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10 Lessons American Schools Can Learn from China

by Staff Writers

In a survey from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it was revealed that Chinese students are easily outperforming their peers around the world. For anyone familiar with the "Tiger Mother" parenting style of Amy Chua, this is certainly not a surprise. It is a disappointment for American students, however, who no doubt would like to be superior as well. But the fact remains that the Chinese are simply outperforming the rest of the world, and it has little to do with natural ability or even luck, but rather, smart choices made in the educational culture in China. Read on, and we’ll take a look at 10 things that China is doing that make a difference in their educational performance, as well as consider how these ideas might be applied to American education.

  1. Education is a top priority

    One of the biggest things American schools can learn from Chinese education is that learning is simply one of the most important things in China. The entire country has a drive to do better and learn more, motivated to continue to grow as a superpower, and pushing each new generation to become smarter, more productive, and more innovative than the last. And while the American government pays lip service to education at the federal, state, and national level, China actually makes education one of its top priorities. According to the New York Times, there is a "Confucian reverence for education that is steeped into the culture," where teachers are highly respected, and class clowns and jocks play second fiddle to the smartest kid in the class. There is a real passion for learning in the Chinese education system, in stark contrast to American schools which often get caught up in teaching to the next goal, typically for standardized tests. The Chinese model of celebrated education is one that’s hard to quantify, but US schools can take a lesson from an education system that makes it cool to be the smart kid.

  2. China is cutting out college majors that don’t pay

    Both the US and China are having a problem with jobless graduates, but China is doing something serious to stop it: the Ministry of Education recently announced that they would phase out majors that produce unemployable graduates. The government will systematically evaluate college majors by their employment rates, and subsequently downsize or completely cut out studies that produce employment rates below 60% for two consecutive years. Although some laud the idea as an efficient way to produce college graduates who will become employable and productive, many university professors are not happy with the idea, as they worry that the downsizing may cut out subjects, like biology, that are not currently strong in the market, but nonetheless necessary to China’s mission for leadership in science and technology. But this is not a new idea, anyway: according to the Wall Street Journal, universities have been downsizing programs that don’t result in paid positions, with China’s Shenyang Normal University cutting its Russian program from 50 to 25. If the US government followed the Chinese approach, majors that would be cut include psychology, US history, and military technologies.

  3. Teachers are retrained before being dismissed

    Teacher turnover is expensive and disruptive, plain and simple. In a study from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, it was revealed that for each teacher turnover, schools lose about $9,500 in costs, including training, administrative processing, and recruitment. That’s a significant number for each teacher that is fired or walks out the door due to dissatisfaction. But perhaps worse than the financial impact of teacher turnover is the educational fallout as teachers are first ineffective, and then not there at all. Students are further inconvenienced as a new teacher is hired and brought up to speed, while weeks of curriculum may fall by the wayside. Rather than allow students and educational budgets to suffer from the dismissal of poorly performing teachers, Chinese administrators choose to retrain existing teachers, working to improve their skills and abilities so that they may remain in their position while doing a significantly better job. Certainly not all "bad" teachers can benefit from training instead of dismissal, and some must eventually be fired, but by offering teachers the opportunity and resources to create improvement, China saves not just money, but the time and attention of the students served by challenged teachers.

  4. Education spending is growing

    The US spends more per GDP on education than China, with 5.7% GDP to China’s 2.5%. Still, critics believe that China has learned how to spend its small budget wisely, pointing out that while previously, China did not have the bureaucracy to ensure money was spent correctly, the country has now shifted delivery of social services to the county level where personnel are better trained. And as the country as a whole better learns how to spend its meager education budget, that budget is also growing: Chinese education spending has grown by 20% every year since 1999, now reaching more than $100 billion. Meanwhile, education spending in the US has grown at a much slower pace: in recent years, spending has risen by a meager 5.8%. This indicates that while the US remains stagnant in its education growth, China is and has been making a great effort to push for more education funding and better schools.

  5. China increased teacher pay and training to success

    In response to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparative survey, Time took a look at China’s educational approach and the latest education reforms in the country, reporting that much of the country’s latest success goes to "significantly increased teacher pay and training," and that this is among the lessons that can be learned from high performing Shanghai and Hong Kong. This lesson is so painfully obvious, but it’s worth pointing out: better teachers can create better students. Giving teachers the tools and motivation they need to do a great job can and will pay off in smarter students, as evidenced by China’s great performance in the PISA.

  1. Reduced emphasis on rote learning, more problem solving

    Another lesson that Time reports we should take away from China’s great showing in the PISA is the "sea change in pedagogy," which takes the emphasis that used to be directed to rote learning, and instead focuses on learning more about problem solving. One new slogan promises, "To every question there should be more than a single answer." This type of learning is something that a lot of American students don’t see until they get to college, if at all. Dismissing rote learning for problem solving allows Chinese students to learn how to learn, rather than how to memorize, a valuable skill that undoubtedly serves them well in today’s culture of ubiquitous information. The American school system can make a different by following China’s lead and forget about "teaching to the test" and forcing students to memorize facts that they can Google in seconds, and instead develop minds that are more adept at learning how to solve problems.

  2. Non-attentive students are not tolerated

    China’s educational culture places great value on hard work and dedication, and students are expected to care about their studies. Experts report that non-attentive students simply aren’t tolerated. It sounds harsh, but students that don’t pay attention can be a real problem in the classroom. By not allowing them to be disruptive, Chinese classrooms benefit from them not being able to interrupt or slow down the entire class, much to the detriment of other students. Perhaps the only place where American students can see this sort of streamlined studying is in advanced or AP classes, in which high achieving students presumably want to be an active participant in their studies.

  3. Extracurricular activities are downplayed in favor of more studying

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes the Chinese model of education as a "no-frills, academic-focused approach that will likely seem grim to many US parents." But one of the major lessons from China’s excellent educational performance is that they push for "less sports and more studying," putting extracurricular activities on the back burner in favor of quantifiable learning. And although parents in the US are likely to ask for more arts classes, China’s rigorous model of education still allows them to outperform the world. It’s not likely to happen in America, but the fact is simple that by sacrificing time in music, art, drama, and sports, students are able to spend more time focusing on core basics, and thus perform better in those subjects.

  4. Chinese students spend more time in school

    American students go to school somewhere in the neighborhood of 8AM, just like Chinese students, but unlike Chinese students, they are typically out of school by 4PM, with an average seven- to eight-hour day. At 4PM, Chinese students still have four more hours to go, as their school day lasts not from 8AM to 4PM, but goes on until 8PM, with 12 hours in school each day. Not only that, Chinese students typically have 43 more school days each year than American Children do. This all results in significantly more class time, time in which Chinese students are learning the curriculum that American students simply didn’t have enough time or days to get to. Although American students aren’t likely to tolerate a 12-hour school day five days a week, parents and students alike might benefit from a schedule that more closely models the typical parent work day of eight to ten hours, as well as calendar schedules that allow for fewer days out of school, which can make the difference between missed instruction opportunities and students who have fully learned the material at hand.

  5. Recruiting and keeping key educators

    While American schools allow great talent to walk right out the door in favor of higher pay in other professions or private schools, the Chinese recognize the value in recruiting professionals who can do a great job with their students. In fact, according to the Standard Speaker, the Chinese government has people on its payroll whose sole purpose is to actively find and recruit people, particularly educators, from all over the world, including the US, to bring to China to help prepare their students for the global market. This not only puts China at an advantage with great talent, it creates a "brain drain" in the US and other countries as we lose valuable talent to China. America would do well not only to recognize key educators, but to reward them for their value, and even do some of its own international recruiting that can attract top educational talent to the US.