Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Alice and Sylvia

A few months ago, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought our students' biggest problem was, with regard to administration. “Lack of accountability” was my immediate response. He mulled it over for a few seconds, and came to the same conclusion.

I don't know about other schools but here, students can 'play' on their phones the whole of class time, while the teacher lectures on and on. They can hold none-too-quiet conversations; our teachers have recently been outfitted with portable amplifiers so they can shout over any classroom babble. Students don't have to participate in class. All they really have to do is be there and be counted, turn in the occasional assignment and take exams.

You would think that, if students do not invest time and attention in their education, they would surely fail, right? Not necessarily.

Academic dishonesty is a hot topic in China, and has been for a while. The most recent Civil Service exam, held November of last year, brought forth avowals of 7-year prison terms for those caught cheating. Nationwide, teachers carefully proctor national exams such as the GaoKao, TEM and CET exms, separating the students into assigned seats so that nobody sits close enough to see anyone else's paper. Those exams now require students to show their ID to gain admitttance into the testing room so that an unprepared student cannot cajole (or pay) a more erudite student to take his/her place.

You would think that, with all of this focus on dishonesty, that students would straighten up and fly right, wouldn't you? I mean: how else would they earn their grades? Or, at least, the teachers and administrators would see to students being held accountable, right?

Last semester, I had a boy so shy, he didn't dare speak in class. I kept that in mind, come final exam time. I invited him to speak directly with me rather than addressing the whole class, as the other students did. He still couldn't get a word out. I had no choice but to flunk him. Later, upon reviewing my grades sheet, the dean recommended that I retest that student. As there was another student from the same class who had also earned a zero for having missed her final exam – she did not ask for leave and offered no good reason for having missed class that day, I was instructed to meet with them both – on my own time, and give them another chance at passing.

That experience left a bitter taste aftertaste. I hadn't envisioned my teaching responsibilities in that manner. The teacher accommodates the students? Shouldn't it be: the student complies with directives?

What worries me is how this lack of accountability in students' fledgeling steps as adults will translate when they are out from under the protection of the university environment. Life offers no guarantees or safety nets, few sure-fire successes and seldom does anyone get a chance at a do-over. If we permit that now, during their first few steps into the big, bad world... what exactly are we teaching these kids?

Alice, a good student from a difficult group of rowdy classmates, contacted me the week before finals. Her grandmother, who had suffered a stroke last year, has now taken a turn for the worse. Her family had called her home, worried that their dear daughter would miss the chance at seeing her grandmother for the last time. Two hours before boarding the train she called me, sobbing, asking if I would please make an exception and hear her present her final exam early.

I'll admit to annoyance. This was Christmas week, when I was busy trying to engineer special memories for all of my 400 students. Free time was at a premium and I needed every moment I could get. Nonetheless, this child made an effort, and obviously she needed comforting. Off I went to meet her. Instead of discussing the planned final exam topic, we talked about her grandmother. I learned more about her and her family, and was touched and amazed that she would actually be thinking of final exams when the grandparent who raised her lay, dying.

Contrast Alice with Sylvia. The day before finals, Sylvia sends a text message: her sister is getting married tomorrow. Could she make up her final exam later?

I think we can all agree that weddings are not spur of the moment occasions in  China. Months – even years of planning go into pulling off the perfect gala, designed to impress rather than have any symbolism. Surely, Sylvia knew in advance when her sister's wedding would be, and could/should have arranged her make up exam in advance.

In her text message, she stated she wanted to make up the exam and asked when she could. Considering my busy schedule that week, I suggested she contact me when she came back to school. Today, she messaged me: Do I have time right now to give her the exam – on a Sunday afternoon? After a flurry of messages in which she balked at my various suggestions of when to meet, we settled on the next day. I'll be testing her on my time, seeing as my teaching obligations are over with for the semester. Come time to turn in grade sheets, I will most likely be encouraged to give her a grade commensurate with her peers, rather than with her effort, ability and attitude.     

While it is great for the kids to find success with or without effort, and it makes the school look good that every single student passes, I can't help but think of how the Alices – those who are conscientious and hard-working must feel amidst all of the Sylvias.

With all of the talk about revamping the education system in China, building world-class universities, and all of the news reports of families sending their progeny abroad for better education, I would think that this aspect of the Chinese education system would get more scrutiny. The solution is easy: if a student doesn't perform, don't rate him/her as though s/he does. In short: hold students accountable.

More than anything in a textbook or lecture, accountability would give these young adults an education worth having. 

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