Superintendent Heather Cordie says there are many similarities between educational systems

by: COURTESY OF HEATHER CORDIE - Sherwood Superintendent Heather Cordie poses with students from an elementary school in Fugu County in China. The students provided Cordie with an overview and history of their school during a recent trip with other educators from the United States.
Superintendent Heather Cordie spent spring break far away from the Sherwood School District, traveling and working in China for two weeks.

“Because I have not experienced an Asian culture prior to this trip... I expected to expand my horizons and have a more global perspective — this expectation was met,” she said. “I expected to understand more clearly, from first-hand experiences, the education system in China — this expectation was met.

“I expected to deepen relationships and partnerships with educators in China, in hopes of encouraging future teacher and administrator exchanges — this expectation was met, and it was almost surreal to see a large photograph of our SHS football team given to (high school principal) Mr. Li when he was here in November sitting proudly atop of the bookcase in his office.”

The sponsors of the trip, The China Exchange Initiative and Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Education, partner with the Confederation of Oregon Administrators to offer this exchange opportunity to a small group of Oregon superintendents.

Cordie said that she submitted an application last April expressing her interest in being a part of the exchange and was one of seven administrators selected to be a part of this year’s program. Mr. Li was the Chinese administrator selected to be her partner, and he traveled to Sherwood last fall.

“While I was in China, I spent part of my visit in Xi’an and Beijing learning about Chinese education in general, and the other half in Fugu County at Mr. Li’s high school,” Cordie said.

In some ways, the Chinese system is similar to the U.S., according to Cordie. “There are grade levels in China that are referred to as ‘compulsory’ and are required,” she said. “Public schools are essentially free, as it relates to tuition, but private schools charge fees and tuition that vary from school to school.”

During the two weeks of her administrator exchange, the majority of the time was spent visiting schools, observing classrooms, attending lectures at universities, and delivering professional development and lectures to teachers and administrators.

“I attended somewhere in the vicinity of 10 schools, including vocational schools and a special-education school, at least 60 classrooms or learning spaces within those schools, and multiple other visitations, including a teacher-prep university and The Bureau of Education,” Cordie said.

“The learning and professional growth and development afforded to me during this exchange is profound — some of which will no doubt be revealed during my reflections that are taking place days and weeks upon my return back home.”

According to Cordie, one of biggest “take-aways” from her trip is that everything that occurs — from the design of the schools, to the number of students in a classroom, and nearly everything in between — is identified and determined by the central government.

She also found teachers and administrators eager to learn more about effective teaching strategies, including the promotion and encouragement of higher-order thinking skills among their students, such as problem-solving, creativity and application, versus lower-order thinking skills, such as rote memorization of facts and figures.

by: COURTESY OF HEATHER CORDIE - An elementary student in China's Fugu County shows her skill in her art 'special interest' class.“We engaged in many conversations related to effective, research-based instructional strategies,” Cordie said. “While so many are eager to apply those concepts, I am not sure the overarching structures that guide their country will be amenable to some of those changes.”

She added that the Chinese educational system is primarily focused on the national exam that is given to its students who are the equivalent of “juniors” in high school.

“This exam is what determines the university students will be able to attend,” Cordie said. “It seems as though universities have a ranking system of sorts, and the higher the score of a student on the national exam, the higher ranking of a university he or she will be able to attend.”

In addition to learning about the Chinese education system, Cordie also shared information about education in the U.S. and specifically Sherwood.

“I had the opportunity to present a lecture to more than 200 staff members at Mr. Li’s school,” she said. “I prepared a PowerPoint in advance with many photos of our district, students, staff and community. I shared facts about Sherwood, explained our governance structure, talked about our mission, goals and three major initiatives - proficiency, the Common Core and instructional technology - and about the professional development and training our teachers receive.

“Of course, I bragged about the wonderful programs we offer in each of our schools and on the many accomplishments of our students and staff, too. There were two topics that I delved more deeply into to be sure they understood the differences between our two school systems. The first was about the services we provide for all of our students, from those with special needs to our talented and gifted. I also emphasized the importance of relationships and trust and that all of the work we do, or should be doing, is ultimately based upon the positive, healthy relationships we have developed and nurtured.”

Cordie found differences between the U.S. and Chinese education systems in how students’ time is spent during the school day.

“At the primary levels, it was clear to me that there are clearly identified times allotted during the day for play - either outside on a playground equipped with Astroturf or inside a gymnasium,” she said. “Students at the elementary level are encouraged to play, and I was particularly impressed with some of the ‘innovation’ classrooms, which are designed for students to create and innovate, with a wide variety of manipulatives made available to them. At the middle levels, I witnessed, in a multitude of schools, students with the opportunity to select a ‘special interest class’ within which they could study music or art, as just two examples of the many that exist.”

Mr. Li’s high school is huge by U.S. standards and also acts as a boarding school, according to Cordie, noting that 2,000 of the 3,800 students live in dormitories on campus.

“Students are in classes and/or studying on campus late into the evening and also on the weekends,” Cordie said. “So many of the students I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with and talk to wanted to know what American teenagers do for fun.

“While I was on campus one Sunday evening, meeting with a group of 30 high school students, I was taken aback by the hustle and bustle that was occurring on campus at that late hour. If I had not known differently, I would have assumed that it was midday on a weekday, by looking at the classrooms filled with students in desks and teachers lecturing from the front of the room.”

Chinese students also have the opportunity to take the U.S. equivalent of electives, according to Cordie.

“At what we would refer to as the high school level, there are opportunities for students in traditional public schools to participate in some courses that we would consider electives,” she said. “For example, I observed several various art and music classes that were filled with students honing their creative skills and strengths.

by: COURTESY OF HEATHER CORDIE - An Oregon team of administrators, including Sherwood Superintendent Heather Cordie (seventh from the left), visit Middle School No. 89 in Xi'an, China during a recent exchange trip to China.“In the Sherwood School District, we are proud of the elective programs and offerings that are available for students, from visual arts to career-technical classes, construction, engineering, music, drama, leadership - and the list goes on! Only a few of those types of courses are offered to students in China. Their teachers were amazed when I showed them a picture of the house our (SHS) students built that was eventually sold to a family in our community.”

The trip wasn’t all work and no play as Cordie’s group of administrators also had the opportunity to enjoy some sightseeing.

“We were in ‘work mode’ for the majority of time but did have opportunities to do some sightseeing at various times throughout our stay,” she said. “Some of the highlights include the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors.”

“What I did not expect but what certainly did occur is that I will be forever positively impacted by the amazing, life-altering experience that I was given to represent our country, our state and most specifically, our amazing school district.”

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