I picked up this story before getting to work this morning. Given the slowly awakening giant that is China, every now and again we get a story comparing Chinese ability in one field or another to European ability in some field or another. Although I’m glad that we’ve improved to the point where we’re not making racial arguments, there are some cultural arguments here that are a problem. And some inconsistent logic as well. The blog entry talks about Asians, but there are differences not just between Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, and China…but there are significant differences between immigrant populations and native populations. Note for example, how the author switches between talking about Chinese practices, and the practices of Chinese immigrants to the US. Or how the author talks about how hard the curriculum is without actually providing details. You wouldn’t know from reading his post for example that Chinese are only required to go to school for nine years, or that there are stark differences between the ability to even provide this level of education for large swaths of rural and urban China.

So when I read this entry, I did some quick reading on the context of the Chinese education system.

China’s population stands at approximately 1.3 billion. A little under 5 times the size of the US population. About 22 times the size of the British population. They barely have the resources to provide for the equivalent of a middle school education for most of their students, and they really need to modernize.

So one of the things they’ve had to do is ratchet up their education system. You can’t modernize without a population proficient in modern management techniques, in modern technology, in modern political practices, etc. But they can’t make the US equivalent of a high school education universal–because they don’t have the resources. The best they can do is create a pyramid whereas there is some broad base of education everyone gets (nine years worth), and some top tier of education that only a small number of people can get. The quickest and most efficient way to figure out who that top tier is?

A national examination. Or the Gaokao.

Now I can’t see the current numbers in this wiki entry above, but from this entry it appears as if the Gaokao weeds out fifty percent of applicants. Some 7 million take the test, some 3.5 million get in.

Oh. About that 7 million. 7 million take the test out of the approximately 125 million eligible to take the test.

And where they get in depends on where they apply and their scores.

(What’s the difference between the Gaokao and the SAT??)

Good question. The difference between the two tests and systems is simple. You do poorly on the SAT you go to a junior college. Or to a school where high scores aren’t particularly important.

You do poorly on the Gaokao? You go to work. No college for you until you pass.

Talk about weeding out!

Take that math question in the original link. You see how the question says that it is for “pre-entry” students vs. first year university students in Britain? What this means is that this question was likely asked on the Gaokao–a test only taken by the smartest and most well-off Chinese in the first place.

It’s fairly clear to everyone that the US education system is absolutely horrible, and that they do a poor job of educating most populations (not just black and Latino ones). But before we look to China for solutions, we should probably look at the Chinese educational system first.