The second day of school, Rainey came home with a story. Four times he found egg in his mouth. He hadn’t placed it there himself; instead, his most hated food made its way past his teeth by the hand of the fearsome Teacher Chen.
‘ She put it there,’ Rainey told me, mouth wide, finger pointing inside. Then what happened,? I asked.
“I cried and spit it out.”
Then what. She did it again,” Rainey said….”I cried and spit it out again.”
Rainey is three years old and enrolled in one of the best Shanghai kindergartens in the city. Lenora Chu, Mom, journalist and author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,(2017) from which this incident is taken, decides to meet with Teacher Chen to discuss force-feeding egg to her son. Chu describes the conference with Teacher Chen:
“We don’t use such methods of force in America,” I blurted in Mandarin, my son clutching my hand. (I was born and raised in America but grew up speaking Chinese at home.)
“Oh? How do you do it?” Teacher Chen challenged.
“We explain that egg eating is good for them, that the nutrients help build strong bones and teeth and helps with eyesight,” I said, trying to sound authoritative. “We motivate them to choose…we trust them with the decision.”
“Does it work?” Teacher Chen said….
“Well, not always,” I admitted.
Chen nodded. “Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them….”
Later, Teacher Chen pulled me aside for a lecture. “In front of the children, you should say, ‘Teacher is right, and Mom will do things the same way,’ OK?’ ” (pp.22-24, 27.)
Through the seven years that Rainey was in public Chinese schools, Chu uses his experiences in kindergarten and public primary school grades as a template for describing and analyzing Chinese education in Shanghai and the rest of the nation over the past decade. And it is a fascinating, eye-opening journey that she captures in an easily read, clear, description of children, schooling, and a top-down, state-directed system deeply anchored in the Confucian tradition of teaching and learning while exerting strong political control of what and how teachers teach.
Every country’s system of schooling mirrors the basic values in the culture that both the state and parents want to see in the behavior of, and school outcomes for their sons and daughters. Where in the U.S., a core value is the individual’s growth and development and belonging to a community comes second, in China, the collective comes first. And so does obeying the teacher.
The 28 kindergartners in Rainey’s class learned this song the second day of school:
I am a good baby
Little hands always in place
Little feet refined
Little ears listening well
Little eyes looking at the teacher
Before I speak, always raising my hand (p.64)
The principal granted permission to Chu to observe her son’s class. With three year-olds, incidents invariably occur. She describes what she saw occur during a lesson. Teacher Wang had difficulties with a little boy a head taller than the other children and filled with inexhaustible energy. For observer Chu, it was easy for her to remember Wang Wu Ze because the two teachers had yelled his name repeatedly over the first week of school:
Wang Wu Ze, sit down! Wang Wu Ze put your two feet side by side! Wang Wu Ze, what is wrong with you? Do you want your mommy to come and get you today?
One day, while Teacher … was talking, three-year old Wang Wu Ze left his seat and wandered over to a few toys in a corner . Chu writes that the teacher “lost her temper.” Teacher Wang said: “Wang Wu Ze, you don’t get a chair. YOU WILL STAND!” Chu describes the teacher moving quickly to where the boy was standing and “swatting his chair away. It fell over, clattered against the floor a few times, then lay still….” The boy looked at the “toppled chair and tears came to his eyes….” He went to the teacher and threw his arms around her waist and she said: “Bu bao–I won’t hold you…. Do you want a chair now?”
“Yes, yes, I want a chair.“
“Then you sit in it,” Wang said. “If you don’t sit in it, I won’t give it to you. And your mom won’t come get you after school.” (pp. 66-67)
Conformity to the group, obedience to the teacher, and constant attention to mastering content, skills, and behavior begin early in both how and what teachers teach, according to Chu.
Consider the curriculum standards, the Ministry of Education sets for learning to read Mandarin.
Chu reports that:
“First- and second-graders should recognize 1,600 characters and write 800 of them from memory. By fourth grade, the level is 2,500 characters, and by the sixth grade it’s 3,000 characters and writing almost as many….Full literacy requires an astonishing 3,500 frequently used characters to be committed to memory, according to the Chinese curriculum standards for full-time compulsory education.” (p. 86)
And competition within and across classes is both fierce and public. Testing is constant and student-by-student scores on tests and performance of tasks are publicly displayed. Chu describes the large bulletin board outside Rainey’s kindergarten classroom.
Big Board might post teachers’ assessment of each child, a report card displayed for all to see. Who clocked in timely arrivals at school? Which child greeted the teacher with a smile? Who finished every lunchtime grain of rice? Star stickers and happy faces were pasted next to the name of each child who’d made the grade….As the months passed into the first year of school, Big Board began to display information that directly compared performance and ability…. With each presentation, parents gathered eagerly. and I could always tell when Big Board posted new information by the number of bodies gathered around, heads bobbing with anticipation.
The following year, the Big Board would display prowess at recorder play [a small woodwind musical instrument] for all to see:
The ring finger of Student No. 20 is not stable
Student No. 30 doesn;t cover the old hole while changing to a new one.
Student No. 16 doesn’t blow out enough air.
Student No. 3 doesn’t cover the holes properly.
Chu says that Besides Rainey’s number, No. 27, the teacher had scrawled the same punishing diagnosis as that for No. 8
Doesn’t follow rhythm. (pp. 98-99)
Chu visited schools elsewhere in China including rural schools, and describes their classrooms. She speaks with education experts at universities and Ministry of Education officials. Yet China has over a quarter-billion students (yes, over 260 million) taught by over 15 million teachers housed in more than a half-million schools (2014). The numbers stagger the minds of non-Chinese educators. *
Obviously, Chu can only include so much in a book that focuses upon her son, two Shanghai teenagers in secondary schools, visits to a handful of schools, and interviews with various teachers and educators. Fortunately, Chu provides the necessary context for the Shanghai and rural schools that she visits by describing the state-directed system of schooling
As a centralized state where policy is controlled by a Ministry of Education imbued with Communist doctrine, top down curricular and instructional mandates provide a constant flow of regulations to each province’s schools. Ministry officials are well aware of the internal criticisms of rote memorization, disciplinary norms, and inequalities between rural and urban schools insofar as available resources, teacher experiences, and difficulties in getting teachers to alter their daily lessons. Top officialas have looked to other countries, including the U.S. for reforms to improve Chinese education.
Part 2 will take up some of these reforms as Chu identified them and difficulties of implementation.
*OECD, “Education in China: A Snapshot, 2016”, p. 9