What Chinese people really think of US schools

We all know that kids in China outscore kids in the US on math and science tests. This gap exists between schools in China and the UK as well. And guess what the UK and US are doing to close the gap? Extending the school day.

Some school districts extend the school day literally, by keeping kids in school longer, or over the summer.  Some school districts (usually the rich ones) can’t extend school hours because kids have extracurricular activities, so schools give more homework, which, in effect, extends the school day.

When it comes to creative thinking, entrepreneurship, Nobel prize winners, etc, the US does much better than China. Yet here’s what China is doing: Decreasing the school day.

China recognizes that critical thinking and creative problem solving come from kids learning for themselves rather than having the teacher spoon-feed information. Quanyu Huang, of Miami University, shows how US educators are under the delusion that our school system promotes these skills. China is under no such illusions.

China is recognizing what homeschool advocates like Peter Gray from Boston College have been saying for years: Kids need free time to play and discover their passions. Get ready: education in the Age of Globalization will be test-free, and in the US the kids who will compete best will be those who leave the school system.

The best evidence of this trend? Waldorf is taking off in China. These photos are from Carolyn Drake’s trip to the Chengdu Waldorf School where there is a five-year waiting list.

Waldorf is notorious for not teaching kids to read until they ask to learn. Waldorf kids play pretty much non-stop until third grade. And self-directed learning rules the day. Every day. Until high school, when kids focus solely on their year-long passion project.

In the US, Waldorf is typically the school of choice for parents who believe in self-directed homeschooling but choose not to do it themselves.

So if you want to ensure your kids can compete in the workplace of the future, forget Mandarin. Everyone will speak English. Focus instead of homeschooling. Test-based schooling will be the ghetto of the 21st century.


32 replies
  1. Melita
    Melita says:

    I read about Waldorf schooling taking off in China in The New Yorker – did Melissa send you the link? I’ve been reading Peter Gray and looking closely at the school he says is great – Sudbury Valley School, inspired by A.S Neill’s Summerhill. The more I read about it, the more it makes sense, but it still requires such a leap of faith to actually do it…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Ha ha! Melissa is, of course, my main source for all things China. But I found this after I overheard some women talking about how Waldorf is huge in China. I had to see for myself, and this article popped up.


  2. sarah
    sarah says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Nice article. As I struggle with allowing video games I keep reading your blog hoping to find a good article convincing me to let my kids do video games. I noticed Waldrof is against video games.


    . I have looked at the statistics about playing and many people agree real-life simulation video games are great. So that makes me feel better about minecraft.

    If schools are wrong because kids are forced to stay still, not use their imagination, and concentrate on only one skill, then how are video games different? Except for minecraft, butt they are still sitting still still. …

    What I have noticed most about video game kids it’s about after 2 hours of play with other kids they “burn out ” and stop. Non video kids keep going. They might stop for a snack, our change the type of play. I have also noticed video game kids are poor communicators.

    These are just things I have noticed. The research isn’t really out there because we are raising the first generation. Genx was semi introduced, but still limited. Reading about Waldrof and the arguments for it made me think about how school and video games seem alike….

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    When my older son was in the 4th grade, he friended a boy from China who showed up in his class because his parents, both lawyers in China, had come here to study law for a year. Apparently that’s a thing among Chinese lawyers these days.

    Anyway, I got to know the family and they said all the things you might expect about how our fourth-grade experience was neither as rigorous nor as advanced as what he experienced in China. But they were still glad for the experience because there was so much less pressure in school here. Mom was still a bit of the tiger mom, leaning on her boy hard to do well, but even that felt like a vacation to the boy compared to what he faced back home.

    They called me out of the blue last summer: they were back in the States. They swung by the house for dinner and it was so great to see them. The boy is now 17; they were dropping him off at some private school in either Wisconsin or Minnesota, I forget which, where he’ll finish high school. But my takeaway is that there is something compelling about the American experience.

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      I spent the last year in the uk.

