07/01/2020 No. 157
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Education in the United States and China - To learn and not to learn from the differences
By Ifay Chang
December 1, 2014

Education is regarded as very important by almost every nation. Countries with a long history attribute their rich culture to education. Technologically advanced countries recognize education as the prime factor for achieving their advances. Underdeveloped countries believe that only through education can they develop their nations and lift their people out of poverty. Education on the world stage has indeed come a long way in the past century or so. According to UN data, the enrollment of primary school students with respect to population in the world ranges from 97% to 113% (>100% is due to inclusion of under age or over age students in the tally). This is a remarkable achievement in human history. However, on the issue of education, not a single country is totally satisfied with its education system. Debates from pedagogy to financial model have repeatedly been held by educators and policy makers. As economic pressure mounts, the question of return on investment often gets center stage. The quality of education as reflected by its end result, whether measured in terms of international student test scores such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) or in terms of meeting national job/skill requirement, is currently being examined. Ironically, the United States and China, the two greatest economies in the world, have been seriously examining each other’s education system seeking values and improvements from the other. In this article, we shall make an attempt to compare their education systems not so much on the pedagogical details, which have drawn ample discussions in the education field with obvious impact on the educators in both countries, but more on the philosophy, policy, funding and management pertaining to the education system in each country, which may be more responsible for the different results perceived.

Numerous reports comparing the education system of the two countries from the classroom observation point of view have shown that the differences in instructional methodology and the quality of school infrastructure do not clearly correlate with student learning behavior and student achievement, at least in the K-12 education. In tertiary education, the learning environment and technological support which often attracts both high quality faculty and excellent students do indeed make a big difference in its results. Another significant factor is that the students generally have to go through a competitive and selective process to get into universities and colleges, whereas K-12 students in public schools do not need to do so, based on the well-established concept that every child deserves to have a quality education of 12-13 years, if the country can financially afford it. Educators and policy makers do realize, however, that the success of K-12 education is important because it provides the pool of students for colleges to select from. Thus, we first focus on finding the fundamental differences in the primary and secondary education in the two countries. Recognizing the differences, perhaps, we can then determine whether the differences are worthy of being learned and adopted by each other for improving the effectiveness of the respective education system.

The first difference is in the philosophy of education, even though both countries believe that their citizens must receive a minimum number of years of education. In the United States, the length of compulsory education varies from state to state (generally 9-12 years, established at different times, MA 1852 ˇ AK 1929) while China mandates 9 years of education (since 7/1/1986). First, one notices that there is no uniformity in enforcing the compulsory education in the United States due to political, religious, economic and social concerns. Although China required compulsory education late in 1986, the primary reason for not implementing the compulsory education is due to her poor financial state and to a lesser extent to religious (minority) considerations. In recent decades, as China rose in economic power, so did her education system.

China, through her thousands of years of history, has always maintained a great respect for the value of education, with a deep belief that pursuing education to become a learned person is the noblest goal in life.
萬班皆下品,唯有讀書高 in all endeavors in life, scholarly pursuit is the noblest.However, in ancient China, even though education was highly valued, the thought of offering everyone education was rarely on the emperors' minds (so that uneducated peasants would be easier to control). When a dynasty was poor or at war its education often suffered from total neglect. Today, China’s central government education budget is about 50% (estimated $65B) of her estimated defense budget ($130B out of the total budget of $2.45T), whereas in the U.S., education is mostly supported by states and local citizens through property taxes, and her federal education budget is only about 13.7% ($113B) of her defense budget ($820B out of the total budget of $3.1T with a $0.65T deficit). (The much smaller federal education budget than the local education support has its drawback and will receive further discussion later.)

Chinese students are more motivated than American students in schools. This is not entirely because the American schools offer many more extracurricular activities that distract students from their main study; rather it is due to a subtle difference in philosophical view of education. In China, school education means that students go there to study, to acquire knowledge, largely a ‘seeking process’ where students are expected to acquire knowledge from teachers in schools. Whereas in the United States, school education is a learning experience, students go there to experience learning in various activities where teachers and schools are expected to lead the students in learning. This subtle difference perhaps is better understood from the students’, parents’ and educators’ attitudes. In China, students are expected to be motivated to go to school and study; if they are not, their parents would be blamed and expected to correct the situation. In the United States, the learning experience is a ‘receiving process’; students are expected to be taught in school how to learn, as well as what to learn. Hence, motivated students will be able to develop a great learning experience, exercising learning on their own, selecting what is of interest to them and learning on their own at an early age. However, if the students were not self-motivated, then they would have a problem receiving or developing a good learning habit. The parents, rarely blaming themselves, would expect the school to correct their children’s motivation problem. This difference in parental attitude (also affecting students and teachers) makes the Chinese students far more motivated to accept a disciplined study (even if not necessarily better pedagogically), enabling them to achieve better study results especially on tests.

The teachers in public schools cannot easily correct their students' motivation problem with a class having 20 or more students. In China classes are generally much larger, up to 50 students, so one could imagine the teacher’s stress if he or she had to deal with 50 unmotivated students. Since the social fabric in the United States has been weakened in recent decades by more divorces, single parents and same-sex couples, etc. (the value of children and the value of education is diminishing), the motivation and self-discipline in children’s learning is a major issue in the United States where public schools and classrooms alone can never remedy this problem. This critical problem seems to be spreading world-wide, even the Chinese society is following in the footsteps of the Americans in changing the social fabrics with more divorces and single parents. Parents’ neglect of their responsibility of motivating their children to learn is one of the most serious issues in education. 


