China-US Flags

Chinese and American Education system

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education ( pointed out that the US and Chinese education systems were moving in opposite directions.  Put simply China was embracing a more liberal approach that embraces skills and creativity and downplays rote learning.  Meanwhile the US is embracing astandards driven agenda that attempts to precisely define what knowledge children should know.  Within this system high stakes standardised tests assess both students and – by implication – the quality of their schools.  This focus encourages teachers and schools to teach to the test and screen out any more interesting work with students.

So what are we to make of all this and who is right?  There are three factors at work here.  The first is the background of each country’s education system; the second is their current economic positions and the third is the way each country operates its public services such as schools.

The Chinese system stretches back several millennia.  It has a history of formal education that delivers high levels of literacy and knowledge to, at first, an elite class of bureaucrats that effectively ran the country.  In the past century the system has been expanded and adapted to cater for all Chinese children.  So far so good.  But a modern economy demands imaginative effective and creative people.  Since China’s economy now heads towards being the largest in the world it is no surprise that the government has considered the issues around creativity seriously and now counts this as a major aim for the education system over the next quarter of a century.

Compare that with the American situation.  Here a once pre-eminent economic power is in comparative decline.  People wonder if this hasn’t got something to do with a too liberal education system.  Consequently the cry has gone up for the introduction of standardised testing and specifying what children should know when they leave school.  This policy has been reinforced by the Federal government in programmes such as ‘No child left behind’ and ‘Race to the Top.’   Although the government has no responsibility for education such programmes offer additional education dollars to states that take part.  As a consequence US schools – desperate for money as local sources have dried up due to economic conditions – have taken the government money and changed their curriculums accordingly.

Of the two approaches I would say that the Chinese is the more enlightened.  We really don’t know much about the future but what we do know is that advanced economies like China’s gradually shift away from low paid manufacturing to develop both service industry jobs and more hi-tech manufacturing jobs.  We also know that such economies are driven by innovation – new ideas for businesses combining service with technology.  It is pretty much young people that have both the ideas themselves and the ability to turn them into reality.  So such skills are now as  important as academic skills to move economies forward.  Consequently the Chinese approach to encourage children to think imaginatively about problem solving is a good one.

America by contrast may not be looking forward but looking backward in its educational approach.  Seemingly the thinking is that if they just repeated what their education system had done in the past then future success would be assured.  Sadly the education processes that served an industrial past so well are not the processes that will build a future economy based on intelligence.  In a way the nature of intelligence has changed as technology has developed.  Today,  social , technical and networking skills are vital for the development of new ideas and new opportunities.  It was the American sociologists the Lynns writing in 1939 who made the link between old people and societies in advanced stages of decline.  They noted that old people tend to look back to their youth, a time of success and triumph and in much the same ways societies undergoing decline also tend to look backwards and to seek solutions from the past.

Lastly the difference between China and America can also be seen in the way both countries operate their schools.  America has tried to embrace market mechanisms to improve schools whilst China has stuck to its socialist traditions.  The market approach has built competition between schools but despite billions of dollars the system itself is very variable.  The Chinese system, on the other hand, lacks competition and other market incentives, but it is able to move forward consistently on a broad front.  Not burdened with short term electoral cycles – as in the US –  China can commit itself to a long term steady approach to developing innovative schools and innovation in its education system.

education problem

Defining the education problem

Beyond the curriculum there are a wider set of issues relating to change:

Teaching and the work of teachers: How can this be made more effective?  What does effective look like?  How can we better motivate teachers to contribute effectively?  Why does a highly educated workforce  often behave in orthodox highly unionised ways?  Why are teachers often the victims of  change rather than the leaders of it? And why are training models so especially ineffective, yet everyone still follows them?  In a world where knowledge is no longer in short supply is the teacher’s role still to be driven by this particular skill?  The underlying issue here is how teacher work models might be changed to ensure both better outcomes for children as well as a more modern context within which the work of education might be undertaken.  In some ways, of course, it becomes a ‘chicken and egg’ problem: which to change first, the pedagogy or the teachers?

Student Motivation:  It is perhaps unsurprising that the renewed interest in education shown by parents, teachers and the state and the consequent increase in both the scale and importance of examinations, was generally not welcomed by students.  The lives that children lead beyond school have experienced significant change with the arrival of the internet, mobile phone and computer.  This re-shaping of both social and maturational environments for the young has not been matched by similar change within schools. Indeed, the increasingly ‘high stakes testing’ regimes that have emerged have often resulted in more traditional teaching and learning environments for students.

