Policy Research and Advocacy
The China Educational Development Yearbook
BOOK LAUNCH REMARKS—China Research Perspectives on Education
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By Heidi Ross, Indiana University

March 22, 2013

 

As a member of the International Advisory Board for China Reseah Perspectives on Education it is my distinct pleasure and honor to be at this auspicious gathering with all of you this evening. My remarks tonight begin with some general reflections, about my background and also about the dramatic growth in research on Chinese education. My remarks end with thoughts on the contributions of the volume itself, a number of which resonate with those of previous speakers.

By way of quick background, I have been conducting educational research in China since the 1980s, changing as a scholar along with Chinese education, and focusing on a variety of topics including the history and practice of English language teaching in secondary schools;the challenges of and opportunities for girls' education; the relevance of the concept of social capital to understanding school reform in China's local communities;the impact of non-governmental organizations on Chinese educational reform and expansion;and how China's changing economic and social contexts shape the ways parents and communities use public and private schools to enhance their children's life chances.  Currently, I’m involved in three research projects including a longitudinal study of girls' education in Shaanxi Province; a study with Tsinghua University on student engagement in Chinese higher education; and, most recently, a comparative study of U.S., Australian, and Chinese college students’ and the public’s interest in and persistence in studying STEM subjects, in collaboration with colleagues at Indiana University, Beijing Normal University, and Zhejiang University. 

In the course of engaging in these various projects, I have witnessed with great excitement and, frankly, a greater amount of humility, the tremendous growth of educational studies in China, as well as the increasingly significant contributions to and impact of Chinese students and scholars on global educational inquiry, policy, practice, and institutions. Given the lively contributions of Chinese scholars to educational research, and to societies and educational institutions of the U.S., Canada, Australia, the UK, not to mention to institutions throughout “Greater China” and East Asia, the robust and diverse scholarship that this first volume of China Research Perspectives includes reminds us of how important education is globally as an institution and as a field of study in forwarding research, knowledge construction, and, not least, cross-cultural understanding. 

Speaking about the impact of the deluge of information about China on the U.S. public and professions, Tom Waseleski (an editor of Pittsburgh Post Gazette)recently noted that, “Forty years after Richard Nixon’s great ‘opening’ with China, Americans know much more about the country but probably understand far less.”This gap between knowing and understanding is also an accurate description, I’m afraid, of many international students and scholars of higher education.Despite the widely publicized and heralded success of Shanghai adolescents on PISA, or the impact of Chinese overseas students and scholars on the missions and functions and financial viability of institutions of higher education worldwide, China’s educational policies and practices are far from widely understood internationally.  Language barriers erect one obstacleto non-Chinese-language speakers’ direct access to up-to-date research and analysis on Chinese education, of course.But popular media representations of China’s educational heritage, policies, and practices, often one-sided or motivated by political and economic interests, are another. In this context, China Research Perspectives serves as a crucial outlet for the scholarship of an increasingly large network of Chinese scholars engaged in a truly astonishing blossoming of inquiry on Chinese education and society.

In contrast tomy concerns about theglobal gap between knowledge and understanding of Chinese education and society, there is a brighter outlook, one that suggests how understanding can be deepened.  As a past president of the U.S.-based Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), let me share just a few examples of both increasing interest and involvement in research on Chinese education in North America and internationally. Over 7% of the papers presented at the 2012 and 2013 annual meetings of CIES (totaling214 papers) were China-related.  Propelled by this interest, as well as by the burgeoning of China’s comparative and international education organization, which is now the largest such society in the world, the 2016 World Congress of Comparative Education Societies will be held in Beijing. And the American Educational Research Association (AERA), North America’s largest such educational research organization, features a vibrant Special Interest Group on Confucianism and Taoism.

