The release of the latest results of the worldwide standardized test for high school students, aka PISA, caused a little kerfuffle when the Shanghai high school students posted top scores across the board, and when the American students came in well down the list.
My friend Lucia Pierce, a China scholar and teacher who now lives in Shanghai and counsels Chinese high school students hoping to enroll in US colleges, talked about some possible reasons behind the results on the Kojo Nnamdi show on NPR recently. She made a few points about the process and philosophy of Chinese education that likely contribute to a good showing by Chinese students. One is the self-disciplined approached that characterizes how Chinese students approach their schooling and the other is the belief in China that education is the path to success in life.
A very interesting comment tucked into a recent article comparing some of the trials and tribulations of expat Chinese and American businessmen in the Economist, illustrates the self-discipline point with a Confucian twist. A Western beauty products company that sells its wares door-to-door in China came up with the idea of recruiting Chinese university students for part-time salesmen. Here's what happened:
"...when some of (the company's) employees started recruiting on a university campus, the students’ parents complained furiously and the government took their side, making it plain that (the) firm had crossed an invisible line. “I think it’s a Confucian thing,” (the firm executive) muses. Chinese people place an immense value on education, and abhor anything that might distract students from their books."
Needless to say, they quickly began looking elsewhere for salesmen.
When I worked as an admissions officer at Georgetown University about 10 years ago, my colleagues and I always looked closely at the non-academic as well as the academic side of a student's application. Students' extracurriculur activities were a must, and even their after-school jobs were considered seriously.
Reading applications from foreign students was a difficult and specialized task. Ten years ago, we had only one applicant from mainland China who figured out how to apply to Georgetown. Her application was unique among the many thousands received that year, and it was very hard to assess. Today, there would be many. And I am guessing that today's applicants look a lot more like the American ones.