Just as President Obama steps back from student testing and governors coast to coast retreat from high-stakes accountability in schools, China’s leaders are pushing to enrich their national exams and nudge teachers away from rote instruction, aiming to nurture cognitively nimble and socially committed graduates.

No Child Left Behind—for all its blemishes and endless rules—did signal stiffer expectations for America’s schools, setting ambitious standards that they needed to meet in order to dodge sanctions. But the policy pendulum now swings back toward a lenient approach, enabling states to forge their own accountability tools, defining their own learning goals and tests.  

New York eased expectations for students last month, as state officials revealed plans to simplify its math test, because pupil scores had fallen too low. Massachusetts, once setting the highest bar for pupil proficiency, has reversed its support for standards. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles school board has proclaimed that homework should not exceed 30 minutes of effort each night for high-school students.

China has now reshaped its national exam to focus on a broader range of topics and cognitive skills and, in turn, move away from teacher-dominated lecturing. The new test requires that students employ complex analytical skills, mixed with broader knowledge across various subjects. Performance in high-school courses—classes that are chosen by the student—will count in college admissions for the first time, beyond achievement on math, Mandarin, and English assessments. And top universities, sifting through applications, must take into account service to one’s local community.

Already nipping at the nation’s economic heels, schools in the People’s Republic aspire to outshine their American counterparts, ironically pulling from the West’s progressive playbook. Indeed, China’s widening education agenda, while just as demanding as before, draws from a blend of educational ideals, ranging from those of John Dewey to Mao Zedong.

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China’s national exams, known as gaokao, have served as the channel for getting ahead in Chinese society since the 10th century. “Exams may have no use for me,” Haiyan, a 26 year-old graduate student, told me, “but I cannot realize upward mobility” without doing well. She said she rose from a rural village of 200 families by scoring fourth in her county on the national exam and winning a coveted spot in a top Beijing university.

The intense expectations for learning woven into the age-old exams—not to mention a longstanding Confucian faith in literacy that still underlines Chinese culture—continue to produce stereotyped whiz-kids in math and graduates with extremely sharp memories, at least according to their performance on international assessments. Shanghai students contend each year with Finnish and Singaporean peers to rank at the top on international OECD education rankings (how China samples pupils remains controversial). But it’s increasingly clear that didactic teaching and regimented exams have, arguably, failed to produce young people who foster technological innovation or design breakthroughs in engineering. China remains far behind in the arts, cultural invention, or academic research. Beyond a handful of inspiring fiction writers, many now living in exile, the country has seen few notable figures emerge in the humanities.

The nation’s bulwark of meritocracy has also begun to crumble, a wake-up call to government leaders. Faced with slim odds of winning a university seat, the count of high-school students sitting for the national exam has declined from 10.5 to 9.3 million between 2008 to 2010. A rising share of top scorers dodge what are often arcane Chinese colleges and head overseas, especially offspring of the growing nouveau riche. China’s ambitious reform of college admissions now sends “a clear message to secondary-school students and their teachers that a narrow focus on rote learning … may not be enough to ensure entry to higher education,” wrote John Morgan and Bin Wu, experts on China policy, in an article for The Conversation.

But whether the remake of testing in China will truly move teachers to shift their emphasis away from drilling on facts to analysis and critical thinking isn’t clear. In certain cases, this type of questioning is exactly what the Chinese government continues to stamp out. “Teachers quietly talk about the pro-democracy uprising” at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Xiaoyan, a Beijing graduate student told me. “But it’s not asked on the national exam, so students don’t take it seriously.” And the shrill polemics of some government leaders continue to dampen inventive thinking inside schools. “We must, by no means, allow into our classrooms material that propagates Western values,” The New Yorker quoted Minister of Education Yuan Guiren saying earlier this year.

A handful of government schools, however, already practice Western-style teaching strategies through what are known as “learning-oriented classrooms.” Students take on applied projects or tackle neighborhood problems, and principals nurture “equal and friendly relationships between teachers and students,” the Chinese professor Lifu Han told me. Meanwhile, newly minted teachers seek jobs in more autonomous “key schools,” which are a bit like charter schools in the U.S. in that they’re government funded yet possess “the freedom to determine how to teach their students,” Haiyan said. These progressive schools require students to engage in complex topics, delve into multicultural literature, and become fluent in English. They attract the offspring of Beijing’s booming bourgeoisie, children of corporate and government elites—kids often bound for college overseas.

While America’s policy malaise now focuses most on what the country’s education system should not do—don’t overtax kids, don’t centralize learning standards, and so on—China’s educators and parents are increasingly asking how to ready their kids for a more open society and nimble economy. And there, the blossoming debate over the core aims of education invokes both material and moral priorities spurred by an obviously fraying social fabric, as vegetable carts dodge sleek BMWs on city streets and children of migrant workers—families that make up one-third of Beijing’s densely packed population—are largely excluded from high-quality public schools.

This prompts calls for Chinese teachers to cultivate stronger character, for students to become well-rounded, rather than being forced to walk the treacherous “one-plank bridge” over to a college seat, based on a single test score. Beijing has approved reforms aimed at lightening the burden, including one that, according to Fei Zhao, an education professor at Capital Normal University, shrinks the school day by two hours. Even with this easing of pressure, Chinese pupils still sleep one and a half hours fewer each night than their global peers on average.

And ultimately, despite this broader societal push, it’s difficult for Chinese families to kick back when they’re trying to support their children, especially when both parents must work to make ends meet. Many pay for tutoring, sports activities, and music lessons—seeking a competitive edge for their youngsters. “It’s so expensive to raise a child in Beijing,” Zhao said.

Amid this swirl of fresh reforms and novel aspirations for their schools, Chinese leaders talk about exporting a “third model” of education to other societies. One university official pulled me aside this fall, requesting my help in writing about this emerging replica for how to enliven schools, still fortified by demanding national exams, while moving beyond the West’s self-centered values and the former Soviet Union’s stultifying classrooms.

“We can’t be just like the West, we have to find a new model that we feel confident with,” said Jiajia, a former student of mine at UC Berkeley who now prepares new teachers outside of Shanghai. Asked what this unprecedented form of schooling looks like, he grinned wryly: “We don’t know yet.”