It’s the Confucianism, stupid

What can the U.S. learn from China’s Winning Schools? Asians make education a priority, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who’s lived in Asia.

While Shanghai students are world beaters, the city has China’s best schools. Rural schools are not nearly as good — but they’re improving.

In my Chinese-American wife’s ancestral village — a poor community in southern China — the peasant children are a grade ahead in math compared with my children at an excellent public school in the New York area. That seems broadly true of math around the country.

Chinese principals get extra training for ineffective teachers or push them into other jobs. “Bad teachers can always be made gym teachers,” a principal in Xian tells Kristof.

The Chinese aren’t satisified with their schools, Kristof writes.

Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.

In Xian, I visited Gaoxin Yizhong, perhaps the city’s best high school, and the students and teachers spoke wistfully of the American emphasis on clubs, arts and independent thought. “We need to encourage more creativity,” explained Hua Guohong, a chemistry teacher. “We should learn from American schools.”

One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a “creativity-killer.” Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to “programs for trained seals.” Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.

For all their faults, Chinese schools benefit greatly from the Confucian reverence for education, Kristof writes. Teachers are respected. The class brain is admired, not the jock or the class clown.

Higher education is China’s weakness, he writes. But a self-critical, education-valuing culture can identify and fix its problems.

From Whitney Tilson via Matthew Ladner, here’s a chart of  PISA “combined literacy” scores for 15-year-olds in various subgroups. (FRL means “free and reduced lunch” eligibility, i.e., a school’s poverty rate.) Asian-American students do slightly better than Korean students; U.S. whites score a bit lower.

Non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. match scores for Canada, New Zealand and Australia, points out Robert Samuelson. The very low scores for Hispanics and blacks pull the national average down. “Persistent achievement gaps demonstrate the limits of schools to compensate for problems outside the classroom — broken homes, street violence, indifference to education — that discourage learning and inhibit teaching,” he writes in the Washington Post.

In high-level math performance, which correlates with economic growth, U.S. children of white and college-educated parents are lagging, writes Eric Hanushek, who thinks Samuelson is way too optimistic.

Sixteen countries actually produce twice the proportion of advanced math students that we do.  And there are more highly talented math students in the whole population of 18 countries than in U.S. families with a college educated parent.

The U.S. is an innovative society capable of attracting very bright people from around the world, Hanushek writes. But relying on the brain drain is not a sound long-term strategy.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I recall reading a study, cited approvingly by the usual suspects, that Chinese being interviewed can guess the reasoning behind the questions faster than can Americans.
    Right, said somebody, what we want is people evolved to know what the Big Man really means.

  2. “Bad teachers can always be made gym teachers,”

    mwahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. I’ll have to share this with all the gym (oops, physical education) teachers in my building.