Asian Equation

By Sean Cavanagh — June 05, 2007 13 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The voice over the loudspeaker bellows a command across the vast stone courtyard at Beijing Fourth Secondary School, and hundreds of students in blue and white uniforms pivot, high-step, and shout in unison.

Seated in a third-floor conference room, with the sound of his school’s mandatory daily exercises drifting through the window in faint echoes, Li Jianhua exudes serenity and confidence.

About This Series

    This Week

  • • Asian Equation:
    Although China’s approach to teaching mathematics and science has reaped economic benefits, leaders of the world’s most populous nation believe students can advance further if schools inject some American-style flexibility into their lessons. Photo Gallery: Student Moments

As the principal at one of the most elite public schools in China, he’s in a position to do so. Located in a bustling neighborhood north of the Forbidden City, his school attracts many of Beijing’s top students, employs some of its most talented teachers, and carries a reputation for academic superiority and innovation, despite the regimentation on display this spring morning.

Yet when the principal hears suggestions from American officials that Chinese students have skills superior to those of their U.S. counterparts in mathematics and science, he cannot agree.

Chinese students have many strengths, Mr. Li says. They work hard. They master basic concepts and then, at least at his school, march steadily into more difficult ones. They are taught by teachers who know their subjects, and they receive strong support from their parents.

What they lack is harder to quantify. But he has seen it.

“On the surface, Chinese students can get very high scores in math and science. But they don’t really grasp the true meaning of math and science,” Mr. Li says through a translator. “Science and math are analytical tools we use to explore the world. People in China see math and science as a tool to change their destiny, not to explore the world.”

Those views reflect one strand of a discussion playing out among school and government officials in China and the United States, as leaders in both countries explore strategies for revamping their educational systems and, where relevant, draw lessons from each other.

American officials lament their students’ mediocre skills in math and science, and warn that China, with its firm academic emphasis on those subjects and its enormous student population, stands to reap economic rewards from U.S. complacency. Some U.S. officials believe their country needs a more consistent approach to teaching math and science, which could replace the potpourri of approaches used in states and school districts.

Yet China’s government is, in contrast, seeking to inject more American-style flexibility into its math and science curriculum, by placing less emphasis on exams and more focus on cultivating students’ creative and analytical skills, which school officials believe are lacking. Chinese teachers are being encouraged to move away from lectures, drills, and memorization in class, and to invite more discussion and student-led activity. Schools are adding more elective courses and independent research projects. Textbooks are being rewritten.

Other changes will not come easily. For generations, Chinese education has focused largely on exams, an approach that critics say has encouraged rote learning, not critical thinking. The exam system, however, has obvious staying power: It provides schools and universities with a practical way of selecting students from a vast pool of qualified applicants.

China has an estimated 230 million K-12 students—roughly four times the combined U.S. public and private school population—though only a small fraction of them go on to college.

ENTHUSIASTIC APPROACH: Unlike most elementary teachers in the United States, Cui Hong Xun, a math specialist who teaches every day at the Zhuhai Yung Wing School, and science teachers specialize in their fields.

Chinese officials say they are committed to increasing opportunities for students, especially those from poor, rural areas. The government recently announced plans to stop collecting all tuition and fees for students in rural schools. And still, demand for education is growing. Of the millions of migrants who leave rural areas each year and move into cities in search of work, many are turning to low-cost private schools to educate their children. Families with more money, particularly in urban areas, are clamoring for opportunities to send their children to more selective and expensive private schools offering an academic breadth similar to that of their American counterparts.

Side-by-side comparisons of the two systems are difficult, however. Unlike the United States, China has not participated in either of the two most prominent country-by-country tests of student academic skill, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, and the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: Physics teacher Ye Zhibing, right, listens as a student answers a question at Gongbei Middle School in Zhuhai. The classroom has desk space for 56 students, who usually stand when teachers call on them in class.

The two countries’ school systems also have grown out of vastly different societies. The United States is a democracy in which federal, state, and local officials all help shape school policy, with a strong tradition of local control. In China, all major education decisions flow from the central government and its ruling Communist Party. The United States is a wealthy nation, where students have myriad opportunities for educational and economic advancement. China is a relatively poor but fast-developing one, where students must fight for limited spaces in schools and universities.

Many features of Chinese education, though, such as parents’ strong involvement in schools and society’s broad respect for math and science, have a centuries-old lineage. China’s exam system, for instance, can be traced to at least the sixth-century Sui Dynasty, when the policy of awarding government positions by family nobility was abolished in favor of a system based on test performance.

IN FORMATION: Students exercise on the Beijing Fourth Secondary School’s track in Beijing. The uniform for many students in China is a sweatsuit worn throughout the day.

When U.S. educators visit China, “nobody takes an anthropologist on their trip,” quipped Daniel W. Gregg, the social studies consultant for the Connecticut education department, who directs an exchange program between his state and China’s rural Shandong province.

