Four months after Lenora Chu and her family arrived in Shanghai from the U.S. in 2010, Shanghai high schoolers scored tops in the world in math, reading and science. America landed somewhere in the middle of the pack of about 70 countries.
As a mom, a reporter and the American-born child of Chinese immigrants making a giant reverse commute, it seemed she'd come to the (SET ITAL) real (END ITAL) land of opportunity.
Chu spent the next seven years examining not just her young son's education but the whole Chinese educational system, comparing it with her American upbringing and what's happening in our schools today. Far from declaring China the winner -- or America -- she's come down in favor of mix-'n'-matching, as she explains in her new book, "Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve."
"A lot of upsides can obviously be downsides," she said on a recent trip to New York. "This book is the story of an American family that landed in China in a very extreme environment that prompted me to reflect."
How extreme? In China, education is not a touchy-feely thing. "It's a sorting mechanism. You advance to the next level of schooling based on a test score," said Chu. So from the get-go, the teachers are very strict. One day, her preschooler came home from school with a shiny red star stuck to his forehead.
"What do you get a red star for?" she asks in the book. "Do you get it if you run fast?"
He got it for sitting still.
Chu was outraged. Rainey was just 3! "Why do you sit? Do they (SET ITAL) make (END ITAL) you sit at school? Do you have to sit?" Her husband, Rob Schmitz, who is NPR's Shanghai correspondent, said it sounded as if she were asking, "Are your human rights being violated?"
But learning to sit still doesn't violate any U.N. conventions. And neither did what happened next. Rainey told his mom he had found egg -- the food he detested most -- in his mouth four times that day. How did it get there? Chu asked. The teacher put it in, because eggs are an important food. He cried and spit it out three times. The fourth time, he swallowed.
And today? I asked Chu.
"He likes eggs."
He is also bilingual and has learned some of the lessons American kids -- or, let's put it bluntly, my own kids -- haven't gotten in public school. For example, he knows multiplication tables by heart.
"I hate the word 'rote,'" said Chu as we spoke in a Manhattan hotel. "It's just memorization of basic knowledge and repeated practice. A lot of research supports that as foundational to learning." It's possible that in bending over backward to make math and other subjects relatable, or "discovery-based," we forgot that discoveries depend on leaping forward from a base of knowledge.
Chu contrasts Shanghai schools with an alternative school in California where there are no grades, punishments or rewards. That school, she said, "would never exist in China." Of course, it barely exists in America, either. "But the narrative is that these kids will become the bosses of the kids in China."
And they may. Though there's a lot to be said for memorization, there's also a lot to be said for cultivating curiosity and a love of learning. That's why so many Chinese students are coming to study in America. They want a different, less regimented kind of education.
Chu sees a value to the strict education her son is getting there, but perhaps because it's balanced with summers in America. When she dropped him off at a camp here in the States, she overheard him asking the other kids about their test scores. "The reaction was pretty muted." He quickly switched over to talking about baseball.
There's a kid who is getting a real education.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids" and a hilarious keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Run out and get her book "Has the World Gone Skenazy?"