Chinese and American K-12 compared

From the Atlantic:

You cannot really understand a culture without knowing how it educates the children.  American reporting on China includes virtually nothing about elementary education.  If not for annual stories about the gao kao exams, there would be hardly any education reporting.

Another article:

Same (thing) happened some years ago in Taiwan.

Teachers wanted to focus more on student health so tried to increase time spent on PE.

The experiment ended when parents forced teachers to stop wasting time on PE, and to get back to preparing for the Gao Kao (Lien Kao in Taiwan).

Any understanding of Chinese culture has to begin with how a “repeat after me” education focused entirely on objective tests affects communication skills, analytic thinking, teamwork, creativity, imagination and initiative.

A common story throughout the world is a move towards what might be called “progressive education” and a fairly frequent reaction against that move, and a return to the way things were.  A pendulum.


Using math as an example, in Chinese education, basic calculation skills are crucial so that students can remember an entire concept. From elementary school through high school, Chinese students are not allowed to use calculators. Chinese education focuses on strictness and precision, which improves retention. American education focuses on improving student assuredness, self-determination, and independence, which aids in comprehensive thinking.

Most of the Chinese believe that Americans’ math is not the best. In comparing Chinese vs. American school approaches, one can easily understand why Chinese students get gold medals in Math Olympics Competitions, but Nobel Prize winners are often Americans.

I’m not sure I agree here.

One, how the top 0.01% performs is perhaps not the greatest indicator of anything.  The genius kids are probably often not even getting the traditional instruction.  It’s more interesting to grasp how the typical kid does when we’re contrasting systems.  Although I will concede that this is an American type of viewpoint: many people think an education system is precisely measured by how many superstars it produces, and how the 50th percentile kid does is not that important.

Second, many American educators lament precisely that math instruction does not particularly promote independent thinking….a typical public school class here is often just a diluted, less rigorous, less strict class but taught in the same traditional style as the Chinese.

And this:

In the U.S, 1st through 8th grades are labeled by years (For example: “I’m in 7th grade”) and high school and college classes are arranged as “freshman”, “sophomore”, “junior”, and “senior.” China has each class named according to rank in their educational subgroup. Seventh grade is known as 初一, eighth is 初二, and ninth 初三. (“一”,”二”, and “三” is “one,” “two”, and “three” in Chinese.) Upper-Secondary School and Post-Secondary education (so for example, twelfth grade is called 高三 and second year in college called 大二).

While it’s common for high school or even middle school students in America to hustle about to their next class when the bell rings, in China your instructor is the one that comes to you.

While teenagers in the US are graded holistically based on a multitude of factors—extracurricular activities, volunteer practices, GPA, SAT or ACT test scores, essays, potential contribution to college environment—students in China are mostly graded on a standardized national exam.

The truth is a little more complicated and less flattering.  Universities in the USA divide students first by pulling out kids from very wealthy or prominent families, and scholarship athletes, into their own pools.  Next candidates are sorted by race in nontransparent ways (to comply with legal rules), with “soft” targets for each group, as we’ve learned in the lawsuit against Harvard University. It seems clear that Chinese passport holders, for example, are compared to other Chinese passport holders, with a pretty set number of how many will be accepted.

Next, high school GPA and SAT/ACT are used to form a basic ranking within each subcategory.  Only after that are “holistic” evaluations done.  Sure, a candidate who is ranked at the 94th percentile in her category might vault ahead of another in the 97th percentile, whether for a worthy reason (teacher recommendation says “Best student I’ve ever had in 30 years”) or an unworthy one (parents are alumni).  But it’s not like a student with a great track record of volunteering in the community can vault from the 70th to win admission over someone at the 97th percentile.

And this from 2007:

Chinese education is built on what Americans call “looping“.  The teachers of the students in the entering class will also follow their same students to the next grade level and the next.  In America, it is very unusual for teachers to move with their students from one grade level to the next at the middle school or high school level let alone to loop for the entire period of time the student is in that school. 

At the primary school level, students begin in grade one with a teacher and stay with that teacher every year they are in primary school.  My university students reflect on that teacher as being so very important to them that they really didn’t want to leave them when it was time to go to middle school. 

Another significant structural difference between American and Chinese schools is the concept of head teacher or “banzhuren“. The banzhuren takes additional responsibility in delivering instruction, supervising their specific class of students, and in knowing their students and the families of the students and in communicating with those families. 

For less than 200 yuan per month more, the banzhuren will arrive at school prior to 7:00 a.m. to prepare for the day and to work with early arriving students.  The student day at the middle school ends at 4:55 and the teachers leave shortly after that.  The banzhuren will not only teach her specific class that she is in charge of but will also sit in on many other subjects throughout the day so she can monitor the progress of her students with other teachers, counsel her students, and contact the parents of those students if necessary.  The banzhuren will monitor her class during lunch and nap with them after lunch. 

One banzhuren told me that she is like a mother to those students who don’t have the parental support they need.  In addition, at Liaoning Normal University Junior Middle School (LNUJMS) the banzhurens are expected to visit the homes and families of half their students sometime during the first term and the other half during the second term.  These visitations would take place on Saturdays or Sundays or on holidays.  The banzhuren will, after three years, receive a bonus based on the academic improvement of her class.  

In America, the individual teacher is expected to make parent contact when a student misbehaves or is not performing at a satisfactory level.  In American secondary schools there is also a person called a guidance counsellor who will assist with parent contact.  However, the guidance counsellor will have a case load of 350 to 500 students and she often must resort to group counselling sessions. 

Interesting!  I want to learn more here.


Chinese students play active and important roles (zhirisheng) in sweeping the classrooms, scrubbing the steps, serving meals, being class monitors, and helping teachers. Student monitors can be seen wearing special armbands in the hallway, watching to make certain students are doing their twice-daily eye exercises properly, providing leadership on the marching field, watering plants, empty bins, cleaning windows, helping to distribute the daily lunch, and so on. Students always seemed to be carrying out their tasks very seriously and in good humor.

Like the concept of banzhuren, the concept of zhirisheng cannot find its English equivalent due to the different Sino-American educational systems. Most Chinese schools are operated on the zhirisheng system for the purpose of maintaining clean classrooms and schools.




In telling my students about the differences between American education and Chinese education, I pointed out that students who live in poverty typically have lower test scores than those students who live in wealthier areas. My students were amazed at that because they said the opposite was true in China. One student related in her journal that “The students in poor areas usually have a higher mark than those in rich areas because the students in poor areas don’t have advanced facilities. The all study very hard with the limited conditions. They want to go out of there one day. Since students in rich areas don’t treasure the things they own, they just waste.” Other students related the same thing. On the other hand, only about 48% of Chinese students go on to high school so I imagine that the biggest percentage of those students who don’t go to high school at all (and thus don’t take the College Entrance Examination) are from poor families. Nevertheless, it is an interesting observation and deserving of further study.

In the USA, everyone starts high school.  About 80% finish.  In poor areas, about 60% finish.  This has changed over the years.  Many in the USA believe a well-intentioned effort to bolster the graduation rate has led to unintended erosion of standards for the lowest tracked students.  In the USA, in a typical high school, there are 3 tracks of academic expectations: high, medium, low.   I wonder if there is tracking in Chinese high schools.





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