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Saving Einstein

6/6/2014

Kansas and China share a similar educational problem: getting our bright but narrow kids into college when they are not a "jack of all trades."

Kansas and China share a similar educational problem: getting our bright but narrow kids into college when they are not a "jack of all trades."

College access is limited in China. There are only 7 million freshman seats in China's universities, and there are 9 million students who want to attend. This is a big deal. If you have a college degree, you can earn decent money. If you don't, you likely will earn coins a day.

So, China has a rigid end-of-high school college entrance exam students study for and teachers teach to. It is called the gao kao, and it has had three main sections: math, Chinese and English. There are additional minor subsections, but you have to score high on these big three topics or your total score will fall too low to get into the first- or second-rank universities, and 2 million will fail to get into any university.

The dilemma they face is they have students who are brilliant during elementary and high school in one specific subject -- such as physics. But they are not likewise high-achievers in English or even Chinese. Just physics. And China -- that has yet to get a Nobel Prize in the sciences -- knows they are losing some brilliant talent because these little Einsteins are not broad-based scholars. And this situation also occurs with other narrowly brilliant kids in art, music, literature and other fields as well.

China's Ministry of Education proposed to let principals write letters of exemption for a brilliant student to bypass the gao kao. The public protested -- too much likelihood some affluent parents would buy their academically challenged offspring these end runs. "Guanxi," which can be translated as relationships, knowing the right people, or you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours, is big over here. The people were right. The ministry backed off.

So high school graduates are sitting for the gao kao test this first weekend in June. But there will be a difference this time. The weighting on English has been cut dramatically. A lot of Chinese college graduates have been complaining they don't use English much at all when they graduate and take jobs in China; this action addresses that grumbling. But the real purpose is to save the young Einsteins, Hemingways and Gershwins -- the unique but narrowly talented geniuses who were excluded by a test that required mastery of a fuller range of academics.

This story has direct relevance to Kansas students going to state universities next year. With good intentions but bad judgment, the Kansas Board of Regents implemented new qualified admissions requirements that will boost the math requirement "one course too far." And by making all QA requirements concurrent in 2015, there will be a dramatic drop in Kansas students able to go to state universities -- because they are not all super good in math.

While some small Kansas high schools could not offer the additional math, there are many more students for whom this advanced math is too difficult. These Kansas students who are aiming for fields not involving advanced math simply are going to have to attend community or private colleges in 2015.

The Ministry of Education in China knew how to fix their problem and save their young Einsteins. Our KBOR does not, and we will sacrifice some Hemingways and Gershwins.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.

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