What can China and Vietnam learn from GothamSchools?

“Any questions?” I asked last Friday, staring at a room full of educators who’d just watched my standard 15-minute meet-GothamSchools presentation. A hand went up.

“What,” the woman asked slowly, “is the main function of your organization?”

I didn’t think this woman was asking the kind of existential question that sometimes keeps me up at night.* She just wanted the main function.

What was going on here? The person who’d brought the room full of educators offered me an explanation, delicately describing GothamSchools’ mission of offering independent news coverage of public education as “something of a surprise” to the group.

After all, the educators were all senior officials and professors from East Asia — countries including China, Thailand, the Philippines, Fiji, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore. They’d come to GothamSchools as part of a visitor program organized by the U.S. State Department. Their tour, which began January 17 and will go through February, focuses on what the state department describes as “innovations in primary and secondary education.”

Our guests, the official explained to me, had struggled to understand us from the moment they stepped out of their tour bus and into our building’s elevator. “Is this part of the state or the federal government?” one person asked him. They had trouble conceiving of how or why a non-governmental organization would take any interest in public schools, he said. Understanding that journalists could also be independent was even more of a stretch for many.

Indeed, after the “main function” question — pitched by an associate dean at one of China’s main teacher-training universities, the Shaanxi Normal University — our reporter Maura Walz asked the group for examples of any independent news coverage of education in their countries. No one could provide any.

Later, the group enjoyed our video clip of Cathie Black’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, marveling at the way parents and teachers’ shouts drowned out Black’s speech.

We said goodbye a bit befuddled, not sure if we’d really earned the pre-prepared gifts we were handed (a keychain from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore; a scarf from Cambodia).

Today, the official reassured us again in a thank-you e-mail that our presentation was actually helpful:

The meetings they attended  in Washington and at New York public schools were interesting, but, I think very familiar to them.  All come from countries where schools are controlled by strong ministries, and, as our Chinese participant noted,  their efficacy and integrity go pretty much unquestioned by the community. The mission and the organization of GothamSchools were something of a surprise, and I think that was good.  The International Visitor Program at its best familiarizes visitors with American culture and society in ways they did not expect.  I think both the organizational model and the mission of GothamSchools are particularly American, and what the visitors learned during the meeting with you, will inform the rest of their U.S. visit.

Before visiting our lower Manhattan offices, the group had visited the Sun Yat Sen middle school in Manhattan and Teach for America’s headquarters. Next, they were headed west to more cities around the country.

*Questions that keep me up at night include, What are your end goals? Do you want to produce good stories or do you want to produce better schools? Does it have to be either/or?