December 19, 2013

Kelly Yang is founder and director of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school program for students in Hong Kong, and a columnist for the South China Morning Post.

This month, for the third time in a row, the Asians kicked American butt — academically, that is. On reading, science and math, students in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore earned the top scores on the international PISA test. U.S. students scored below or near the worldwide average, prompting suggestions that American education as a whole is failing. As a Hong Kong educator, I’m confident that the last thing the United States needs to copy is Chinese education.

Here in this city of 2 million parents , there are 2 million school principals, all ordering after-school academic courses like appetizers in a restaurant. Parents are the headmasters because our schools no longer control the education process. A 2011 survey estimated that 72 percent of Hong Kong high school students receive tutoring outside of school, often until late in the evening. So when our schools get out, the school day is just beginning for most kids.

Long before the term “tiger mom” was coined, Chinese parents had a history of obsessing over academics. The other day, I overheard two parents talking about their sons. One mom turned to the other and shrieked, “I found him in his room, just sitting there. Not doing anything!” The other gasped and shook her head in disbelief.

Their sons are 6 years old.

It is not uncommon at parent get-togethers to hear references to an “inadequate foundation,” “unsystematic approach” and “syllabus gap.” Such phrases point to a fundamental distrust in our schools and, specifically, in the role of the schoolteacher as the official executor and judge of a child’s educational needs. This, coupled with the irrational fear that somewhere out there, some child is learning more and working harder, sets into motion the tremendous after-school education Chinese children are subjected to.

This after-school education is my world. I am one of the thousands of tutors helping Hong Kong students achieve high test scores. To me, the recent test results were no surprise: Of course East Asian kids test well. They are tested every day, even when they are sick. Our children sit for lengthy, rigorous and confusing examinations, starting at age 6. Weekends, summers and holiday breaks are golden opportunities to catch up on some R&R — review and revision, that is.

But the thing about testing is that it creates excellent followers, not leaders. Doing well on tests requires constant test prep. Granted, when it comes to buckling down and cramming for hours on end, Asians kids will beat their U.S. counterparts to a pulp. But give them a task that is not testable or not directly related to school, ask them to do something not for their college application but for themselves, and they’ll draw a blank.

That’s because one usually has to be bored to innovate. And Asian kids don’t have time to be bored; they are too busy acing tests. The fact that our kids are never idle will, I fear, ultimately cause our students to lag behind in ways that would be disastrous to our society. Even if the end goal is admission to an Ivy League university — which I don’t believe it should be — the statistics are alarming. An October study found that one in four Chinese students attending Ivy League universities in the United States drop out.

As a Hong Kong educator, I don’t view Hong Kong’s stellar PISA results as an indication of success. To me, it’s a sign that our education system is out of control. Likewise, I urge American parents and schools not to take the U.S. PISA results as an indication of defeat. I’d like to see Asian kids stop acing tests and start changing the world.