Public Education: U.S. vs. China

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After visiting more than 20 public schools in China and India, San Diego school teacher Keith Ballard, a 2003 Milken U.S. National Educator of the Year, launched a public awareness campaign to improve public education. Ballard talks about the campaign and what he’s hoping to accomplish.

VIDEO: What do you want to be? Engineer?
What do you want to be? Software engineer. What do you want to be? Farm service. What do you want to be? A doctor. Great. How about you?
Civil engineer.
I want to become a scientist.
You want to be a scientist.
I want to be a doctor.
What do you want to be?
Civil engineer.
What do you want to be?
Become a doctor.

Ted Simons: Those are a handful of students interviewed by San Diego school teacher Keith Ballard during his recent trips to India and China. He visited more than 20 schools and now he's traveling across America talking about what he found and what it will take for American students to become more globally competitive. Joining us is Keith Ballard, recipient of the 2003 Milken national educator award. Welcome.

Keith Ballard: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: When you went over there, what were you expecting? What did you find over there?

Keith Ballard: I did about 400 hours of research before I went and I knew it was really good. Once I got there it was so much better than what I read. But if I can just quickly -- the analogy I would use to Americans to describe this is that -- let's talk about in terms of football. The Chinese public educational system is so good it's something like the NFL whereas our American public education system I got to say we're playing no better than high school football.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, why are they the NFL and why are we still high school football?

Keith Ballard: Well, there's so many reasons, but just to give you an idea, they do approximately 230 days of school per year. We're doing about 185, maybe 175 depending on where you're at. They do about three hours more per day. They start kindergarten at age two and we're starting at age five, maybe 25% of our kids start at age six. So at the end of what it's going to look like by graduation from high school they are going to be about six years ahead conservatively. Listen, I was in ten schools in China K-through-12, ten in India, in schools up to 4,000 kids. I saw absolutely no discipline problems over there. Never met a disrespectful student. I couldn't say the same thing here in the US.

Ted Simons: That brings up an important point, I think. That is the concept of cultural differences. Can you compare what's happening in China and India? We saw the tape of those kids. Are those American school kids? American school kids have that kind of mind set? You mentioned the NFL. It's almost like a boot camp it sounds like what's going on over there. Is that what America wants in terms of education?

Keith Ballard: I don't know if America wants that, but the problem is that business has choices and business is exercising those choices. More and more business is going to China and India. Do we have to do it exactly like that? I don't think so, but we have to do a whole lot better than what we're doing because I work as a public school teacher. I'm in the trenches. In my opinion, in a lot of teachers' opinions we're not doing a very good job.

Ted Simons: From what you saw over there what are they learning in are they learning to take tests, rote memorization, are they learning to be creative, innovative?

Keith Ballard: You probably know about the program for international student assessment. China's Shanghai region decided to try their luck to see how they did. 24 million kids, they measure 15-year-olds. This test is the test that our government says is the number one to determine nature to see how our kids are doing in comparison with the rest of the world. China, Shanghai, first in reading, first in math, first in science. America, 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading. Real quick, this test not only measures academic learning but it measures -- can they apply it. All the questions are based on application. So according to our government, you know, this is a great way to determine who is going to lead in the future. I talked to a lot of different people. They say, China's system doesn't promote innovation. I'm thinking they don't have any nobel prize winners yet, but they are getting there. Don't count China out. Everything that they have going for them says that they're heading that way.

Ted Simons: How does America head that way? What do we need to do?

Keith Ballard: We're going to have to increase the school day. In the lowest amount of -- in the Asian countries they are doing about 205 days. We're going to have to kick it up at least another month. Starting earlier, taking advantage of that early brain stimulation by age 4 about 90% of the brain is formed. We're not doing that. So starting earlier. Possibly more school days. More investment but investment in the right way. In many cases we throw money into a system that's bottomless pit.

Ted Simons: What about the idea, I can hear some parents saying, I don't want my kid going to school at two, three, four years old. I want my kid to be a kid and then prepare for school. How do you respond?

Keith Ballard: I have heard this argument too. I'll say the great majority of kids are baby-sited in their first two years in front of a television. The American pediatric -- the American pediatric association says zero television in the first two years. If their parents are working with them, not out working, great, but at least those kids in China are in schools getting an immense amount -- I was in some of the kindergartens. By age three they are singing the A, B, Cs. It's scary to watch what's coming down the line.

Ted Simons: When you were interviewing, most of them seemed to have a pretty good idea what they wanted to be. Very young. The concept of school to career, we talk about vocational Ed, all those things, on this program. One of the criticisms of that is that a lot -- old thinking for education is that you teach a kid how to read, thousand write, how to think so they can choose when they become an adult what they want to do. Do we want a 14, 13, 12-year-old deciding what to do with their lives?
Keith Ballard: Well, here's the other side of it. 50%, we have a 40 to 50% dropout in African-americans and Latinos. I work in this type of school. I work with very poor kids on the border, so I'm right in the fringe. I can tell you if there were vocational programs offered to many of the kids they would not drop out. So do we let them drop out or give them options? Here's the way I look at it. You don't like spinach. I'm going to force it on you until you eat it in elementary school. In Junior high you're eating less. In high school you say, I don't have to eat that. I'm bigger than you now. That's the analogy. That's what happens and the kids walk out the door. If we could recover a broad spectrum of education as China does and they do it really well, I think we would be a lot better off.

Ted Simons: Do they offer vocational education to train in the sciences or are they -- in Arizona we have some programs now, very successful, where yes, you learn how to be a doctor, mechanic, scientist, but in learning that you also learn general education principles.

Keith Ballard: That's the way their vocational systems are set up. Maybe half day they are learning to be a full-fledged mechanic. The problem with so much vocational education here in the United States generally, I know there's my understanding a really good vocational program in east Mesa.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Keith Ballard: But generally, little funding with them, they don't prepare kids for anything and they kind of -- I used to be at a high school where they gave the auto mechanic, the teacher, $800 a year for a budget. Everything was broken and all the tools were ripped off. All the kids knew it was a joke and they quit. But if it's a high powered program where a kid doesn't have to spend $40,000 after high school to learn what he could learn in high school, you know, I think it would be a great thing.

Ted Simons: I gotta tell you, ever since I was in school, that's a long time ago, I have heard that American education system is failing. It's not keeping up with the rest of the world. We're failing our children. Decade after decade I have heard this, yet America is simply a powerhouse economically, in terms of the military, in terms of creativity and has been for decades -- it's almost as if we're obviously China, India, Brazil, up starts of the world are catching up to a certain degree, but if things are so bad why are we such a powerhouse?

Keith Ballard: Well, I guess I'm might disagree with you on that. If we're borrowing 40 cents on every dollar I don't call that a powerhouse. We're 15 to 16 trillion in debt I don't call that a powerhouse. We cannot maintain this large military over time if we don't have a robust economy and in order really to have a robust economy we're going to have to have a great educational system which feeds that robust economy which pays for that. I look at it as we can't sustain those programs.

Ted Simons: Yes or no, are you encouraged?

Keith Ballard: I'm encouraged that possibly America may be wanting to listen now. Five years ago, I don't think so, but just maybe they will listen.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.

Keith Ballard: Thank you.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Keith Ballard:2003 Milken U.S. National Educator of the Year;

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