I can’t think of an international development more helpful for American education than the growing ties between the United States and Asia — particularly with China, India and South Korea. We Americans see ourselves in economic competition with those countries, but in reality, our cultures are becoming interlocked in ways that help schools on both sides of the Pacific.
I learned this from education scholar Xu Zhao’s new book, “Competition and Compassion in Chinese Secondary Education,” based on research sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Zhao reveals that China and the United States are seeking a balance between mastering academics and preparing for life. The Chinese don’t appear to be doing any better at this than we are.
Many Americans assume that our students’ test scores look bad compared with China’s because that country’s government pushes students to study harder. Not so. Since the late 1990s, Chinese leaders have asked their schools to take a relaxed, American-like approach. Zhao noted that was the message of the official “Reduce Academic Burden: Ten-Thousand Miles Journey” campaign announced in 2013.
But those attempts have been no more successful than American efforts to raise academic standards with more challenging tests. Our schools have gotten a bit better, while the Chinese are at least talking more about reducing cutthroat student competition. But the Chinese effort has been no more satisfactory to them than ours has been to us.
U.S. political leaders have called for less stress on standardized school tests, but what we have — even our angst-ridden SAT and ACT tests — looks like playing Trivial Pursuit with your grandma compared with China’s two-day gaokao university entrance exam. That test includes exams in Chinese, math and a foreign language (usually English) plus additional subjects such as biology, physics and history.
About 10 million 12th-graders take the gaokao to compete for 6.5 million university seats, only a million of them in the “first category” research universities. This produces a horrific competition to get children into the best primary and secondary schools so that they can be ready for the test.
“Chinese students spend most of their waking hours on test-preparation tasks,” Zhao writes. “Chinese parents spend a tremendous amount of money and energy on selecting regular schools, tutorial schools, and private tutors” to help their children do well on the exam.
That explains in part why Washington-area parents who grew up in China are more obsessed than native Americans with getting their kids into selective high schools such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. Chinese education leaders envy the more-relaxed attitude of American students, but Zhao vividly demonstrated why Chinese students don’t take that approach, even when their government asks them to do so.
Shanghai mothers told Zhao why they discouraged their children from having friends. It takes time from study, and only the strongest friends will be good influences. If their kids have extra time, mothers told Zhao, they should use it to “improve their artistic skills or spend time visiting grandparents.”
One of the few mothers who encouraged her daughter to have friends did so because she was a Buddhist and believed people get what they deserve.
Zhao’s research showed that the feverish student competition fostered a “suspicious or cynical attitude toward altruistic values such as friendship, compassion and civic participation.” Chinese rulers may welcome headlines about Shanghai students acing international tests, but individualism does not fit the Communist Party’s insistence on working hard for a greater good.
Asian and U.S. differences often nudge us in useful directions. The arrival of millions of Asian immigrants has helped make U.S. schools better and has given them some, dare I say it, productive competitive urges. The United States’ success at winning Nobel Prizes while rejecting much of the rote memorization that rules Chinese schools gives education bureaucrats in Beijing an argument for improving the way their teachers do their jobs.
Such rivalries can be creative, even if made to look more threatening than they are.