“We short-shrift the cultural aspects, along with the challenges their system is facing today,” he said. “But taking into account all of those historical underpinnings is very important to have a meaningful conversation.”

Students have already reached an impressively high rung on the educational ladder when they arrive at Beijing Fourth Secondary School, a collection of tall white buildings separated from the street’s clatter by a security gate and a sea of bicycles.

TEXTBOOK REPOSITORY: Zhou Jia finds resources for an English-language primary school textbook at the People’s Education Press library in Beijing. The national information center of precollegiate books and materials has a collection of more than 500,000 works. The collection includes materials from China and abroad.

Inside the school’s walls, images of aca-demic superiority, and above all, student discipline, abound. Classes typically have 50 or 60 students—twice the number of many U.S. classrooms—but with a fraction of the disruption. Students stand individually to address teachers in class, and remain standing until teachers are satisfied with their answers. And every day, students break from those lessons for mandatory exercise, in which they march, stretch, and even relax—through eye exercises—on command.

Almost all the students here want to go to college, and many will aim for elite institutions like Tsinghua University and Peking University. Many of their parents are well educated and hold jobs in finance or government. Other students are the first in their families to have come this far in school, which makes them all the more determined to reach even higher.

The school’s principal, Mr. Li, understands that motivation. He grew up in the remote Xinjiang autonomous region in northwestern China, and his parents had little formal education. He loved math in school, but he had to teach himself much of that subject, mostly by reading textbooks. He persisted, and went to college, then graduate school, before eventually landing a job as a math teacher at this school.

COMMUTER PARKING: Many staff members and students live close enough to bike to Jingshan School in Beijing.

A youngish 40, Mr. Li is dressed in a trim brown jacket and dark jeans, with a look that suggests Silicon Valley entrepreneur more than office-bound administrator. He is used to hosting foreign visitors at the school, and he is proud of its attempts to challenge students in new ways, such as through electives and independent research projects. The principal points out recent projects on display in a school hallway on such topics as artificial-intelligence technology, air quality, and DNA research.

Through those projects, students “can find the application of subjects,” Mr. Li noted, “and the real meaning of study.”

Mr. Li’s belief that Chinese students need to broaden their math and science skills was shaped by visits he made to schools in the United States several years ago. Since the economic and social reforms of the late 1970s, China’s government has encouraged cross-cultural exchanges. One recent beneficiary was Li Linyu, a student at the prestigious Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, in the city of Guangzhou, who emerged with opinions of the strengths—and shortcomings—of American students.

As part of an exchange program, the 18-year-old attended a year of classes at a public high school northwest of Atlanta. In various subjects, especially math, the U.S. students did not have skills equal to those of her Chinese classmates, she recalled. But they had more freedom to take part in optional classes and extracurricular activities. “They can become leaders and grow,” Ms. Li said. And the American students also showed great curiosity, and weren’t afraid to ask questions or give a wrong answer.

“They really enjoyed learning, rather than just hearing from the teacher,” she said. “They keep asking why. Everybody seemed to engage in the discussion.”

In China, students like Li Linyu are more likely to study difficult lessons at an earlier age, particularly in math and science, than most of their American counterparts. Officials at China’s top curriculum agency, the People’s Education Press, told Education Week that they believe Chinese primary and secondary math lessons are, on average, about one year ahead of those in America, even taking into consideration that the United States has no mandatory national standards.

China’s math lessons have become less theoretical in recent years and more focused on problem-solving, said Alan Ginsburg, a U.S. Department of Education official who has studied the Chinese system. In early grades, Chinese lessons now include more focus on probabilities—an area in which U.S. students are strong—than they did a few years ago, said Mr. Ginsburg, who is also the co-chairman of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a Singapore-based organization that promotes trade and investment across the region.

Chinese texts are putting less emphasis on proofs and theorems in geometry, and more on practical, physical applications in that subject, he added. They are also folding more real-life examples from science into math textbooks, in contrast to U.S. texts, which, Mr. Ginsburg argued, are bloated and yet devoid of illustrations that reinforce learning.

“We use pictures more for motivation of students,” he said, “not to solve problems.”

In science, Chinese students take six years of integrated courses during elementary school, according to the People’s Education Press. Unlike most U.S. students, they then delve into specific science subjects in middle school: biology during the U.S. equivalent of 7th grade, biology and physics during 8th grade, and physics and chemistry during 9th grade, the PEP says. Students who go on to high school take a mix of compulsory and optional science classes.

