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U.S. education lets kids be kids [Commentary]

As a foreigner in the United States, one question I've often been asked by newly-met friends has been "What do you find special about America?" I always have a good answer for that question: "Education."

American children have colorful lives while their Chinese peers are locked up in studies. Surprisingly, many of my American friends are not as optimistic about the American system. In fact, they've told me it's the U.S. education system that's problematic and perhaps should learn from the Chinese system.

I see partial truth in this argument. China's education system does produce highly competitive students; but competitiveness isn't always good — especially when it just means acing tests. In that regard, Chinese schools do terribly well. Probably it's because the ultimate goal of most Chinese schools is to gear students up for the National College Entrance Examination. I recently took a look at the math part of its 2014 exam, which started with the easiest question: a, b ∈ R; i is the imaginary unit. If a – i and 2 + bi are complex conjugates, then (a + bi)2 = ? This question immediately brought back my memories of Chinese high school.

Ten years ago, as a high school senior, I attended the morning self-study period at 7 a.m., and then for the most part stayed in the same classroom until 9 p.m. I would study one more hour after returning home, which was far less than some of my classmates. However, this is relatively luxurious compared with the situation that often exists today. A cousin of mine went to a boarding school in which students attended full-day self-study sessions on both Saturday and Sunday. All electronic devices were strictly prohibited, as well as any books other than textbooks. Students caught playing with a phone or reading irrelevant books paid for it — literally, because there was a monetary fine for such misconduct.

And this school, or "the prison" as it was called by the students, was not even close to the top of the heap. A friend of my mother's was recently considering sending her son to a mysterious high school in a small town thousands of miles away from home. That high school, regarded as the biggest exam machine in Asia, offered a particularly torturous staircase to Parnassus to its over 10,000 students per class, complete with a creative calendar consisting of nine days of classes followed by a tenth day of testing. There were no distractions to studies; teachers went so far as to tell students "If somebody writes you a love letter, hand it over to me and I will write him or her a satisfactory response." Many parents quit jobs to accompany their children to a place free of any entertainment, even the Internet. After being subjected to such a system, it would make little sense if students couldn't ace the standardized tests in all subjects.

I can't help feeling a certain admiration for the American system when I see kids skiing on mountains or playing football on grassy fields. Moreover, this doesn't mean they are not learning important things in school. In 2013, I volunteered as a panelist at a charter school in the Washington D.C. area, listening to policy proposals developed by students in the 11th grade for Social Security reform. Although it is a difficult problem to say the least, one that's very far from being sorted out by adults, I was amazed by how seriously these students researched the topic and presented their plans. They knew the history and problems of the system, offered suggestions as to what to do, and debated the pros and cons of each plan. Even though the ideas they presented could have easily been found online, their work still exceeded what I expected from high school students. In my years, we would never discuss such kinds of problems unless it had been in the College Entrance Examinations. With kids working on problems like this, the future of America seems to be promising.

America's educational system is like a pair of "cool" parents raising their kids to have fun and follow their passions. Of course, even cool parents may feel a certain amount of anxiety or even guilt when talking with the tiger mother next door. But if typical American children can have an upbringing in which they can "smell the flowers" but still become creative adults, why not just keep the American style?

Xiaohui Wu is an economics doctoral student and teaching assistant at George Washington University. Her email is xiaohui_wu@gwmail.gwu.edu

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