U.S. must match China in classroom

January 18, 2011


Chinese President Hu Jintao is coming to Washington amid much gnashing of teeth over whether Chinese power is growing as U.S. might wanes.

The Chinese military clearly feels empowered. Beijing has gotten more aggressive with Japan and Southeast Asian nations over claims to disputed territory. China has also failed to rein in its ally, nuclear-armed North Korea, whose bizarre behavior threatens the region.

Moreover, just before Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates arrived in Beijing last week in hopes of improving ties with Chinese military officials, China test-flew a stealth fighter jet, clearly proclaiming its new muscle.

Yet, if we are concerned about competition from China, we should look beyond Beijing’s growing military — and economic — might. Far better to focus on China’s progress, and our lag, in educating our future work force. That’s where the real Chinese challenge lies.

After all, despite China’s military growth, its Asian overreach is pushing its neighbors to ally more closely with Washington. And despite the current recession, the U.S. economy is still powerful and innovative. But we are failing to produce the educated manpower we need to compete in a globalized world.

Notable scores

Consider this: In 2009, a representative sample of students from Shanghai outscored their counterparts from 65 countries in reading, math, and science in a respected test given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of the world’s 34 leading industrial powers. The United States scored 17th in reading, 29th in math, and 23rd in science.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the New York Times.

True, there are problems in comparing a cross-section of 15-year-olds from China’s most highly developed city, population 20 million, with broader samples from other entire countries, including the United States. Yet the results — which OECD administrators say they believe were legitimate — should still jolt us. They reflect a Chinese culture of education that stresses long classroom hours and far less time spent on extracurricular activities.

If the Chinese can produce these results in Shanghai, it’s obvious they can reproduce them in many more cities in coming decades.

Motivated students

I saw the product of China’s educational drive when I spoke with students in May on the campus of Beijing’s Tsinghua University — the Chinese equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among them were a future biologist, economist, journalist and engineer.

What struck me was their self-confidence and optimism, and their awareness of the world. They all spoke excellent English; some wanted to do graduate work in the United States, but all said they would return home for their careers.

These students saw education as a path to wealth in China’s materialistic society. But many also said they studied to fulfill the expectations of their parents, who had sacrificed much to put them through school and university. They saw this as a filial duty in a culture that traditionally has put a high value on education.

The Chinese model, which produces stressed-out students and still involves much rote learning, may not fit here. But its rigor provides a sharp contrast to a U.S. system that is failing to produce the educated workforce we need to compete globally.

“A generation ago,” Duncan writes in Foreign Affairs, “the United States had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Now, it ranks fifth among developed nations and is tied for ninth … among those aged 25-34.”

Dismal U.S. statistics

The statistics for high school education are even more dismal: About one-fourth of U.S. ninth- graders fail to graduate secondary school within four years, Duncan says. Among the 34 OECD countries, only Mexico, Spain, Turkey, and New Zealand have higher dropout rates than the United States does.

And when it comes to fluency in foreign languages — which is vital for a globally competitive workforce — the U.S. system is a loser. In Europe, students start learning foreign languages in kindergarten. As for China, some studies project it will soon have the largest number of English speakers in the world among its population, if India doesn’t get there first.

Of course, the United States has many excellent public and private high schools, and still has the world’s best universities. But economic pressures are driving our cities and states to slash budgets for schools and colleges, just as China pours funds into its universities to make them world-class and draw the best talent from abroad.

And it gets worse. This year, says Duncan, China will award more doctorates in engineering and the sciences than any other country. Until this year, that distinction was held by the United States.

So, when Hu visits Washington, members of Congress should focus at least as much on China’s brainpower as on its military power. If they want to compete with Beijing, they should consider the funding of math, science, and language teaching, and of basic research at universities, to be as important as funding military hardware.

And they, along with President Obama, should come up with new ways to inspire students and parents about the value of education. Chinese parents and students revere education in a way that too many of our adults and young people no longer do.

Sputnik moment?

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” President Obama told a college audience in North Carolina in December, referring to the Soviet Union’s surprise 1957 launching of a satellite that spurred an explosion of U.S. investment in math and science teaching. This is a theme he probably will stress in his State of the Union address.

Yet too few Americans remember Sputnik, which occurred when the country was still able to unite around common goals. And fewer still are familiar with those shocking OECD stats about Shanghai.

Those figures should jolt us. The nations with the best-educated workers will lead the global economy. China gets it. Obama gets it. But unless Congress and the rest of us get it, China will roll past us no matter how many missiles we build.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


usnsnp 6 years, 11 months ago

Yes our education system needs some fixes. But a few facts, Head of Shanghai school system said that most of their learning was done by rote, and that critical thinking needed to be taught. China only submitted Shanghai school system to the tests not the whole country, if they had they would not have faired very well. As for the number of Doctorates in Engineering whey awarded remember China has a population of about 1.4 billion what was the percent of the population that received these Doctorates compared to the rest of the world. I am not underatating their accomplishments, but the whole picture has to be looked at not just the point the writer wants to push.

Yea our system needs to be improved, but we need to look at what other countries are doing, longer school hours, less days off, making teachers a profession ranked with doctors and lawyers, better pay, less school boards, national curriculum, educators in charge of school boards not lay people, etc. What we need is, doing what is going to help the students and not what personnal agenda we are trying to push.

tomatogrower 6 years, 11 months ago

I"m curious if they educate all their kids? Do they use inclusion for special ed students? I do agree that we have an anti-education attitude in the US, the kids and many parents. You get parents who complain about homework, because they have their kids enrolled in sports or other activities. We didn't have that growing up.

seriouscat 6 years, 11 months ago

If we are going to step up the bad habit of running our education system on the model that screwed it up in the first place (better catch up with those Russians!)....I foresee homeschooling becoming even more popular in our near future.


George Lippencott 6 years, 11 months ago

Department of Education data shows that in 1950 the average per pupil expenditures for K-12 was $260. Using the BLS inflation calculator $260 in 1950 equals $2,350 in 2010. According to the Department of Education the per pupil expenditures for K-12 in Kansas in 2009 was $9800. The US average is about $10K. Median US Income is just over $70K while Kansas comparative is $67K So we are just about right on the money for what the rest of the nation is doing despite several years of slower growth

Could we have our priiorities wrong? Could the return on the investment in a technical path be too low? Do we place too much emphasis on sports? The article seems to suggest that the students in China have different motivations - should we change ours?

modernserf 6 years, 10 months ago

One huge problem with these stories:

High school education in China is NOT compulsory, meaning that those who can not compete go to work in the sweat shop at 12. The only test scores used in China are from secondary schools, which most Chinese don't attend.

Get back to me when China has to educate each and every child, not just the smart ones....In this country we have to educate all until adulthood, not just until we see fit. If China was responsible for educating each and every child, like we are here, the results would be drastically different.

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