Established by the Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1950, the PEP publishes textbooks for the nation’s schools across all subjects. Those texts are generally thinner, with fewer exercises and less redundancy than U.S. texts, in the view of PEP officials. On the other hand, U.S. books in some subjects, such as science, have a stronger narrative flow that better integrates vocabulary and concepts into lessons, say agency officials, who are trying to improve their texts’ storytelling. section break Chinese teachers are also trained differently from their U.S. counterparts in leading students through academic material. At China’s top teacher education programs, known as normal universities, aspiring math and science teachers typically take 20 courses in their subjects to gain certification. In the United States, by contrast, most high school math and science teachers take only 10 to 14 subject courses—and fewer if they teach at earlier grade levels, experts say.

The quality of teaching, however, varies enormously across China. Many teacher programs require far less coursework than normal universities; rural schools and those with few resources often rely on such programs’ graduates. In some areas, schools are forced to hire teachers without any credentials or experience whatsoever.

At the elementary level, the Chinese system differs from standard American practice in its use of specialists, who are assigned to teach only math or science. That approach has been tried in only a handful of U.S. elementary schools, where teachers usually cover all subjects. At the same time, the use of specialists in China varies greatly, some educators say, and the fewer the resources, the less likely a school is to have them.

But Chinese schools do far more than American ones to help teachers improve their classroom skills, Mr. Li and others say. The Beijing principal was surprised to see teachers in U.S. schools assigned to 20 classes a week. Teachers at his school lead only 10 or 12 classes, using the extra time to meet in groups and discuss classroom strategies.

Americans “teach and teach,” Mr. Li said. “They don’t have time to communicate with each other.”

Yet Chinese teachers and students face pressures of their own. As the nation’s economy has grown, education has become even more crucial to improving one’s status.

At the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, Principal Wu Yingmin has seen that pressure at work. His school tries to encourage students to develop academically and socially. It offers elective courses and extracurricular programs; it even requires students to take daily naps and follow a nightly curfew to avoid academic burnout.

Travel Notes

Sean Cavanagh, a staff writer for Education Week, and Sarah Evans, the newspaper’s director of photography, spent two weeks in China gathering the information that appears in this series. They visited schools in Beijing and two cities in southern China, Zhuhai and Guangzhou, both located in Guangdong province.

Dozens of interviews were conducted at public and private schools serving students from a wide variety of backgrounds, as well as at teacher-training universities and at the People’s Education Press, the Chinese government’s main curriculum and textbook-publishing agency.

Chinese officials required that the journalists from Education Week receive invitations from organizations or individuals from that country; representatives of schools, universities, and other entities acted in that capacity. Education Week had full editorial control over the stories.

All the subjects of interviews in these stories spoke Chinese, through translators, unless otherwise noted.

But some students, especially those from rural areas, resist taking optional courses, which they believe won’t help them on exams in the same way that math, science, and other required subjects will. And some have quit school rather than take time off during the school day, said Mr. Wu, smacking his hands in frustration. They believe “if they cannot get access to a quality education, they will not be able to get ahead in life,” the principal said. “They sometimes cannot open their minds to think in a different way.”

Liu Yang Yang, 15, has tried to keep a balanced perspective since moving from rural Anhui province to the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai five years ago.

His parents were farmers, but the teenager, who now attends Gongbei Middle School, longs to become a scientist. The next step is scoring well enough on his upcoming exams to get into a top-flight high school, then college. He wants to get there for his parents, and himself.

“For them, it is a kind of reward, a culmination,” he said. If he doesn’t succeed, “I’ll be disappointed, because I’ve been working hard for a very long time. … Without knowledge, you can’t keep up in this society.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Asian Equation


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.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
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.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

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

Science Photos Photos: The Solar Eclipse Is the Ultimate Science Lesson
How students, teachers, and families experienced the solar eclipse.
1 min read
Yurem Rodriquez watches as the moon partially covers the sun during a total solar eclipse, as seen from Eagle Pass, Texas, on April 8, 2024.
Yurem Rodriquez watches as the moon partially covers the sun during a total solar eclipse, as seen from Eagle Pass, Texas, on April 8, 2024.
Eric Gay/AP
Science Download DIY Ideas for Safe Eclipse Viewing (Downloadable)
Here's a guide to safe, do-it-yourself ways to view next month's total eclipse, in or out of school.
1 min read
Image of a colander casting a shadow on a white paper as one way to view the eclipse using a household item.
iStock/Getty and Canva
Science Q&A How Schools Can Turn the Solar Eclipse Into an Unforgettable Science Lesson
The once-in-a-lifetime event can pique students' interest in science.
6 min read
A billboard heralding the upcoming total solar eclipse that Erie will experience is shown in Erie, Pa., on March 22, 2024.
A billboard heralding the upcoming total solar eclipse that Erie will experience is shown in Erie, Pa., on March 22, 2024.
Gene J. Puskar/AP
Science Letter to the Editor A Call to Action for Revitalizing STEM Education
An educational consultant and former educator discusses the importance of STEM education in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week