Do children in China study harder than Americans?

They sure do.  While this simple fact is not surprising, you may be amazed at how much they study and the sheer immensity of the resulting China-US education gap.

A New York Times reporter described her children’s elementary school experience in Hong Kong this way:  “Starting at [age] 6, children are buried under an avalanche of studies until they graduate from high school.  Twelve-hour days are common among first graders… less on weekends but no days off.” 

This Westerner’s culture shock over the amount of work her children had been assigned in Hong Kong was experienced in reverse by a mainland Chinese woman who moved to the US for a graduate education.  She wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “for first and second grade in China, [my son] trotted off to school each day with a backpack stuffed with thick textbooks and materials for practices and quizzes.  For the third grade in New Jersey, he leaves for school with little in his backpack other than a required ‘healthy snack.’”

One key reason for this difference in schools is that “Chinese parents… regard education as a top priority and view academic achievement as one of the hallmarks of Chinese civilization… In Chinese culture, success is not the result of intelligence, but the result of diligence, self-discipline, and self-regulation over the long haul.”

As the Wall Street Journal author put it:  “It is a core belief in Chinese society that talent can be trained, so schools should be tough on children… [The result is that], schools are run like boot camps.” 

For example, consider a high school student who reported that “I remember I once fell from around 1,000th to 3,000th in my academic ranking [out of more than 10,000 students]. My teacher made me stand in the doorway during class for almost a month. This encouraged me to work harder and later I rose to 100th in the ranking.”

The high school student above was talking about a class to prepare for the biggest and most important hurdle in China’s educational system:  the gaokao (often pronounced by westerners as gow-cow), the national entrance exam for all colleges in China.

The exam is offered just once a year (on June 7 and 8 this year), and has been called “one of the hardest exams in the world.”   The gaokao “is highly competitive, causing prospective examinees and their families to experience enormous pressure. For the majority of examinees, the exam is a watershed that divides two dramatically different lives.”

According to the Economist,  “A good score can offer an escape from a life toiling on the farm or in a factory… and influences students’ economic prospects for years to come… Those who score well on the test are eligible to apply to the country’s best universities, a prerequisite for many good jobs…”  As another article summed it up “in a sense, Chinese students prepare for the gaokao their entire lives, with their senior years filled with test-prep classes and cram sessions.”

This photo went viral in China a few years ago when it showed how one school tried to boost gaokao scores – by providing intravenous amino acids to increase energy during long cram sessions. 

With this much on the line, it’s not surprising that “Nervous faints are common on exam day, and suicides are a regular hallmark of every exam season. A 2014 study claimed that gaokao stress was a contributing factor in 93 percent of high school suicide cases.”

The gaokao has sometimes been compared by Americans to our own stress-inducing standardized college exams.  But, at least in the opinion of Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews, “the SAT and ACT tests… [look] like playing Trivial Pursuit with your grandma compared with China’s two-day gaokao university entrance exam.  [It] includes exams in Chinese, math and a foreign language (usually English) plus additional subjects such as biology, physics and history.”

If you’d like to see how well you might do, you can try your hand at sample questions easily available online, as in the article “Thirty absolutely insane questions from China’s gaokao.”  In many high schools, senior year is almost entirely devoted to test preparation.

In her book The Girl at the Baggage Claim, Gish Jen (p. 92) wrote that in China “The whole nation revolves around [the gaokao]… in the United States not even the Super Bowl gets this much attention.”  Let’s stop and think about that for a moment.  One of the biggest events in our culture is eating Doritos while watching very large men knock each other over to get to a football.  One of the biggest cultural events in China is anxiously waiting for your children to complete an educational test. Which culture do you think will triumph in the end?

Every year, for two days in June, China comes to a standstill [for the gaokao]. Construction work is halted, traffic is diverted, and motorists are banned from honking, lest they disturb the [eleven] million teenagers taking a college entrance exam they believe will dictate their careers, wealth, and perhaps even marriage prospects. and anxious parents wait outside near the ambulances on hand to treat students — or parents — who collapse out of nerves… [In addition] drones are dispatched to monitor the rampant and sophisticated cheating.”

Drones?  That’s right.  According to the Washington Post, “students [have been] known to cheat on these university admissions exams by using a special pen that can take pictures of questions and transmit them to someone who relays the answers via ear phone… [Drones] can identify radio signals that emanate from the hidden earpieces… [and] transmit real-time information to test proctors with tablets on the ground.”

According to China Daily, last year 10,780,000 took the exam.  Less than 2% “made it to a top tier institution… [That’s why] preparations begin many years before, in some cases as early as pre-school, as parents try to give their children every possible edge.” 

Even within China, people are sometimes appalled at the lengths people will go to for an edge.  In 2012, Chinese social media went wild when the photograph above went viral, showing kids studying for the gaokao while “injecting amino acids to replace energy. In order to avoid holding students up from their studies and to save time for students having to travel between the clinic and their classrooms, the school arranged for the students to receive the amino acid injections in the classroom.”

But the gaokao is not all bad.  “While often criticized for prompting a culture of cramming, the gaokao is also regarded as the fairest way of screening talent in a country with such a large population. For students coming from rural places, the gaokao can be their ticket to big cities and more promising futures.”

And from the government’s perspective, the gaokao seems to work.  “The Chinese education system has been praised for its rigor — a Stanford study found that freshmen at Chinese universities outpaced their American and Russian peers by two or three years in critical thinking skills…”  Other research has found that Chinese students “score at the top of international math and science tests.”

In addition, “for all its flaws, gaokao scores are simple, objective, and anonymously graded, giving Chinese faith in its integrity… In a country so large and filled with corruption, a uniform anonymously graded test is the great equalizer that rewards hard work.”

“China’s college entrance exam is designed to give every student a fair and equal chance of success.” But human nature being what it is, some people are always looking for an angle, a way to gain an edge.   In the same way that some American parents pay for SAT cram sessions, “China’s wealthy often purchase intensive study programs and hire private tutors for their children.”

And as a Washington Post article put it, covid has “widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as the wealthier students could afford quiet rooms in their own homes and expensive private lessons, while the less privileged students had few choices other than taking the online classes offered by their high schools.”

Last year, in an attempt to level the playing field, the government issued several new regulations to crack down on China’s $100 billion tutoring industry.  The changes included banning “tutoring on weekends, public holidays and school holidays… as well as forcing [tutoring] companies to register as non-profit organizations, banning approvals for new companies, and making it illegal for them to receive foreign investment.”  While these changes should make a difference, they are unlikely to move the needle much on the US education gap.

Do I wish that my grandson’s education was similar to that in China?  Good lord, no.  But I do think it puts the US at a disadvantage, and raises the question:  “How will America compete with a China determined to train the best mathematicians, scientists and engineers?”

1 thought on “Do children in China study harder than Americans?

  1. In Outliers, Matthew Gladwell attributes Chinese toughness to its history of rice farming which requires much more persistence than wheat farming.

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