A Pause Before Plunging Through the China Looking Glass

Why the U.S. Race to Reform and Catch Up Can Wait

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“[W]e have much to learn from China about improving our math and science education and cultural commitment to learning.”

So concluded a delegation of U.S. K-12 educators and business leaders that visited China last fall. The trip, sponsored by the Asia Society, the Business Roundtable, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, resulted in the 24-page “Education in China: Lessons for U.S. Educators” report, excerpted cogently by the Asia Society’s vice president for education, Vivien Stewart, in a recent Commentary. ("China’s Modernization Plan," March 22, 2006.)


Both the report and Ms. Stewart’s essay enumerate China’s list of educational assets: bold long-term vision, world-class education for its top high school students, intensive focus on math and science, coherent teacher education program, and so on. The subtext, sometimes articulated and almost always implied, is that these also are areas in which the United States is badly lagging. (The complete report is available as a free download at

As someone who was educated in China and now spends much time studying China’s education system, I have mixed feelings about what reasonably can be read as another China-got-it-right declaration. On the one hand, the delegation was apt in reporting China’s many education-related strengths, some of which can and should be emulated by U.S. educators. However, the group gives short shrift to a critically important China lesson.

Namely, the country has been struggling to reduce the damage of testing, standardization, and centralized curriculum—all practices consistent with current U.S. education reform efforts. Given its relevance to current U.S. discussions on reform, this particular lesson is worthy of more extensive discussion.

Despite China’s stunning improvements in everything from gross domestic product to student performance in international comparative studies and talent contests, the country has not been happy with its education system and has launched a series of reforms over the past two decades. The most significant government statement came on June 13, 1999, when the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council, China’s highest decisionmaking bodies, jointly issued “The Decision to Deepen Education Reform and Comprehensively Implement Essential-Quality-Oriented Education.”

This landmark, though laboriously named, policy document reflects the deep concern of China’s leaders over the negative consequences of traditional test-oriented education. Its policy goals are straightforward: to emphasize sowing students’ creativity and practical abilities over instilling an ability to achieve certain test scores and recite rote knowledge. The document also reaffirmed past reforms and launched a series of more radical initiatives that cut away core elements of the 2,000-year-old Chinese educational tradition.

One recommendation was to diminish the importance of college-entrance examinations, which in one form or another have been perhaps the most important and untouchable aspect of the education system. For thousands of years, China has held national exams to anoint government officials. Although the system was officially abolished in the early 1900s, the country continued to use national exams to pluck a select few students from the masses and put them into postsecondary schools and universities. The tradition was briefly interrupted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but was quickly resumed in 1977.

The defining characteristic of these national exams was centralized decisionmaking. The central government controlled everything about the all-important exams—what was tested, when the tests were administered, and how the results would be used—leaving no choices to students or schools. In other words, prior to the reforms, millions of students, regardless of their geographic location, intended majors, and personal interests or backgrounds, were sorted and shuffled into the country’s vast higher education network solely based on their performance on the exams.

Even as we race to instill China-like discipline in U.S. schools, China itself appears to be taking its foot off the gas.

Things began to change in 1999, when the Chinese Ministry of Education allowed Guangdong province to pilot a new “3 + X” exam scheme. Three subjects—Chinese, math, and English—were part of the required testing regime. However, a fourth subject, X, could be determined by the local government, colleges, or even the students themselves.

The experiment quickly spread. Four new provinces added freedom-of-choice testing in 2000, followed by an additional 13 provinces in 2001. In a further nod to decentralization, some provinces, such as Shanghai, were freed up also to decide the content of the tests. Today, most provinces in China have been given the authority to decide what to test on college-entrance exams. Last month, Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, made headlines all over China with the decision to select 10 percent of its new students based on their performance in interviews with faculty members, instead of their scores on the college-entrance exam. Shanghai’s Jiaotong University also has been approved by the ministry of education to carry out this experiment.

Another policy recommendation was to retool China’s primary and secondary school curricula. Prior to 1999, it seemed a fait accompli that the Chinese central government would forever hold tight control over what should be taught in schools, mainly because of its national teaching plan and common set of textbooks for all of China. In essence, until recently, the hundreds of millions of students in China always were studying the same thing at the same time.

Three major curriculum changes occurred over the past two decades to break up the stifling en bloc approach. First, electives were added so that students could choose at least some courses, although choices were very limited until last year. Second, local governments and schools were given the authority to select textbooks and define part of the curriculum. Finally, the 50-year monopoly of the People’s Education Press was broken, which allowed more-diverse textbooks to start trickling into China’s classrooms.

A further example of power devolving to provinces came last year, when China announced a major high school curriculum-reform effort. Among the problems targeted by the reforms were the following:

• Overemphasis on knowledge transmission, which produced students marked by a paucity of practical abilities;

• Too many required and uniform courses, which limited students’ individual development;

• Too much overlapping content, resulting in an excessive coursework burden on students; and

• Overemphasis on the value of individual disciplines, resulting in too little interdisciplinary work and social integration.

China wants citizens who can transform the country into an innovation society, and steps toward American-style instruction are seen as essential to this transformation.

The remedy to fix these shortcomings was a new curriculum, one that should be more than casually familiar to U.S. K-12 educators and parents, or at least to U.S. education historians. Required coursework was pared back and electives were added. Time was trimmed from teaching traditional subjects, including math, and redirected to more-integrated educational pursuits, such as community service and inquiry-based learning. Individual subjects, such as physics and chemistry, were combined in thematic studies. Art, health, and physical education became required courses, and technology strands were woven into the fabric of instruction.

The irony is immediately apparent. China’s students routinely excel in science, math, and other core proficiencies and, at least according to some possibly xenophobic U.S. journalists and policymakers, the country is well on its way to vying with America for scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial hegemony. Yet even as we race to instill China-like discipline in U.S. schools, China itself appears to be taking its foot off the gas.

Less clear, at first glance, is why the Chinese would want to do anything to change their apparently perfect system. If you dig beyond the sound bites and stereotypes, however, the answer turns out to deceptively simple. China’s leaders understand that test obsession not only doesn’t translate into global competitiveness, it also comes with a high cost of diminished happy and healthy childhoods.

China wants citizens who can transform the country into an innovation society, and steps, large and small, toward American-style instruction are seen as essential to this transformation. But the two countries have more in common than their attempts to mimic each other’s schools. Just as change comes slowly to U.S. education, China’s reforms have not come without resistance.

Chinese mathematicians accuse reformers of abandoning a tradition of excellence. Chinese parents are worried that their children won’t be able to get into a prestigious university. Chinese educators are concerned about losing their respected status within their communities. Despite the obstacles, however, reforms are likely to continue in both countries as leaders and policymakers jostle for firmer footing on the global economic stage.

When it comes to education, China can serve as a mirror for the United States. It offers an archetypal example of a centralized and standardized curriculum, high-stakes tests, rigid accountability, and hardworking students. But the archetype isn’t perfect, and already we see the negative impact of such practices in U.S. schools. A recent study by the Center on Education Policy found that many U.S. schools are narrowing their course offerings to math and reading. Other subjects—those providing breadth, flavor, and, most important, other ways of knowing—are being excluded from children’s school life.

So yes, in many ways, China is a mirror for would-be reformers in this country. However, given a cursory tour of China’s educational history and its recent turn toward the West, I say we should pause a moment longer before plunging through the looking glass.

Vol. 25, Issue 36, Pages 32-33

Published in Print: May 10, 2006, as A Pause Before Plunging Through The China Looking Glass
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