A Tale of Two Schools8 min read

Sarabeth Berman reviews Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu

For millions of children in China today, the experience of school is much like a scene I encountered one afternoon in the fall of 2010, in a village in southwest China. Working for a Chinese non-profit education organization, I boarded a plane in Beijing one morning, flew three-and-half hours to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, then took another short flight to Lincang, a city near the Burmese border. From there, we rode six hours through lush but impoverished mountains, famous for their tea plantations, to the village of Shao Jie (population 3,000). Finally we reached our destination, the local school, just as its students were breaking for dinner. It stood at the top of a hill, nestled in Yunnan’s famous clouds.

The courtyard at Shao Jie Elementary and Middle School, which has 933 pupils, was bursting with children holding chopsticks and metal bowls filled with rice and vegetables. We were swarmed by students intrigued by the rare arrival of visitors from Beijing. I knelt down to meet one small boy eye-to-eye. He burst into tears. His teacher explained that he wasn’t familiar with foreign faces. It was a scene of managed chaos: some students sat on the ground as they ate; others roamed; a few jumped rope between bites. The location was magnificent but hardly paradise. Perched in terraced hills, in the cool damp of the clouds the school abutted a pile of trash. The dormitories were low-lit buildings with no glass in the windows and long rows of beds. To maximize space, each child shared a bed with one or two classmates.

The village had such a large, congested school because, in surrounding villages, the schools had been closed. For two decades, the number of children in the countryside had been dropping because of the one-child policy and urban migration, so the government had shuttered empty schools and created overstuffed campuses like the one at Shao Jie. Kids travelled a long way, and lived at home only on the weekends. Throughout China, the scene on a Friday afternoon is much the same: country roads are speckled with small children walking home, usually met by aunts or grandparents since their parents have left the countryside in search of work. For most of the children in the courtyard that evening, Shao Jie would be the only school they had ever attended and would ever know. Some doubtless succumbed to financial pressures and went to work before ninth grade. Those who remained face another obstacle: the zhongkao, a high-stakes test that determines if you are part of the lucky group that continues on to what the U.S. would call high school (the Chinese word for it translates as “upper-middle school”). Growing up in rural China, a child has just a 5% chance of going to college.

A girl eating dinner at Shao Jie school in fall 2010 (Sarabeth Berman)

There is, of course, another side of China’s education system. The most celebrated, privileged and cutting-edge schools are in Beijing, Shanghai and other booming coastal cities. A few months after my visit to Shao Jie, Shanghai schools stunned the world in 2010 when they topped the charts on a global exam known as PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. PISA rankings compare the performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries in math, reading and science. In the United States, the news of Shanghai’s success was reported with a tone of anxiety – the sense that a rising generation of Chinese youth would be better equipped than their American counterparts to navigate the shoals of the global economy. In a speech about education, President Obama called the rising performance of students in other countries “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” To Americans, Shanghai suddenly sounded forbiddingly impressive: every news story seemed accompanied by a photo of diligent students, seated in neat rows, wearing crisp uniforms. Occasionally, when I returned to the US, and told people that I worked on improving education in China, they asked why I was helping America’s rival “beat us.”

To understand the complexity of the education system in China, there is no better place to turn than Lenora Chu’s new book Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (Harper, September 2017). The author is a Chinese-American journalist, who lives in Shanghai with her husband, Rob Schmitz, an NPR correspondent. They decided to seek a place for their 3-year old son, Rainey, in one of Shanghai’s elite public schools. Her book chronicles a transformation of sorts: she watches with both admiration and trepidation as her rambunctious toddler turns into a disciplined pupil who performs tasks without being asked twice, sings patriotic Communist Party songs and learns to tolerate eggs, his least favorite food, only because his teacher forces him to eat them.

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Chu provides an intimate, candid portrait of a Chinese school, depicting both its strengths and its weaknesses. Her story is filled with examples of nearly universally familiar parental insecurities and a healthy sense of humor. She shares day-to-day experiences that are specific to China: a parent-teacher dynamic in which the teacher’s word is final, a classroom culture obsessed with discipline, and a merciless transparency in which students are continually ranked by performance in math, English and even hemoglobin levels – with the results plastered on hallways. She finds some of it strange but also, perhaps, helpful. Her son is challenged more than he would be in the US, and succeeds in a very rigorous academic environment, far exceeding the expectations of math achievement for a kindergarten student in most American schools.

For context, Chu’s study also extends, as it should, beyond the privileged domain of Rainey’s experience in Shanghai. She follows two older Shanghainese students as they contend with pressure and competition. She visits less-prestigious Shanghai schools, including those for the children of migrant laborers, and she interviews international experts who provide helpful analyses. In a poignant section, Chu visits the countryside with a woman who works as a masseuse in the city in order to provide for her son, Jun Jun. Like many migrant workers, the masseuse has left her son to be raised by others, for most of his life – only to find, tragically, that he is still unable to pass the zhongkao and therefore won’t have the opportunities she had hoped to provide him.

From the vantage point of the US (where I am now living again), it’s easy to imagine Shanghai schools as an unrecognizable, thoroughly Chinese domain – a land of student-robots doing morning exercises and taking tests. But Chu shows that Shanghai’s education system is a mash-up of elements from around the world. When it is working well, it is doing what the highest performing schools do in any country: it allows principals a good deal of autonomy, it invests in ongoing teacher development, it crafts a rigorous curriculum, and it exposes educators to the best practices of other countries. Like the best schools in many places, Shanghai’s top ones go beyond academics and also focus on social and emotional development; they engage parents as partners in the education of their offspring. Shanghai’s remarkable strength in education is not due to the system being so different from those found in other places – it is due to local schools making use of things that have been working elsewhere and investing in improving themselves.

There are aspects, however, of what Chu observes that are far less admirable: the elaborate gifts that teachers expect from parents to curry good-will; the pressure of exams that is so intense that it drives some students to suicide; the competition that has gone so far overboard that, in some high-profile cases, university students have poisoned each other. In relating these stories, Little Soldiers strikes the right balance, conveying the specific liabilities of the Chinese way without over-exoticizing it. At one point in her narrative, Chu goes back to the US to see the kinds of classrooms where her son would have studied if he were not abroad. She observes that the American system seeks to have, as the policy adopted under George W Bush put it, “No Child Left Behind.” But China fully expects that some students, such as the masseuse’s son, Jun Jun, will be left behind. She contrasts an American classroom – warm and colorful, with a teacher sitting at eye-level – to the classrooms she knows in China: formal, undecorated spaces, where the teacher stands at the front of the class. She notes that American students dress to be comfortable and take up places around the room in relaxed poses, while the Chinese students wear uniforms and sit upright at their desks. Beyond aesthetic differences she wonders if, in promoting the individual desires of students, the American system foregoes some of the valuable rigor in the Chinese method.

No single volume can capture the breadth of educational experiences in a country as vast and varied as China – just as no one book could do justice to schooling in the US. Chu has resisted the temptation to draw simple, seductive conclusions, and that is a powerful achievement. Ultimately, as a mother, Chu concludes that she almost certainly will not keep her son Rainey in Chinese schools for his whole education: she wants him to get the rigor and cultural competence, but she is prepared to leave, if necessary. “When the negatives outweigh the positives, we will alter course,” she writes. Many parents in Shanghai profess a similar approach, she says. They are fortunate to have the money and connections – and, in some cases, the foreign passports – to give themselves and their children abundant options. Reading this impressive account by a parent with such options to consider, I thought of the little boy in Shao Jie who burst into tears at the sight of a foreigner. He has fewer choices. ∎

Lenora Chu, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (Harper, September 2017). Header: Wikicommons.