School & District Management

China Takes Different Tack From U.S. in Teaching Mathematics and Science

By Sean Cavanagh — June 20, 2006 4 min read
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China’s approach to teaching math and science differs sharply from that of the United States, concludes a report that details the Asian nation’s use of strong national standards, a logical progression from easy to more difficult material, and superior teacher training in those subjects, even in the early grades.

“Math and Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from China” is available from the Asia Society.

But the quality of education in China also varies greatly between urban and rural areas, it says, and the overall system suffers from a relatively rigid teaching style and an emphasis on “didactic rote memorization” in student learning.

The report, “Math and Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from China,” was released June 8 by the Asia Society, a New York City-based nonprofit group that promotes international cooperation. Its conclusions emerge amid a rising clamor from U.S. officials and business leaders about the growing economic might of both China and India—and those countries’ ability to churn out students with strong science, math, and engineering skills.

China has the world’s largest education system, with 214 million primary and secondary students—more than four times the U.S. population in those grade levels, the report says. Like many other nations, China relies on national standards and curriculum, which guide textbook content, teacher training, and professional development.

“It is a very aligned system,” said Michael H. Levine,the executive director of education for the Asia Society. “You are struck entering a Chinese secondary or primary school that there is a focus on specific academic targets.”

In grades 1-3, for instance, Chinese pupils must learn 10 specific areas of math on topics such as numbers, operations, and geometry. Similar expectations continue through the upper grades. In science, all students in grades 7-9 are expected to study biology, chemistry, and physics; in 10th and 11th grades, they continue their studies in those subjects in more depth, the report says.

The United States, by contrast, has no mandatory national standards or curriculum in science or mathematics—or other subjects, for that matter—though various organizations have produced voluntary guidelines. States and school districts have considerable control over the curriculum, and their expectations vary greatly.

American schools end up “circling back through topics over a student’s course of study, without teaching basic concepts to mastery,” the Asia Society study concludes.

‘Key’ Schools

Chinese math and science teachers, at least in urban areas, receive more-rigorous training than their U.S. counterparts, according to the report. Unlike in the United States, where elementary teachers are expected to cover many subjects, the Chinese have “specialists” in science, it notes. Jinfa Cai, a professor of education and mathematics at the University of Delaware, in Newark, said specialization is even stronger in elementary school math; it is also common for the same teacher to stay with the same group of students throughout their elementary careers.

“They get to know the students better,” said Mr. Cai, who regularly visits Chinese schools. Teachers “get to know the content better and make connections from one grade to another.”

China has a system of “key” schools, or schools at various grade levels that serve relatively high-performing students, while others attend what are often called “common schools,” Mr. Cai said.

But even less-elite schools can still have strong expectations in math, said Zalman Usiskin, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, who recalled visiting common schools in the 1990s.

“The mathematics they were doing in 8th grade were what we would do in 10th grade,” he recalled.

More Time on Task

The study grew out of a 2005 Asia Society conference that brought together experts on American and Chinese education.

The Chinese school year is a full month longer than that of the United States. Nine years of education in China is compulsory; U.S. students are required to stay in school until they are somewhere between 16 and 18 years old, depending on the state, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Students in China’s rural areas, such as its western provinces, are much less likely to fulfill that requirement, the authors say, and similar gaps persist in basic educational expectations, teacher training, and student access to technology, they say.

Chinese leaders have attempted to lessen those disparities in recent years through the establishment of boarding schools in rural areas, student subsidies, and distance learning—an area in which the experiences of U.S. schools could provide lessons, the report says.

“The government has a strategic plan to develop the west side of the country,” Mr. Cai said. “The gap is tremendous.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as China Takes Different Tack From U.S. In Teaching Mathematics and Science

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