Kelman gets schooled in China

A Harvard professor visits a university on the other side of the world.

I have been lucky enough to have an opportunity to visit a Chinese high school, the High School Affiliated With Renmin University (RDFZ). It is considered to be one of the best high schools in China, so not a typical one, but nonetheless my visit taught me a lot. I sat in on English and Chinese literature classes for 15-year-olds, spoke with some of the English and American faculty at the school, and ate lunch with some of the students.

One of the interesting things about the school is that it is actually divided into two programs. The larger regular program has a Chinese national curriculum, but there is also a smaller program (which is the one I visited) that is specifically designed to prepare students for applying to universities in the US and the UK. Indeed, these students do not take the Chinese national college entrance exam (their curriculum doesn’t fully prepare them for it), so they are not even able to attend a Chinese university after graduation. On the wall of the entrance to the section of the school for this program are listed the names of the previous year's graduating students and the American or British schools to which they were admitted. I noticed admissions to Boston College, Boston University, and Brandeis.
 
Fees for this program are high – about 100,000 RMB (over $15,000) a year – much higher than for the regular program, although the school is a public (government) school. Parents are told they should have a million RMB in the bank to send a child into the program, since the parents will need to pay American college tuition, with few scholarship prospects. I was told that when school is over, many parents pick children up in fancy cars. When I made a reference to people picking up kids with Audi 4s, I was told that parents who have an Audi 4 -- the car China provides for lower-ranking government officials -- don't earn  enough to afford the program – they would need enough income for an Audi 6 or an Audi 8.
 
The existence of this program shows the real attractiveness of Western education (and more broadly of the West) for many Chinese. One of the students with whom I ate lunch told me that she had spent a year attending fifth grade at a school in Buffalo, New York, and her parents accompanied her from China for the whole time to establish their residency and allow her to attend the school. 
 
Attending the classes was fascinating. The classroom was spartan, brightened up mainly by English-language sayings written in colored chalk on the back blackboard, such as “Never underestimate your power to change yourself” and “Four short words sum up what has lifted more successful individuals above the crowd:  never never give up.”

In the English-language class, I was very impressed by the English-language skills of these young students. The passages they were reading included quite complicated words and concepts. There was, however, a lot of emphasis on recitation and memorization. Students were asked to repeat long paragraphs from a reading, which they seem to have memorized, and repeated without much emotion. On the other hand, I liked that both teachers at various points during the class had smaller groups of students discuss a topic among themselves. This is a technique we're starting to use to encourage more students to take part in discussions. The girl who had spent a year in the fifth-grade class told me she felt American schools encouraged creativity more than Chinese ones.
 
The students are worked very hard. Class goes on to 4:30, followed by extra-curricular activities (which are especially important for these students because they are applying to US schools, which pay much more attention to these), and summer vacation is only from the second week in July to the end of August. I observed the same mixture of students looking engaged and not as I suspect I would see in a suburban US high school.

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