Thursday, April 06, 2006

Comments, Links

Motivated by an ongoing discussion we're having in the math department about the role of homework and homework grades in our math courses, and a long talk I had with Jodi tonight about educating kids and what's wrong with the current Chinese system, I think I will post, translate and make a few comments on an editorial I read this morning from the inside cover of yesterday's Xinmin Evening News. (This translation is aiming for speed, so excuse the judgement calls I make.)

First, a little background. Traditionally, the college admissions process in China has been governed by the gaokao, a standardized national test of language, math, government and English whose score alone determines which college students can hope to get into. The gaokao is given once a year, and is the center of national attention on the day that it is administered: both a figurative and literal hush fall over the nation as the students spend their allotted hours filling in the answer sheets, answers which are seen as determining the course of the rest of their lives in a country that traditionally reveres schooling to a fault.

This year, two top unversities in Shanghai are experimenting with a new form of admissions. Over the last few days, they have been holding admissions interviews with prospective students, and filling spots in their freshman class with these kids. This is a big deal, and has been the subject of great public debate. The following article is a product of that debate:

高考多元化是试错过程
2006年04月05日 14时33分 来源:文新传媒网--新民晚报

徐迅雷

高校自主招生,是新中国教育史上从未有过的试验。从一考定终身,到高校有了一定的自主权,再到面试定乾坤,我们终于看到高考形态的可喜变化。尽管“相对模糊”的面试属于“第一个吃螃蟹”,不免让人担心面试的准确度。比如,有人认为面试可能无法反映学生真实水平;还有人认为个性木讷、不善表达的学生在面试中难以发挥优势。但我们不能只看到潜在的问题,也要关注潜在的希望。多年一贯制的高考,已经有了强力惯性的路径依赖,非改革难以突破。革除单一化高考的弊病,让高考方式多元化,这是必然的趋势。

复旦、交大此次改革的突破点,在于“学校说了算”,这还是“有限进步”,因为仅仅是面向上海学子,局限于比例极有限的自主招生范围。对此,公众应该有宽容的心态,至少允许试错。试错过程是发展进步不可或缺的步骤,也是制度创新的前提与基础。试错是要付成本、交“学费”的,如连这点成本都不愿付,那么改革就成为一句空话。可以想象,此次“破冰之旅”,即使从最坏的角度考虑——“失败”了,那也不会付出太大的代价。

但是,一些可预见的弊病,是应该重视,并加强防范的。公众最大的担忧,无非是会不会导致招生腐败。俄罗斯的高考就曾走过“回头路”,经历过从废除单纯的笔试,继而又恢复笔试的历程,原因就在于不少人走上了“歪门邪道”。

如今,为面试组织数量庞大的专家群,并随机抽签组成“考官”,都能最大程度避免“事前搞定”。只要考官是群体的,而且对于考生来说是变化的,那么,想“走后门”就有点难。当然,对“考官”的严格监管亦不可缺少,只要时刻有一把达摩克利斯剑悬挂于他们头顶,事情就不至于有想象的那么坏。

高考方式多元化,从终极意义上就是摆脱应试教育,导向素质培养。我们有理由相信,只要有充分的准备与考量,结果就不会是“零和博弈”,而是让学生、让高校、让教育“三赢”。

The process of college entrance test diversification has to be one of trial and error

The new independent college admissions process is an experiment that is unprecedented in the history of modern Chinese education. Finally, here we begin to see a heartening improvement: a move from one test determing a life's course, towards colleges gaining a measure of self-determination, and then an interview as the deciding factor in the admissions process. While the inherent risk of subjective judgement posed by interviews is acknowledged, it is impossible to keep people from worrying about objectivity and accuracy. For example, some people feel that an interview cannot possibly sound out the true depth of an interviewee; or that less expressive students will not be able to bring their strong points to bear on the conversation. But in judging the interview as an admissions tool we cannot simply look at potential problems, but must also consider potential benefits. The college entrance examination system, the gaokao, is a strongly entrenched habit of many years; without a revolutionary change, it will be impossible to dislodge. The abolishment of the current homogenizing entrance examination system and the institution of a diversified admissions process is an inevitable artifact of history!

The heart of the revolutionary change made by Jiaotong University and Fudan University lies in the fact that the unversity has full control over the process and decision; but the change is still limited by being localized to Shanghainese students, and restricted to the scope of university-controlled admissions. Because of this, the public should take a more tolerant stance, at least admitting the need for this trial-and-error effort. This change is a vital step forward in the system's evolution, and both a prerequisite for and basis of systematic innovation. Of course trial-and-error carries a cost, a "tuition" so to speak. If we are unwilling to pay this cost, then the revolution is nothing but emtpy words. Looking at the worst case scenario where this "ice breaking trip" is a failure, it still does not carry a large price.

Still, some foreseeable problems are worth emphasizing and guarding against. The public's greatest worry is that admission by interviews will lead to corruption infecting the admissions process. Case in point, the Russian education system executed a U-turn in this respect, first doing away with and then resurrecting the unbiased pencil-and-paper test, when it was discovered that more than a few people were taking "crooked" paths into higher education.

At the present, interviews are conducted by large numbers of experts, and organized and administered through random drawings, all for the sake of avoiding "predetermined results". In this way, as long as the interviewers are deployed in groups and randomly assigned to student interviewees, those students who hope to "enter through the back door" will find doing so extremely difficult. Of course, interviewers must be under strict supervision as well; with a clear Sword of Damacles hanging over their heads, the worst outcome can surely be avoided.

The core message of the diversification of the college entrance admissions process is the casting off of rote-memorization learning, and emphasizing of character training. It is reasonable to believe that the right amount of planning and preparation will lead not to a "zero sum game", but to a mutually beneficial "triple win" for students, colleges and education alike.

I'm all for it.

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