China – Education and Parenting — How does it differ from US?

This is the last piece in a four part series on sociocultural forces that influence academic achievement in India, Japan and China first posted on Parenting in the Digital Age. The last article talked about Japan.
China: Educational Promise

Out of the three countries of comparison, China holds the most promise to overtake the US as the number one global superpower, and their educational plan for the next ten years demonstrates their commitment to innovation and change. Only 5% of the population currently has tertiary degrees, but because their population is so large, they already have more PhD graduates than the US.  Their sheer size means they have more university students, 29.8 million compared to our 17.5.  They quadrupled their graduation rate in two decades and expect to triple the rate in the next decade (Roth & Thum, 2010).  While previously they had no private schools, they currently have over 100,000 (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, 2010).  The respect this society holds for education is clear by looking at the properties in which schools are housed, some of the best buildings in the cities (Tsui, 2005).

As in Japan, mandatory schooling begins in elementary school with no requirements for preschool or high school.  While in preschool, children are taught to focus and to direct careful thoughtful attention to the teacher, in order to master the work (Tobin et al., 2004).   Indeed, as in Japan, persistence at a task is considered essential for learning.  Classrooms are larger in China than in the US, and homework is more extensive.  On the weekends for example, Chinese children have eight times the amount of homework of American children.  Beginning in elementary school, the two countries greatly vary in amount of time performing academic tasks; in US classrooms 5th grade students spent 64.5% of their time on academics, while Chinese students spent 91.5% of their time on similar tasks.  Moreover in the US, children were found to spend 20% of their time at school outside of the classroom, while in China they were rarely observed in other non-mandatory tasks (Stevenson et al., 1986).  Another important difference is the competence of teachers in elementary school.  In China, teachers learn a major subject that they will then teach in the classroom, such as Math or Science.  The result is the teacher is usually both more prepared and interested in the coursework.  By contrast, 90% of US elementary school classrooms have one teacher who teaches all subjects.  Thus, many American teachers have a subpar understanding of subjects such as Math, even though they are student’s primary source of knowledge for these subjects (Tsui, 2005).  This fact alone may explain why US 5th graders rank so far behind Chinese students in Math.

China: Tiger Mothers?

As often depicted, the Chinese mother holds high expectations for her children and her children know it.  Chinese families were found to have more conversations than American mothers about school.  Chinese families buy their children workbooks to complete additional studies outside of school, closely monitor their child’s schoolwork and are willing to sacrifice a great deal for their child’s success. The one child policy has only increased this focus on academics.  In fact, education is the second highest household expense after food (Tsui, 2005).

Unlike American mothers, Chinese mothers feel not only that their children’s schools are lacking but also that their children could perform better.  Only 42% vs. 91% of US mothers thought the school their child attended was doing a good job teaching, while less than 6% were happy with the work their child was doing.  In the US, 40% of mothers were happy with their child’s performance.  Despite these stark differences, more children in China say they enjoy school, 86% vs. 42% (Stevenson et al., 1986), perhaps because their parents do hold their teachers in high esteem (Tsui, 2005).  However, Chinese students do report more depression and somatic complains that their US and Japanese cohorts (Crystal et al., 1994).

Chao (1996) found that American mothers deemphasize academics and instead focus on building social emotional learning and self esteem, while Chinese mothers emphasize work load and the development of study skills.  Chinese moms reported that they assign extra work beyond what the teacher assigns and expert their children to correct their work until no errors remain.  This study also reports that many Chinese mothers stated that a person who holds a PhD is more prestigious than someone who is rich (Chao, 1996).


Ecocultural differences manifest themselves on multiple levels, within school cultures and home environments, and within motivational orientations towards academics, in both formal and informal learning environments.  The values of hard work, persistence and effort are core to Indian, Chinese and Japanese values, and while Americans certainly value these attributes, they are not socialized to the same extent.  Families in these other countries are highly invested in the educational success of their children, often sacrificing time and money in order for their children to succeed.   With the countries of China and India awarding twice as many engineering or computer science degrees than America (Economist, 2010), future competition for brain power will be fierce, and it may be that the US will lose out.   Nevertheless, the US still has many advantages, better universities, better management talent and an entrepreneurial spirit that is hard to quantify.