Interview with Tom Watkins on China

Dec 5, 2018 by

It is great to welcome back the 2010 Upton Sinclair Awardee and Michigan’s former state superintendent of schools (2001-05) and a true China expert, Tom Watkins. 

I have been following your career in education, business, government, healthcare as well as your travels throughout China for years, you have been a true pioneer in blended and e-learning, educational choice, and international education. Thanks for the willingness to share your thoughts and insights with our readers.

1.You have been traveling, working on building cultural, economic and education bridges since 1989 and have a lifelong interest in all things China, what sparked this interest?

Great teachers can and do provide a foundation on which one can build- and this is the case in my experience. An exceptional fourth grade teacher in the suburbs of our Nations Capitol sparked my interest in China that has burned Bright ever since. I am intrigued by all things China and have traveled extensive across the country since my first visit in 1989.

2. This is the 40th anniversary of “China Opening to the World,” you have witnessed much of this change up front and personal, explain the change you have see in China over the years.

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform. Its opening up to the world created an economic miracle for this giant country and its people. This miracle has benefited the Great Lake State of Michigan.

What has transpired over China’s 5,000-year history is nothing short of amazing, but the last 40 years have been truly remarkable and universally acknowledged as a stunning reversal of fortune for China. As Deng Xiaoping, China’s post-Mao leader, said: “We must catch up with the times, and this is the objective of our reforms.”

When I was a boy my mom would implore me, “eat your peas, children are starving in China. Today, it seems China is eating our lunch!

Clearly, China has caught up – and then some.

Today, decades after China’s leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world, China has evolved into one of the world’s largest trading partners and economies. In essence, China bypassed its own Industrial Revolution, fast-forwarding directly, with all the concomitant problems of a modern nation: pollution, social injustice, and inequality, all while bringing seismic economic and political shifts to its people and culture.In the nearly 30 years I have been traveling to China, there is no question that the lives of average Chinese have improved remarkably. From the drab sameness of Mao-era gray suits to today’s designer jeans and t-shirts with tears in them being worn by young, fashion-forward Chinese. From no choice to now being able to afford to buy the latest fashions – even these changes signal progressive wealth in China. Seeing China then and now is as if a movie started in black and white and suddenly switched to Technicolor with surround sound – it is that remarkable and dramatic.

The Chinese continue to follow the axiom set by former leader Deng Xiaoping: “He does not care if it is a white cat or a black cat – as long as the cat can catch mice.” This level of pragmatism and willingness to do what is necessary to assure continued growth and development— to improve the lives of average citizens— is palpable today.

3. Michigan has been in the forefront in developing connections with China, economically, culturally and educationally. Many feel only China benefits and the bridge to China is seen as a “one-way” bridge with all the benefit going to China. What is the impetus for this connection and has it had a payoff for Michigan?

Clearly you catch more bees with honey then you do vinegar. The prior governor of our state avoided China at all costs— and it cost our state in jobs and investment. 

Michigan/Chinese ties are deep. The University of Michigan (UofM) has had a long, amazing history with China that dates back as far as 1880, when President James Angell took temporary leave from the university to serve as U.S. minister to China.

Today, Governor Snyder has done more to cement the bond between China and Michigan than all his predecessors combined. Just last year, Governor Snyder celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Michigan-Sichuan Sister State/Provencal agreement during the fourth full day of his recent China Trade mission to work on extending Michigan-China ties and attracting investment, further strengthening the friendly cooperation and economic activity between the people of Michigan and Sichuan.

Snyder was joined by Sichuan Governor Yin Li and other leaders in government, business, and education at the anniversary celebration held in Chengdu, China. This agreement, originally signed by Gov. William Milliken in 1982 and renewed by Gov. James Blanchard in 1984, was again renewed by Snyder in 2012.

I take great pride in encouraging Governor Snyder to rekindle this relationship and I personally carried a letter to the Governor of Sichuan in 2011 on behalf of Gov. Snyder to jumpstart this important and early connection.

In 1982, Sichuan was an economic backwater in a nation just beginning to shake off the shackles of the Cultural Revolution and open itself up to the world. Today, Sichuan, Chengdu, and China have morphed into vibrant incubators of manufacturing vitality and innovation.

Governor Snyder can now state with pride, “Our agreement represents a mutual commitment to continue our positive relationship and further promote the economic and cultural development of our two regions.”

