This is a technique we're starting to use to encourage more students to take part in discussions. The girl who had spent a year in the fifth-grade class told me she felt American schools encouraged creativity more than Chinese ones.
The students are worked very hard. Class goes on to 4:30, followed by extra-curricular activities (which are especially important for these students because they are applying to US schools, which pay much more attention to these), and summer vacation is only from the second week in July to the end of August. I observed the same mixture of students looking engaged and not as I suspect I would see in a suburban US high school.
Posted on Jun 01, 2012 at 7:03 PM3 comments
I am back in China to attend an academic public management research conference and to give some lectures at two Chinese universities. (The Chinese academic year doesn't end until the end of June.)
The conference was interesting, and the quality of public administration research in China is definitely improving, though from a very low level. A real problem for Chinese public administration programs -- actually, this is probably an issue generally at Chinese universities -- is that the younger generation of scholars is much, much stronger than their elders, who often were appointed at a time when universities, much more than today, were politicized institutions that were arms of the state, and where scholars had little contact with researchers in the West.
In a Confucian society like China, where younger people are supposed to respect elders, this is an especially big problem. My impression is that the younger scholars attempt to deal with this situation partly by banding together with each other and partly by looking outwards towards the West. Chinese public administration research faces an additional problem, of course, which is that the institution they wish to study -- the Chinese government -- is secretive and generally not open to researchers. (A talented young Chinese public administration scholar I know with a PhD from an American university has spent years studying local government in the US, of all things, though he would bring incredible advantages to doing research about China, because he has not been able to get access to do research inside the Chinese government, although now he is finally trying.)
Americans who think that Harvard is an outpost of radicalism will be interested to learn that the Chinese government thinks the same about the best university in China, which the Chinese call "Beida" (short for Beijing Daxue or Beijing University, but often still rendered into English as Peking University, using the city's old English name). A student at Beida had once told me that there were Internet curbs on the Beida campus that went beyond the curbs existing generally in China -- so, for example, I have never had any problem in China accessing the New York Times website, but this student told me he couldn't access it on his computer on campus, though he could at home.
I was told this wasn't the case at other Chinese universities, the reason being that the Chinese authorities were much more worried about protests and unrest from Beida students than they were about protests from students at other universities -- Beida was, for example, the center of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. It shouldn't be surprising, perhaps, that just like universities in the US, those in China have different images associated with them. Tsinghua, often called the "MIT of China," is strong in engineering and produces a lot of senior party officials and government managers, in a country whose political leadership is as dominated by engineers as ours is by lawyers. And even today, Renmin (People's) University, one of the top-ranking universities in China, originally founded as a university for the Communist Party, still has close ties to the government, though the faculty I know there seem no different to me from those at other top universities, and I know a few students from there who are quite oppositional.
Posted on May 30, 2012 at 7:03 PM3 comments
FCW recently ran an article about a new OMB memo regarding the use of program effectiveness evidence in connection with agency submissions for the FY14 budget. The article topped the list of FCW most-read articles for a while, showing there is interest in this topic.
“Evidence-based government” is not a new idea. The “planning-programming budgeting system” of the 1960’s and the “zero-based budgeting” idea in the 1970’s were both outgrowths of the idea that budget allocations should be based on evidence about program effectiveness. (These decades also saw a number of very expensive experiments testing the impact of a number of anti-poverty interventions, many of which came up dry, showing the programs didn’t help very much against poverty.) The idea of “performance-based budgeting,” promoted by the Bush administration, was similar. Pretty much any time an administration proposes cutting back or eliminating a program, the proposal is based on evidence the program doesn’t work.
The basic idea behind evidence-based government was expressed in a comment attributed to John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that “when the facts change, I change my opinion – what do you do, sir?” And the basic problem with evidence-based government is that there is a lot of evidence for a psychological mechanism whereby most people don’t behave the way Keynes said he behaved: When contrary facts come in, most people who don’t like them don’t change their opinion. Instead they challenge the facts.
That is certainly a way of life in Washington, augmented by the fact that each side often has its own studies coming to opposite conclusions. Many in Washington are cynical about evidence.
This cynicism goes too far. Academics who are trained in research methods are constantly vetting academic studies, and there frequently emerge something close to a consensus about what conclusions are well-supported (or not) by evidence. Just calling something a “study” doesn’t make it so, and, if people in Washington were willing to place some trust in conclusions about different studies drawn by the scholarly community, the status of evidence for and against different programs, where it exists, would be better-established than the cynical story has it.
Probably the best we can hope for, in Washington’s political world, is for evidence to be an input, and the scholarly community that seeks to develop evidence be an accepted participant, in policy debates. And that, I actually think, is the case now.
Since the idea of evidence-based government is not new, there is in a sense less to the OMB memo than meets the eye. Actually, its contributions are two. First, the memo actually is less about the use of evidence in backing up budget requests than it is about agencies using more resources, even in tight budget times, to gather evidence about programs. The memo rightly points out that new methods have been developed since the costly studies of the 1970’s to gather evidence about programs at much lower cost – including the overlap between performance information agencies gather for performance improvement purposes and the world of evidence-based government.
Second, ever since the often-negative results produced by the program evaluations of the 1970’s, Democrats – who otherwise often denounce Republicans for opposition to science and to reason – have often been uneasy about the idea of evidence-based government, fearing it will lead to program cuts. So it is good to see a Democratic administration sign on to this idea.
Posted on May 25, 2012 at 7:03 PM1 comments