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UPDATED: August 8, 2014 NO. 43 OCTOBER 24, 2013
Who's Learning From Whom?
A look at Chinese-American education from opposite sides of the fence
By Josef Gregory Mahoney

As history teaches us, societies often pass each other like ships in the night, each headed in the opposite direction, each aiming for the opposite shore, each unaware of how close they came to each other as they moved toward their goals. In some respects, this seems to be happening with education reform in the United States and China. Often, such reforms have unintended results or, more precisely, unintended consequences. For example, one widely recognized, but unstated aim of NCLB, is to create a new math and science culture in th e United States that can lead, ultimately, to an increase in the number of students graduating with university degrees in those fields. Because American universities have become much more market-driven in the last two decades, and because there is robust market demand for math and science graduates currently being met by Chinese and Indian graduates, policymakers hoped NCLB would fundamentally transform an educational culture that was perceived as being soft and overly focused on the humanities.

In fact, numerous changes have occurred at American universities since NCLB's implementation, most coming as the first cohort of students educated under the new policy began pursuing higher education. Unfortunately, many of the changes have not been positive. There is increasing evidence to suggest that new students are more exam-focused, less creative and critical in their thinking and writing, and less likely to debate among themselves or with their professors. Before NCLB, university classrooms were often raucous places where professors employed the Socratic method and others engaging techniques, and where students arrived girded for a battle of wits. Increasingly, American students simply want to know what they need to know for tests. For the most part, they do not question, or do so only for clarification purposes. In sum, American university classrooms have become a lot like Chinese equivalents.

There is much debate in China today regarding higher education. To a certain extent, many Chinese still deeply admire American universities while criticizing their own; and while this is not necessarily unwarranted, indeed, there are still many areas for improvement in Chinese institutions, with the impression most have of U.S. institutions as being fundamentally superior is increasingly passé. To be sure, there is still a larger number of top ranked universities in the United States, but given rising standards, investment and reform, several Chinese universities are now ranked in the top 50 globally, with others rising quickly. Interestingly, there are now two types of Chinese students who seek university admission in the United States: Those who believe American schools offer better education, and those who know it is now easier to gain admission to a top school in the United States than in China.

As discussions of proposed changes to Chinese primary schools continue, and as policies are finalized and implemented by the Ministry of Education, many are already thinking about how such reforms might ultimately impact Chinese universities and the national education level as a whole. Will such reforms lead to a more humanistic society? Will they help foster more innovation and creativity? Will they help usher in a new era of educational justice?

Of course, it is too soon to know if this round of reforms will be more successful than the last. Nevertheless, as both policymakers and parents seem to agree, and as both Chinese and American educators meet to exchange ideas, it is a good time to rethink education in China, while the same is true for the United States.

But as we've already noticed, my daughter has a bit more time this semester to chat with her cousin, a third grader in California, who conversely, seems to have less time and more homework than ever before.

The author is associate professor of politics, East China Normal University; research fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, and assistant editor of U.S.-based Journal of Chinese Political Science

Email us at: liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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