Chinese vs. American Education System

Subject: Education
Pages: 11
Words: 2831
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: College


There is no doubt that the Chinese education system after confronting challenges and critics from international educationists and scholars has today been able to solve the issues that remain unresolved even for decades. Today the two major paramount issues that were faced by Chinese educators in this century are almost solved: First the need for a new Chinese ideology that could support modern educational institutions, and second, the difficulty of adapting attractive features of western educational patterns to the Chinese context. But still, research and evidence from the Chinese early education indicate that no special considerations have been made in order to lead Chinese education inferior at least when it comes to the point where Chinese education is compared with U.S. education.

However, before getting into the detail if we analyze the Chinese Education System whose success we are enjoying presently it would be clear that it took decades for the Chinese Government and the public to reform their education management. The way it was managed some 20 years ago lacked all the latest developments that we see and admire today.

The Chinese primary education system in the first period had two tracks. One was that system that managed to run and finance urban schools by the state, and the other was that run under the ‘local’ administration of the people. That involved all the rural schools. The city elementary schools were supposedly more academic while the countryside schools emphasized literacy however, this generalization varied from place to place and from school to school (Huang, 1997, p. 7). Today as we see that most of the critics come from the U.S. sector, we should remember that most of the older Chinese students and scholars got educated in the United States and that even were educated in the urban elementary schools in their childhood, while some of them went to rural elementary schools.

Chinese secondary education was more complex and diversified at that time than it seems today and the reason is the presence of too many different tracks and choices for the students at every level (Rosen, 1984). As Rosen (1984) described it in the following words:

“There were regular secondary schools which prepared one for university entrance; specialist (technical) schools which trained middle-level professional personnel, such as accountants and nurses; workers’ training schools which trained middle-level technical workers, such as carpenters and welders; and vocational schools which trained workers with special skills, such as chefs, tailors and photographers. Only in the countryside, there were agricultural secondary schools” (Rosen, 1984, p. 66).

The Chinese exchange students and scholars were usually educated in regular secondary education, which included junior and senior high schools. All the usual subjects were taught to them including Chinese literature but with the exception of music, biology, and health, as they were usually dropped in senior high school. There were two types of regular secondary schools; key point schools and ordinary schools.

The admission was given depending on students’ competitiveness and performance on the entrance test exams to go to the higher level of education. Key point schools were more funded with better-quality teachers, and a lot of recognition (Rosen, 1984). Among ordinary schools, there was a certain unofficial ranking according to their competitiveness. Parents, as well as society, recognized that and let the children apply to schools that matched their academic ability and performance (Huang, 1997, p. 12).

The change took place during the Cultural Revolution, it was decided that the regular and traditional school system would be based on the combination of theory and practice. Education was to be integrated with productive labor and class struggle. Therefore, during the Cultural Revolution, schools, colleges, and universities either set up their own small farms and factories or sent their teachers and students to factories and farms to learn through practice (Hawkins, 1974).

In the first two years of the Cultural Revolution, all educational institutions stopped running. Therefore students of all levels suffered by doing the revolutionary work inside and outside school. Secondary and college students were much more active than elementary school students, and many of those active students became violent. Students who were not involved in the revolution stayed home, either being idle or studying by themselves; it was like a prolonged vacation for these students.

When schools were reopened in 1968, the two-track system that divided urban and rural elementary schools was gotten rid of, schools were supposed to be treated equally, and students were supposed to receive the same kind of education based on Mao’s ideas of ‘equality (Chen, 1974). The classroom teaching did not have the same quality and richness of content as that before the Cultural Revolution, and it was often interrupted by activities such as going out on the street demonstrating and supporting a new revolutionary idea from Mao and/or going to the countryside to work in the fields. Schools in some rural areas were not affected as much as urban schools.

In more radical ways, secondary education during the Cultural Revolution tried to eliminate the difference between schools and students by abolishing the distinction of key point schools, ordinary schools, and other types of secondary schools. As a result, most of the secondary schools became regular schools, students went to these schools in their neighborhoods, and there was no competition among students or schools. Upon graduation, these young people would go to the countryside or factories to work (Rosen, 1984). It would not be wrong to say that Chinese Education at that time was no career-oriented or even merely acknowledged.

The academic quality in secondary schools during this period was not high, especially in big cities. Comparatively, some rural secondary schools, which were not affected as much by the revolution and followed the old curriculum, were producing students of higher academic quality. That may be why, after the Cultural Revolution, some students from the countryside made it to the best universities or graduate schools through entrance exams.

The ones that possessed some wealth and sense acquired secondary education during the Cultural Revolution from the U.S. Their academic achievements cannot be separated from their self-education throughout those years. Since secondary schooling in that period did not provide others with quality education, almost all of them studied by themselves much beyond what the school had to offer.

