In China, kindergarten is not compulsory, although the Ministry of Education is working to make it much more accessible. Education is mandatory through only junior high equating to roughly 9 years of schooling.
Margot Landman, the director of a teacher exchange program for the National Committee on United States - China Relations, said that the mandatory schooling doesn't reach all of China's children.
"Theoretically, there is a nine-year compulsory education system, but that's not the practice in inland, rural, mountainous China, the poor parts in the country. Even in urban areas, children of migrant workers don't have educational opportunities," Landman said. "We tend to forget when we look at booming Shanghai that there is still a huge amount of poverty in China."
For the students who do make it to school, there is still one standard curriculum, although schools and provinces have some autonomy in which textbooks to use. School is no longer officially six days a week, it's five.
Landman described Chinese children as "extremely disciplined students...extraordinarily motivated to learn in ways that our kids aren't."
Landman, who was one of the first American teachers to teach in China after it gained diplomatic recognition in the late 70s, said that even though classes have been reduced to five days a week, students are constantly studying.
Compared with U.S. students, Chinese students spend at least 41 more days a year in the classroom. They average 30 percent more hours of instruction every year than American students do.
American students also spend far more time watching television and playing games. One study showed that American kids spend 7.5 hours on entertainment, television and games, far more than Chinese kids are allowed.
At one school that ABC News visited, its evident that children know education is everything. Third grade children stopped twice a day to use ancient acupressure techniques to relax their eyes and muscles.
One major subject students must master: English. The number of people learning English in China is greater than the population of the United States. It's mandatory that students start learning English by third grade.
In some nursery schools, three-year-old children may start learning a few songs in English.
Education has grown more expensive in China because parents often pay for supplemental classes on Saturdays or during summer breaks. Even though most schools are public, parents often pay for uniforms, materials, lunch and books, Landman said.
For students on a college track, parents are expected to shell out thousands of yuan to send their kids to senior high school and college since those are not part of the mandated curriculum.
When students reach pre-college classes, preparation for the gaokao becomes all consuming.
"Nothing else is considered in the college application process, so if you have a bad day or happen to be a person who doesn't test well, tough luck. That's a huge amount of pressure and it means that much of secondary education is geared to that exam," Landman said. "The Chinese will say over and over that their education system doesn't allow creativity."