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Clinton superintendent taking sabbatical in China

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Catherine W. Idzerda
June 5, 2012
— It's a long way from Clinton, Wis., to Nanjing, China—and not just in miles.

Clinton, population 2,144, was established in 1837 by Yankee settlers from upstate New York.


Nanjing, population 7.1 million, was established in 495 B.C. by King Fuchai of Wu.


The American educational system is intended to address the whole person.


China's system is best described as "drill and kill."


Starting in August, Clinton Community School District Superintendent Randy Refsland will be a Yankee settler, educator and—he hopes—innovator in Nanjing, China.


The Clinton School Board recently approved a request for a one-year, unpaid sabbatical for Refsland so he can spend a year in China.


Refsland will not receive health or retirement benefits during his leave. The district plans to hire an interim administrator for the year.


Refsland's China journey started earlier this year when he and a group of other superintendents traveled to China.


He described the experience as life changing.


"The trip was incredible," Refsland said. "I stayed with a Chinese family for over a week. We each had partner educator and went to school with them every day."


In China, the education system is committed to rote learning. Tests determine who goes to high school. Another set of tests determines who will go to college.


In the United States, innovation and creatively are stressed, and public schools must educate everyone. Getting into college requires decent test scores and a well-rounded resume of activities.


China recognizes the value of innovation and creativity and wants to incorporate it into its educational system, Refsland said.


But that's a challenge for a culture that believes that what it has works.


"Teachers there have said they'd rely less on testing, but they said that the mothers won't let them," Refsland said.


Refsland was impressed by the work ethic of Chinese high school students. They consider it an honor to be in school and recognize the advantages it provides.


The Chinese system could learn from the American and vice-versa, he said.


Refsland knew that he wanted to work in China as an educator, but he thought he would have to wait until he retired. Then, Refsland was offered a chance to work for the Ameson Foreign Language Institute and Education Foundation in China.


"I'm very fortunate that the board was willing to give me a year to do this," Refsland said.


For the first part of his trip, he'll be based in Nanjing, evaluating foreign teachers. In addition, he'll work closely with Chinese educators on teacher evaluation and methodology.


Later in the year, he'll be serving as principal of the Beijing No. 4 middle and high school, where all the classes are in English. Students come from all over China to attend the school with the goal of attending college in the United States.


A sabbatical—even an unpaid one—is unusual for a superintendent.


"I won't say it's common, but I will say it's commendable," said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "He'll be getting some international experience that he can share with his district.


"In Wisconsin, we can get a little isolated, a little bit provincial," Turner said. "But if you ignore the rest of the world, it's going to pass you by."



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