Home > education, General > Interview with Dr. Edwina Pendarvis (II): Chinese vs. US Education

Interview with Dr. Edwina Pendarvis (II): Chinese vs. US Education

Question: If you can comment on the differences between the Chinese and US educational systems that would be great. If not, from your experience working with US students and Chinese students, what are some of the things that stand out to you as being very different? What could Chinese students learn from their US counterparts and what could American students learn from their Chinese counterparts?

Dr. Pendarvis: Lucky for you I know very little about the Chinese educational system, and so I won’t go on so long in answering this question! I can only talk about the few Chinese students I’ve worked with. They were ALL more intellectual and interested in ideas than most American students I’ve taught. They were also more respectful of others’ ideas, including the professors. Whatever their private thoughts, they consistently asked questions rather than dismissing others’ ideas without giving them much thought. One thing that I especially enjoyed about working with Chinese graduate students was that they seemed to care about ideas and once they felt comfortable were direct about what they wanted to know or wanted me to know. (I suffered from the stereotype of thinking that Asians were unlikely to say what they meant.) Though they were never impolite to me, the students did tell me when they didn’t see my point or didn’t agree with it. My experience is so limited, however, that I don’t know whether these students were typical of other Chinese students. You can surmise that what I wish many of my American students would learn from my Chinese students is respect for and interest in others’ ideas. In regard to the few Chinese students I’ve worked with, I can’t say what they could learn from their American counterparts. I know that usually teachers say that Asian students don’t participate actively in class discussions or are reluctant to disagree with their professors. One Japanese student I had–and I’ve only had two Japanese students–fit this stereotype. He was very circuitous on disagreeing with me, but he DID give me cues so that we could talk about it. I feel uncomfortable even commenting on this because my experience is too limited.

Question: Most Chinese students complain about excessive time spent in school and they are quite envious of their US counterparts. However, for lack of better methods, time on task can be a good predictor of learning outcome. In your opinion, to what extent does the school time matter? Is there a balance somewhere?
Balance is the key. How do children use their time? Many parents of gifted children don’t allow television or limit the time their children are allowed to watch it. Free time to play with other children is essential because children’s play allows them to use their imagination. Time for physical activity, too, and for being with the family. I think the school day here is about long enough—if we think an 8-hour day is a good workload for adults, we might not want to go beyond that for time in school for children. Now, I think here they’re in school about 7 hours. An hour or two for homework (on average) is important, too, in my opinion. More for older children who hope to pursue very competitive and demanding academic programs. But, hopefully, those children will also see homework as partly play!

I have to admit that I hate the idea of year-round school because I valued summer vacations so much as a child! I like summer enrichment classes, that offer art, music, dance, astronomy, etc. as part of a school’s vacation program, though. To me, such programs offer a good compromise between year-round school and nine- or ten-month schooling.

Question: It’s often observed that Chinese or other parents push their kids rather hard academically. Some American parents frown upon that practice and say that they don’t give these students “a life”. Chinese kids sometimes also say that their parents force them to go to things like piano lessons and Chinese schools while their American peers are enjoying sports and having fun. What would you say to these Chinese parents? Or Children?

Dr. Pendarvis: Again, balance seems to be the key. Parents of students who do the best in school do what Chinese parents do. I’m sorry to say I may be remembering inaccurately, but it seems to me that I’ve read that second-generation Asian-American students do less well than first-generation ones. If I’m remembering correctly, this lower achievement was attributed to changing family habits. As the family adopted American habits, the children’s achievement dropped. I can’t sorry to say I can’t remember where I read this; so I can’t say whether it’s a valid claim. I’m working with a parent right now, a mother who is from Sri Lanka. She has worked so hard to help her boy fulfill his potential and to get the best schooling for him. However, she finds him, as a teenager, resisting her efforts to get him to study hard and do his best. He is too easily satisfied because without trying very hard he can do better than his peers. Nonetheless, because he would like to go to MIT or Carnegie Mellon, she knows how essential it is that he excel far beyond what his natural inclinations to study would allow him. He has plenty of opportunities for fun, but has more demands on him from his mother and father than do his friends. I sympathize with her, and I think she’s doing the right thing. He has many opportunities for fun.

Question: From your perspective as a gifted education professor, do you feel a two-track high school system (putting gifted or high-achieving students in something like a key high school) is more beneficial or more detrimental to the overall educational system? Should the USA have special high schools that cater to high achievers, or should they be kept with the general student population? What are the most detrimental effects of students who graduate from lower tier high schools in China?

Research clearly shows that advanced classes help high-achieving students to learn more than they do in homogeneous classes. Research also clearly shows that moving high-achieving students through school more rapidly than other students helps them learn more than if they’re not accelerated. The detrimental effects on other students, after taking the top 2 to 10% out and putting them in advanced classes, have not been clearly demonstrated through research, though such effects are often given as the reason for not advancing high achievers here in the US. On the other hand, remedial classes for low-achievers have been shown to have detrimental effects on the students who are placed in them. Taking the top half of students away might be like creating a remedial class for the bottom half. It seems to me that that would show detrimental effects, but I don’t know research on this because we don’t do it much here anymore. I think advanced classes, advanced schools within schools, and even advanced high schools (such as key schools if I understand the concept correctly) are good ideas. Of course in an unfair economic system, such as ours, the benefits of such classes and schools go disproportionately to students from middle- and upper-class socioeconomic families. There should be concerted efforts to identify and develop the abilities of poor children. Our schools for the poorest children provide only a rudimentary education. I don’t know how these schools compare with lower tier high schools in China. I don’t think we should spend more money on high-achieving students in high school than we do on low-achieving students, however. When I said there should be advanced classes and special schools for high achievers, I didn’t mean that. They should be funded at levels comparable to other classes and schools. The extra cost is in just having extra classes and extra schools. I do want to stress that the research is overwhelming that high-achieving students benefit from advanced classes and/or acceleration. Not to provide those is to hold these students back.