      Every person I spoke with – doctors, police officers, teachers, friends, had the same ‘googley eyed’ reaction to coming to live in the states. Kid you not, even when I pointed out things that they do better in UK, it was met with unbelievable denial.

      America does a great job of marketing itself.

      People will see what they want to see.

    • Lucy Chen
      Lucy Chen says:

      I know exactly what you are saying, Jim. I went to school in China until I was 16. I have school friends from then who now have kids going to primary schools, and my sister-in-law has just graduated from high school last year.

      What Penelope has said here, and linked to the article, is some education official’s, well official answers, to what is happening at and outside Chinese schools. The pressure is mounting high. A 6-year-old’s school bag can weight as much as 10kg. And they already have to do homework till midnight (the “smart” ones may do it faster, but the not-so-academic or slower ones have trouble finishing their daily homework).

      What’s more? The kids do not have weekends, because Saturdays and Sundays are spent in private tutorial classes for Maths and English and then as they get older, Physics and Chemistry. And then, they have to cope with the homework from these tuts before the next weekend comes.

      It needs to change. As Penelope has pointed out here, this kind of education system does nothing to encourage the younger generation’s creativity and innovation. In fact, I think the Communist Government is trying to rip the ability of any independent thinking off the Chinese people, so that they can continue their corrupted ruling for longer.

      If real changes are going to happen to China’s education and help the kids, it needs a lot lot more work. The teachers’ compensation, promotion, the school’s reputation, level of funding, well, and the bribes the school stuff and the ones working in education get, are dependent on the kid’s exam marks.

      Perhaps it is fair to draw comparison to America’s medical reform – it is at least as complicated as that, or 10x more.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Very interesting post on some things people in China are doing to educate their children. I agree with ideas such as decreasing the school day and promoting free time to play, discover their passions, and to self-direct. I didn’t read the links in this post but intuitively I think it’s also important to give kids time and space to absorb and reflect on input their receiving from their environment. I think it can be overwhelming for them at times to process everything coming at them all at once.
    It’s important to be aware of what other cultures are doing including education. There’s always something that may be learned or something to make you question your own status quo. However, there are some things that people do in one area of the world that may or may not be transferable on a larger scale or for another reason. Making comparisons is something we all do to some extent but they themselves can become the source of a problem.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Just to add, why are some people so obsessed with trying to “be like China”? From my understanding they copy a lot of what we have originally created; our technology, etc.

    I think longer school days, longer class times, is the wrong way to go. I would vote for shorter school days, and less class time and no homework.

    Sometimes I think the people in charge forget that we are a melting pot of many different kinds of learners with various backgrounds and cultures, but they still want us to emulate a country that is completely homogenous…

    Take the good stuff from Waldorf, Montessori, and Homeschoolers and try to work that into traditional school, more parents and mentors in classrooms; more outside play and fieldtrips and less traditional teachers and no classroom instruction for elementary.

    Maybe my nephew wouldn’t have to be drugged up on Ritalin if school was set up this way; they just increased his dosage… I had to hold back the tears, he was like a zombie, no appetite, didn’t care about getting toys when we took him to the store… is this what we do to boys now? He is such a good kid, he’s just a boy and can’t sit still in class. I’m tortured by what I saw in him that day.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think the age of being super connected is very recent. So the momentum of trying to be like China or whatever other nation that we think are being successful is too strong to halt right away.
      For the longest time we have believed that standardized testing is the way to go and if your kid does well in testing then he/she is a genius. But slowly people are starting to realize that’s not the case.
      It makes me cringe when people compare US parenting (for example) to French parenting. UGH! Or say things like “why French women don’t get fat.”

      Lately, a lot of people who think they are the creme de la creme tout Norway and Scandinavian countries as the happiest place on earth and how they must be doing it right.
      Ok, maybe. But still, the US still produces the most art, tech advancements, etc. than socialized nations. So there must be something to it.
      As an immigrant to the US I recognize a lot of things I don’t like and a lot of great things about this country. One of the best things I love about the US is the ability to go against the grain and find your own groove.

