The Business of Education?
Lately between reading articles, listening to friends, and work-related stuff, education in China and Hong Kong have been very much on my mind.
Education was my minor field of study in university, although apart from my student teaching experience, I have not worked as a teacher professionally since then. I did serve on the school board of an international school with some 2,500 students for eleven years, however, including three as board chair; so I have retained a strong interest in the field. I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest speaker in various schools over the years as well.
Teachers work long, hard hours, and very few of them are paid high salaries. Great teachers are passionate about education and not in it for the money, although in my view it’s a big mistake for such important members of society to be generally poorly paid. Thinking back, I’m sure each of us can remember at least one or two teachers who had an exceptional impact on our learning and development. It’s difficult if not impossible to put an adequate price on such a contribution to people’s lives and to society in general.
One thing I learned from my school board experience is that compared to business organizations, leading, planning and managing change in educational institutions is very complex and challenging. For one thing, the metrics of success are subject to a lot more debate than in business, where growth in revenue, profits, and shareholder value are widely agreed measures of success and failure. Raising capital for schools is also more challenging, and efforts like developing a significant flow of donations from alumni take many years of planning and hard effort.
Like so many other facets of society, education in China has undergone enormous changes in the 30 years since the Open Door and Reform. era began. When I hear complaints about the many serious problems and challenges facing education in China, I am sometimes reminded of the quote from the American humorist and folk hero Will Rogers, who commented on American education thusly:
“Schools ain’t as good as they used to be, and they never was.”
To me that’s another way of saying that most people are rarely if ever satisfied with the available educational opportunities and quality, partly because society’s needs change more quickly than education’s ability to satisfy them, and partly because expectations usually outpace current reality.
Asian parents are particularly focused on getting their kids into famous brand schools, which although understandable, is often exaggerated and can result in incredible and unhealthy pressure on their children, who are under enormous pressure already in their early school years. In schools on the Chinese mainland, this pressure builds to the top of the pyramid in the form. of the annual “gao kao”. In Hong Kong and many other Asian countries, there are different systems but with similarly pressurized results.
Too many parents, grandparents and other adult family members expect their children to achieve admission and graduation from a famous brand school. For those with sufficient wealth to consider a North American university education, this is often translated to a focus on an Ivy League school on the East Coast, or Stanford on the West Coast — all extremely difficult and competitive admissions targets.
What many of these parents are not aware of is that North America has approximately 3,000 colleges and universities. Even taking the top 25% in terms of quality rankings and reputation means a pool of 750 excellent schools to choose from. So why focus so much on the top 0.006%?
I guarantee that of those 750 top schools, most parents will be unfamiliar with the names and reputations of the vast majority of them. Although it’s true that networking among schoolmates from a top brand school is an asset for one’s career, I think it’s grossly overrated in importance.
I was very fortunate to graduate from a top Ivy League school but networking among schoolmates has been of next to no importance in my career development, nor did I expect it to be. Many of the most successful executives I have met, who rose to the top of major organizations, graduated from colleges which are not anywhere near the top 750 rankings. Some didn’t even graduate from college.
All children are different and learn differently. The most important direction a parent can give to their child is to find the college or university which best suits their needs and interests. It is not an admission of failure or lower intelligence to attend a less prestigious school, and it may in fact result in a happier and more successful individual in later life.
The booming sector of private education in China is addressing and satisfying many of the perceived shortcomings of public education in China, especially for more affluent people. That’s true in adult education as well, evidenced by the great success of private English language schools like EF, Wall Street and New Oriental. And private kindergartens and pre-schools have multiplied quickly, with many offering “international” curricula and better facilities.
I was struck recently by the news that some of the kindergartens are now offering an “Early MBA” program, which must especially appeal to parents who themselves did not have a chance to obtain an MBA degree. Personally I think it’s ridiculous to propose that kindergarteners should be studying business and beginning golf lessons at such a tender young age.
It’s also a reminder to me that the business of educating children, as opposed to adults, is much more than a pure business enterprise and needs to be approached and managed with a deep sense of social responsibility.
Nothing generates comparable levels of anxiety in parents more than the health and well-being of their child. The terrific headaches associated with getting kindergarten admission for their child in Beijing and some other top Chinese cities really deserves urgent attention. Some people say it’s now more challenging and difficult than college admissions.
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