In the summer of 1970, some colleges and universities began to accept new students and offer classes (Henze, 1984). The policy of recruitment changed drastically. Before the Cultural Revolution, admissions were based on the scores of the entrance exams, but during the Cultural Revolution, a person had to have worked for a certain period of time (about three years), have a ‘red family background’ (from a working-class family), and be recommended by his/her work unit. The recruitment was done this way with very few exceptions with various names given to the college students such as ‘worker-peasant-soldier’ students.

The university and college curriculum in this period was arbitrary because the Ministry of Higher Education as well as the Ministry of Education was abolished. ‘Revolutionary committees’ were in charge of education as they were in charge of other aspects of the country. There was a great disparity among universities and colleges in teaching quality and the content taught, and students’ academic levels were also very different. Students had to go to factories and other basic work units for extended times to do the practice part of learning. Therefore, their classroom learning did not cover nearly as much as that before the Cultural Revolution.

Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, China’s education and its policy started to adopt the system before the Cultural Revolution. Entrance examinations at different levels (from elementary to junior high, from junior high to senior high, from senior high to college/university) were restored. The curriculum was also similar to the one before the Cultural Revolution with some updating. Competition among schools and students was resumed. All these changes were to raise the quality of education and to produce competent people for the country’s modernization.

Today, China which has 200 million primary and secondary enrolled students when compared with the 50 million U.S. students (Palmquist & Li, 2007) still lacks certain characteristics which according to various U.S educationists must be present in any economy which is looking forward to producing a well-groomed and developed generation. Let us examine those characteristics in the light of both U.S. and Chinese criticisms.

Classroom size

Even at the elementary level, each classroom in China consists of not less than 50-60 students whereas in the U.S. not more than 20 students are allowed in each class. It is said that despite such contradictory conditions of Chinese students, they come up as an educated class producing more engineers and technologists whereas U.S. students ace in the world from the bottom, and are called ‘slackers’.

This is evident from the International test results that Chinese students ace. Another fact is the popularity of English in China which has been one of the required courses next to the Chinese language and mathematics in importance, with some variation of availability of English teachers in different areas and some ups and downs during political upheavals. According to Ross (1992), “Approximately 97% of China’s 320,000 full-time secondary school foreign language teachers teach English” (Ross, 1992, p. 251). That means English education has long remained a crucial part of China’s education.

According to Scovel (1983), who taught English in a Chinese foreign language institute, college teachers in China spend a lot of time explaining English grammar and defining the meanings of words. Both teachers and students are interested in understanding the exact meanings of every word they encounter, and they have a low tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty.

Teacher-centered vs. Student-centered Classrooms

Today critics blame the Chinese educational reforms for having teacher-centered classrooms where the teacher is the lead actor of the class, who leads the students. Though the critic is correct and sketches the Chinese way of visualizing today’s students the future leaders but let us put the same question to the U.S. education, who believes in student freedom of expression. U.S students are free to accept and question the things to the teacher who is not the lead actor but is the ‘lead extra’ in a room where he is working in front of few actors.

This no doubt boosts students’ confidence, an American student after attaining such an educational environment is confident enough to face the world as compared to that Chinese student who has taught only to accept but then what happens in the long run? Why the Chinese student is found ahead of the American student in all fields of education. After attaining such a ‘freedom of expression’ environment why an American student selects the ‘free’ walk of life and does not prefer to study anymore after attaining hardly a college degree? Why most of the scholarships are acquired by Chinese students?

Criticizing the U.S or Chinese Education does not mean that any one of them fulfills the criteria of perfection; rather both of them need to look at each other’s educational policies and environment in order to make their future generation better than what it is today. The development of private schools in China has featured diversity and plurality and their attempt to satisfy various social demands is no doubt a positive step in standardizing their education.

But private education in China, if it is to continue to develop, faces a great variety of problems as well. Some problems come from internal sources, such as the composition of the workforce while others arise from external sources, such as ambiguities in educational policies and laws. A general statement that ‘schools cannot make profit their goal’ has caused confusion, dampening interest in the development and expansion of private schools.

This statement also suggests that profit chasing has caused serious malpractice, which has damaged the reputation of private education in China. The appearance of such schools that charge high fees in the name of modern education has caused hot debates as to whether social inequality is being reinforced by these ‘elite’ private schools (Lin, 1999, p. 167). Views are divided as to the role of private education in China’s education system, whether it should be supplementary or an integral and important part of the educational system that receives equal recognition and treatment with public schools. Despite the questions and different opinions, there is no doubt that private education has achieved phenomenal growth in a short period of time and will have an important role to play in China’s economic and educational reform.