      Like homeschooling.

      A lot of people will say all kinds of crazy things about unschooling or whatever style you chose but you’ll always find people to connect with that are carving their own path.
      It feels like homeschooling parents are always at risk of losing the ability to make their own decisions for their kids rather than allowing the state to make them for their family. Some states are better than others about this. I think WA state is one of the better places for homeschooling. But I doubt that in Norway they’ll let you homeschool your kid. The current of the culture is so strong that even though families have 1 year of maternity paid leave (both parents) they just don’t take advantage of all of it.

      So maybe we try to look to other countries because we deem them successful. But people who are confident and self possessed don’t wish the US would be more like other countries. They just take what they see is working somewhere else and try to apply it and mold it to make it work here. They just make their own way.

      • Rea
        Rea says:

        The word you’re looking for in that difference is “culture.” French parents parent differently because French culture is different.
        You can actually homeschool your kid in Norway. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeschooling_international_status_and_statistics#Europe ) but most people don’t do it.
        The reason why you have so many people following their own grains in the US is because we have a more multicultural culture. We come from so many different cultures and steal bits from all of them. Plus we have a very strong homeschooling traditions (Abe Lincoln was homeschooled!!!), which other countries don’t have.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          in addition, in the US the individualism is much more pronounced – as in: finding MY passion, doing what works for ME, have to have exactly tailored schooling to MY abilities. It is good on one hand, but it also can limit the willingness to see and follow other approaches which might not come as naturally to a person.

          • Rea
            Rea says:

            I noticed last time we were in Scandinavia that my husband (who is from Scandinavia) doesn’t really fit in well there. The culture is very humble, they don’t like to brag or show off and are rather content to be average. He couldn’t figure out how his former classmates could still be satisfied still studying or just working for a pittance. And I realized that drive to achieve and stick out and do better than others are some of the more “American” traits that he has in him and, in that way, he fits in better in the US than in Scandinavia.

    • Heather Bathon
      Heather Bathon says:

      Dear YMKAS,

      I don’t know if this will make you feel better , or not, about your nephew’s situation (taking Ritalin), but after two years of homeschooling my daughter, we finally put her on an ADHD med. School was a problem, but taking her out didn’t make everything better.

      My guess is that most parents, myself included, think pretty hard before medicating their kids. I know my thinking about ADHD changed from a false idea that it is generally over-diagnosed and cavalierly diagnosed; I now accept the idea that ADHD is a neurological disorder, after investing time in drilling into the topic. The right medication can make an enormous difference in a child’s ability to control their impulses, which reduces negative outcomes academically, socially and emotionally. The bottom line is with increased self-control comes increased self-worth and well being.

      Perhaps your nephew isn’t yet on the right med for him – it’s pretty common for kids to go through 4 to 6 med trials before the right one is found. I’m betting he and his parents could use extra sympathy and support during what may be a trying time getting on the right track.



      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Aw thanks Heather. I wish that was more comforting to me. Unfortunately, the situation involving my nephew is more complex than that. I’ve known him his whole life, had him stay with us for several weeks, he’s 9, and he does not need to be on Ritalin for any reason, other than to sit still in school. His mother is poor and single and had him when she was a teenager, and she doesn’t know any better.

        My brother, the father, has nothing to do with them… if you know anything about PT’s dad, then me comparing my brother to him is not a stretch and definitely needs to stay away, I’ll just leave it at that.

        So the few moments that I get to see him are treasured and my whole family loves him and tries to make up for my brother abandoning him. It’s hard because he’s got the very high IQ that my brother has (160+). I know his mom loves him and does the best she can, that’s why I don’t say anything. I just try to give what I can when I get the chance. I don’t want to lose the time that I do get with him by saying something that might upset his mom.

        If it’s truly a matter of finding the right dose (he clearly had too much this last time) then I hope it happens quickly.