An additional issue here is that students today are different from those of say 50 years ago.  The connected world they live in means that their knowledge and understanding of  a host of issues is far more sophisticated than those of similar ages  in the past.  Their expectations of both school and life may be far greater and in a world that can customise goods and services to their own tastes and desires, they can increasingly see school as an outmoded anachronism.  As one Australian student put it, ‘Going to school is just like getting on an airplane.  Everything is turned off for 7 hours and then you get to resume your life.’

The fact that previous generations learned by rote and in passive ways is not supported by the needs and demands of today’s students, so the question of motivation and personalisation remains a key one.  And in a world where anyone can create knowledge and publish it on the web, how do schools tap into this huge creative upsurge amongst the young and use it to drive improvements in more narrow examination performance?

Technology:  Often seen as the salvation of education, technology has failed to act as an all encompassing moderniser.  In some schools around the world technology is doubtlessly far advanced (see Hi Tech Hi School in the USA) and used in creative and innovative ways (such as Singapore), but in most it is a mere bolt on productivity tool using the suite of Office software to word process, make powerpoints and do some web research.  The question here then is how can schools use technology in more effective ways and generate efficiency savings via its use?  Simply giving students and teachers more laptops does not seem very effective and reflects a model of school change where new items are simply attached to old ones. Rather bit like harnessing a horse to pull a car, the worst of both worlds is achieved simultaneously.

Metrics:  Schools are becoming quite adept at measuring and monitoring student academic progress and targeting students who are not achieving the desired grades, but they remain weak in the areas of assessing and reporting social competences.  Yet, we know increasingly from research, (REF Heckman) that non cognitive skills can be as significant as cognitive ones in terms of improving life chances.  James Heckman argues that  non cognitive skills are critical for both longer term social success and are needed within the burgeoning service economies  then they should be  both actively taught and measured within schools.  It is these ‘soft’ or non cognitive skills that can be influenced and improved through appropriate tuition – unlike cognitive skills which are largely innate.

Management models:  How is all this to be managed? What sorts of management structures might be needed to operate a newly refocused school model?  The rise of the ‘leadership’ cult in recent years has emphasised the need for such skills often depicted within quite complex depictions of management competencies.  Training programmes have emerged to support these,  but the essential point is often missed. That might be defined as what such structures look like.


All of these issues are of course closely interwoven one with the other.  But together they offer a useful agenda of the components of change, the variable factors that together might be combined to reshape educational experience and improve outcomes in a variety of areas.

Given the conservative nature of governments and their addiction to short term electoral cycles of four or five years at most, it is unlikely that any government would ever be able to implement the kinds of change we have written about.  Voters too are likely to be cautious and get caught in a trap of, on the one hand, recognising the realities of the new labour market, yet on the other being fearful of seemingly experimenting with their own child’s education.  So an educational with ‘traditional features’ remains the preferred choice.

But outside policy circles there are some new realities for most countries around the world as the demand for jobs in the service sector  increase year on year.  The shift in employment skills demand is shown in the slide below.  These changes reflect the fact that employment is increasingly located in service industries.

(Ref: Andreas Schleicher; we will need his permission to use this)


Within advanced countries between 70 and 80 per cent of an economy is now devoted to the service sector.  This is defined by the US Census Bureau as comprising thirteen sectors:  Utilities; transportation and warehousing; information; finance and insurance; real estate and rental and leasing services; professional, scientific and technical services; management of companies and enterprises; administrative ad support and waste management and remediation services; educational services; health care and social assistance; arts entertainment and recreation;  accommodation and food services and food services and drinking places. (ref:

Manufacturing although still important increasingly employs fewer people and those that it does employ tend to be more skilled than in previous generations.  The UK experience is instructive: in 1980 6.5 million people were employed in manufacturing.  Today it is 2.5 million, yet output is up 70 per cent.  (p42 Demos report The Forgotten Half)

The issue here is how skills might be both usefully taught and, how the academic curriculum that dominates might be modernised and redeveloped.  A factory education model may well have been appropriate for preparing people for a factory age, but what would a service driven curriculum look like?  And how might skills be assessed alongside or within a conventional curriculum?