Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that China has no home-grown Nobel laureates. It should have said that China has no Nobel science laureates who did their work in Communist China. Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan won the Nobel for literature in 2000 and 2012, respectively, and Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.


I have spent much of my life studying China and the countries near it. Just ask and I’ll show you my master’s degree in East Asian regional studies, and my five years of Washington Post articles from Hong Kong and Beijing. So it’s depressing to realize what I learned about the cultural advantage Asians have over us Americans — particularly in the classroom — might be wrong.

Like many China watchers, I have thought that Asian students do better than American students because they believe that hard work and respect for teachers is the key to learning. Many Asian kids say to themselves: If I do what the teacher says, I can succeed. Many American kids say: I’m not so smart, so why bother?

Andreas Schleicher, who directs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, cites data buttressing this view. Most French students say their course material is too hard or the teachers too dull, he says, while students in Shanghai say “they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed.” American students, ranked 36th on the PISA math exam in 2012, feel about the same as the French, who ranked 25th. The Shanghai students, who instead were working hard for their revered teachers, ranked No. 1.

But a new book by University of Oregon education scholar Yong Zhao shows that Chinese respect for teachers does not explain why Chinese students do better on the exams. Some of the highest-scoring participants — Shanghai, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taipei and Vietnam — are the least likely to blame teachers for doing poorly, but some of the worst performers — Kazakhstan, Albania and Malaysia — and Russia, an average performer, also are low on the blame-the-teacher scale. Some of the students most likely to blame teachers come from countries with top PISA scores, including Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Germany.

In his book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World,” Zhao says: “What’s intriguing is that the countries whose students are least likely to blame their teachers all have a more authoritarian cultural tradition than the countries whose students are most likely to blame their teachers.”

Critics of American schools use the PISA results to ridicule U.S. students as addled optimists. They have more confidence in themselves than Asian students despite their lower scores.

Zhao (pronounced Jow) is not so admiring of the ancient system that has produced such Confucian modesty, having grown up with it himself in Sichuan province. Chinese authoritarian education — which has influenced nearly all Asian countries — has for thousands of years been telling students “if they cannot succeed, they have only themselves to blame,” Zhao says. “This is an excellent and convenient way for the authorities to deny any responsibility for social equity and justice and to avoid accommodating differently talented people.”

To those of us who admire the respect for teachers we find in Asian students, Zhao points out that it is not necessary for success in school. Students in Norway and Sweden tend to blame their teachers much more but do fine on the PISA.

As Zhao reports in his book, the best I have ever read on Chinese schools, many Chinese educators want to go beyond the emphasis on rote memorization that makes their students good on tests but has left their country with no home-grown science Nobel laureates (Gao Xingjian won the Literature Prize in 2000, and Liu Xiaobo won the Peace Prize in 2010). Zhao says “for true creative and innovative work, one needs passion, interest and some innate strength.”

Those traits are not encouraged enough in either China or the United States, Zhao says, but Americans should resist the temptation to adopt a Chinese attitude toward instruction that “stopped working when the modern world emerged.” We are not going to get where we want to go believing only that hard work and respect for authority will solve all our problems.