Reality Check: China

Sometimes when I tell Americans I am working on a book about the smartest countries in the world, they assume I mean China.

I don’t mean China. And I won’t, not anytime soon.

It’s true that teenagers in Shanghai, a huge, booming city in China, trounced teenagers on every continent on an international test of critical thinking in math, reading and science in 2009. Their performance was remarkable. Truly. In math, their poorest kids outperformed our richest kids.

But concluding anything about China from Shanghai’s results is like using test scores from Minneapolis to make assumptions about Detroit; one has almost nothing to do with the other. Millions of school-aged Chinese kids are not enrolled in school—still. Millions more do not have access to anything approaching a decent education. Children of migrant workers often cannot get the papers they need to attend city schools, so their parents must pay for worse-quality private schools. All of which begs the question: How well are Shanghai’s schools really doing if large numbers of lower-income kids are systematically refused entry?

A nice reality check from BusinessWeek:

Fifteen-year-old Zhan Haite, whose parents hail from relatively poor Jiangxi province, was born in the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province, where her parents first worked. When she was 5 they moved to Shanghai, where her father now installs phones. After attending primary and middle school in the city, she was refused entry to high school because she is still registered as a Jiangxi resident. She got national attention in the media late last year after she organized an online campaign to change education restrictions on migrant workers’ children. “I want to end the tragedy of migrant children having to go back to the countryside to study,” says Zhan.

EducationAmanda Ripley