Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance

Ohanian Comment: Quote from this in a letter to editor or op ed in your local newspaper. Yong Zhao is University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State.

Here is the poignant statement of a Chinese student: "You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day."

I saw with my own eyes student study carrels in a Seoul middle school, where students study until 10 or 11 p.m.

With the homework now piled on US students, we seem to be striving toward this goal.

The Seoul teachers' union had asked me to give a speech warning political candidates against NCLB, which they feared would make their already dire cram-for-test situation worse. I asked to go early and tour the schools.

by Yong Zhao

Big news! China has become the best education nation, or at least according to some experts and politicians. Chinese students (a sample from Shanghai) outscored 64 countries/education systems on the most recent PISA, OECD's international academic assessment for 15 year olds in math, reading, and science.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees this as a "wake-up call" and Chester Finn, an influential education expert who served in the Reagan's Department of Education, likens it to "sputnik," the man-made satellite launched by the former Soviet Union in 1957 that startled America. And the New York Times published the story with the title: "Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators." (By the way, here is a story by ABC.com that takes a different perspective.)

I don't know why this is such a big surprise to these well educated and smart people. Why should anyone be stunned? It is no news that the Chinese education system is excellent in preparing outstanding test takers, just like other education systems within the Confucian cultural circle—Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.

Interestingly, this has not become big news in China, a country that loves to celebrate its international achievement. I had thought for sure China's major media outlets would be all over the story. But to my surprise, I have not found the story covered in big newspapers or other mainstream media outlets. I have been diligently reading xinhuanet.com, the official web portal for Xinhua News Agency, China's state-controlled media organization, but have yet found the story on the front page or on its education columns. Instead, I found a story that has caught the attention of many readers (in Chinese) that provides the real reason behind Chinese students’ top performance.

The story, entitled "A Helpless Mother Complains about Extra Classes Online, Students Say They Have Become Stupid Before Graduation," follows a mother's online posting complaining about how her child’s school’s excessive academic load have caused serious physical and psychological damages:

Since my daughter began 7th grade (first year of middle school), she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don’t have any self-study time, or physical education classesâ€Â¦

This kind of practice has seriously damaged students' health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child's health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit. She has begun to lose her.

This is not the end. After coming home after 10pm, she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5am. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?

The posting has received lots of comments online praising the mother’s courage and adding more exposures of similar experiences.

"I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school," says one student. "You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day," says another student to the reporter.

That's the secrete: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.

But is this what we want for our children? Mr. Arne Duncan should read the letter from the mother because it should be the true wake-up call for him.

— Yong Zhao





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.