    • Kim
      Kim says:

      I think the fact that the Chinese “copy” technological innovations isn’t the point. Many countries attempt to “copy” from other countries. China happens to be one of the only countries that does it right. I think that’s what makes the Chinese stand out, their ability to emulate so successfully.

      I agree, there is really no reason a child should step into a classroom until late middle to high school. However, it begs the question of why classrooms are needed at all.

      It’s sad that this is what’s happening to boys, when so much is expected from them by society when they get older. I’m seeing more and more boys become unattached vegetables.

  6. Andrew M.
    Andrew M. says:

    Agree on the conclusion (“ghetto of the 21st Century…”)…

    Both my kids have attended Waldorf (one still does). There is a lot to like. The earlier grades are very home-based. Cooking takes up a good chunk of the morning in kindergarten…Teachers wear aprons.

    Waldorf is anti-technology…you aren’t supposed to have any TV or video games at home. I think of “liberal” Waldorf schools as the ones where everyone kinds of winks at stuff like this. There are two kids on our school bus who play their violent video games all the way into the parking lot…(not just Candy Crush).

    All of this anti-technology rhetoric has the effect of making everyone very hypocritical. Kids gather on the playground to talk about TV shows in hushed whispers, afraid to get busted.

    Waldorf is also deeply into rote learning – kids copy handwriting (they all have beautiful handwriting) and similar.

    The heart of Waldorf, for me, are the beautiful hand-illustrated research/project books the kids create…and the supremely dedicated teachers.

    Which is where I’d place the bulk of Waldorf’s success: hugely dedicated (and smart) teachers operating in a culture where families care about education. All the research shows that a killer-great teacher is worth 3 mediocre ones.

    So it almost (within reason) doesn’t matter on the pedagogy…small classes, great teachers, caring families…lots of natural, unrushed work…BOOM!

    Which is a way of bringing this back to homeschooling: how many of us can be rockstar teachers to an 8 year old? A 14 year old?

  7. Frank
    Frank says:

    I have to disagree with the description of Waldorf schools that Penelope highlights.

    We just pulled out our kid after one year of kindergarten at one. The open play was very limited in duration and even then the activities were limited. But saying that, it’s still a far cry from public ed, which in our area has cut out open play from all K4 & K5 and very limited recess (as in if you gobble down your lunch quickly, you can go lean on a wall and chat outside for 15).

    To state that the children play non-stop until 3rd grade is untrue, perhaps the Chinese Waldorfs are different? They follow a standardized curriculum here in the states (w flexibility built in, but standardized none the less). In 1-8th grade, the only open play is during recess. And it is rote memory & regurgitation (but granted it is nothing at all like public schools) and the whole class is lead from activity to activity, there are no options for self directed activities at all.

    Montessori is the school system that is based on self directed learning. But a very, very limited rendition of self directed education (the standard public school curriculum done at your own pace with far less work sheets) – nothing creative or inventive about it, all self limiting (as in only one correct way to do the activity).

    I do have respect for both those types of schools, they’re doing a lot right… sometimes I think of them as an idealized version of the public school system. But frankly, I don’t necessarily mean that as a complement. They may not be soul crushing, but they certainly do not foster passion and do ultimately simply reward jumping through hoops.

    We took great financial risks to start homeschooling and so far haven’t looked back.

  8. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Chinese students have only one option to get into university: the exam (gaokao) which will determine their entire future. Anyone with enough money in China sends their kids abroad to escape the system. Those who don’t have the cash are looking into other options, like Waldorf. However this means their children will not be able to succeed within the Chinese university system as it currently stands. Their only options lie overseas – or as charismatic, renegade entrepreneurs (because, as in the US, wealth earns more respect than degrees) within China.

    The Waldorf people here are mostly foreign-educated or quite cosmopolitan. Their children sometimes have foreign passports so are not eligible for local schools. All these families are the exception and not really a trend anywhere in the country aside from a tiny bohemian percentage of the upper-middle-class.

