The western world watches China's rise as a formidable world-power with a mixture of awe and apprehension. Sci-fi films depict a futuristic world where Baidu.com is the new Google and Mcdonalds has been replaced by Grandma Wang's Dumpling Emporium. And yet again Shanghai is number one on the Programme for International Student Assessment's (Pisa) 2012 ranking list of international education, and the US is once again at a low rank, this time 36th place. The US is desperate, and naturally the Chinese educational system seems like an answer. But let me tell you – this is not the case. I know; for two years I attended a local Shanghainese high school and this is the truth: they are terrible.
The biggest problem with Chinese education? It's medieval. Shanghainese education is just like the stories my grandmother tells about high school in the 1940's. Footage of military parades in Fascist Italy share an unnerving resemblance to the morning assemblies from my school in Shanghai. Chinese education would be a poison for America, not a remedy.
The problem is that there are too many Chinese students. Shanghainese classrooms have about 40 students and in the countryside classes have over 60. The most efficient way to organize all these children is by testing, categorizing and grading them – Chinese education is essentially elitist. Students that excel in school are rewarded with prizes and encouragement, but struggling students are abandoned. I once served as a translator for the principal of my school when seven Swedish principals came to visit Shanghai. The Swedes asked what the school did for students with "special needs" and the principal answered:
The special students who are doing well in class? We make sure to put a lot of focus on them.
This Chinese principal didn't understand the concept of special needs, and neither does the Chinese educational system.
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A major reason why certain students do poorly in China is that their skills are ignored. Creativity and critical thinking are seen as objects of western frivolousness. Although Chinese students analyze literature, they never write essays and instead they simply memorize the texts. I have never memorized so much in my life as I did in Shanghai. The ideal Shanghainese student is like a sea sponge blindly absorbing any and all information and spewing it all out during the tests. The system in the US is not ideal – nobody can call the SAT a platform for creativity – but the American system does at least encourage questions and tries to make students into critical thinkers. If there are Chinese students with a critical mind, they are almost always self-taught.
The Chinese educational system produces millions of test-taking experts. The culmination of this test-taking mania is the Gaokao, the national university entrance exam. Much like the SAT, these exams give you a certain amount of points and these points correspond to the university you may attend. In 2006, a record high 9.5 million students took these tests. All three years of high school are devoted to the exams, and teachers refer to them continually.
In the last year the entire senior grade is usually sent off to another campus to make sure that they are not distracted from their study by social life. Many of my friends agree that the test is useless – the calculus problems and memorized literature will not be of any use in the future – but they have no choice. This is the way the system works, and to succeed in life they have to follow it.
So obviously when the Shanghainese students have a Pisa test placed in front of them, they complete it without having to think twice. Chinese children have been taking tests since the arrival of their milk teeth. The system breeds Pisa champions, but it also ruins young lives.
Should America follow China? Absolutely not, so stop the rumors. American education isn't perfect, but while following Shanghai might mean higher Pisa scores, it would be disastrous for the nation's children and its future.