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What's So Great About Chinese Education?

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Nicholas Kristof, writing from China, expresses his admiration for Chinese education in a column in the New York Times ("The Educated Giant").

Kristof says that we should "take a page from the Chinese book" to improve our own system of education. As he traveled, he visited elementary and middle schools and noted that even in peasant schools, children were learning math at levels matched only by the best American schools. But while his children's school doesn't start foreign language instruction until seventh grade, Chinese children start their English studies in first or third grade.

Why do Chinese students succeed in school, he asks? They are "hungry for education and advancement and work harder," while American students spend more hours watching television than attending classes. At one school he visited, Chinese students show up for school at 6:30 am to get extra tutoring before classes begin an hour later. They have a lunch break from 11:30 to 2, then stay in school until 5. There is homework every night, every weekend, and every day during their summer vacation.

Then too, he says, the Chinese culture venerates education and educators. Teachers are respected more there than in the U.S.A.

And then there is a deep-seated belief that success in education depends on effort, not ability. Two American scholars, Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, wrote about this in their book The Learning Gap about 15 years ago. American parents think that kids succeed in subjects like math because they have the ability ("my child just isn't good at math," or "math is Johnny's best subject"), but Asian parents think that anyone can succeed if they work at it.

Kristof concludes that we as a nation must "raise our own education standards to meet the competition," and he is sort of right, but not completely.

The real puzzle in our society is the lack of student effort. Raising standards might prompt some students to work harder, but it will also prompt many, many parents to complain bitterly about unfair pressure on their children and it will certainly energize a huge sector in education devoted to the idea that free play is always better than higher standards, as well as the sector that believes that higher standards are very bad for those who are unable or unwilling to meet them.

Meanwhile, many students spend their time and effort playing games on the computer, hanging out in the mall, or working at a fast-food franchise to earn enough for pricey sneakers. It has been a long time since anyone set high expectations for the general run of students. The kids in the top-achieving groups are working as hard as anyone in China and experiencing enormous pressure to succeed, but our culture has been unwilling to expect more than basic skills from average students.

At bottom, we face the problem of our success. Too many American kids dream of growing up to be an entertainer or a sports star, neither of which is a realistic prospect. Too few dream of becoming an engineer or a teacher or a nurse or entering other lines of work that are needed and feasible. Too many have learned to get by with minimum effort, knowing that they will graduate high school and get into college -- if they wish -- with minimal effort.

The problem, which Kristof does not address, nor does Thomas Friedman in his best-selling book The World Is Flat, is that American youth are not hungry. Few of them would show up at school at 6:30 a.m. for extra tutoring, especially if they actually needed it. We have a unique challenge: What happens to a nation when many of its children expect that they will be okay without exerting any effort or hard work?