Chinese and American Education: First-Hand Compare-and-Contrast

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The two elementary schools Jocelyn Reckford has attended, and written about. From her site.

The American public is hearing a lot about the values imparted by U.S. education at the moment, from the familiar K-12 travails to disputes at world-leading universities. The Chinese public is at least as familiar with debates about their own schooling system, from whether it can will itself toward “more creativity” to the evolving role of doctrinal guidelines from the central government.

Here is a website that offers a fresh comparative perspective. It’s called, in English and Chinese, “Glenwood & Chao Wai: Side by Side 谷林 & 朝外: 肩并肩.” Glenwood is an elementary school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chao Wai is an elementary school on the far north side of Beijing, near the 2008 Olympic site. The comparison is carried out by Jocelyn Reckford, an American who is now in high school but who divided her elementary-school years between these two schools. As her father, Joseph Reckford, says in a note to me about the site:

Jocelyn has answered the question all Atlantic readers would be asking if they had thought of it: how is Chinese elementary education different from American? She has pioneered a new variety of documentary, the first website to compare a school in China to one in America.  

Jocelyn attended Chao Wai school for grades 1-3, where she was the first (and, to date, still the only) foreign student.  [JF note: my children had a similar experience in the late 1980s, as the first-ever foreign students at Utsukushigaoka Shogakko 美しが丘  小学校, the public elementary school in our neighborhood outside Tokyo.] Then for grades 4-5 she attended the Mandarin dual language class at Chapel Hill’s Glenwood school.  

Now she describes all aspects of both schools side by side for comparison.  You will see that it covers everything from how kids arrive in the morning to how teachers are trained.  Americans can use it to learn about Chinese education, and vice versa.

With parental pride allowed for, I agree that this is a valuable and interesting site that can inform education discussions in both countries and elsewhere. Joseph Reckford adds one other point about the value of this comparison:

You cannot really understand a culture without knowing how it educates the children.  American reporting on China includes virtually nothing about elementary education.  If not for annual stories about the gao kao exams [JF: the high-stakes nationwide university-entrance exams, renowned for their rigor and the stress they create], there would be hardly any education reporting.

Chinese schools are literally behind walls and do not welcome visitors.  When teachers and a principal from Chapel Hill’s dual language program visited China a few years ago, they were unable to visit a school.  This website is a window through that wall.  

Congratulations to Jocelyn Reckford and her team; may their example inspire others.

Screenshot from the parts of the site comparing language-arts training in American and Chinese schools.