I visited several elementary and middle schools accompanied by two of my children. And in general, the level of math taught even in peasant schools is similar to that in my kids’ own excellent schools in the New York area.
My kids’ school system doesn’t offer foreign languages until the seventh grade. These Chinese peasants begin English studies in either first grade or third grade, depending on the school.
Frankly, my daughter got tired of being dragged around schools and having teachers look patronizingly at her schoolbooks and say, “Oh, we do that two grades younger.”
Kristof argues that Chinese students and schools perform so well primarily due to cultural dispositions. For example:
Chinese believe that those who get the best grades are the hardest workers. In contrast, Americans say in polls that the best students are the ones who are innately the smartest. The upshot is that Chinese kids never have an excuse for mediocrity.
China has an enormous cultural respect for education, part of its Confucian legacy, so governments and families alike pour resources into education. Teachers are respected and compensated far better, financially and emotionally, in China than in America.
Note that emphasized part — there’s a lot more to compensation of teachers than their salaries. Many Americans suppose that the quality of education received in school is directly proportional to the amount of money being pumped into the school. But money is not the problem, nor is curriculum, nor standardized testing or the lack thereof — culture is the problem. You have to have an educational system whose culture values learning, hard work, high standards, and intellectual pursuits, And the culture at large needs to reflect that too, to a great extent. And it’s there that I think we Americans are heading into serious trouble if things don’t change.