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Education in U.S. and China: What’s the difference?

There’s no ignoring that China, with a population exceeding 1 billion people as well as burgeoning economic capabilities, is a force to be reckoned with.

There’s no ignoring that China, with a population exceeding 1 billion people as well as burgeoning economic capabilities, is a force to be reckoned with. Throw in the fact their kids too often score better in math and science than students in the United States and what does not make sense about getting Minnesota and Chinese educators together?    

Forty-nine principals from all over China made a cross-global trek to meet last  week with Minnesota educators in the first-ever U.S.-China Principals’ Summit hosted by the University of Minnesota’s China Center and the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, among others.

The four-day event, also sponsored by the Beijing-based China-American Education Foundation, was a conversation about the commonalities and differences in each nation’s system of schooling their children.

Education is “their number one priority and their number one fiscal commitment. They are intentionally focusing on becoming a world leader in first-rate education. We need to collaborate with China and we need to keep them a close educational partner,” explained Joann Knuth, executive director of the principals’ group.

There is also Chinese students’ widely recognized academic reputation, said Youngwei Zhang, director of the center. “They outscore their counterparts in many countries in math and science. These are things we need to know about so our students can do better,” he said.

For instance, MinnPost reported last December on recent Program for International Student Assessment, a.k.a. PISA, scores where students in Hong Kong and Singapore outperformed American high school students.

The forum benefits University officials as well, Zhang said, since the University has the largest population of students from China of any U.S. campus. Currently, about 2.5 percent of the University’s student body is international students, and the intent is to double that number. He estimates the U received about 800 student applications from China.

Though international differences in education approaches are difficult to swallow in one big gulp, I asked two educators, Knuth, and Chin Yi (Chin is his family name), to share their initial reactions to the summit.

Chin, who is director of international programs from the Middle School attached to Hunan Normal University, and spoke in English, had this to say. 

He praised the American educational system’s “creativity.” “One of the first things that attract me is the creative spirits I found in the American high school teachers and students.  We often found that American high school students are very creative, although the Chinese kids have a solid academic foundation, they lack the creative spirit,” he said.  

The American system seems more open to new ideas and innovation, he said, with China having a “unified curriculum.”

In addition, China attaches great importance to academics, Chin said, claiming more than 95 percent of its students graduate from high school – much exceeding U.S. rates.

“Also, I like to point out China is attaching great significance to education by the parents. You say the involvement. In China there is no problem in parent’s involvement,” he said.

Knuth, who also represents Minnesota at the National Association of Secondary school Principals in Washington, D.C., shared these thoughts:

“I was very intrigued by China’s commitment to education. Education is their number one priority.” For instance, they talked about a 10- year education reform program where they expect to establish 110 key universities and how they are investing $2 billion in poly-technical colleges, what Americans call technical or vocational schools, she said. 

“This is an extraordinary commitment. When you think about their population and the impact it will have on global education, it’s amazing.”

However, China recognizes the need to reform some cultural aspects of their kindergarten through 12th-grade system, she said. “Right now it’s very intense.” She talked to a Carleton College student from China at the conference who told her Chinese students regularly spend 10 to 12 hours a day in “intensive study.”

What the Chinese are looking to infuse into their education system from the American system is innovation. “[Chinese] students are very good at rote learning, but the idea is to learn concepts and then be able to think about, analyze and create new. That is not the cultural pattern in their schools,” Knuth said.

It was 1972 when Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China, thus opening the door to normal relations with the Communist nation. The U’s China Center has worked since 1979 to encourage understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese people and cultures.