ZHEJIANG PROVINCE, China — Part I of II
On a recent Friday afternoon in this southern Chinese province, the fourth-graders at Bowen International School were sitting up straight, their arms neatly crossed in front of them, belting out 13th-century Chinese poems on the virtues of being polite, respecting their parents, and working hard in school.
David Xu sometimes worries when he considers the schools that his 6-year-old son will attend over the coming years. He knows the teachers will be dedicated, the students will work hard, and their young minds will be packed with knowledge.
But Xu knows something else: He wants his son to relax about school, discover his own talents and, most important, have fun.
“For me, as a parent, I worry about whether he has a good time in school,” Xu said. “A lot of kids carry a very heavy academic burden.” Xu said he would rather give his son a blank piece of paper and see what he draws than have him discouraged by getting the wrong answer on a test.
China’s schools have struck fear in the West with their relentless focus on subjects such as physics and math – areas where American students have struggled compared with other nations.
However, visits to dozens of schools in China and hundreds in the United States reveal that both countries love to hate their own schools, and live in awe of others’ strengths. While Americans revere the Chinese mastery of basic subjects such as math and geography, the Chinese extol the American emphasis on creativity and nurturing individual talent.
In the prosperous seaside region of Zhejiang, the situation’s changing, though, as entrepreneurs inject some of the country’s relatively new capitalist fervor into the schools. The result is a panoply of schools that comes close to resembling Milwaukee’s education scene in its diversity – hardly what one would expect to find in a Communist state.
Students attend fancy private schools focused on such non-academic subjects as kung fu martial arts. A fledgling school voucher program aims to give families more choices as well as strengthen alternative and private schools. Educators describe a shift toward more local control and creativity in teaching. And parents like Xu are closely examining their new options.
Quietly and gradually, China’s rigid, one-size-fits all education system is loosening up, particularly in more wealthy provinces such as Zhejiang. Part of this is because of the extraordinary growth in private schools over the last few years: The number of private-school students surged from 11.5 million to 21.7 million between 2002 and 2005, an enrollment growth of nearly 90%, according to government figures.
There’s a preliminary plan to bring together private and public school leaders from both China and the United States at a Milwaukee conference hosted by Marquette University that will look at their common challenges.
In Zhejiang, Xu is not the only parent seeking change. While Americans wonder how China can produce so many engineers, the Chinese wonder why, with so many engineers, they still cannot win a Nobel Prize.
“Many students here who can get good scores don’t have creativity, and they have no time to play,” said Sun Benfang, who, like Xu, has a son in kindergarten. “Maybe this explains why foreign people win the Nobel Prizes, but Chinese people don’t.”
Such competitive concerns are shaping education policies in both countries. In the United States, the prevailing push in the last several years has been toward more tests and a back-to-the-basics-style vigor, codified in the No Child Left Behind law of 2002.
Milwaukee may be known for its schooling choices – including every shape of public, private and charter school – but the most recent shift here is toward more uniformity and tests. At a set of lower-performing Milwaukee elementary schools this year, for instance, students have at least two hours a day of reading instruction and an hour a day of math by decree of the central administration. The time is much more focused and prescriptive than it has been in the past in terms of what is being taught, and how.
But in China, the buzz – and the new policies – are all about creativity, critical thinking, choice and privatization.
“The most important value of private education is that it presents more choices, and more varieties of education,” said Min Han, the deputy director general of the National Center for Education Development Research.
The recent trends reflect an economic alarm of sorts in both countries.
Americans look at the steady loss of jobs to China and wonder what their schools can do to curb the trend. Meanwhile, parents such as Sun and Xu look at the demands of China’s booming market economy. They realize that an entrepreneurial and independent spirit cannot be acquired at schools focused exclusively on rote memorization for exams.
Said Xu: “The exam system can only evaluate one part of a kid’s qualifications.”
Getting a kick out of school
No one could argue that the Huzhou Qingquan School of Martial Arts in northern Zhejiang Province focuses solely on exams.
