Chinese students coming to US middle schools? It's starting to happen.
Less than a decade ago, virtually no Chinese students attended American middle and high schools, but that is rapidly changing, as Chinese students seek a different educational experience.
Peggy Wang has lived in China her entire life. A successful, English-speaking executive, she frequently travels abroad for work, but never imagined that her most recent itinerary would include dropping off her 15-year-old daughter at a prestigious boarding school outside Washington.Skip to next paragraph
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While there is a long history of Chinese students pursuing advanced degrees abroad, especially in the United States, Ms. Wang's daughter, Susan Li, is part of a rapidly growing trend in which Chinese students are choosing to seek their education overseas as early as middle school or high school.
In the 2010-11 school year alone, nearly 24,000 high school-age Chinese were studying in the US, more than 15 percent of the total number of Chinese students in the US overall, up from virtually none five years ago. US middle schools hosted 6,725 Chinese middle schoolers in 2011, up from just 65 in 2006, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
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This phenomenon, known as students "growing younger" in Chinese, is seen as resulting from two key interrelated factors: the rigidity of the Chinese education system, and a desire to avoid the gaokao, the country's rigorous college-entrance exam, for which six-day-a-week preparation begins in 9th grade.
Not surprisingly, officials at schools with a significant number of Chinese students say the students have heightened the sense of competition and achievement. But they also say the students have helped others see a more nuanced and human view of China. For many of the Chinese students themselves, it is most likely the beginning of lives lived abroad, given that the core of their education will have come in English – and without the gaokao.
The most commonly cited reason for "growing younger" is "the general sense that education in China is very rigid, too conservative, and doesn't encourage creative thinking," says Tian Fangmeng, a professor at Beijing Normal University's School of Social Development and Public Policy.
Wang's daughter, Susan, points to the lack of flexibility in the Chinese education system as the main motivation behind her decision to study at a US high school. "In China, everything you learn is in preparation for a test or entrance exam. There were no opportunities for me to choose my own classes and to learn things I was really interested in. In the US, I can do things my own way."
According to Wang, Susan has not expressed any negativity about school since arriving in the US. In China, "when she complained about her teachers and their 'stupid requirements' or how the students 'never expressed dissent,' I wouldn't listen to her because I felt that if I did, I would only be encouraging her to voice her nonconformist opinions at school, which is a death-knell in the Chinese education system."
Shirley Zhou, whose son attends a public high school in Chicago, encouraged him to attend a US high school so that he could "learn to speak really beautiful English – almost like a native speaker," but is just as pleased with how much more "talkative and open" her 16-year-old has become. Ms. Zhou also notes that "he is becoming more and more independent with each passing day," and while that is sometimes challenging for her as a mother, she has never regretted her decision to send him abroad at such a young age.
"In China, it was clear what academic road he was on and what kind of university he could have attended," she says. "Studying abroad opens up other possibilities and I'm hopeful he'll get accepted to a better university as a result."