June 27, 2006
Chinese Medicine for American Schools
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
skyscrapers, and by the endless construction projects that make
But the investments in
of all are in human capital. The blunt fact is that many young Chinese
in cities like
school education than Americans do. That's a reality that should
embarrass us and stir us to seek lessons from
On this trip I brought with me a specialist on American third-grade
education — my third-grade daughter. Together we sat in on third-grade
classes in urban
In math, science and foreign languages, the Chinese students were far
My daughter was mortified when I showed a group of
some of the homework she had brought along. Their verdict: first-grade
level at a
are mostly awful, and in rural areas it's normally impossible to hold
even a primitive conversation in English with an English teacher. But
kids in the good schools in Chinese cities are leaving our children in
Last month, the Asia Society published an excellent report, "Math and
Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from
students with 2 percent of the world's education resources. And the
report finds many potential lessons in
Yet, there isn't any magic to it. One reason Chinese students learn
more math and science than Americans is that they work harder at it.
They spend twice as many hours studying, in school and out, as
Chinese students, for example, must do several hours of homework each
day during their summer vacation, which lasts just two months. In
contrast, American students have to spend each September relearning
what they forgot over the summer.
nearly all high school students study advanced biology and calculus.
In contrast, only 13 percent of American high school pupils study
calculus, and fewer than 18 percent take advanced biology.
Yet if the Chinese government takes math and science seriously,
children and parents do so even more. At Cao Guangbiao elementary
schedule. She gets up at 6:30 a.m. and spends the rest of the day
studying or practicing her two musical instruments.
So if she gets her work done and has time in the evening, does she
watch TV or hang out with friends? "No," she said, "then I review my
work and do extra exercises."
A classmate, Jiang Xiuyuan, said that during summer vacation, his
father allows him to watch television each evening — for 10 minutes.
The Chinese students get even more driven in high school, as they
prepare for the national college entrance exams. Yang Luyi, a tenth
grader at the first-rate
weekends he avoided going to movies. "Going to the cinema is
time-consuming," he noted, "so when all the other students are working
so diligently, how can you do something so irrelevant?"
Li Yafeng, a tenth-grade girl at the same school, giggled at my
question. "I never planned to have a boyfriend in high school," she
said, "because it's a waste of time."
Now, I don't want such a pressured childhood for my children. But if
Chinese go overboard in one direction, we Americans go overboard in
hours in front of a television.
I don't think we could replicate the Chinese students' drive even if
we wanted to. But there are lessons we can learn — like the need to
shorten summer vacations and to put far more emphasis on math and
science. A central challenge for this century will be how to regulate
genetic tinkering with the human species; educated Chinese are
probably better equipped to make those kinds of decisions than
During the Qing Dynasty that ended in 1912,
lessons from abroad and adjust its curriculum, and it paid the price
in its inability to compete with Western powers. These days, the
tables are turned, and now we need to learn from