This story was part of a chapter in my upcoming book about how educators must adhere to district, state, and federal mandates. My editor and I decided together that it should be cut, in the name of being succinct and avoiding repetitious point-making (a flaw of mine, certainly); I didn't mind it being cut because there's part of me that isn't comfortable sharing such a private conversation with a wider audience. But since you've come here on your own, I tell the story here:
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to travel with other educators to China, a country that is often lauded for its students’ results on standardized assessments. Over a two-week period, we visited several different schools in addition to touring major cities and multiple historical sites. We had a wonderful guide on our trip, a young man who had a delightful mix of intellect, knowledge, and humor. He answered all our questions and thoughtfully in careful English, he told wonderful stories, and he quickly connected with all of us on a personal level by telling us about his experiences growing up and working in a famously difficult society.
Toward the end of the trip, I had developed some questions about the country’s educational system that had begun to nag at me after our school visits. It was simple: I hadn’t seen a single student with noticeable learning disabilities. I had not seen a single indication of diversity. Everything seemed very neat, very organized, and very standard. Very perfect. And knowing what the classrooms looked like in my school district, I knew something was missing. It just didn’t seem to add up. So one morning, as we sat in a large group at breakfast, I brought it up.
“I have some questions about the schools we visited. I didn’t see any students with . . .” I stopped to think—I had to choose words our guide would understand. “I didn’t see any students who have a hard time learning,” I continued. “Where do they go to school?”
He crinkled his brow, as I kept going. “I didn’t see any students who have physical problems—problems with their bodies. I didn’t see any students who look different from their classmates.”
He grew oddly quiet. Then he answered, “You and I can talk later.”
I felt deeply uncomfortable, as if I had asked something I should not have. The others at the table shifted awkwardly in their seats. After a moment, someone brightly shifted the subject with an anecdote or a question about our day’s plans, and the moment passed.
Later that day, though, our group stopped at a crowded market for lunch. We were told to choose something to eat, wander the market if we wanted, and meet back at the tour bus in an hour’s time. As I walked through the vendors, the guide fell into step with me. “Come with me,” he said. We ordered lunch, walked to a quiet corner of the market, and sat on the ground to eat.
In his careful English, our guide went on to tell me that the questions I’d asked this morning were not ones they talked about in his country. Their culture required academic excellence, he explained. To that end, students who struggled to learn were taken from school and sent to work very young. Students with significant disabilities were taken “away,” and their school experience was a vague, little-understood thing. Students who excelled at school were pushed beyond what I could believe was possible. They dedicated their young lives to academics. “My daughter at school from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., and she study until 11:00 p.m.,” he said. “There is nothing else.”
As we talked, I began to understand that the “public schools” in his country were only for the very best students. And it was their performance on assessments to which students in the United States were being compared. And as we all know, in the United States, every student gets an education—students who come to us from all over the world, students with difficult disabilities, students who are neglected or hungry or not supported at home. In the United States, we teach them all and we assess them all. But that doesn’t stop oversimplified comparisons between the United States and other countries.
More of what I learned from my trip to China later on this week!