With China poised to become the next global economic superpower, forward-thinking educators like Paine believe it’s essential that American schools expand their Chinese studies.
“Children in China begin studying English in the first grade,” Paine said. “The joke is there are more people learning English in China than speak English in the United States. I’m convinced that of all the nations in the world, China will have the most profound impact on our children’s future.”
Paine, along with South Charleston High School Principal Bill Walton, were among 400 American educators who traveled to China this summer as part of a program to encourage that more Chinese languages are taught in U.S. schools. Paine was the only state superintendent to be invited.
“I was very impressed,” Paine said. “They go to school from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. And when you ask the kids where they want to go to college, they all say Harvard, Yale and Stanford.”
During the trip, educators had the opportunity to meet with Chinese education leaders, visit schools, build ties and network with other U.S. education leaders.
They also saw cultural sites, including the Great Wall and made a rare visit to the Great Hall of the People at the edge of Tiananmen Square. Paine also met with top education officials, including Education Minister Dr. Zhou Ji, Dr. Qi Tao, director general of China's Shandong Province, and Dr. Sun Zuxing, deputy commissioner of international relations.
“The most impressive thing was I didn’t talk to any kid that didn’t speak or understand some English,” Walton said. “Whether we like it or not China will play an important part in how we do business and the stark reality is we must get our kids prepared for that.”
The trip was sponsored by China’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, also called Hanban, in partnership with the College Board, the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools (CLASS), and the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages (NCSSFL).
Former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, who is president of the College Board, in April announced the partnership, which aims to place 250 guest teachers from China in American classrooms over the next three years.
“At a time when more than 200 million children in China are studying English, only 24,000 children in the United States are studying Chinese,” Caperton said.
Although there are many English speakers in China, Chinese remains the national language of about 1.5 billion Chinese inhabitants and millions more around the globe. Chinese is projected to top English as the most used language on the Internet by next year, according to forecasts by the World Intellectual Property Organization.
And by 2040, China's rapidly growing economy is expected to surpass that of the United States. Already, China makes two-thirds of the world's copiers, microwave ovens, DVD players, toys and shoes.
"As Americans and West Virginians, we cannot afford to ignore what is happening in China and the rest of the world," Paine said.
West Virginia has recognized the importance of global awareness in today’s digital world. Last year, West Virginia became only the second state in the nation after North Carolina to enter into the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which emphasizes global awareness, critical thinking, problem solving, technology literacy as well as business, economic and civic literacy in schools.
"The trip reinforced that we’re on the right track in West Virginia,” Paine said. "The world is no longer round; it’s flat.”
In an Advanced Placement Program survey conducted in 2004, nearly 2,400 high schools expressed an interest in offering an AP Chinese course. Sissonville High School will offer a class this fall and Walton hopes to add one at South Charleston soon.
“I came back with a better understanding that globalization is taking place,” Walton said. “They want what we already have and are willing to work hard for it. It was a real eye-opener and made me realize Dr. Paine has a real handle on what’s happening and that will put West Virginia in the forefront.”