Are U.S. Schools Really Falling Behind China?

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Vivien Stewart, senior adviser for education at the Asia Society, speaks to host Michele Norris about how China is adapting its schools — and if the U.S. has as much catching up to do as President Obama suggested Tuesday night in his State of the Union address.


At one point last night, when President Obama was talking about the world economy, he said, the rules have changed. The implication there being that the American education system hasn't changed nearly enough to prepare kids not just for the world as it is, but for the workforce of the future.

President BARACK OBAMA: Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.

NORRIS: Well, we wanted to hear just a bit more about how China, in particular, is adapting its schools. And I spoke earlier with Vivien Stewart. She's a senior adviser for education at Asia Society and I asked her if the president has good reason to be worried.

Ms. VIVIEN STEWART (Senior Adviser of Education, Asia Society): I think we all have good reason to be worried. In terms of the educational expansion in China and India that he spoke of, don't forget that in the 1960s, China had no education. During the Cultural Revolution, schools were closed. But from the 1970s on, they've had a massive expansion of basic education. Nine years of basic education are now universal throughout China.

By the year 2012, 12 years of education will be universal. That means that within, say, five to seven years, China will be graduating a higher proportion of students from high school than we do. And, of course, they have millions more students.

NORRIS: Help me understand the major difference between the education system in the U.S. and, say, China.

Ms. STEWART: China has very high standards, largely focused on math and science, a strong core curriculum that all students have to take. In the U.S., we have standards that vary all over the place, by state and by district. Students can opt out of harder courses. That's one thing.

Secondly, students work extremely hard, very long hours in and out of school. Longer school days, longer school years, lots of time doing homework. Thirdly, I think the teachers - they spend a lot of time recruiting teachers, giving them preferential access to universities. Teachers have some downsides, too. They have a fairly traditional way of teaching, standing from the front of the class, and they're trying to work on that. But they certainly value and support their teachers well.

NORRIS: You know, you talked about what's going on in the classroom there and also at home where students are expected to work very hard on weekends and in the after hours. I'm wondering if part of this is something that can't be legislated. Does it have to do with cultural norms? The idea that mediocrity is not accepted, that students don't expect to have idle time for kickball and video games? That Saturdays are meant to be spent with a nose in the book.

Ms. STEWART: That clearly is a cultural issue. But cultural standards can be created. Many of the highest performing systems in the world today, many of which are in Asia - Korea, Japan, Singapore, et cetera - 25 years ago, they still had the same culture. They still valued education, but they didn't have the systems in place to deliver it.

So, I think that those kinds of norms can be created. They're an asset to build on. But they're also a norm that exists in many parts of the United States. But we have not really - not really pressed on it. Though, certainly, when I give talks, I talk to parents about turning off the television, turning off the video games. Say, if their students spent as much time studying as they did playing video games, we'd easily be at the level of the highest performing countries in the world.

NORRIS: Vivien Stewart, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Ms. STEWART: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Vivien Stewart is senior adviser for education at Asia Society.

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