Michigan visitors see lessons in China's schools

Updated: 2013-04-11 10:54

By Yu Wei in San Francisco (China Daily)

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Michigan visitors see lessons in China's schools

Tom Watkins (second from right) and his delegation visit an international school in Jilin, Jilin province, in March to discuss cooperation between Michigan and Chinese schools. Provided to China Daily

When Tom Watkins, a former Michigan education chief, first visited China 24 years ago, he rubbed his eyes while looking at a map of the world. Asia was in the center - unlike any map Watkins had ever seen back home in the United States.

Before leaving China, he went to a bookstore and bought a copy of that map. It now hangs in his office as a reminder that people see the world from different perspectives.

Watkins has traveled to China many times since that first trip in 1989 while he was head of the mental-health department in his home state. Now working as an education consultant, he recently led a delegation to the country for an experience he hopes will provide fresh views on developing US-Chinese cooperation in education.

The seven-member delegation of educators and education-policy makers visited Beijing, Xi'an and Jilin from March 22 to 30 to meet with officials at various levels of government. They discussed the prospect of partnerships between US and Chinese schools and possible establishment of a jointly administered international school in Xi'an.

"We believe there is great benefit on both sides of the ocean for building cultural, economic and, most importantly, educational bridges with China," Watkins said. "We are most eager to work with educational and governmental officials in China to establish high-quality international schools in China and establish teacher and student exchanges."

Watkins, who served as his home state's schools superintendent from 2001 to 2005, recalled seeing "a tremendous amount of growth" in central and western parts of China, which are attracting some domestic and foreign companies from coastal Chinese cities. He cited as an example South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co, which is building a $7 billion microchip factory in Xi'an, capital of western China's Shaanxi province.

He also came away thinking that international schools in Xi'an will need to be expanded and upgraded to meet the needs of wealthier and increasingly selective parents seeking education options for their children. The same could be said of the sons and daughters of international business executives who come to these regions, Watkins believes.

"What we are hearing is, oftentimes the people who work for that company either leave their family in their [home] country or they stay in Beijing or Shanghai, where they already have quality schools," he said. "Whether you are Chinese, American or Korean, everybody buys his or her child's education, so I sense there is a tremendous desire and urgency to build quality international schools" in the area.

Watkins, who is CEO of TDW & Associates, a consulting firm with public- and private-sector clients in several countries, said his trip to China last month was meant to build relationships and guanxi, or connections. Although much preliminary work had been done by phone, Skype and email, being on the ground "enables us to go to a different level" in exploring opportunities with the small delegation, he said.

An exciting part of the trip for Watkins was seeing China through new eyes: Many of the six delegates, who included a Michigan state senator, an elementary-school teacher, a local school district superintendent and a deputy county executive, had never been to China before.

Bill Cecil, who teaches fifth grade at Waverly Community Schools, a small district located in Michigan's capital, Lansing, was impressed by his nine-day trip.

"China is a beautiful country rich in history. People in China are warm, patient and very proud of their country, just as we Americans are proud of our country," he said.

The teacher also found that education is a top priority for many Chinese.

In the northeastern city of Jilin, Executive Vice-Mayor Li Xiangdong "told our delegation that the priority in Jilin is to educate the people first because that will help attract, support and sustain long-term economic development. This same message was echoed throughout Beijing and Xi'an as well," Cecil said.

"After my short visit to China, I believe China and the United States have much to share with each other that will only make both of our countries' schools and students stronger," he added. "This trip also reinforced the sense of urgency we must maintain in US education to hold our students and schools to a very high standard."

Mark Deldin, deputy executive in Macomb County, Michigan, which has about 850,000 residents, said he was most impressed by modernization and rapid growth in the cities the delegation visited.

"In so many ways, the look and feel of China is the same as the US," he said.

Deldin, the No 2 official in the county government's executive branch, said he expects that his first China visit will have a lasting impact on his life.

"The more we can get people to visit and experience the culture, the greater appreciation they will have for the country," the former local school district superintendent said. "Education standards appear to be higher in China than the US. It begins with the value system parents place on education, and in the US we have a long way to go as compared to China. I feel the schools in US can be so much better."

Higher-education institutions in China had about 31 million students in 2010, about 8 million more than in 2005 and about 1 million more than government projections, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

"China's education system is producing 10 times the number of engineers and other knowledge workers as the United States," Watkins said. "I know the competition our children and nation face. It is fierce and will not relent.

"We exist in a world where brains have replaced brawn and where the uneducated will be punished unrelentingly. We cannot have great cities, states or a nation unless we educate far more of our youth to compete in a global economy that rewards brainpower."