Absence of Questions in the Classroom

In a typical Chinese classroom, irrespective of the primary or secondary, one can easily point out that during or after a lecture, since the room is teacher-centered therefore there are no questions from the students’ side. This absence of questioning reflects that even today Chinese schools and universities lack the desired confidence which they were supposed to acquire. It also depicts the current pressures that to respond to greater diversity and to foster creativity disturbs this convention because teachers have to pay attention to student perspectives and encourage them to disrupt lessons with their queries.

On the other hand, if we talk about U.S. schools and universities it is evident from their students’ behavior that they are overconfident. Both the conditions are not good, for students must be trained and equipped according to the modern needs which do not encourage any sort of under or overconfidence.

Classroom Pedagogy

The current situation in the Chinese elementary schools that are considered ‘modernized’ when observed and noticed even by an outsider depicts a high level of interaction between the teachers and the students with a lively exchange of questions and answers. The teachers are free to question the students, the students answer but the questions do not take place from the students’ side. In this case, there is a need to respond to students as distinct individuals, giving them space and time to ask their own questions and work out their own points of view.

On one hand, facilitating the creativity and problem-solving capacities of students are priorities in China and the U.S which require students to take more control over what and how they learn, while on the other a Chinese student is never considered as an individual. Yet when teaching is based on the assumption that student groups are broadly homogeneous and the aim is for them all to reach a uniform standard of attainment, in the context of classes of forty or more students, the rhetoric of encouraging a more autonomous engagement creates huge tension.

The practice of all-girl schools not to teach ‘girl stuff’ but to teach unconventional skills such as wrestling and driving opens a window to new ways of conducting education. These schools have arranged the curriculum in a way that allows the girls to be confident in their own abilities and to be more employable in the very competitive job market in today’s China, while also giving them the option of heading toward higher education. Private vocational schools, arts schools, medical colleges, and other types of schools widen employment opportunities for millions of young people who cannot attend a university. Private universities, despite their many problems, give people hope for higher learning.

Chinese education is modernized through the advent of elite private schools, charging high fees and offering excellent conditions for learning, which is also at the forefront of educational reform. Diverging from the traditional model of excessive emphasis on academic learning, they offer a unique curriculum focusing on the well-rounded development of children from primary to secondary level. Besides fulfilling the compulsory subjects of study asset in the national teaching syllabus outlined by the state, they also offer numerous extracurricular courses catering to students’ interests and developing special expertise to meet the future needs of society. Through all types of ‘art groups’ and extracurricular interest groups, students are guided to develop their imagination and creativity.

In analyzing and comparing the Chinese education system from that of the U.S. it is clear that both countries lack fundamental grounds that are essential in the proper upbringing of children. Both confront educational, social, and political critics, therefore it is better for both of them to learn from each other and diversify their educational experience. In fact, both countries must allow choices that amount to allowing for diversity and reform. Diversity injects vitality into the education system, therefore, private education is urgently needed in China’s educational context, where education funding is low; the more avenues open for inputs into education, the better.

Furthermore, we cannot consider that the practices in private schools are unequal, and it is unrealistic to have all students attending the same kind of education with poor conditions. The educational alternatives must allow greater autonomy and accountability in the schooling system, and greater motivation on the part of teachers and administrators, so that they may be able to put themselves in their students’ shoes before conducting or going in a classroom.

Work Cited

Chen T. H. E. (1974) The Maoist educational revolutions. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Hawkins J. N. (1974) Mao-Tse-tung and education: His thought and teachings. Hamden, CT: Linnet Books.

Henze J. (1984) “Higher education: the tension between quality and equality” In R. Hayhoe (Ed.), Contemporary Chinese education. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe. Pp. 93-153.

Huang Jianyi, (1997) Chinese Students and Scholars in American Higher Education: Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT.

Lin Jing, (1999) Social Transformation and Private Education in China: Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT.

Palmquist Bruce & Li Guian, (2007). Web.

Potts Patricia, (2003) Modernising Education in Britain and China: Comparative Perspectives on Excellence and Social Inclusion: RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Ross H. (1992) “Foreign language education as a barometer of modernization” In R. Hayhoe (Ed.), Education and modernization: The Chinese experience. New York: Pergamon Press. Pp. 239-254.

Rosen S. (1984) “New directions in secondary education” In: R. Hayhoe (Ed.), Contemporary Chinese education. Armonk, NY: M. E.

Scovel J. (1983) “English teaching in China: A historical perspective” In: Language Learning and Communication, 2( 1), 105-110.

Yang Gu, (2007). Web.