Chinese Education Puts America to the Test

The U.S. education system is in desperate need of reform and at risk of losing its advantage to China and other countries, experts say.

SAT reading scores have fallen to a record low and other scores also fall short when pitted against those of international students. Such performance has prompted worries among education leaders that the United States is losing ground to other countries when it comes to educating its students, and will soon lose its coveted spot as the world leader in education.

The country’s top teacher, National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer, traveled to China in August to study the country’s education system and meet with education experts. Shearer does not speak Mandarin and she had never visited China, but she described an instant connection to teachers she met in Beijing.

“We all spoke the language of teaching,” said Shearer, who worked through an interpreter. “We share the same concern and our primary goal is the success of our students.”

By at least one measure, Chinese students have been more successful than their U.S. peers. The most recent international standardized test — the PISA – ranked Chinese students first in reading, science and math. U.S. students came out somewhere in the middle.

Part of the problem is a system that fails to help students reach their full potential, education experts say.

“It’s a cookie-cutter system that is not allowing our students to move forward,” White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes said.

But when Shearer visited China, Chinese teachers were eager to learn more about U.S. education. China, Shearer said, was looking to the United States for inspiration.

“They would say, ‘Wow our students are so focused on tests, your students have electives and your students can take both vocational and academic courses,’” Shearer said. “They were very, very intrigued by the different options we offer our students.”

China’s education system is focused on testing. High school students spend nearly a full year studying for a national college entrance exam. Failing or scoring poorly on it drives many students to repeat their final year of high school.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the United States has a competitive edge over China and many other countries, but questions for how long.

“These other countries are innovating, they are investing, they are not scaling back opportunity, they are increasing opportunity leaps and bounds,” Duncan said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

The jobs of the future, he continued, “are going to go to the countries that are producing the knowledge workers that can succeed in the global competitive economy.”

Shearer of Urbana High School in Frederick, Md., found evidence of China’s monetary commitment to education during her visit.

“They’re offering full scholarships to talented students in exchange for a 10-year commitment to teaching in China,” Shearer said.

In the United States, teachers are facing harsh backlash in some parts of the country, most noticeably in Wisconsin, where state lawmakers sought steep budget cuts to education, and attempted to strip the teachers unions of bargaining rights.

Shearer said she often meets people who view teaching as a back-up plan, or a second choice, an outlook that does not help students or educators.

“I define myself as a career classroom teacher. I decided to be a teacher, I chose to be a teacher, and I continue to choose to be a teacher with almost 15 years of experience,” said Shearer, who graduated from Princeton with a degree in chemistry.

One thing the United States does that China does not, Shearer said, is attempt to educate every single student. Teachers in China were shocked to discover that the Maryland teacher learned sign language to teach deaf students chemistry.

“We are taking on a task that I’m not sure other countries are in terms of diversity,” Shearer said.

Shearer says it is unfair to compare America’s education system to China’s, or any other country’s, although there is a lot to be gained from learning and exchanging ideas. Her international trips are paid for by a global education travel group. Shearer will travel to Japan next month to study its education system.