How is this longstanding relationship paying off for the Great Lake State? According to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, in 2016, Michigan ranked number two in the nation for the number of investment projects from China. Michigan also ranks number three in the nation for the number of jobs created by Chinese investment and was fourth in the nation in total Chinese capital investment. Between January 2010 and July 2017, Michigan received $1.1 billion in new business investment from China, creating 5,475 jobs for Michigan residents – an ROI (return on investment) that has created numerous benefits for the people of the Great Lakes State.

Governor Snyder understands that building bridges is a far smarter strategy than erecting walls. Michigan can be proud of this longstanding relationship and we look forward to years of friendship and collaboration that will benefit our citizens.

Michigan has done well in assuring China’s rise did not come at our demise. We could also learn from the Chinese who continue to make a massive investment in education and infrastructure. This investment guarantees to make them stronger as a nation even while Michigan – and America as a whole – disinvest in these same areas.

There are some very big problems to confront between our two nations. President Trump’s unique diplomatic skills, the tensions in North Korea and China’s continued rise have strained the sensitive balance between our two countries. This balance is strained because of the lack of mutual trust. China and the United States have built a strong working relationship over the past 40 years and have been more successful than the world would have anticipated when we began with ping-pong diplomacy 40 years ago.

As the 21st century unfolds, China and the United States will devote much effort to not falling into the Thucydides Trap. The U.S. economy remains number one and China is number two in the global economic rankings. Some people in China believe that the U.S. is seeking to hold back China’s rise and even to disrupt that rise to prevent competition from a rising power. When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result— it must be our collective goal to assure we don’t perpetuate this inevitability. At the national level, we must rely on our respective presidents to guide this fragile relationship, while at the subnational level we must continue to build cultural, scientific, educational and business win-win ties that enable peace and prosperity to prevail.

In Michigan we are interested in building bridges from the Great Lakes to the Great Wall.

I expect our new Governor-election Gretchen Whitmer will continue to find ways to build two-way, win-win, cultural, educational and economic bridges with China that will pay great dividends for the people of Michigan.

Cities, states, and nations that invest in their people will thrive. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that investing in talent, knowledge and skills for your citizens will have a massive payoff as the 21st century unfolds.

4. Tell us more about WAY American Schools, where are they located and what makes them unique?

Leadership matters. Beth Baker and Glen Taylor, the founders and co executive directors of WAY- (Widening Advancement for Youth and WAY- American Schools operate currently in the US, South America and China. 

WAY provides quality education to struggling students as “second chance” schools, partner with local US and with international top rated schools to truly add value and make a difference in the lives of students. They infuse individualized, project-based learning in ways that enrich students performance across the educational landscape.

They are The coauthors of: Education that works- a call to action for much needed school reform. They both are  courageous educational leaders who do not just “talk the talk- they walk the walk.” They are truly breaking the mold  for the benefit of students helping to prepare them for their future and not our past. You can order their book on Amazon.

What does “WAY” stand for? Is it an acronym for something? Yes, it stands for Widening Advancement for Youth. Everything WAY does is to prepare students for their future, where ideas and jobs can and will move across the globe effortlessly and not our past. Their goals is to make every child a hero! 

5. I see you are the China Partner and Managing Director for WAY-American Schools in China tell us about the educators in China, how responsive are they to “American” education and do you and your teachers learn from them?

There are many exceptional educators in China and we learn from them each and everyday. Education is a priority in China and the entire extended family and the society in general is focused like a laser to assure children are provided with the best educational foundation to help them succeed. 

Building educational bridges between the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world (the U.S and China) benefits both countries and all of humanity. Education is clearly one of the most influential sorters in the world today. The individual, community, state, province, and nation with the best education will prevail as the 21st century knowledge economy unfolds. Finding ways to partner to enhance education across borders is a worthwhile endeavor.

There are exciting educational partnerships taking place in China where there is a blending of the best of Chinese education and American education.

W-A-Y American School and Bright Scholar Schools (formerly, Country Garden Schools) have joined forces to add value and make a difference in the lives of Chinese high school students living in China.

When we can take the best innovative and data-driven education initiatives from China and the U.S, like W-A-Y American School and the Chinese Bright Scholar Schools, great things will happen for our youth.

This partnership, where China and U.S schools are learning from each other to enhance knowledge for children and society bodes well for all. The partnership is enhancing learning and strengthening society by recognizing the strengths of both educational systems while creating new pathways for student success.

Global education matters.

The viability of our respective societies, the strength of our economies, the quality of our lives, and our place in the world are inextricably linked to the quality of world-class education provided to our youth. This is true regardless if you are Chinese or American.

