This year, for the first time, schools from China took part in international standardized tests, which provide an interesting if imperfect picture of which countries' students are doing best in reading, writing and math.
And in their inaugural outing, Chinese students came out on top in the test, known as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.
Some educators are calling it "a Sputnik moment," like the launch of the Soviet satellite in 1957 that so shocked America. But the Chinese are not gloating about their success: They realize their educational system -- which stresses memorization and largely ignores critical thinking -- is in need of reform.
Chinese academic Zhang Minxuan is a happy man. The jovial administrator has just learned that the Shanghai school system he oversees has topped the global PISA tests.
"All Chinese people, no matter poor or rich, they have very high expectations in education. That kind of culture pushes people to study and study and study. I think this is very important," Zhang says.
Limitations Of The System
At the Zhabei No. 8 Middle School in the northern part of Shanghai, it's business as usual.
The teacher teaches, the students repeat, and even the principal admits the feared final high school exam that gets you into college -- known as the gaokao -- is all simply about memorization and rote learning. That principal, Liu Jinghai, though he is proud of his students for testing well, says the West shouldn't worry about the PISA results.
"Developed countries like the U.S. shouldn't be too surprised by these results. They're just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai's and China's education system. But the results can't cover up our problems," he says.
Liu is very frank about those problems -- the continuing reliance on rote learning, the lack of analysis or critical thinking -- and he says the system is in dire need of reform.
"Why don't Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We're not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves," he says.
As well as the limitations of the Chinese education system, Liu says, it was only students in Shanghai who took the PISA tests, and Shanghai has some of the best schools in China.
Zhang Chi, 17, was one of those students, and she noticed the difference in the way the PISA questions were framed.
"I can't go straight to answer the questions. I must think a while for the question, and give me some time to think," she says.
The Root Of The Problem
"Having some time to think" is not the norm in Chinese high schools. Zhang thinks Chinese students would like a little more of it.
"I think we can mix it together, use the Chinese ways of answering the questions and the foreign ways. Combining this together, I think, will be better," she says.
The trouble is that despite all the talk of educational reform, combining East and West, Chinese and foreign, is, in the end, simply not possible. However well she did in the PISA test, or however much she liked the questions, Zhang has to sit down next summer and take the high school university entrance test -- the gaokao -- where writing different, creative answers gets you nowhere, and writing the standard answer that you've memorized gets you into a good university.
Lucia Pierce is an educational consultant in Shanghai. She says the gaokao is the problem.
"As long as the gaokao scores are what get you, a student, into college -- and those are the scores that also rank the high schools -- parents and principals and teachers can't afford to really experiment with a kind of learning that encourages independent thinking, and perhaps, learning from mistakes," she says.
Pierce and others say that's why the recent PISA results are not the Sputnik moment some have talked of. It will take major reform of China's educational system before that happens, she says. And that is not happening anytime soon. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.