  9. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    Short and sweet. Maximum impact in minimal words.

    (Also, there’s a typo in your 2nd to last sentence.)

  10. Caty
    Caty says:

    I think you are connecting dots that don’t connect to make a whole picture. There may be popular Waldorf schools in China, but the state schools are still very strict in China. My son’s former foster mom is a teacher in China, and she was very much in favor of him learning as much as he could as early as he could. I don’t dare tell her I homeschool; I know she would disapprove. Her attitude is still very much like the attitude described in the Tiger Mom book. Kindergarten, I think, does start a year or two later, but privileged kids as young as 2 and 3 go to boarding school. Have you seen the Al Jaeerza documentary on the Chinese school in Wuhan? The full length one used to be online, but all I could find now is this 7 minute clip on you tub https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_jMfvDJueI. Teachers are very respected in China, and parents will consult teachers on discipline issues in the home and kids are very reverent of their teachers (not saying this is right or wrong, but very different than our culture where every decision of the teacher is second-guessed). School is long, but kids are sent home in the middle of the day for a long lunch break. You will see groups of elementary age kids with no adult chaperone on their way to or from their lunch break. School then is over at 6 pm when parents can pick up their child after work.

    One reason Asian students are good in math is that Asian languages do not have the words for the teen numbers backwards like we do. The nomenclature is consistent for the teens, with you saying the tens place first and then the ones place second just like you do for the other numbers. It may not sound like a big deal, but this is huge, even for more advanced math. This makes mental math much easier. Asian students are also expected to memorize voluminous amounts of information, unlike students here.

    • Kim
      Kim says:

      I disagree with you on the reason why Asian students do better in mathematics. If it were a matter of more content being forced at them in, simply, a different way. It wouldn’t make sense why they also excel outside of math quite better than their American counterparts.

      Also, 2nd generation Asians who have never stepped foot overseas harbor these same characteristics. I believe it’s the fact that Asian cultures are more driven and focused in their pursuits, mathematics or not.

      They, often don’t have the same vices that might hold Americans back. However, they don’t have that much zeal or fervor about certain American pursuits that could get them sidetracked. It’s more of a cultural thing, not a matter of different approaches to math.

      Like the point that was mentioned in Penelope’s other articles. Academic achievement often has little to do with success. Asians possess a certain grit, that cannot be taught in schools or achieved through excellence in math.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        Russia would be another example of a country where students excel in math and sciences – there is a strong tradition of pursuing these fields. This is not the case in the US (and some other countries) – one just has to consider that the National Science Foundation was only founded in the 1950. Before that research was to a large extent pursued to develop weapons, or if you could find a private sponsor.

        • Kim
          Kim says:

          Agreed redrock, most Americans have different pursuits rather than math and science, and these just so happen to be the subjects that rule the world. However, just being smart or “good at” something doesn’t always equate success. There needs to be something more to keep you going when the going gets tough and it’s arguable to say that certain countries have a more clearer view of that.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I was more referring to a tradition in math and sciences then to premonition of what will be important in the future. But I am curious – you say “…most Americans have different pursuits rather than math and science, and these just so happen to be the subjects that rule the world.” What do you refer to with subject that rule the world? I would say that math and science are a huge part of what our daily lives “run on”.

      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        Caty wrote “one reason” not “the reason”. And after teaching students in Asia, I have to agree, that is ONE reason. Mathematics in Asian languages is more straightforward than doing it in English (or, worse, in European languages like the ridiculously convoluted French system).
        Another reason is math is much simpler to master than Chinese, according to my Chinese students. And finally, parental approval of one’s career track – which tends to be status- and income-oriented rather than ‘creatively/personally fulfilling’ – tends to be a more important consideration than it is to western students. Not a bad thing. However I many friends who were raised in this system who feel they have no choices or control in their lives, whether they are ruling or running the world.

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