The American public education system is largely and uniquely funded by local governments, the estimated total spending on education ($1006.8 B), including the federal budget ($112B), is a large sum of money but it is still less than the total defense and security spending ($1081.8B). $10,000 to over $25,000 per pupil is spent annually in US public elementary to secondary schools; the return on investment has not always been satisfactory. In China, the relatively large amount of national budget for education presumably can be appropriated to poor areas where local support is inadequate (in contrast to a largely locally supported funding system in the U.S.). China maintains quite a number of nationally funded universities distributed throughout the nation whereas public universities in the United States are only supported by state and city governments. Here, the Chinese model may not be a better model, since, by and large, US college institutions still rank higher in the world, judging from the fact that they draw  million international students (one third is Chinese) despite their high tuition fees. The Chinese tertiary institutions are also excellent to some extent due to their better motivated students coming from secondary schools; they now draw 1/4 million international students, but only 7% are Americans. The mandarin language is a barrier but it has not been a deterrent for African or Asian students. Many American colleges have started exchange programs with Chinese counterparts, a good thing in general for education. In China, the cost of tuition is quite low ($3300-9900) and the monthly living cost is about $250-580 generally and $740-850 in big cities, an obvious incentive for motivated students to study in Chinese colleges.

Although the US federal education budget is only 12% of the total education expenditures, the US federal law was effective in mandating education to be provided to handicapped children. This noble cause and its cost burden fall on the local governments’ tax basis, unfortunately showing signs of being unsustainable. Not enough is known about ‘special education’ in China, a careful study of the model, management and financing for special education is definitely a worthy project. The US funding model relying more on local support not only has difficulty meeting federal mandates but also makes federal programs such as Race To The Top (RTTT) ineffective to improve or reach uniform standards in education.

The American teachers are generally well paid for their annual nine-month work through seniority pay but not necessarily at the entry level especially viewed as a 12-month job. Because of their unions' efforts, their workload is regulated to be modest and their retirement benefits are conducive to early retirement. Hence the American education system can easily lose good experienced teachers to early retirement and yet has difficulty removing incompetent ones. This creates an environment that discourages competition among teachers for excellence, which in turn influences students in losing a competitive spirit to face the highly competitive world when they grow up. You often hear American kids say that they are not good in math or in science; accepting such an attitude at a young age is the failure of the education system, whereas you would never hear that from Chinese kids; parents and teachers would not allow it. This competitive spirit creates 7 million college graduates each year in China, which is a significant factor for sustaining China's economic growth and a challenge for Americans.

American schools offer a better learning environment in terms of infrastructure and a more balanced curriculum with extra-curricular activities than other schools in the world. Relatively speaking, American students develop much faster in maturity physically and socially (especially sexually), but less rapidly intellectually (career mind and life responsibility). Nonetheless, there is now added attention towards career counseling in American high schools, but a high percentage of American high school graduates generally want to enter college even without having any idea what they want to achieve. The graduation rate in a four-year program is only 41% on average at 1207 American universities and colleges surveyed. Although no specific number for China is found, the graduation rate for Asian college students is much higher (Korea 61%, Japan 56%).


Another significant difference in comparing the education in the U.S. and China is the supplemental tutoring practice offered to students in each country. In China, due to the highly competitive tests for selecting students to enter higher level schools, many students will have tutoring classes on the subjects of math, science and English starting fairly young as long as they can afford them. By contrast, in the U.S. tutoring is rare except for high school students on SAT (test score used by college as one of the admission criteria). The affluent Americans would devote tutoring to arts, music, tennis, etc., but this phenomenon is happening in China as well, as the number of affluent Chinese families increases.

Education is an important and complex issue; it probably will never have a perfect system as people and times change. However, learning the differences and adopting them prudently is always the right thing to do.  

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Dr. Ifay Chang is the President of TLC Information Services (www.tlcis.us) and IPO2U.Com Inc. (www.ipo2u.com). He graduated from National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan with a B.S.in Electrical Engineering in 1963 and University of Rhode Island with a M.S.E.E. in 1966 and a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics in 1968. He was Senior Manager at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Computer Sciences from 1989-94 and Dean of Westchester Graduate School, Polytechnic University from 1998-2000. He has invented 20 US Patents in Computer I/O Devices, Display Technologies, Internet Telephony, etc., and is the creator of the World First Comprehensive On-line Teaching and Learning Platform – I-CARE system and other valuable English and Chinese language software and educational games. He is currently a member of the World Chinese Teaching Society (世界汉语教学学会), www.shihan.org.cn and also devotes his energy and wisdom to contribute to the society and to safeguard future generations in America and around the world through educational endeavors by serving and improving public schools, and participating in community services and political reform. He writes as a columnist as Dr.Wordman for US-ChinaForum.com and produces a weekly community education TV program - Scrammble Game Show. Contact information: ifaywanli@yahoo.com; phone no: 914-248-6770.
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