Question: Speaking of student achievement in the secondary system, it seemed that the secondary education system in China performs better than the US system (judging from test scores). However, the US college education is still unparalleled in the world. Is this mainly a money/resource issue or does it have more to do with deeper cultural or structural factors? In other words, why those countries that are successful in secondary education can’t extend the trend to the college level? For instance, why are there more Americans winning the Nobel Prizes if student averagely perform poorly in their secondary schools?

I do see this success as having to do with resources put into colleges and universities; but I don’t have research to support my opinion. I don’t know how much money is spent in other countries, maybe it’s comparable. Here, we spend in Ohio, for example, about $9,500 on average per year for each K-12 student. One Ohio university says that it spends on average about $23,000 for each college student for year. This is probably typical in the US (but not for the top schools like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Harvard, etc., which spend much more per student.) I don’t know how these amount compare in the economies of other countries. But they are probably not the key to the success on indicators such as Nobel Prizes and major research successes. The key there is grant money, public and private, and research support for professors who are considered to be exceptional in their knowledge and creativity (especially in fields of importance to science and business.) Money for up-to-date facilities, such as laboratories and computer facilities, must be part of the US success. But keeping research professors happy by allowing them to teach mostly within their major area of interest may be part of the high quality in US universities. Really, I’m speaking in ignorance on this topic because I’m so unfamiliar with universities in other countries.

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  1. anon
    October 2nd, 2009 at 22:13 | #1

    As a first generation child of Chinese immigrants who don’t know much English, I can say that I’m grateful that my parents pushed me to get good grades and succeed. I was one of those kids who got forced into piano, had to go to Chinese school and of course, get straight A’s. I quit piano though, and looking back, I regret quitting. I stopped attending Chinese school and again, looking back, I definitely regret not having really taken out my time to seriously learn it. Now that I’m in college, I can understand and see why they suffered to help me get a good education.

  2. Berlin
    October 3rd, 2009 at 01:33 | #2

    Anon, I will read what you wrote to my kids right away!

  3. YinYang
    October 3rd, 2009 at 08:53 | #3

    Hi Berlin,

    Thoughtful questioning and interesting responses from Dr. Pendarvis.

    Her mentioning reading a study showed second generation Asian Americans do less well academically than first generation Asian Americans. I can see that. My parents were fairly against me playing organized team sports while in high school, and they priorized better grades over sports participation. The American view is that team sports help develop social skills important to doing well in society.

    Compared to how much facilities and resources dedicated to sports, I’d say the U.S. is far ahead in this area – in 9-12. I think as China continues to develop economically, this gap may close some day.

    Regarding university excellence – American capitalism also demands and rewards inventions, and NSF and other branches of the U.S. government allocates a lot of grants for research.

    I see that in the U.S., university researches are very often guided by Corporate America. If business innovation and competition is intense, that will tend to drive innovation in the universities.

  4. January 13th, 2010 at 19:56 | #4

    Interesting article – http://atimes.com/atimes/China/LA14Ad01.html.

    Should a Chinese national’s donation of $9 million to Yale (instead of to a Chinese school) trigger a rethinking of the Chinese educational system?

  5. berlinf
    January 13th, 2010 at 20:08 | #5

    It does. Lots of people are talking about this recently in the Chinese blogsphere. Here is my perspective on it:

    I think Chinese universities indeed fail to become more attractive to students and alumni. Part of it is because they traditionally depend on educational earmarks for their funding, so they don’t care what students do and how they think. US private universities depend on alumni giving as a bloodline.

  6. YinYang
    January 13th, 2010 at 20:54 | #6

    I was just happened to be on Stanford University’s campus last week and I noticed 2 massive buildings under construction. One is named after Lee KaShing and the other another Chinese name. The Tang family has donated tremendously to MIT, and there are couple of buildings on MIT campus named after Tang.

    I agree with Berlin’s take. I think as China’s economy develops, the linkage between universities and corporate China will deepen. That’ll open the floodgate, and Chinese universities will receive priorities from companies and philanthropists along with the RMB.

    The Chinese national’s $9 million to Yale opens a lot of doors too.

  7. r v
    January 23rd, 2010 at 04:49 | #7

    One thing though, US universities are run like businesses, but it is not a reflection of excellence of the education system.

    Afterall, US universities currently enjoy significant percentage of best brightest talents from other countries.

    Naturally, with so many talented people in 1 place, there is mutual learning and self-learning. It’s not that all these people are getting the best professors in the world.

    *Same can be said about why Silicon Valley has had most amount of regional high tech companies, and the Silicon Valley schools pump out significant amount of high tech start up Ceo’s.

    Why? network effect.

    Companies locate there, Students go there to study thinking they can get jobs, bank invest there because all the talents are there, rinse-dry-repeat.

    Yet, MIT is supposedly the best engineering school in US.

    In less than 10 years, Chinese CEO’s will be donating to their alma maters in China, the process is the same.

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