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UPDATED: August 8, 2014 NO. 43 OCTOBER 24, 2013
Who's Learning From Whom?
A look at Chinese-American education from opposite sides of the fence
By Josef Gregory Mahoney

NEW LESSON: An American teacher offers Chinese students English lessons during a Chinese-American summer camp in Kunming, Yunnan Province, on July 22 (CHEN HAINING)

Sometime in late August, my daughter learned of proposed national reforms aimed at reducing homework and testing burdens on primary school kids in China. Her response… Singing! Dancing! Declarations! "Daddy, now I can't wait to go back to school!" Having experienced Chinese public education firsthand since kindergarten and now preparing to enter fourth grade, she had only days prior lamented that summer vacation was ending. Now, she began packing her book bag, laying out her uniform, and smoothing the wrinkles from her red scarf.

As a parent, I had mixed feelings about the news, as did parents of my daughter's classmates. On the one hand, the amount of work expected by school children often borders on the absurd, and getting homework done, preparing for exams and the like confront millions of families every night. On the other hand, I've taken some pride in my daughter's ability to handle the pressure and believe that such challenges would make her stronger. At the same time, I think these experiences will make her more competitive than kids back home in the United States.

The truth is, as foreigners living in China, we don't face the same types of pressure that Chinese have to deal with when trying to gain admission to the best schools. For many, it is a veritable arms race. Although my daughter takes outside classes in flute, international chess, martial arts, as well as dance, and although she competes for grades and other distinctions, we don't worry about whether she will be accepted by the best middle school, and subsequently, the best high school and university. Her peers, however, face constant pressure to gain the right marks, the right extracurricular certificates, and the right connections.

Of course, not all reforms take root, and even when they do, results are often muddled. In fact, this is not the first time policymakers have discussed such changes, with previous efforts falling short in many respects. However, this time around, while the new policy is still in a discussion stage, some schools are already moving to implement some of the proposals. At my daughter's school, for example, midterms are now taboo, as are numerical grades and ranking. While the overall amount of homework doesn't seem to have changed much, it seems less rote than before. Additionally, policymakers have proposed making more time for physical education, and correspondingly, her school increased the amount of time and types of such activities.

Policymakers appear to have several goals in mind. In addition to decreasing the workload placed on young children, there is also an emphasis on changing the type of work done. In other words, the policy entails both qualitative and quantitative aims. For example, while reducing the number of exams is a quantitative objective, there appears to be a qualitative objective embracing pedagogical changes, the sort that places a higher value on creativity, and so on.

When such changes are discussed, policymakers and stakeholders alike frequently point to children's education in the United States. In fact, many Chinese worship the American education system, K-12 and especially its universities, with many believing that American children and young adults acquire a better education overall. And yet, as we know of course, many in America are looking toward China.

In fact, when the United States implemented perhaps its biggest national-level educational reform, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, it was with an eye on Chinese and Indian student performance in standardized math and science exams. American parents, teachers, policymakers and the press regularly criticize American public education, often describing it in the worst of terms. NCLB aimed to change all of this, and to do so by implementing pedagogies centered on increased testing, standardized exams, and a narrowing of focus on studies in math, science and foreign languages. In other words, as many observers have noted, while the Chinese have been moving in the direction of the United States, the Americans have been moving toward the Chinese model.

Nevertheless, NCLB has not yet produced the results policymakers envisioned. While only an incremental increase in math test scores has been noted, a larger drop in reading comprehension levels has also occurred. Meanwhile, given the fact that school funding levels are now tied to student performance, there have been increasing cases of corruption where teachers and administrators have conspired to inflate grades, and even, to help students cheat. At the same time, reports on Chinese excellence in particular continue to needle everyone. When Shanghai students were rated among the world's best, well above their American peers, the United States convulsed. When the Wall Street Journal reviewed Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), it did so under the provocative title, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior (2011), which produced another round of national hand-wringing.

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