The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

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.

Chinese education system
Sarah Carr

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.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

7 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. I’m an international school teacher in China.
    This article hits a very big sore spot on both educational systems. My question with the American system is, “Why are the poor and minority students ending up in segregated schools? Why do they lack resources and inexperienced teachers?” Compare that to the, “Why do the Chinese schools have ethnic and class inequities?” You’ll find a big difference. You’ll also find a big difference in the rich class of the US compared to the rich class of China.

    The Chinese wonder why “they had not won more Nobel prizes,” this is do to their discipline. In my experience, the Chinese have not “mastered” any subject. They have memorized it. They have not learned how to use what they have memorized. This is the one thing that separates the US students from the Chinese students. Once the Chinese schools can get beyond memorizing they will have an education system to take seriously.

  2. There are vast differences with schools abroad in comparison with US schools, but the people who dictate what happens to schools do not get dirty with the work of actually learning the true nature of these schools. They stare and mutter at data. There are two school systems in European countries and Caribbean countries that carry those previously held colonized traditions..
    One set of public schools is very elite and only students who have been tested to be highly intelligent are admitted in these college prep high schools. The other schools are vocational schools for those who do not plan on going to college and do not have the money or a sponsor to sign the promissory note for college tuition.
    Only the academic school takes the college bound tests that are used to compare scores to the US scores. If we did our homework here we would have known we were comparing our mixed up system with a weeded out system.
    The data is skewed and is worse than Nasa’s Metric Mixup when two different groups calculated the Mars Climate Orbiter launching in metric and English units, but failed to align the calculations in one measurement and lost a $94 million gadget.
    The problem was “no checks and balances.”
    Apparently, education in America does not need checks and balances from the dictators of policies above.

  3. I have taught in schools in China for nine years and have met teachers in many parts of the country. Ten years ago, Qingdao had separate schools for poor children. Students with special needs, if they attend school at all, are shuffled off to schools that specialize in teaching them ‘their place.’ For example, blind people become masseuses. I have seen only a handful of children who would receive special education in the US and the adults and children with Down’s Syndrome have obviously not attended school or learned a trade. One high school student, whom I suspected of having a learning disability, did not return after Spring Festival.
    A friend told me that until about eight years ago, students from the countryside, where schools generally were not as good as city schools, had to have higher scores on the high school entrance exams than city students.
    Chinese also teach to the test. I’ve met high school English teachers who could not speak to me because spoken language was not tested.
    Chinese students often go to school from 6 or 7 am to 8 or 9 pm, with half days on Saturdays. They do have 1 1/2 to 2 hour lunch breaks and the evening sessions are generally study halls, rather than classes. This means, though, that some have to give up things they enjoy such as playing musical instruments or sports.
    However, the students are much more responsible than American students, for keeping their classrooms clean, for helping each other study, for encouraging each other to do their best.

  4. The big difference between Chinese education and the rest of the world: in China the average family spends 33 to 35% of its annual income on the education of its one child. In total this amounts to more than $US 200 billion a year in total. And because Shanghai is China’s richest city, with incomes ten times as high as villages, this means most Shanghai families can afford to pay for semi-fulltime tutor outside school hours. And that’s why Shanghai topped the world in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Of course, that is not the result for China overall. Unfortunately, Chinese schools share one mjor feature in common with US schooling: they are both mesmerized by ‘standadized testing’ in a world where non-standardized innovation is the key to the future. Why America persists with that is, to most oop-performing schools elsewhere, a continuing source of bewilderment. Gordon Dryden, New Zealand.

  5. Educators must never forget that education is more than literacy and acquisition of academic knowledge. The essential element of values and principles of life to make life more meaningful to the society, is indispensible

  6. I understand the point you are making about the poor and minorites most likely to attend the worst performing schools but I dislike your choice of words in describing racial and socio-econcomic imbalance in public schools. By using the term “segregation” to describe racial imbalance you are suggesting that somehow these students are coerced by force of law or the state to attend segregated schools. The Supreme Court ended this practice in 1954. The reality that minority students are more likely to attend racially imbalanced schools is the effect of poverty, housing patterns, and neighborhoods where families of similar cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds have traditionally settled. In cases where government intervention or practice called “red-lining” neighborhoods existed, the federal courts have intervened to assist in integrating schools through busing or magnet school programs. In cases where low income or cultural association caused ethnic or racial imbalance in neighborhoods, resulting in racially and ethnically imbalanced public schools, there is no basis for which to call those schools segregated. Those schools are imbalance because of factors other than government-induced segregation.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *