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Keeping up with China Allison K. Sampité | Sat, Feb 25 2012 12:00 PM

One local teacher is on a mission to change the U.S. public education system and his approach is gaining momentum in the community.

Southwest Middle School music director and longtime public educator Keith Ballard says his goal is to prepare kids in the U.S. for better jobs.

After returning from China and India last fall, Ballard found that America’s education system is being “blown away” by the Chinese.

“The U.S. public education system must undergo major changes in order to compete,” he said.

Ballard, who was a 2003 Milken U.S. National Educator of the Year, spent 25 days between September and October visiting 22 schools in the two countries, interviewing students, teachers and administrators from pre-K through high school.

Ballard invested approximately 400 hours of research in his project and trip, which he self-funded. He took extensive notes and videos — dozens of which portray the seriousness of students answering the question, “What do you want to be in life?”

Answers from students in both countries overwhelmingly included aspirations such as doctor, teacher, scientist, engineer and lawyer.

“The level and quality of education in China was amazing,” he said.

Ballard said K-12 education systems in China are wreaking havoc on the United States’ local and national job competition.

“The main reason I did this project is because I have a 7-year-old son and I have deep concerns whether his education in the U.S. public school system will sufficiently prepare him to compete for the best jobs in the future,” Ballard said.

Ballard, 49, has been teaching for 16 years in the Sweetwater Union High School District and said his passion for the issue  came about when he began reading books on world comparative education in 2010.
Ballard said a major source of information showing the downfall of U.S. can be seen in the 2009 Programme for Worldwide Student Assessment (PISA) results, which is a world comparative test given to most industrialized countries.


The United States ranked 31st in math, 17th in reading and 23rd in science; while Shanghai, China, scored first across the board.

“The significance of this test is that it measures academic achievements and application, which is key,” Ballard said.

“This test is an indicator in the world of who will most likely be at the front of innovation.”

Ballard also cited a problem that 75 percent of all 17- to 24-year-olds can’t get into the military because they are unable to meet the minimum requirements on the ASVAB, a timed multi-aptitude test.

“A great majority of people in the prison systems are high school dropouts and have a criminal record,” he said. “This is a national crisis. We have states spending more on prisons than education.”

Ballard said that one of the problems with the U.S. education system is the focus on grades rather than learning.

“If you don’t have a strong education system you cannot sustain a strong economy,” he said. “And if you don’t have a strong economy, you can’t support the military.”

Ballard’s main concern is getting this information out.

“If our top educators don’t know, the middle class ‘Joe’ doesn’t know,” he said.

In China, children start kindergarten at age 2 or 3.

“They are building super children, as far as academics,” Ballard said. “The difference is the philosophy and the value of education… Teachers are revered in their society.”

At high schools in China, students go to school 230 days a year, ending each school day at 9 p.m., and sleep at schools overnight in dorm rooms, paid for by the Chinese government.

“The intangible measurement is the amount of time they don’t spend messing around,” Ballard said. “In all 22 schools that I went to, I never once met an unruly student or saw a discipline problem.”

Since coming back, Ballard has met with former principals, teachers and administrative staff within the district.
Sweetwater District Superintendent Dr. Ed Brand said that Ballard is helping improve the schools and students and will continue to support his efforts.

“I tell everyone, ‘As hard as you’re pushing your kids, push them harder,’” Brand said. “We have to expect more of our students, demand more of ourselves and the educational system has to step up.”

Brand said that a complication is that resources must be more efficient as far as programs.

“China can initiate change at a faster rate than we can,” he said. “We need to step up our game.”
Brand said the district is doing what it can to help the movement.

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