If China's Education Policies Create Depressed Students, Why Are We Copying Them?

Chinese students are the best in the world on standardized tests, but the methods they're using are causing a slew of societal problems.

When students in Shanghai scored in first place in reading, math, and science on the 2010 Programme for International Student Assessment test, educators and politicians around the world started looking into how they could model their education system's on China's. But there are major downsides to the Chinese approach: A Pew survey earlier this year revealed that the test-obsessed culture and competitive nature of Chinese schools has created a generation of depressed and suicidal students. Now, concerned parents and teachers are speaking out about what is happening in schools to cause the crisis.

According to Channel News Asia, Chinese parents blame much of the pressure their children feel on the practice of linking teacher pay with student performance. Beijing parent Li Yinhe, the mother of a 9-year-old who struggles in school, says the teachers find ways to “not have poor performing students in their classes, because one performer would drag down the overall average.” Teachers berate students in front of their classmates for low performance, which causes shame to the entire family. The parents, in turn, feel they have no choice but to put pressure on their children.

Large class sizes are also common in top Chinese schools because everybody wants their kid taught by the best teacher, and the lack of personal attention can have disastrous results. Another parent, Liu Li, complained that some school classes have “more than 70 to 80 students." The teachers have no time to grade assignments in detail or, as 16-year-old student Zhang Ruiwen told the news agency, “Teachers have no energy to pay attention to me. Since I didn't understand chapter one, I lost interest in subsequent chapters." Once a student falls behind, the pressure snowballs. Families will do anything to make their kids perform better—including paying for tutoring or extra school in the evenings or on weekends.

Business leaders are concerned that students are being trained to simply memorize and regurgitate facts that will be on tests, instead of thinking conceptually and entrepreneurially. Down the road, they say, that will hurt the Chinese economy. As a result, many Chinese teachers are trying to transition from a standardized, one-size-fits all experience, seeking ways to ensure that the abilities of all students are nurtured in school.

The irony underlying these news stories is that many American education reformers are pushing for some of the very same policies that have created China's youth depression and suicide crisis. One of the pillars of President Obama’s Race to the Top education reform plan is tying teacher pay to student performance, especially test scores. And politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg say increasing class sizes to include as many as 70 students could be a possibility with a good teacher to managing things.

Everyone wants to improve American schools, but it seems shortsighted to implement reforms that are wreaking emotional and psychological havoc on students across the Pacific. If we don't want a generation of depressed students trained in rote memorization, maybe our education reformers and policy makers should go back to the drawing board.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ToGa Wanderings

Julian Meehan

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