May 1, 2013

Local school principal learns in China


---- — Why China?

There are several reasons for visiting China that come to mind. 

One is to find out if they really have egg rolls there (I have been here for a week, and I haven’t seen one yet). 

Another is because it is probably the safest place to be with the current threat of violence from North Korea. 

The real reason, however, goes a bit deeper than that.

A few years ago, I was applying to be a foreign-exchange teacher in England. The person interviewing me asked a question that continues to stick in my mind and in my craw. 

“What will you say to people who ask you why American education lags behind education in other developed countries?” he queried.

My response was immediate and probably only a teeny bit defensive. 

“I would tell them not to believe everything that they hear.” 

I believed then, as I do now, that the American education system is one of the best in the world. 

Certainly, you hear facts bandied about regarding unimpressive American scores on standardized math and English tests, but does this really tell the whole story? 

Half of my goal for going to China was to determine if tales of our demise have any truth to them.


Last fall, I applied to be part of the Chinese Administrator Exchange Initiative. This program, fully funded by the Chinese Education Department and the Freeman Foundation, brings Chinese school administrators to America and American school administrators to China. 

What country is more likely to have a significant political and economic effect on America in coming years than China?  

So here I sit at a 4,000-student high school (grades 10 through 12) in Xiniji City, Heibi Province, China, thinking back on what I have learned over the past week of meetings. 

At a recent presentation by the Heibei Education Division, Director of Basic Education Zeng Chaomin said: “Teachers in China talk too much. We focus too much on passing down knowledge but less on innovation and less on critical thinking. 

“Our education focuses too much on exams. Our studies of American education have shown us our shortcomings. We have never had a Nobel Prize winner from China. 

“That is why we want to change.” 


Last fall, my exchange partner Li Jingkao spent two weeks visiting schools in the United States, among them Peru High School, CV-TEC in Plattsburgh and all the schools in the Northeastern Clinton Central School District, where I am the High School principal.

His written summary of what he saw here is consistent with the observations of Zeng Chaomin.

“American basic education is based on the idea that students are masters, not slaves,” he wrote. “Teachers are not like those in China. They give students not only knowledge but also how to develop their ability. 

“Students are encouraged to think for themselves, to explore mysteries and to cooperate with others.  

“We have to use them for a reference.”


Yes, you heard it right. The Chinese want their students to be more like American students in the areas of critical thinking, cooperation and innovation. 

If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be paying for this program. 

Although I am biased, I believe this is proof that the American education system has much to be proud of.

If this were the end of the story, I probably would not have taken part in this program. 

The other half of the reason I am here is because I think there is much we can learn from the Chinese education system. 

While I am not advocating that we start sending our students to school 10 hours per day, six or seven days a week, as the Chinese are purported to do, I do believe that this nation can teach us much about efficiency, work ethic and rigor in education. 


As I spend the next week exploring the workings of Hebei Xinji Senior Middle School, I hope to gain specific ideas on how to improve the educational process in our small corner of the world.

Every educator knows that public education is under fire in New York state and around the country. Taxpayers rightfully expect that teachers and administrators are preparing their children to compete in the global marketplace. 

It is true that American education needs to take significant steps toward making our students “college and career ready.” 

To use an old phrase, it is time to think globally and act locally — that is why I have come to China.

Stephen Gratto is High School principal at Northeastern Clinton Central School in Champlain.



Read Stephen Gratto's blog on his experiences in China at Find out more about the Chinese Administrator Exchange Initiative at