Chengdu vs. Shanghai

I’m planning my next trip to China this summer with my children. So I’ve been reflecting on my trip last summer, the observations I made in schools and how they are relevant to our work.

I went to China for my children (I’m lying; I wanted to go for the food). They study in a Mandarin immersion charter school and I wanted to see if they could really speak Mandarin.  Since I don’t speak Mandarin, I have no way to assess their skills. I took them to a Chinese science summer camp that a friend had organized. Could they get around and get me a taxi?  Could they order food in a restaurant and work in a group on a science project?

We went to Sichuan province, home of Kung Pao chicken and all things spicy. I visited Chengdu, the fourth most populous city in the country. Personal life and work have a funny way of intertwining themselves, and I ended up giving quite a few speeches on what we do at the Gates Foundation and how I think about everything from testing to character education.

My first two speeches were with parents. Lots of parents. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the turn out because Chinese parents always put education first. But I was struck by the number of mothers, fathers, aunts, and grandparents that were packed into the room on two different occasions. I love the way a very old grandmother held her arms up and clasped her hands together to give me a “fight on” signal as I left.

One meeting was with the deputy director of education for the district who also happened to be named Wong but spelled it Huang (He didn’t laugh when I made a joke about how I was a Ms. Wong and also a deputy director). We talked about how to scale the hands-on science curriculum that the summer camp organizer had developed. He took a party line and emphasized the importance of adhering to the national curriculum and insisted that the work could not be scaled if it was not aligned. Sound familiar?

The translator used an interesting word instead of scale. She said, “popularize.” If we want to “popularize” this curriculum, then it must align to the national curriculum. I liked the use of that word instead of scale. We want to make our work popular! Mr. Huang ended the meeting by saying, “We have a saying in China: ‘We have a bright future. It’s always tough to begin.’” I love those ancient Chinese proverbs that just came up all the time.

Before I left, I visited an elementary school with 1,800 kids. That was only Part A of the school. Who knows how large Part B was. I poked around. The principal was anxious to talk to me and share what she was doing in her school. The staff room looked just like all the staff rooms I’ve been in, from South Africa to Fresno. But they had a porch for the teachers with an exercise bench and a bike. How about that? I didn’t see many overweight Chinese people; that is for sure. Right next to the rickety exercise equipment were 100 boxes that contained the national curriculum for 2014! I tried to steal a few copies, but it was no use because I can’t read Chinese anyway. Schools are schools, no matter where you go. They really do look the same, with the same rows of desks.

This visit was such a contrast to my visit to Shanghai just last month, where I saw so many teachers collaborating. But to be fair, I did go to Chengdu in the summer. Two teachers from Shanghai had joked with me during dinner when I told them I had been to Chengdu and was interested in what they were doing in the schools. They said, “The saying is that if you want to go slow, go to Chengdu!” But I don’t doubt that Chengdu can catch up to Shanghai in a few years. I just wonder if they should listen more to their own compatriots only a 1,000 miles away, rather than looking to the U.S. education system. I’ll tell you more about their progress when I go this summer!

– C.