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Chinese students looking to go to U.S. universities swear by the New Oriental School, even if its methods are sometimes not exactly orthodox
By Daniel Walfish/BEIJING
Issue cover-dated November 16, 2000
CHINESE STUDENTS like to boast that they do better than Americans on U.S. graduate admissions tests. Ask them how that's possible, and the explanation often includes a combination of hard work, smarts--and the New Oriental School.
After eight years in existence, the Beijing-based New Oriental School monopolizes the test-preparation market in the capital and is poised to take control of the rest of China, too. The school's director, Yu Minhong, guesses that 70% of the students who go to the United States each year have studied at his school.
Impressive. But the means New Oriental uses are often less so. The school prepares students using improperly obtained test questions; it hires native-English-speaking "creative writers" to rewrite students' application essays; and it would seem to encourage the wholesale memorization of speeches and essays for regurgitation in immigration interviews and written exams.
Cheating is nothing new in China--three times in the past 10 years, Chinese students were disqualified en masse from the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl, and the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. And since China's educational system has long emphasized rote learning, students tend to use it to prepare for exams, even without New Oriental's encouragement. In some ways, this uniquely Chinese school merely epitomizes a countrywide pattern of practices that clash with Western educational values.
Study abroad has long been seen in China as the key to a bright future, and its popularity soared in the 1990s, with the U.S. as the top destination. About 50,000 Chinese are studying there, and in the 12 months to September 30, just over 24,000 visas were granted to Chinese students and researchers. (The U.S. embassy won't say how many people applied, but based on 1999 figures, a rough estimate is 60,000.)
The first obstacle these students have to clear is the standardized tests. In the 1998-99 academic year, Chinese students took just under 168,000 exams for the Toefl, GRE and Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, according to Educational Testing Service, or ETS, the American organization that administers the tests. Test scores are just one small part of a candidate's file in seeking admission to U.S. universities, but that point has apparently done nothing to dim Chinese students' hunger to pass the exams.
Enter Yu Minhong, a lanky 38-year-old who radiates cheer and has a gift for inspiration. A former Peking University English teacher, he opened the New Oriental School in 1992, and by 1995 its reputation for boosting grades meant students in Beijing were flocking to it. Says Tina Zhang, a student at Peking University: "Everybody's score is higher, so it's become a must to take New Oriental classes."
Yu is vague on statistics, but he reckons that with test-preparation enrolments of about 70,000 this year, New Oriental has 95% of the test-prep market in Beijing and 50% for all of China. Those numbers can only increase. Yu has just opened a branch in Shanghai, and plans another in Guangzhou next year. New Oriental now offers test-prep, English and computer classes--and immigration consulting, too. Yu puts total enrolment this year at around 150,000. He says revenue will be roughly $10 million, but with courses priced at around $100-$120, the actual number could be much higher.
Yu pays students to evaluate candidates for teaching jobs in trial lessons, and he has students rate teachers when courses are finished. The better the rating, the higher the teacher's salary next time around. If the rating is below 4 (out of 5), says Yu, "I have to talk to them." Grinning, he adds: "I will warn them three times, and then they're fired."
New Oriental doesn't care too much about its teachers' English ability. "The most important quality is not substance," says Bao Fanyi, an assistant director, "but communication: the ability to teach, the ability to entertain, and the ability to inspire." And, of course, teachers must know the tests. "That is why we don't have native speakers as instructors," Bao says. "We can hardly find a native speaker who can score as high as these instructors."
Often appearing before vast classes, New Oriental's usually young instructors rev up students with motivational speeches and make jokes about their boss, Yu. By most accounts, it works. "New Oriental provides you with a very competitive atmosphere," says Yu Zhiyun, now a student at Columbia University. "You gain incentive and confidence."
New Oriental's next goal? Respect. The school wants to grant degrees, and it's trying to set up a joint MBA programme with a Canadian university. But those ties could be tough to forge. One Canadian university considering an alliance with the school bowed out after receiving cautionary advice from ETS, according to someone close to the university.
ETS's warning came because New Oriental has been using unauthorized ETS tests for years, compromising their integrity and costing ETS money by violating its copyrights. In 1996, ETS got the Beijing Administration of Industry and Commerce to raid the school and confiscate large amounts of unauthorized material. The haul included test papers classified by ETS as "non-disclosed," which means they had been used to examine students but hadn't been released publicly. These could only be obtained improperly, by, for example, stealing them at the end of examinations (which ETS runs under secure conditions) or reconstructing them, in breach of examination rules, by asking test-takers to recall the questions.
Assistant Director Bao denies there was a raid: "Raid is too strong a word. We were checked up on." Still, the school later bought rights to previously published Toefl material, but not to non-disclosed Toefl tests or GRE and GMAT material. "We got an agreement from them that they would not do that any more," says Thomas Ewing, an ETS spokesman.
But an inspection of the shop in the basement of the school's headquarters in Beijing reveals that unauthorized Toefl, GRE and GMAT material, including non-disclosed tests, is still being sold. Bao denies the school steals exam papers from test centres, but implicitly acknowledges that it uses unauthorized material. "We are willing to break away from this practice," he says. "We haven't done enough, but we are already the best among all the Chinese schools teaching GRE and Toefl."
New Oriental isn't just focusing its attention on university-admission courses. Like other schools, it has also begun offering preparation courses for the British Council's IELTS English-language proficiency test, which is taken by most prospective emigrants to Canada.
But some question whether New Oriental is really serving students' needs. "I'm in there marking essays and I find the text word-for-word in the New Oriental book," fumes an IELTS examiner, who requested anonymity. She also complains that New Oriental advises students to give prepared answers on an oral exam even if they don't understand the question being asked. "That's terrible advice," she says.
Lately, New Oriental has been telling students not to produce memorized essays, a student at the school says, but as long as test questions and sample answers are widely available in China, immigration applicants--who after all want a visa, not an education--will probably fall back on their rote-learning habits. The IELTS examiner herself admits: "If I was a Chinese student, I'd do it, for sure."
MORE SERIOUS CHARGE
A perhaps more serious charge against New Oriental is that it writes application essays for Chinese students seeking places in U.S. graduate schools. Earlier this year, New Oriental started taking out ads in Beijing calling for "creative English writers . . . to help polish and rewrite English documents" at an unidentified "dynamic, professional service." The "documents" were the personal statements graduate schools use to evaluate candidates' intellectual motivation. Jennifer Caplan, Columbia's dean of graduate admissions, doesn't mind if applicants have these essays polished "as long as someone else is not actually writing it."
But that's just what seems to be happening. Steve Samuels, a teacher in Beijing, responded to the ad, and says a New Oriental administrator asked him to completely rewrite a chemical-engineering student's essay. "You must write as if you are him and create a personal statement," Samuels says he was told. "That's why we want creative writers." The administrator, and Bao, say the school does nothing more than "polish" essays.
For all its unorthodox methods, New Oriental has so far attracted almost no attention abroad. Columbia's Caplan says that while vague reports of cheating have in the past prompted "discussions about how we can interpret scores from international students," she's not too worried because Columbia students generally do very well. This attitude applies especially to Chinese students at schools across the U.S. "In general," says Richard Sleight, associate dean of Yale's graduate school, "the Chinese students are excellent."
For both U.S. universities and the students, it seems, New Oriental's means are--at least for now--less important than the ends of winning university places.＜本文发表于: 相约加拿大:枫下论坛 www.rolia.net/f ＞