Shanghai surprise: Who teaches kids better, U.S. or them?

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Four months after Lenora Chu and her family arrived in Shanghai from the United States in 2010, Shanghai high-schoolers placed top in the world in math, reading, and science. America landed somewhere in the middle of the pack of about 70 countries.

As a mom, a reporter, and the American-born child of Chinese immigrants making a giant reverse commute, it seemed she had come to the real land of opportunity.

Chu, a Columbia Journalism School grad, saw a grand schooling story unfolding. She spent the next seven years examining not just her young son’s education, but the whole Chinese educational system, comparing it with her own American upbringing and what’s happening in our schools today. Far from declaring China the winner — or America — she’s come down in favor of mix-’n-matching, as she explains in her new book, “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve.”

“A lot of upsides can obviously be downsides,” she said on a recent trip to New York. “This book is the story of an American family that landed in China in a very extreme environment that prompted me to reflect.”

How extreme? Well, that’s the stuff that gets a lot of negative publicity. In China, education is not a touchy-feely thing.

“It’s a sorting mechanism — you advance to the next level of schooling based on a test score,” said Chu. And so, from the get-go, the teachers are very strict. One day, her preschooler came home from school with shiny red star stuck to his forehead.

“What do you get a red star for?” she asks in the book. “Do you get it if you run fast?”

Her son, Rainey, laughed as if that was the most ridiculous thing ever. He got it, of course, for sitting still.

Chu was outraged. Her son was just three!

“Why do you sit? Do they make you sit at school? Do you have to sit?” Her husband, National Public Radio’s China correspondent Rob Schmitz, said it sounded as if she was asking, “Are your human rights being violated?”

But learning to sit still doesn’t violate any U.N. conventions. And neither did what happened next. Rainey told his mom that four times that day he had found egg in his mouth — the food he detested most. How did it get there, Chu asked? The teacher put it in, because eggs are an important food. Three times he cried and spit it out. The fourth time, he swallowed.

And today? I asked Chu.

“He likes eggs.”

He’s also bilingual and has learned some of the lessons American kids — or, let’s put it bluntly, my own kids — did not get in public school, like knowing the multiplication tables by heart.

“I hate the word ‘rote,’ ” said Chu as we spoke in a Midtown hotel. “It’s just memorization of basic knowledge and repeated practice. A lot of research supports that as foundational to learning.”

It’s possible that in bending over backward to make math and other subjects relatable, or “discovery-based,” we forgot that discoveries depend on leaping forward from a base of knowledge. That base can be memorized for easy access.

Chu contrasts the Shanghai education her son was getting with an alternative school in California where there are no grades, punishments, or rewards. That kind of school, she said, would never exist in China. Of course, it barely exists in America, either.

“But the narrative is that these kids will become the bosses of the kids in China,” she said.

And they may. While there’s a lot to be said for memorization, there’s also a lot to be said for cultivating curiosity and a love of learning, instead of literally force-feeding it.

In China, Chu said, “If you ask most Chinese parents, ‘How’s little Ming doing?’ They’ll say, ‘He’s eighth in math, ninth in Chinese, and 28th in physics. Out of 489 students, he’s number 87 in his grade.’ So it’s a culture that measures value based on numbers.”

It is that way for a reason: The top-scoring students go on to the top schools and get the top jobs. It’s straightforward. And that, Chu added, is why so many Chinese students are coming to study in America. They want a different, less-regimented kind of education.

Chu sees a value to the strict education her son is getting there, but perhaps because it is balanced with summers in America. When she dropped him off at a camp here in the states, she overheard him asking the other kids about their test scores.

“The reaction was pretty muted,” she said.

He quickly switched over to talk about baseball. There’s a kid who is getting a real education.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday morning on

Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”

Updated 5:54 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Nicky from Brooklyn Heights says:
This is why the Chinese are so advanced! I mean they are the world leaders in knock-off handbags, MSG rich food, and sweatshop labor! Clearly we're envious! Who wouldn't want to live like an average Chinese person? They also can really focus on school when their government censors the internet for them, blocking all sorts of interesting distractions!
Oct. 8, 2017, 7:25 am
SCR from Realityville says:
What I have consistently noticed during my nearly 60-years of life,is virtually all of those,who advocate total freedom and total non-competition;amongst humankinds,have much higher incomes than average. They also, for whatever it is worth?,have much higher educational levels;than most of us. Also,no one advocates or demands"Charter Schools",when the local public schools are doing their jobs. Finally,resistance to student testing,is mostly due to two opposing factors. Parents object to testing, because they know their children,very likely will do poorly. Individual public schools or entire school-districts,also fear such poor testing performances. Admittedly,in some cases,parents oppose these standardized tests,because they know their kids are above the levels of intelligence;the tests measures.
Oct. 8, 2017, 10:57 am
Homey from Crooklyn says:
Chinese schools don't tolerate chimpouts
Oct. 10, 2017, 11:29 am
Hello says:
Their education system produces the best sweatshop workers - who were never spoiled with love, Independent thinking, or creativity! There's a reason that America develops iPhones, and China builds them. Their schools are like the school in "The Wall".
Oct. 11, 2017, 2:39 am
Michael from Bay Ridge says:
In China, children of migrant workers are not allowed to attend school after 9th grade. China only allows rankings based on schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau. They also consistently score lower on reading PISA tests than the US (even with only a small sub-section of their population being tested). The Chinese system is based on exclusion and force. You cannot force a child to learn, but you can force them to return results. Clearly the Chinese system does not produce richer, happier, or more inovative people. Despite having a population over 3 times the United States, their economy is not as large in abstract figures. Chinese students want to come en masse to American Universities and schools, but the reverse is not seen. To think that the Chinese system is superior requires seeing the world through a restricted kalidescope.
As a previous commenter mentioned, China's biggest contribution is producing the goods developed in other countries (mainly US, Japan, and Germany). For their size, they have yet to contribute anything significant in terms of innovation in modern times. Education is not an end unto itself - it is supposed to enable the use of knowledge for betterment. China's educational system does not seem to lead to this.
Oct. 11, 2017, 7:42 am

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