Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pointless Comparisons of Chinese vs. American Test Scores

One of the reasons that a discussion of Chinese parenting suddenly made its way onto the Wall Street Journal, under the sensational title "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior", probably has to do the latest round of international studies of student performance, widely reported in the news media last December (see NY Times article and Washington Post discussion).  This follows the similar news stories beginning the 1980s and throughout the 1990s about how students from Asian countries were outperforming American students.  First it was Japan.  Then it was Singapore.  And now China.

The NY Times article was titled, "Top Test Score from Shanghai Stuns Educators".  Apparently, Shanghai (the city) outperformed every other country/region tested in this round of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  Having grown up in Shanghai myself and having attended an elite public boarding school, I know something about both Shanghai and being a student in Shanghai.  What stuns me is not that Shanghai (again, a city) outperformed the United States (a country), but that educators and policymakers in this country would make such a pointless comparison, and would subsequently try to find silver bullet fixes in things like tough-love parenting (the kind described in the "superior Chinese mom" article).

Shanghai is arguably the most modern, affluent, and educated city in the entire country of China.  The average performance of Shanghai students most likely exceed every other place in mainland China, not to mention other countries.  Why in the world would anyone compare Shanghai with the entire country of the United States?  A more appropriate comparison may be between Shanghai and Cambridge, MA (where Harvard and MIT are located) or Shanghai and Silicon Valley (where Stanford, Google, HP are located).  My bet is that, once you create a level playing field, the results are not going to be far apart.

Taken to a large picture, the popularized narrative in these articles and books like "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman (NY Times columnist) is roughly this -- China's GDP is growing more rapidly than U.S. -> Chinese students are performing better than U.S. students -> Chinese parenting is better than U.S. parenting. Thus, an article by a Chinese-American mother under the title "Why Chinese Mothers are superior" gets so much attention.  It completes the story, even though the logic behind the big-picture narrative is so obviously flawed.

Chinese economy is growing fast ... but it is mostly growing on the backs of millions under-educated under-paid factory workers, even as the country's elite students still seek to pursue higher education and work opportunities here in the United States.  Chinese students, in the most affluent and developed cities, do perform  better than the average American student (and the average Chinese student, the average student of any country!) - but isn't that true in any country, the well-to-do get more opportunities and "achieve" more?  And Chinese parenting is very different from U.S. parenting, and common sense tells us that each would have pros and cons, and claiming absolute "superiority" of one over the other is absurd.

I was raised in China, by a Chinese mother similar to the WSJ article's description (I'd like to think of my mother as less extreme), but now I parent two adopted Chinese children to grow up as "Americans".  So reconciling my own notions of Chinese parenting and my American values is an ongoing challenge.  I love to hear a more humble and sensible discussion and exchange of ideas on the topic of parenting from both U.S. and Chinese parents, beyond this non-sensible talk of superiority propelled by the equally  pointless comparisons of test scores among apples and oranges.

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