Chinese Hosts Turn Tables on Ed Week Reporter

By Sean Cavanagh — April 03, 2007 6 min read
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I’d spent the better part of a day in the offices of China’s top curriculum agency, asking some of the nation’s leading school mathematics and science experts about their work. Now, it was their turn.

One of those government officials, sitting across from me in a conference room deep within the agency’s headquarters in west Beijing, put a question to me that seemed perfectly simple, but was complicated when you looked at it from the Chinese perspective. It went something like this: The United States has many of the world’s top colleges and universities, he noted. In order to get into those elite schools, students in the United States presumably need strong grades and top-notch scores on college-entrance exams. So why would parents there, he asked, ever be satisfied with letting their children settle for going to a less-selective college or university? Why don’t parents put more pressure on students to do everything they possibly can to get into those schools—do more homework, for instance, or study more?

One question revealed two distinctly different educational worldviews. That of China, where the competition to get into the top universities, among the country’s 230 million K-12 students, is intense, and success hinges largely on national exam results. And then the United States, where students can choose from a broad menu of colleges and universities, from the very elite (if their test scores and grades are good) to the less selective (if their SAT or ACT scores leave much to be desired, or a less-selective school is simply what they want).

The People's Education Press building is the central agency established by Mao Zedong in 1950 to research, write, and publish curriculum and teaching materials for schools across China.

I was nearing the end of a day spent conducting interviews at the People’s Education Press, the central agency established by Mao Zedong in 1950 to research, write, and publish curriculum and teaching materials for schools across this nation of 1.3 billion people.

The first day in Beijing for me and my companion on this trip, Sarah Evans, Education Week’s director of photography, was spent recovering from jet lag, and wandering among this mammoth city’s varied sights, some centuries old, others modern: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the sweeping views from the top of Jingshan Park, the masses of shoppers and the multicolored billboards of the Xidan district. The next day we set out early in a taxi for west Beijing, joined by our translator, Susan Chou.

In offering to host my visit, officials at the PEP asked if I would provide a lecture, on the topic of my choosing. This was an unusual experience for an American journalist, to be certain, but I came to regard it as a privilege. In the weeks before my trip, I put together a speech on recent efforts to improve students’ performance in math and science education in the United States, with PowerPoint slides to go with it.

A view from the People's Education Press building.

And so, with Sarah watching from the back of the PEP conference room, and our translator, Susan, at my side, I offered a straightforward talk. It was an objective overview of attempts by state governments, Capitol Hill lawmakers, and professional associations across the country to raise standards in math and science and to some extent, bring more clarity and coherence to how those subjects are taught.

Recent federal legislation to promote “competitiveness” got a mention, as did the latest undertakings to establish national standards in math and science. So did the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ “Focal Points” document, which PEP officials, it turned out, were well aware of. They told me they’d discussed that American document—NCTM’s work to identify the most essential math concepts from pre-K through grade 8—in a meeting the previous week. A number of PEP officials said they were impressed.

Questions About Motivation

But a major undercurrent of my talk sought to explain the roots of resurgence among U.S. leaders in math and science education. And a major factor, they should know, could be traced to China. As the PEP officials were aware, many U.S. leaders say the skills of students in math and science must improve if the U.S. is to compete with China and other fast-growing countries, economically and educationally. Chinese education officials are, in turn, looking to the United States and what its schools do well, as part of an attempt to improve the creative and problem-solving abilities of their students.

When I finished, the assembled PEP staff members, who were specialists in math and science topics, had questions. Many of them focused on the kinds of educational opportunities American students have to succeed in K-12 and college—and how motivated those students are to pursue them.

One staff member, for instance, asked how much homework is demanded of U.S. students, particularly those who hope to go to college. As regular readers of Education Week know, there is no clear answer to this. But I told them it depended on the school, the student, and his or her ambition. I recounted how a few years ago, I’d visited a high school in Northern California with a superbly talented student body, where the teachers worried about students routinely staying up until the early morning hours, every night, to study. But in other schools, teachers have to beg students to do any homework. Some studies have shown that U.S. students do less homework than their foreign peers, but there’s little agreement about how much is the right amount.

Another PEP official asked how much pressure American students feel to get into college. This also varies enormously, I explained. Many students and their families are willing to do whatever it takes—enrolling in classes to prep them for college-entrance exams, hiring readers to help them write better admissions essays, hiring tutors to help them academically—to boost their chances of getting into an elite school. Others are satisfied going to a less-competitive college that meets their needs or interests.

This led to the above-mentioned question: What parent wouldn’t strongly encourage their children to go to a very elite college, one of my listeners asked. The best response I could offer on the spot was: Many American families regard a college education as crucial. But many also believe that college is only another step—albeit an important one—toward a career. Students who don’t get into an elite college can still prosper academically at the postsecondary level and position themselves for good-paying jobs.

A Promising Future

In China, where space in universities is much more limited than in the United States, exams play a crucial role in determining where students attend a university, if at all. Exams provide one clear-cut way of sorting students.

Yet this system, many Chinese officials say, can heap pressure on students and lead schools to focus too heavily on exams. Susan, our translator, recalled her own experiences with this phenomenon, as the three of us rode that morning in a taxi to the agency.

Susan was raised in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen, known as “the overnight city” because of its breakneck growth. As a student, she showed talent in English studies. She soon decided that she wanted to study foreign language and business at a top university.

But from an early age, she also knew that getting into a good school would take work, she recalled, as our taxi driver, alternating between his clutch and his horn, wove past cars, bikes, and pedestrians in rush-hour traffic on the way to the PEP.

Her workload in school consisted of at least three to four hours a night of homework, as well as paying for private tutoring in math, one of her weaker subjects. Some Chinese students, she knows, seek much more outside help. Susan said her younger sister, who also hopes to go to college, is now paying for tutors in four subjects: Chinese, English, physics, and math.

When she took her college-entrance exam after high school, Susan, now 23, did well enough to get into Beijing Foreign Studies University, from which she is scheduled to graduate in June.

“I felt that’s the one turning point in my life,” she said of getting into college. “Going to a good college is the promise to a good future.”

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