The China Daily's Take on Test Scores and Tiger Moms

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by Jorge and Paola Guajardo

With all the talk in the U.S. about Tiger moms, Sputnik moments, and snowstorm-braving Chinese solving differential equations on their way to the stadium, you would think the Chinese press would enjoy its chance to gloat a little and sing the praises of a Chinese education.  Not the China Daily.  James Fallows's favorite newspaper is decidedly unimpressed, playing down the PISA scores that put Shanghai teenagers ahead of the rest of the world in reading, science and math and dismissing the view that Chinese-style parenting is superior.

In side-by-side articles this week, the official English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party seems to refute the panicked notion that China's star students will soon be taking over the world, citing the usual concerns about the Chinese educational system's focus on rote learning to the detriment of critical and creative thinking. ''Chinese educators are hardly triumphant and say different skills are needed to compete in a global knowledge economy,'' says one of the articles, which does not neglect to mention that cosmopolitan Shanghai is not representative of the rest of China, where most schools don't perform nearly as well.

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This kind of coverage is all the more surprising given the increasing confidence (some would say arrogance) with which China presents itself to the world and the surge in national pride since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  It would be easy to ride the wave of American skittishness about perceived Chinese superiority with a few feel-good headlines (Shanghai students best in world!  U.S. falling behind in math!), but the ones above seem more in tune with Deng Xiaoping's old maxim about ''hiding your strength and biding your time."

As James Fallows has pointed out many times in this space, the Chinese media tend to have a curiously earnest way of reporting news, so that you are often left wondering whether things are really so earnest, and what the intended message is.  With a state-controlled press, you assume that nothing is there by coincidence, but it's hard to know sometimes if there is calculation behind a story or if, as Western readers, we are too cynical to take anything at face value.

Chinese officials evidently acknowledge the shortcomings of their educational system and that China's extraordinary economic growth has had little to do with its students' test scores; they have no interest in promoting the myth of the Chinese super-worker, impervious to hardship and ready to replace his lazy U.S. counterpart in any job.  They know, of course, that people can be equally fazed by a snowstorm in Beijing and Philadelphia, and that even if the Chinese had American football, they would talk about whatever sports fans talk about on their way to the stadium (usually not calculus).  They realize that Chinese students could benefit from aspects of the Western approach to education. And even if they do believe that the Amy Chua school of parenting is the key to rearing a successful child, the ultimate sign of that success is borrowed from the Western model: getting into Harvard. That's where Chinese Vice President (and Hu Jintao's heir apparent) Xi Jinping sent his daughter, though we probably won't read about that in the China Daily .

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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