In publishing China Research Perspectives on Education SSAP and Brill have established themselves as leaders in understanding the importance of these developments, and of making access available to an English language readership new scholarship on Chinese education.Having served as co-editor of the University of Chicago Press Comparative Education Review from 2006 to 2010,I have a sense of the demanding challenges of publishing in the 21st century, of maintaining rigorous review processes, of challenging a field to constantly press for excellence andinnovative scholarship, of understanding the competitive market for research conducted at the highest standards, and of balancing all of the above with a keen desire to use the publishing forum to mentor and network new scholars who will become their field’s future leaders.  China Research Perspectives on Education has a key role to play as a bridge for understanding Chinese education, and I hope also a role in creating a deeper and more collaborative international network of scholars focusing on Chinese education. Taking this first volume as a gauge, it’s likely that analyses of contemporary educational policy and practice will be the volume’s signature. An added contribution, not to be minimized, is that the researchers and practitioners whose work is showcased in the volumeare China-based with local(as well as global) understandings of the long history and traditions of educational scholarship within the Chinese academy and related institutions.

To draw to a close, let me turn to the scholarly significance of the current volume’s contents and the questions they raise for me.To keep my remarks focused, I share a particular set of questions that emerge from chapter one, a kind of framing piece for the rest of the book, by executive editor Professor YangDongping, who may be unparalleled in hisincisive commentary (and contributions) to educational research in contemporary China --as a member of China’s National Education Advisory Committee and director of the influential 21st Century Education Research Institute.

In his chapter, Professor Yang provides an overview of key educational decisions of the last three years—including the 2020 Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long term Education Reform and Development. Foreshadowing the sections in the rest of the volume, Professor Yang also contextualizes a wide swath of social factors and reforms that are changing and challenging China’s educational system--from the relationship between demographic changes and schooling, to China’s educational internationalization strategies, to the transformation and universalization of basic education.

What rings loud and clear in Professor Yang’s review and policy recommendations, yet perhaps not quite so clearly in the rich research results reported on in the volume, including a fascinating section on survey data and analysis, is the pressing need for continued movement toward an educational system and culture that are grounded in the values of equality and broad educational access to support people-centered development—what I might call education for human flourishing. One particular statement by Professor Yang caught my eye.  He writes, “China’s education is caught in a perpetual conflict between ideal and reality, which is worthy of retrospection.”  I could certainly say the same of the U.S. educational system.And I think it’s safe to say we could say the same about every educational system on the planet.What Professor Yang means by this perennial conflict in the Chinese contextis China’s struggle to address the pressures and constraints of an exam-oriented education system by creating a more human-oriented educational model and culture.  Professor Yang intimates that such change will be long and hard, because, “Elitism still remains as the mainstream value of the society’s management authorities.”  One of his solutions to entrenched elitismsuggests an area of research and inquiry that I think will grow dramatically, and perhaps occupy a larger space in future volumes of China Research Perspectives.  Professor Yang predicts that “the power of the civil society brought by numerous micro-changes will be the fundamental force to achieve an overall education reform.”  While I am personally conflicted about the possibilities of micro change to transform deeply institutionalized systems backed by powerful traditions and interests (in any country), Professor Yang’sview of educational reform raises intriguing questions. 

For example, what would a people-oriented, humanistic paradigm of the type Professor Yang calls for, drawing on China’s deep educational heritage and sense of local/civic responsibility for education, look like?In the context of multiple levels of reform—from the local to the national and even to the global, what does and could“innovation” mean in the Chinese context?  What does and could the “scientific development of education”mean if true reform is to come from initiatives that move from outside of the system?

Finally, two points that I think researchers will be intrigued by as they read this volume.  First, are there gaps in research inquiry?  What urgent social and educational needs might scholars be focusing their attention on next?  Second,educational studies scholars,myself included, will surely turn first toSSAP/ Brill’s publication on education.  But we will likewise profit from seeking overlapping research questions and agenda that encompass the widely intersecting challenges of engendering educational access and quality, environmental and cultural sustainability,and economic security defined by more than quantitative “growth.”   The rich materials in SSAP/Brill’s parallel volumes on economy, environment, society, population/labor,and legal developments in China will significantly further our efforts, andthe resulting spill-over effect in readership has great potential to open up new approaches to interdisciplinary studies of contemporary China.

I congratulate SSAP and Brill on their extraordinary contribution to global understanding of Chinese education and society, and thank you for allowing me to be a witness of that process.

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