Perhaps the most telling development of the recent Chinese delegation visit to the United States escaped the eye of most American journalists. While Presidents Bush and Hu were immersed in social niceties and political generalities, the Minister of Education from China was in New York to sign an historic plan with the College Board to help train hundreds of U.S. educators to teach Chinese to high schools students.
Minister Zhou Ji, the holder of a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo, said the initiative will provide more than 150 guest teachers from China the opportunity to work in high schools here and will bring nearly 600 American teachers of Chinese to summer institutes in China.
Zhou acknowledged the "sustained economic growth in China," but said education is essential to its continuance. He especially respects the strength of American colleges and universities in a wide range of academic disciplines and said a parade of college presidents have visited China in the past three years to explore cooperative possibilities.
Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, pointed out at the ceremony that "at a time when more than 200 million children in China are mastering English, only 24,000 children in the U.S. are studying Chinese. This situation must be addressed given the global market and its future." Chinese is the world's most widely spoken language, due to the country's 1.3 billion inhabitants.
The minister said Beijing is committed to being an economic power for the foreseeable future, but expressed hope for a spirit of cooperation with the United States. He said China will be establishing a program to select top students from China to study at the world's foremost universities including ones in America. He also indicated that he favors setting up "joint research partnerships with universities and scientific institutions abroad."
Zhou said education will receive the highest priority for support in the years ahead. As one of a handful of American educators at the signing, I shared a sense of appreciation for the minister's candor and openness. He was a person of few, but well chosen, words.
In addition to bringing certified American teachers to China, the five-year plan will provide assistance to nearly 300 American teachers who are seeking state teaching certification in Chinese, and will allow hundreds of U.S. principals and school superintendents to witness firsthand the learning process in China.
Countries like China and India, both of which will be challenging America on the economic front, have encouraged programs that attract the best students to the educational profession at all levels, especially in mathematics, science, and the languages. Teaching is a revered profession in those countries.
This comes at a time when America has a problem of epic proportions. Amazingly, more than 46 percent of the new teachers who enter elementary and secondary schools will leave the profession within five years; and 38 to 40 percent of today's teachers have more than 20 years of service, meaning many are in a long gray line and eligible to retire.
Too many of our best young minds are dismissing, without serious thought, the possibility of teaching in the nation's schools, colleges, and universities because of the profession's low pay and status. A great nation like ours clearly cannot continue to be a social and economic force without the real and measurable strength these young people could contribute in both the classroom and the laboratory. One needs to understand the magnitude of the challenge, remembering that education has a workforce of some 3 million public school teachers and another 450,000 in private schools. Educators represent 2.7 percent of our nation's workforce.
The Minister of Education from China reminded us that international competition will be intense. The only question for America is whether we, as a nation, have the will to do what is necessary to continue to compete for educational and economic riches.