Americans who visit Chinese schools quickly realize that many of our beliefs and assumptions about education hold little water in China: In the United States, our urban public schools perform relatively poorly, but in China the urban systems rate among the nation’s best. Here we often regard private schools as a cut above public ones (though the truth is far murkier), but most Chinese consider public schools to be superior. Americans view public education as a crucial equalizer for a democratic society, in theory at least—but the Chinese see it partly as a means to sort their massive population in a distinctly undemocratic fashion.
Despite these differences of conceit, the American and Chinese education systems share one common, defining characteristic: They are both plagued by gross inequalities and rampant segregation. In the United States, these injustices fall largely along racial and class lines: poor, minority students are more likely to attend highly segregated schools; their schools are more likely to suffer from a lack of resources; and their teachers are more likely to be inexperienced.
The Chinese education system, too, features ethnic and class inequities. But even more so than in the United States, geography and birthplace equal educational destiny. As Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report documented in a recent article, millions of schoolchildren have migrated to cities in recent years with their job-hunting parents. Once there, they often find themselves ineligible to attend government-run schools, particularly the best ones. An unknown number wind up in sub-par, pseudo-private schools catering to the migrant population.
Henan Chang, an assistant professor in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education who has studied the outcomes of migrant schoolchildren in Kunming, said most of them “have no interaction whatsoever with the local residents. They live in their own bubbles. Their playmates, their schoolmates—they’re all migrants themselves.”
Butrymowicz notes that these disparities tainted China’s recent domineering performance on international assessments in reading, math and science because many public schools do not admit migrant students. When Shanghai 15-year-olds outperformed the rest of the world in 2010, observers wondered if their success stemmed at least in part from exclusionary, segregationist practices. After I told a friend of mine who grew up in China about the international rankings, he quipped that public-school students in Shanghai are comparable to private-school students on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in terms of their wealth and privilege. Shaking his head, he noted that no one would take Dalton or Brearley—two of the Big Apple’s most elite private schools—as representative of the whole United States.
In 2006, I spent several weeks in China reporting on the country’s schools, focusing in particular on the education of migrant children living in Beijing. In America, everyone asked me if Chinese schools had left us in the dust, while in China everyone asked me if American schools had left them in the dust. Americans revered the Chinese mastery of basic subjects such as math and geography, while the Chinese extolled the American emphasis on creativity and nurturing individual talent. Americans talked about the striking discipline of Chinese students, while the Chinese wondered why they had not yet won more Nobel prizes.
Nobody in either country framed their fears about international competitiveness in terms of inequality, however.
Both nations do well by their most privileged and fortunate students. In China, they attend well-resourced, state-of-the-art government schools that employ some of the country’s best teachers. In America, their families possess the money and freedom to move to regions where public schools excel, or to enroll in any number of wealthy private schools.
For either country, winning the global competition will depend less on changes made for the elites—the children of the 1 percent. Ultimately, success will depend on their leaders’ interest and fortitude in addressing the opportunity gaps that persist throughout their schools. When it comes to education, that’s the single, indelible trait that both countries have long shared.