In the United States for the summer, Shanghai-based journalist Lenora Chu recently dropped off her son at a New England overnight camp. As he unloaded his belongings, 9-year-old Rainey asked Chu, "Mom, do I need my homework?"
The camp director overheard and assured the boy, "No homework here."
"My son just broke into a huge smile," said Chu, in a telephone interview from Maine. Chu is raising Rainey and his 6-year-old brother in a culture where there's always homework.
The decision by Chu and and her husband, Rob Schmitz, NPR’s Shanghai correspondent, to enroll their son in a Chinese school led to her book "Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve."
Threaded with Chu’s personal experiences as a parent in the state-run system, the book provides a narrative account of China’s much-vaunted education model in which the goals are excellence, diligence and compliance. (The book comes out in paperback next month.)
Chu encounters homogenizing discipline methods and fear-based motivators that would likely prompt some American parents to call social services and a lawyer.
For example, when 3-year-old Rainey begins an elite preschool refusing to eat eggs, his teachers forcefeed him. When he balks at napping, teachers warn him the police will take him away. Other willful acts by children are met with threats their mothers will not return to pick them up at the end of the day.
And this is preschool.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Texas, Chu said she still worries about the Chinese reliance on coercion and intimidation to establish order and routine, but added, "When I started to really think about it, I began to wonder if my anxiety was actually founded. Yes, there were some things that were unquestionably bad; children shouldn't be isolated in a room by themselves as punishment. But other things were cultural -- Chinese kids should eat eggs. My son loves eggs now. I needed to start unpacking it. Should I be anxious or is it a cultural thing I should adjust to?"
Another adjustment has been the Chinese faith in high-stakes testing, which determines children's fate throughout their schooling, culminating in the Gaokao or high exam for college entry.
A lot of students finish their high school studies in the sophomore year and cram for the exam for the whole year. At Hengshui Middle School in Hebei province, where more than 100 students earned admission to the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities, students have been given IV drips as they study, believing that it will help them with concentration and focus. Girls are given contraceptive pills to delay their periods until after the exam.
"The Chinese are more comfortable with test scores," said Chu. "They believe if children don't do well, it’s because they are not working hard enough. They don't take it as an inherent reflection on self-worth. “
That’s also why Chinese schools post children’s rankings across multiple measures -- height, weight, punctuality, performance -- at the classroom door for all to see.
“When the Chinese look at scores, it’s not an assessment of who’s better or worse,” she said. “It’s an assessment of progress, how the child is doing in relation to the others.”
Shanghai leads the world in math performance. And Rainey is now both strong in math and comfortable with it, even quizzing a fellow camper at a tennis camp about his top math score, something his mother reminded him is not a typical 2yconversation starter in the United States.
"Could he have gotten to where he is in math without the Chinese classroom?" asks the Ivy League educated Chu, who holds an engineering degree from Stanford and a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia. "I personally think math is important. Part of learning it is suffering through it and practicing.
“Look, the Chinese go overboard, but I have not seen an adverse effect on kids. The Chinese believe math skills are important, and they have math teachers teaching only math in the first grade. They look at every kid from age of 3 and believe they can learn math with enough effort,” she said
Chinese schools produce homogeneous and driven graduates, but critics contend the narrow and rigid approach doesn’t yield a diverse, independent-thinking and inventive workforce.
While Chu believes U.S. schools can benefit from China's contention all children are capable of high achievement through effort, she agrees it can gain from the value Americans place on individual children developing and following their own passions and interests.
"The Chinese system kills curiosity from a very early age. In American schools, teachers are always asking students, 'What do you think?' That is not happening in the Chinese classroom," she said.
Chu and her husband provide a less rule-driven and conforming environment at home, embracing the American belief that kids need freedom to take risks and find their path.
"Rainey is rambunctious. At a Chinese park, he is the kid going to the very edge. The Chinese are always telling their kids to be careful, that everything is dangerous,” said Chu. “But kids want to get dirty. They are not going to learn unless you let them explore."