China’s Education System Characterized by Strong National Standards, Vast Inequalities

By Sean Cavanagh — June 13, 2006 4 min read
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China uses a dramatically different approach to building students’ mathematical and science skills from the United States’, with strong national standards, a structured progression from easy to difficult subject matter, and extensive teacher training serving as core tenets of the communist country’s educational system, a new study finds.

But China also suffers from a large disparity between the quality of education in relatively advanced urban areas and poorer, rural communities, and from a system that encourages relatively rigid teaching methods, according to the report, which was released June 8 by the Asia Society, a New York City-based nonprofit that seeks to promote international understanding.

The report offers a comparative look into the educational model of a nation that is widely regarded as one of the United States’ top, and still-emerging, economic competitors. It also comes at a time when U.S. political and business leaders are becoming increasingly worried about the growing economic might of both China and India and of those countries’ abilities to churn out students with strong science, math, and engineering skills.

China has the world’s largest education system, with roughly 367 million people who are 18 or younger—roughly five times the United States’ population in that age group, the report notes. And the Asian nation has strong national standards for what is to be taught at various grade levels: Textbooks, classroom materials, teacher training, and professional development are all guided by those standards.

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

Chinese Curriculum

The Chinese curriculum in math and science is heavily structured from early grade levels through the secondary level. China’s national standards in math, for example, require students to learn 10 specific topics in grades 1-3, in areas such as numbers, operations, and geometry. Similar requirements are in place at upper-grade levels, too.

The United States, by contrast, has no mandatory national standards in math and science, though various organizations have produced voluntary guidelines. The 50 states and school districts also have considerable control over what is taught and when it is taught, and the quality of state standards in math, science, and other subjects is widely believed to vary enormously.

The study of China’s education system grew out of papers, presentations, and research presented at a 2005 conference in Denver organized by the Asia Society and China’s Ministry of Education. The report also examines educational approaches in other East Asian countries, such as Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, which regularly outperform the United States in international comparisons of students’ math and science abilities.

It suggests a number of reasons why the United States has struggled to compete with China and other East Asian countries. For instance, classroom material in American schools is too often presented in an inconsistent and repetitive way, the report concludes. “The curriculum is very uneven, often circling back through topics over a student’s course of study, without teaching basic concepts to mastery,” the study says.

Work Ethic

The report also suggests that Chinese students might be outworking their American peers. Chinese students, it found, spend about twice as many hours studying, in school and at home, as American students. In addition, the Chinese school year is a full month longer than that of the United States, the study says.

Only nine years of public school education is required in China, compared with 12 mandatory years of schooling in the United States. However, students in urban areas of China spend an average of three more years in school than students in rural parts of the country, a disparity that has remained relatively unchanged over time, the report points out. In the United States, achievement among some student groups, particularly minorities, lags behind whites in math and science, numerous test results have shown.

Chinese teachers in major metropolitan areas, like those in many high-performing Asian countries, generally receive stronger academic-content training and considerably more mentoring than teachers in the United States, the study says. However, teachers in China’s rural communities lack considerable content knowledge and training in math and science.

The report says China’s educational system could learn some important lessons from educators in the United States. China’s teachers, it says, “need help in transforming their instructional strategies from the didactic, rote-memorization tradition, toward greater stress on active participation of critical-thinking skills. The [United States] has significant strength in these areas that could be shared.”


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