East Meets West in the Classroom

ByABC News via via logo

Oct. 4, 2005 — -- Carol Wang and Emily Ellenberger live 7,000 miles apart, but the teenagers share many similarities. Both are focused, determined, sociable, determined and computer-savvy. Yet once the school bell rings, the differences between the two college-bound students' educations are striking.

Carol's school in China is sharply focused on math and sciences. In one day she takes math, two physics classes and three chemistry classes. In Emily's school in Maryland, interest in these subjects is dwindling.

Much of Emily's school time is active -- oral exams, lab work and yearbook. In China, Carol's teachers deliver rote lectures, a style known as tianya, the Chinese word for force-feeding a duck.

Emily leaves the classroom for field hockey practice at 2:10 p.m., while Carol sits at her desk for another two hours, interrupted only by a class in physical education.

But at the end of the day, which student is smarter? Which system will produce the most successful generation of young adults?

The answers are debatable, but there is no denying Chinese motivation in the fields of math and science. In China, almost 40 percent of students study engineering, and more are entering the field. By contrast, only about 5 percent of American students currently major in engineering, and those numbers have been on the decline for the last 15 years.

"I think that science education has sort of been spinning its wheels in America," said Howard Putterman, a biology teacher at Quince Orchard High School, Emily's school. "I have at least 15 to 20 kids a year who flat out tell me, 'Science isn't my thing. I don't like it. I'm not good at it.' "

More and more Chinese students are learning English. In cities, young people pick up American slang from MTV China; soon every Chinese student will study English beginning in the third grade.

But while these students are learning English, they are not using their new language skills to find jobs in foreign countries.

Wu Liang goes to Yale University, but looks forward to moving back to China after graduation. When asked if that is because of his economic potential in China, he answered, "Pretty much. The opportunities. Like make money."

Soon Carol and Emily will be going to college. Carol wants to study biology; Emily wants to play field hockey, and perhaps major in business or interior design.

Carol's parents believe Emily's freedom of choice may ultimately give her an advantage.

"American kids are more independent than Chinese kids," said Carol's father, Qun Wang. "They have their own opinion, and they're quicker to adapt to society when they grow up."

New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman agrees ... to an extent.

"It's really good that we're nurturing creative people," he said. "But if you're nurturing creative people, and I drive from downtown Washington to Bethesda and my cell phone goes out three times because we don't have the broadband infrastructure that Ghana has, that's a problem.

"In China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. The problem is that in America, Britney Spears is Britney Spears."

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