International ties

Traditional Chinese medicine for American education

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-05-17 11:26
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Nearly every study of American education points to the middle school years (roughly age 11-14) as the period when young people in the US begin to slip academically behind their international peers.

Scores released in December from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), indicate that 15-year-old students in the US perform about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries tested, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Chinese students bested every country in all three subjects.

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The PISA exam is one of a handful of tests that compare educational levels across nations and is considered to be the most comprehensive. It is administered every three years and, according to the test's administrators, measures how well students are prepared for future challenges. Questions require students to analyze, reason and communicate effectively.

A recent study by researchers from the University of Illinois, the University of Hong Kong, and Beijing Normal University suggests why Chinese students are so much better prepared academically than their American counterparts.

The researchers tracked children from China and the US who were entering seventh grade in suburban Beijing and suburban Chicago. The study compared the adolescents' sense of responsibility toward their parents with their school performance as measured by their grades. On four occasions between seventh and eighth grades, children reported on their feelings of obligation to their parents and their motivation in school to please them.

It turned out that in both countries, the more a child felt obligated to her family, the more she valued school. The sense (or lack) of familial obligation predicted whether the child felt motivated to do well academically and whether she did in fact perform well.

There was some crossover in attitudes among children from the two countries regarding feelings of familial responsibility. Overwhelmingly, however, children from China maintained or increased their sense of responsibility to their parents during the middle school years, while US children's sense of responsibility declined.

Once children in the West become adolescents, their parents rarely supervise homework and frequently stop attending school events. To Americans, that is simply allowing children to become more independent.

But perhaps Western children are given too much freedom when they reach adolescence, and the children's take-away message is that their parents don't care that much about them so why should they feel a strong obligation to their parents?

According to Amy Chua, Chinese-American author of the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Americans allow their children too much freedom. This past week Chua wrote in an op-ed in the newspaper USA Today that as "every American knows, we have serious child-rearing problems in this country, and on the whole these are problems of too little structure, not too much."

American adolescents need structure in order to nurture a strong sense of responsibility toward their parents and to do well in school. US parents should look to China for some guidance.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct law instructor in the Temple University/Tsinghua University LLM program in Beijing. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.