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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to send your child to school in China?

April 22, 2018

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At some point in the school saga of every parent with a child in Mandarin immersion, the stray thought goes through their brain; “I wonder what it would be like to have my kid in school in China? Could they hack it? Would it be all that different from what things are like in our school?”

Hard to know if you (or your child) could hack it, but here’s a definite answer on the last one: It would be so very, very, different.

We know this in part because of a book that came out recently, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese school, and the global race to achieve by Lenora Chu.

Chu is a free-lance American journalist who’s working in Shanghai. Her husband is Rob Schmitz, NPR’s Shanghai correspondent. When their son reached school age, they decided to put him in the local (and very highly regarded) school.

Chu and her husband speak Mandarin, which made the placement possible, but even so the cultural clash was astounding. Many U.S. parents worry that the Chinese-raised teaches in their children’s immersion classes are “too Chinese.” But frankly, reading Chu’s book, it’s impossible to even compare the two.

Kids in U.S. immersion schools don’t memorize poems about the glories of communism. Or have their teachers stuff scrambled egg in their mouths at lunch time for days on end after they say they don’t like eggs. Or humiliate students who do poorly on tests. Or demand bribes from parents to keep their students doing well.

In fact, Chu’s son is no longer in the Chinese school system because when their second child reached school age, they hadn’t properly bribed the school and so he wasn’t granted a coveted seat in the same high-scoring school his brother attended. Think about that next time you complain about the school lottery in your district…

It’s a fascinating book, with a lot of information about how China’s educational system works. My take away is that the grinding, demanding memorization and rote learning-laden educational culture of China results in a lot of hard working, science- and math-capable students.

On the other hand, it means that a lot of students fall through the cracks. Students who in a more fluid system (like in the United States) would probably flourish and go on to do great things.

That said, China’s system is in many ways the way it is because it had to educate hundreds of millions of students at low cost. China has the largest education system in the world, with almost 260 million students and over 15 million teachers in about 514,000 schools.

Compare that with the United States. In 2017, about 50.7 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools and another 5.2 million were in  private schools.

China is also a much poorer country, so it’s educating more than four times as many children on much less money.

I once had a Chinese parent tell me that the educational system in China is harsh and that “we break some students along the way, but we have lots, so it’s okay.”

If you’ve ever thought about what school was like for your children’s teachers (if they grew up in China) or other families in your school, Chu’s book offers a fascinating look into a very different system. It’s not one I would willingly put my children in, I must say – and I’m accused of being a Tiger Mom a lot (though truth be told it’s usually my own kids who are doing the accusing.)

It’s also helpful if you haven’t spent time in China and are trying to understand the motivation of Chinese-educated parents in your school. The system they went through is demanding and leaves so little leeway for error. They quite naturally can sometimes feel as if our system is far too loosey-goosey.

The SAT’s may seem daunting, but once you’ve read about the gaokao in China, one test that basically determines the entire course of a person’s life, it will seem like a summer camp in comparison.

Chu’s book is interesting and a pretty fast read. I recommend it.

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