But the investments in China’s modernization that are most impressive of all are in human capital. The blunt fact is that many young Chinese in cities like Shanghai or Beijing get a better elementary and high school education than Americans do. That’s a reality that should embarrass us and stir us to seek lessons from China.
On this trip I brought with me a specialist on American third-grade education — my third-grade daughter. Together we sat in on third-grade classes in urban Shanghai and in a rural village near the Great Wall. In math, science and foreign languages, the Chinese students were far ahead.
My daughter was mortified when I showed a group of Shanghai teachers some of the homework she had brought along. Their verdict: first-grade level at a Shanghai school.
Granted, China’s education system has lots of problems. Universities are mostly awful, and in rural areas it’s normally impossible to hold even a primitive conversation in English with an English teacher. But kids in the good schools in Chinese cities are leaving our children in the dust.
Last month, the Asia Society published an excellent report, “Math and Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from China.” It notes that China educates 20 percent of the world’s students with 2 percent of the world’s education resources. And the report finds many potential lessons in China’s rigorous math and science programs.
Yet, there isn’t any magic to it. One reason Chinese students learn more math and science than Americans is that they work harder at it. They spend twice as many hours studying, in school and out, as Americans.
Chinese students, for example, must do several hours of homework each day during their summer vacation, which lasts just two months. In contrast, American students have to spend each September relearning what they forgot over the summer.
China’s government has developed a solid national curriculum, so that nearly all high school students study advanced biology and calculus. In contrast, only 13 percent of American high school pupils study calculus, and fewer than 18 percent take advanced biology.
Yet if the Chinese government takes math and science seriously, children and parents do so even more. At Cao Guangbiao elementary school in Shanghai, I asked a third-grade girl, Li Shuyan, her daily schedule. She gets up at 6:30 a.m. and spends the rest of the day studying or practicing her two musical instruments.
So if she gets her work done and has time in the evening, does she watch TV or hang out with friends? “No,” she said, “then I review my work and do extra exercises.”
A classmate, Jiang Xiuyuan, said that during summer vacation, his father allows him to watch television each evening — for 10 minutes.
The Chinese students get even more driven in high school, as they prepare for the national college entrance exams. Yang Luyi, a tenth grader at the first-rate Shanghai High School, said that even on weekends he avoided going to movies. “Going to the cinema is time-consuming,” he noted, “so when all the other students are working so diligently, how can you do something so irrelevant?”
Li Yafeng, a tenth-grade girl at the same school, giggled at my question. “I never planned to have a boyfriend in high school,” she said, “because it’s a waste of time.”
Now, I don’t want such a pressured childhood for my children. But if Chinese go overboard in one direction, we Americans go overboard in the other. U.S. children average 900 hours a year in class and 1,023 hours in front of a television.
I don’t think we could replicate the Chinese students’ drive even if we wanted to. But there are lessons we can learn — like the need to shorten summer vacations and to put far more emphasis on math and science. A central challenge for this century will be how to regulate genetic tinkering with the human species; educated Chinese are probably better equipped to make those kinds of decisions than educated Americans.
During the Qing Dynasty that ended in 1912, China was slow to learn lessons from abroad and adjust its curriculum, and it paid the price in its inability to compete with Western powers. These days, the tables are turned, and now we need to learn from China.