Reporter's Notebook

Chinese and American Education: Compare and Contrast
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Below are Atlantic notes by James Fallows and others on the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese and American school systems.
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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:

High school students in a rural school in Gansu province, western China, 2009 (James Fallows)

Two days ago I mentioned an interesting site by a high school student named Jocelyn Reckford, who had spent half of her elementary-school years in a Chinese public school and half in a public school in North Carolina. Her site tries to enumerate the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems as she experienced them.

Now, some response. First from Freddie deBoer of Purdue, who writes about the products of Chinese education as he sees them in the United States. He starts with a link to an item in Forbes, about China’s “stunning” superiority to the United States in a number of measures of academic performance.

This Forbes column makes a point very similar to one I stressed five years ago: that for all the obvious problems of U.S. education, and all the obvious strengths of China’s, these comparative rankings are deeply misleading. They usually take a handful of most elite, highest-performing schools in China (typically in Shanghai) and measure their graduates’ test scores against the whole sprawling expanse of U.S. student performance. DeBoer goes on to say:

As someone who works in a university with a very large Chinese population (around 6000 students) and in the world of assessment of second language skills, I can say that there is a widespread, but often little-discussed, feeling that this [JF: “this”=the test-score mismatch] is not the only way that China's supposed educational advantages are being oversold.

In particular, there's a great deal of discussion about a perceived disconnect between the applications of Chinese undergraduates and their actual abilities when they arrive on campus, particularly when it comes to their English-language ability. There's been some recent reporting on this, for instance here and here.

But it's hard to talk about these things. First, the US college system is now deeply dependent on the sky-high tuition that international students pay; here at Purdue, it's often said that the international students are essentially subsidizing the in-state tuition for Indiana students. Many schools are massively dependent on international student dollars, and Chinese student dollars particularly -- which means we're massively exposed to fluctuations in the Chinese economy.

Second, a lot of the people who are in the best position to identify these problems, people like myself working in linguistics or English or second language writing, are also those who have worked for years to make American colleges more open and accepting towards international students. People from that world are naturally loath to say anything that might be seen as perpetuating stigma.

Regardless of the broader truth, I do think it's worth saying that many people I know are absorbing a deeply incomplete picture of the  Chinese education system, particularly when it comes to the international metrics on which China does so well. There are untold millions of Chinese students struggling in rural poverty, who we have a lot of reason to expect would not perform nearly as well as their counterparts in China's urban enclaves, but they are written out of the data in many ways. Any discussion of American schooling in comparison to Chinese has to consider that aspect.

I agree, and have tried to emphasize this point in reports from some of the vast developing-but-still-poor reaches of interior China. I don’t imagine that the students you see in the opening photo are factored into the international comparison. One more response after the jump.