American students trail their Chinese peers in science because science is the linchpin of China's educational system.


SHANGHAI—For the uninitiated visitor, the campus of Nanyang High School—tucked off the highway that marks the southern border of downtown Shanghai—looks more like a carnival funhouse than a science magnet school.

Ancient solar clock on the grounds of Nanyang High School in Shanghai, China   Credit: Mara Hvistendahl

On the roof of its central building, three turbines spin frantically. Anchored in the lawn is a fourth propeller, connected via wires to a rusty speaker. Inlaid in the middle of the sidewalk is a tiled bull’s-eye. Nearby, a goat grazes on the lawn.

It was only after I received a tour from school principal Wang Yiquan that the very serious intentions behind these bizarre accouterments became apparent. The turbines, along with solar panels, power the school as well as educate its students about alternative energy. The bull’s-eye is used during physics lessons on acceleration, and the goat is a favorite among biology students. Elsewhere on campus are two solar clocks (one an ancient Chinese model that relies on the shadow cast by a thin wire, the other, a towering modern affair), a sound-operated water mill and a quiet pond covered with lily pads that bursts to life when a sign next to it is touched.

The gadgets are apparently working: Nanyang is one of China’s prestigious “key schools,” a designation awarded to a select number of schools with strong academic reputations that ensures priority in funding and teacher selection.

The school’s combination of an innovative, hands-on approach to education and demanding, results-oriented lessons have, moreover, made it a model for both foreign and domestic educators. The hall of Nanyang’s main building is adorned with portraits of the dozen former students who have gone on to leadership positions in the Chinese Academy of the Sciences. In September, Nanyang will host a conference of science administrators from around the world.

“Flashy numbers aside, the fundamental reason for China’s success is a no-brainer: The Chinese curriculum places a strong emphasis on math and science.”

The American observers might have the most to learn when they visit Nanyang.

The US education system has been periodically compared to its Chinese counterpart since the 1960s, when it first became apparent that Asian students performed better on international academic assessment tests than Americans. That performance disparity is felt more acutely now that China shows increasing economic strength, and now that the US faces a shortage of foreign-born researchers that are the lifeblood of American science. With President Bush focused on his nation’s competitiveness, American educators are looking to schools like Nanyang to figure out what makes China so successful in science education.

“Math, science, engineering and technology skills are at the center of the innovation economy that we’re all in,” said Michael Levine, executive director of education for New York’s Asia Society, which released a report this May that attempts to explain, with input from Chinese administrators and Ministry of Education officials, why the science test scores of US students lag behind their Chinese peers.

The report, titled “Math and Science Education in a Global Age: What the US Can Learn from China,” includes some startling statistics: First, China consistently performs well on international benchmarks despite having to serve 20% of the world’s students with only 2% of its educational resources. Chinese students spend 200 days in school, compared with 180 for US students; they also spend twice as much time studying outside of school. Despite a computer-to-student ratio as low as 1:186 in some provinces, Chinese teachers are, on average, better trained in science, with a higher percentage holding science degrees.

Flashy numbers aside, the fundamental reason for China’s success is a no-brainer: The Chinese curriculum places a strong emphasis on math and science.

Students attending Nanyang High School spend as much as a third of each day studying science in preparation for China’s rigorous college entrance examinations, which strongly emphasize math and science skills. In contrast, according to a 2000 survey conducted in the US, only 18% of graduating high school students had taken advanced courses in biology, chemistry or physics. Only half of the states requiring high school exit exams test for science knowledge.

Wang Yiquan, principal of Nanyang High School   Courtesy of Wang Yiquan

Developed at a time when there were abundant opportunities for unskilled workers, the US system is now desperately in need of reform. But mimicking China’s system is by no means a blanket solution for American education woes.

China gets low marks in encouraging the creative thinking that is vital to long-term scientific success.

“The extremely strong focus on science in China and East Asia needs to be connected to the work on innovation and creativity and more flexible approaches that are used in the US and some other Western countries,” said Asia Society’s Levine.

At least for now, China is leading at blending East and West. Its most promising quality may be the willingness among its administrators—living as they are in a society that is embracing change—to reform and incorporate new methods.

The Chinese system is often criticized for placing undue emphasis on test scores, with admission to high school and university determined almost exclusively by exam scores, but Nanyang High School occasionally accepts students with low scores who show promise in science. What’s more, it recently took a cue from US schools in introducing afternoon elective classes in subjects unconnected to college entrance exams. With such reforms, principal Wang, who holds a chemistry degree, hopes to turn out well-rounded students who don’t see the college entrance examinations as all-important.

“Because of how quickly the 21st century is developing,” he told me, “the learning process is very important. We want to teach them how to go learn and research by themselves about things that are not on the test.”

So it seems that China is learning from the US. The question now is whether the US can learn from China.

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Originally published July 13, 2006


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