US Vs. China Education: US is Ahead

Misleading PISA Scores

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China ranked first on the 2018 program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares high schools around the world on mathematics, science and reading. The US ranked in 25th place. Many took this to mean that education in China is better than education in the US. The PISA scores are not representative of education across China, however, as the four locations chosen for China’s PISA were four of the most developed areas with the best education in the country. Additionally, China has a migrant worker population of roughly 250 million, whose children are not permitted to take the PISA in the cities where their parents are working. In a previous year when China based the PISA on 170,000 students in Shanghai, for example, more than half a million migrant children were excluded.

In 40% of the schools chosen for the US PISA, half of the students qualified for free lunch, suggesting that these were not America’s best-funded or highest-performing schools. In fact, only 32% of US schools match that description, meaning the PISA matched some of the worst performing schools in the US with the best schools in China. Most of the schools in the rest of China lag far behind, suffering from a shortage of teachers, staff, and materials.

Across China, more schools are reporting teacher shortages than in developed countries. In rural areas, 40% of students do not attend high school because of financial constraints. To enter a university, Chinese students must pass the National College Entrance Exam, the Gao Kao, but by that point in their education, 95% of rural students have dropped out.

In spite of having lower PISA scores, the US has the highest level of educational attainment in the world. The average US adult has 13 years of education with 88% holding a high school diploma and 33% having graduated university. In China, the average adult has 6.4 years of formal education, ranking them 45th in the world. China has the highest number of children out of (not attending) primary school, 17.45 million, while the US has on 1.76 million. Adjusting for population this means China has 14.19 children out of school per 1,000, whereas, the US has only 5.64 per 1,000.

Female literacy in China still lags far behind the US. Only 87.6% of Chinese girls are able to read, while 99% of American females are literate. Official literacy figures in China are somewhat questionable as rural residents are considered literate if they can recognize 1,500 Chinese characters, while urban residents must know 2,000 characters, which is the minimum to be able to read a newspaper. This means that the Chinese government considers rural residents to be literate in spite of not being able to read a newspaper.

PISA is a Single Data Point

Research has shown that in some countries that are more competitive about their PISA rankings, such as China, emphasis is taken away from non-PISA subjects. A handful of select students are pushed into mathematics, science and reading, unlike in other international organizations such as The United Nations (UN), The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) or the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which encourage improving education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the organization behind PISA, uses the PISA scores alone to determine which countries have the better education system. Meanwhile, issues of access to education, quality of education, and content of education are being ignored.

Access to education in the US is much higher than in China. The US has roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, while China has about 2,000 for a population nearly five-times the size. China graduates 7.5 million university students per year, while the US graduates 3.9 million, which is a much higher rate when adjusted for the population. A significant percentage of migrant children in China may not have access to schools in the cities. And in rural areas, as many as 40% of children do not attend high school, while only 5% go on to university level studies.

The US educational model takes a much more holistic approach to developing the student as a person, rather than as a repository of facts. The Chinese system is strict, focusing on precision and retention whereas American education focuses on improving students’ comprehensive thinking abilities by developing assuredness, self-determination, and independence. Chinese students take notes and are evaluated on their ability to memorize the facts in textbooks. American students, by contrast, are evaluated on creativity, leadership, and cooperation skills. This is one reason why extracurricular activities are such a large part of the American education system whereas, in China, they would be seen as time spent that could have been used to attend additional lessons.

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Metrics for Evaluating Schools

The PISA is a single data point, whereas ratings agencies that compare US states against each other to determine which states have the best schools, look at a number of different indicators. And China fails miserably on most of those, even falling behind Mississippi, Nevada, and New Mexico, which have the lowest ranked schools in the US. As an example of the many elements that go into determining which schools are considered to be better, top ranked Stuyvesant High School in New York City offers 31 AP courses, 32 varsity sports, six foreign languages, 150 student clubs, two concert bands, a symphonic band, a beginner’s band, a jazz band, a symphony orchestra, an advanced strings group, and the Intermediate Strings orchestra. The school boasts 12 science laboratories. There are also high school internships, as well as joint programs with City University of New York, for students to attend actual college classes while still in high school.

Indicators for Ranking Schools

Let’s examine some of the indicators used in the US to determine a school’s ranking:

Students Taking AP Courses

How many Advanced Placement (AP) courses the school offers and what percentage of students take AP courses. In China, only a portion of foreign and private schools would be offering AP courses. The private schools comprise only 35% of all schools in China, whereas the schools offering AP would be a fraction of that number. As of 2019, the Chinese government has banned the teaching of AP US history, AP European history, AP World history, and AP Human Geography. Other indicators include how many students take the SAT, ACT and other college entrance exams and what their average score is. Only the minutest percentage (less than 1%) of Chinese students take those exams.

Sports, Activities, Bands, and Orchestras

The number of sports, activities, bands, and orchestras: China does not have a system of organized, competitive high school sports teams like the US, neither do they have organized bands and orchestras. As for the number of foreign languages offered, apart from schools in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet or Inner Mongolia, in China, nearly 100% of schools offer only English. The presence and quality of science labs: Most Chinese schools do not have science labs. If they do, they may not have chemicals. In some schools, the teacher may do the experiments in front of the students. In most schools, the students memorize the experiments from books and then write them verbatim on the exams.  

Internship Affiliations with Universities or Corporations

Affiliations with universities or corporations where students can complete internships or take actual college courses (apart from AP and taught by college professors) or can earn certifications or qualifications before graduation: At Stuyvesant, students can earn a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. Both college classes and industry certifications being offered to high school students in China would be extremely unlikely.

Another consistent ranking metric is how ethnically diverse or how great an international body of students a school has. Having students from many countries and ethnic backgrounds is generally considered beneficial to students’ education. But in China, almost no schools would have even a single foreign student or even foreign born, non-ethnic Chinese student. In minority areas, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, there would be some ethnic diversity in the schools, but in most of China, the students would all be Han Chinese.

Schools in the US receive points for producing a high quality or award-winning school newspaper. Stuyvesant High School, for example, has two top-notch publications, The Spectator and The Voice, which are widely read by the community. In China, all publishing is controlled by the government, so there would be no circulation of student newspapers.

So, How Well Does the US Do Compared to China?

The average US school does not score as well on the PISA as do the best schools in China, but the State of Massachusetts PISA score was not measurably different than China. And, while Stuyvesant is unusual in its breadth of offerings, the average school in the US has some portion of the above parameters including AP classes, science labs, sports, music, clubs, activities, languages, labs, and publications. The average school in China, on the other hand, has none of these.

Antonio Graceffo
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