A child without a decent education today is an adult without a quality future tomorrow. The lack of a quality, world class education holds back the individual, their family, and all of society. In a fast-paced world economy, education is the pathway to continual success.

We live in an ever-shrinking world where knowledge is king. Knowledge of different languages and cultures are 21st century skills that citizens from both countries would be wise to obtain.

The entrance into U.S vs China universities take significantly different paths. While high school graduates in the U.S are judged more holistically, based on a multitude of factors— volunteerism, extracurricular activities, GPA, SAT or ACT test scores, essays, family history, diversity, potential contribution to college environment— while students in China are mostly scored on a standardized national exam, or the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or in Mandarin, the Gāokǎo (高考). Preparing for these two different pathways to success requires a different or a blended educational roadmap.

Bright Scholar

Bright Scholar is the largest and oldest operator of international and bilingual K-12 schools in China. The education company is dedicated to providing quality international education to Chinese students and equipping them with the critical academic foundation and skill sets necessary to succeed in the pursuit of higher education overseas. It also complements its international offerings with Chinese government-mandated curriculum for students who wish to maintain the option of pursuing higher education in China.

Bright Scholar schools consist of international schools, bilingual schools, and kindergartens. They offer a broad range of internationally-accredited curricula in their international schools. Bright Scholar tailors the delivery of coursework to optimize learning outcomes for students and prepare them for higher education overseas. Their bilingual schools place a specific emphasis on developing students’ English language proficiency and non-academic skill sets, offering elective classes in sports, arts and community service programs.

W-A-Y (Widening Advancements for Youth)

W-A-Y American School is one of the most innovative schools in the U.S. W-A-Y was founded in 2009 by educational pioneers to provide a personalized, project based learning experience for all students.

W-A-Y offers an innovative approach to education utilizing state of the art technology and project-based learning in alignment with state, national, and international standards. W-A-Y facilitates learning experiences that encourage self-esteem, independence, and the development of 21st century skills guiding students to a college education and subsequent career paths. Its students have been admitted to top universities in the U.S and around the globe. W-A-Y is accredited by the top school accreditation body, AdvancEd.

The W-A-Y approach is built on three core components:

1 Project Based Learning: Students explore authentic, engaging, and real-world problems.

2 Competency Based Learning: Students progress by mastering learning standards in their courses.

3 Blended & Online Learning: Students work on online, blended, and in-person courses.

We live in an ever-shrinking world where knowledge is king. Knowledge of different languages and cultures are 21st century skills that enrich students on both sides of the Pacific.

Building educational bridges that brings the US and China closer together makes exponential more sense than building great walls to divide us.

With the partnership with W-A-Y American School: China, without a doubt, will continue to produce even more, “Bright Scholars.”

6. One of my favorite quotes from you revolves around public education the “Statue of Liberty”. Can you share that with our readers?

I am a huge supporter of public education and public school teachers. bashing. Our public schools are Michigan’s and America’s hope. They are the true Statue of Liberty in this great country of ours. Our public schools are the only institutions in America that truly takes the ‘tired, the hungry, the poor’, immigrant children who speak English as a second language and children with disabilities to give them hope and opportunity. Our great teachers, many underpaid, are the torch-lighting the way for us all.

Clearly, there are many educational islands of excellence across our state and nation, sadly too many are surrounded by a sea of despair. Today, far too many of our teachers are like exceptional sailors given a rickety ship to sail without adequate funding or respect.

Michigan Schools are struggling and as you point out, “there are islands of excellence surrounded by a sea of dispear  explain what you mean by this?

We live in a disruptive, hyper-competitive era where AI (artificial intelligence) technology, automation, and the globalization of the workforce is exploding as ideas and jobs continue to move around the globe at warp speed. The individual, family, city, region, state, and nation that prepares for this future will prevail, while those that don’t – will fail. It is that simple. 

To be clear, a child without a decent education today is an adult without a productive future tomorrow— regardless of where you were born.

Yet, closer to home, here in Michigan we have an educational crisis.

Education Week’s rankings of state education systems ought to scare any thinking policymaker –Michigan comes in at 33 of the 50 states. While this fact might hurt some feelings, the first step to solving the problem lies in its identification.

Few issues facing Michigan and America — or any nation — are more important than ensuring that children receive a first-rate education. Our future literally depends on it.

