School & District Management

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

By Sean Cavanagh — June 20, 2006 4 min read

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.”

Related Tags:

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


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Sponsor
Drive Improvement in Your School With Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership
Aubree Mills had two dilemmas she needed to address: One was recruiting and retaining good teachers at the Ira A. Murphy Elementary School
Content provided by Harvard Graduate School of Education
School & District Management Opinion Are Your Leadership Practices Good Enough for Racial Justice?
Scratch being a hero. Instead, build trust and reach beyond school walls, write Jennifer Cheatham and John B. Diamond.
Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond
5 min read
Illustration of leadership.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: DigitalVision Vectors, iStock, Getty)
School & District Management We Pay Superintendents Big Bucks and Expect Them to Succeed. But We Hardly Know Them
National data is skimpy, making it hard to know what influences superintendents' decisions to move on, retire, or how long they stay. Why?
8 min read
Conceptual image of tracking with data.
School & District Management Data For the First Time in the Pandemic, a Majority of 4th Graders Learn in Person Full Time
The latest monthly federal data still show big racial and socioeconomic differences in who has access to full-time in-person instruction.
3 min read
Student with backpack.