One November afternoon at the private school, the students gather after lunch on the spacious hillside campus. In crisp red and white uniforms, groups of girls practice synchronized tai chi moves with brightly colored fans. Boys practice kung fu-style kicks and sword-fighting. The campus’ buildings are designed in the style of traditional Chinese temples, harkening back to a bygone era. The school’s founder, a former physical education teacher, sold his assets in the mid-1990s to start the school. He wanted to “pass traditional Chinese kung fu down to a younger generation.”
The high school students take academic subjects as well. But at least a couple of hours each day are devoted to kung fu skills. Many of the students go on to become security guards, police officers, recruits for the Chinese army, or even head off to a training camp in the United States for aspiring kung fu movie actors.
Fu Aifei, a 17-year-old boy at the school, and Xu Huan, a 17-year-old female student, both struggled at public elementary and middle schools, but excel at the kung fu school. “When I was in the public schools, I couldn’t get enough attention from the teacher because I wasn’t outstanding,” Xu said. “Here, as long as I work hard, the teacher will help.” Fu said he was “naughty” in middle school because he wasn’t interested in the classes, but his love for kung fu inspires him to stay focused at his new school.
Both students want to become police officers when they graduate. “I admire female police officers when they display kung fu in fighting,” Xu said, adding that her mother is eager for her to become a police officer so she will “know how the law works, and won’t make serious mistakes.”
Private schools booming
Private education largely disappeared from China after the Communists took control in the middle of the 20th century. But with the economic reforms and opening up of the 1980s and 1990s, private schools have spread like McDonald’s restaurants in some of the country’s booming cities.
Initially, the private schools appealed mostly to rich families whose children had been kicked out or flunked out of the public schools. But they are steadily inching more toward the mainstream, drawing families dissatisfied with the standard approach. The kung fu school even participates in a small voucher program sponsored by its county government. Any high school student at the school can get a small portion of his or her tuition paid by the local government, as part of an effort to promote vocational and private education in the region. And a few poor families can get a substantial chunk of their tuition covered.
The goal is to “encourage schools to compete with each other,” said Wu Hua, a professor at Zhejiang University who specializes in private education and vouchers. He said that goal has not been entirely realized because the poor families are usually allowed to choose only from a limited number of schools. But he’s optimistic that the system will become more flexible.
Min, the government expert on private education, said more needs to be done to clarify the role of private schools in the country. In particular, he said officials need to discuss how much profit entrepreneurs should be able to make from the programs. Many were started by businessmen who see the opportunity to make money, he said. Some public schools have been charging more and more tuition – until only the rich can afford them and they are public in name only.
But while many experts say the legal status of private schools needs to be clarified, no one doubts that they are in China to stay, or that their numbers will continue to grow.
“As the society becomes more and more free, the schools will do the same,” said Fengqiao Yan, a professor at Peking University near Beijing.
Period of adjustment
For some students, adjusting to the new freedom takes time. Liu Danning, a 17-year-old high school student at the Beijing Huijia Private School, studies a Western-style curriculum in preparation to attend college in the United States. “I don’t think I felt completely happy here in the beginning because I studied in the traditional Chinese way for more than 12 years,” he said.
At Huijia, Liu said, students can choose between focusing more on art, or math, or English, while in traditional Chinese schools they all take the exact same classes.
“Some students are very good in art,” Liu said. “But in public schools you only study math and physics. The classes are not based on their interests, they are based on the demands of parents and teachers.”
Liu wants to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh next year, and study finance. He had considered colleges in California, but his parents worried that the culture in that state was too free and preferred the “way East Coast people think and work and pay more attention to schools.”
The Mao family in Shanghai sought out alternative options for their two sons, partly because they “didn’t want our children to be like us, all work, with no childhood for them, no memories,” said Shiann Mao, the father. But they drew the line after visiting the Shanghai American School. “The kids wore more daring dress,” he said. “They dyed their hair. We like a more strict dress code and think it’s important during school to follow the rules.”
For Moonlight Ayibanu, an 18-year-old senior at Ningbo High School in Zhejiang, all the private schools in the world will not change some of the fundamental characteristics of Chinese schools: uniformity, discipline and structure. “I think the education here suits us,” she said. “It’s good for us, and the American education is good for the Americans.”