Nolan Finley, Editorial Page Editor at The Detroit News, recited the litany of woes facing Michigan schools. In a recent column, he wrote: “Michigan ranks in the Bottom 10 in fourth-grade reading proficiency and the number of students enrolled in career and technical programs. It’s in the bottom half of states for eighth-grade math proficiency, high-schoolers considered career and college ready and the percentage of the working-age population with an associate’s degree or higher.”

The share of fourth graders in Michigan public schools who are proficient in reading fell by 2.5 percentage points between 2003 and 2015. Today, only 28.6% of fourth graders in the state are proficient in reading, well below the 34.8% share nationwide. Both fourth and eighth graders in Michigan are less likely to be proficient in math and reading than the typical American public school student in the same grades.

What is needed are leaders with the political courage and will to reimagine and redesign education from K-12 and through college to ensure that all kids are prepared for the fast-paced, disruptive world they are inheriting. Also needed is additional targeted funding; particularly for non-affluent students across the state.

Michigan just elected a new Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Tell our readers about her and her plans for Michigan’s schools. 

I have great hope for our new Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan needs a governor who can get things done that will actually make a difference in people’s lives right now—and Gretchen Whitmer is that leader.

She knows how to work across the political aisle to accomplish good things for the people of this state. She did so in support of Governor Snyder’s push to pass Medicaid expansion or The Healthy Michigan Plan that has assured that over 600,000 of our fellow citizens have healthcare today. Without question, her leadership was a big part in passing this humane and humanistic healthcare plan. When others looked away, Gretchen Whitmer led.

She has a history of supporting education from the cradle to the grave. She understands that education is the ticket for a lifetime of success. She also has detailed plans for workforce preparedness and skills training.

Clearly she understands the benefits of the universal Pre-K program, expanded childhood development and care programming, reliable funding for “Early On,” and making post-secondary education more affordable with MI Opportunity Scholarships.  You can read more about her education plans here:

It is quite impressive, but not surprising that you were asked to attend the Global Education Summit (GES), the global hub for education thought leadership. As the premier, an invitation-only summit focusing on collaboration and knowledge-sharing between Chinese and global education stakeholders, GES is designed to:

  • Explore the future of education through dialogues between world-renowned speakers from diverse backgrounds
  • Strengthen connections between Chinese and global leaders and influencers in education
  • Foster development and innovation across the global education ecosystem

Yes, I am excited and pleased to be invited to learn and share ideas with my counterparts around the globe. The GES is being held in Beijing, China the first December. I look forward to a future interview with EdNews where I can share what I learned.

For more information, see:

  1. Global Education Solutions GES 
  2. GES 2018 Global Education Summit 

It is exciting this conference is being held in China — where they understand that  knowledge is power and they are striving to enhance the educational opportunities for their citizens.

Tom, thank for your insights, are there any final thoughts you want to leave with our readers?

Thanks Jimmy, I appreciate the value you bring to education by creating a forum where educational ideas can be shared.

Thanks, Tom or is they say in China, “xie xie”, for your time and for sharing your cutting edge ideas with our readers. Safe travels. 

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He served as the Michigan state superintendent schools, the president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida and has worked for nearly four decades to build economic, educational, and cultural ties between the U.S and China. He serves on the Michigan-China Innovation Center Advisory Board and is an adviser to the Detroit Chinese Business Association. Follow him on twitter or WeChat @tdwatkins88. Or Email

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1 Comment

  1. This is a very insightful interview with Tom Watkins–someone who truly knows China, understands the importance of us working together, and realizes that investing in education plays a key part in both countries continued growth and success.
    Here are three important takeaways (written in Tom Watkins’ own words) that I got form reading this interview:
    1.)”A child without a decent education today is an adult without a quality future tomorrow. The lack of a quality, world class education holds back the individual, their family, and all of society. In a fast-paced world economy, education is the pathway to continual success.”
    2.)”We could also learn from the Chinese who continue to make a massive investment in education and infrastructure. This investment guarantees to make them stronger as a nation even while Michigan – and America as a whole – disinvest in these same areas.”
    3.)”What is needed are leaders with the political courage and will to reimagine and redesign education from K-12 and through college to ensure that all kids are prepared for the fast-paced, disruptive world they are inheriting.”
    Like Tom Watkins, I believe there is much China and the U.S.(Michigan) can share with each other to create a win-win situation for both countries and their respective people. However, we must understand that, with or without us, China is moving forward!
    All the more reason why it’s time for Michigan (and the U.S.) to start reinvesting in our education system again!