June 27, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Chinese Medicine for American Schools

Visitors to China are always astonished by the new highways and
skyscrapers, and by the endless construction projects that make
China's national bird the crane.

But the investments in China's modernization that are most impressive
of all are in human capital. The blunt fact is that many young Chinese
in cities like Shanghai or Beijing get a better elementary and high
school education than Americans do. That's a reality that should
embarrass us and stir us to seek lessons from China.

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 Shanghai and in a rural village near the Great Wall.
In math, science and foreign languages, the Chinese students were far

My daughter was mortified when I showed a group of Shanghai teachers
some of the homework she had brought along. Their verdict: first-grade
level at a Shanghai school.

Granted, China's education system has lots of problems. Universities
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
the dust.

Last month, the Asia Society published an excellent report, "Math and
Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from
It notes that China educates 20 percent of the world's
students with 2 percent of the world's education resources. And the
report finds many potential lessons in China's rigorous math and
science programs.

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.

China's government has developed a solid national curriculum, so that
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
school in Shanghai, I asked a third-grade girl, Li Shuyan, her daily
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 Shanghai High School, said that even on
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?"

And romance?

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
the other. U.S. children average 900 hours a year in class and 1,023
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
educated Americans.

During the Qing Dynasty that ended in 1912, China was slow to learn
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 China.