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