Great leap puts Chinese pupils ahead of US, Japanese peers

IN recent years ``Why can't Johnny read?'' has turned into ``Why can't Johnny read as well as Hiro?'' as American and Japanese children have been put under the educational-survey microscope. Now, however, a new player has entered the field; for the first time children from mainland China have been included in comparative research, and from preliminary results the question now is ``Why can't Johnny and Hiro read as well as Xiao Hong?''

Actually, the first comparative studies are in both mathematics and reading, and although all the results are in, they have yet to be tabulated and analyzed. Only the group mathematics test has been completed; waiting to be sorted out, charted, and studied are results of reading tests, interviews with teachers, parents, and children, and observation of class activities.

The mathematics test may be a harbinger, however. The international researchers gathered recently in Peking to hear reports, compare notes, and arm themselves with masses of material for further study on home ground - the University of Michigan in the States and the Institute of Psychology, Academy of Sciences, in China. Fang Ge's report on the mathematical achievement of children from China, Japan, and the United States was the main topic of discussion.

The study took in children in four cities - Chicago, Sendai (Japan), Taipei, and Peking - similar in size, geographical location, economic situation, and educational background. Grades 1 and 5 in representative schools were tested in all four cities; Grade 3 was added for Peking and Chicago, since in Grade 3 children in mainland China take a great leap forward in more independent study. Although class sizes are larger in Peking, the total number of children tested in each grade for each city was about 800.

The group mathematics test was constructed with a view to cross-cultural fairness and was based on detailed analyses of the contents of the most widely used elementary math textbooks in each country. Native speakers of each language listed the concepts and skills presented in each book, consulting frequently to ensure agreement as to interpretation. They arrived at a master list that served as a method of comparison of content and order of presentation of skills and concepts in the four cities, as well as the basis for constructing fair math tests.

Differences were found in all three grades tested (see box). Peking children performed better than children in the other cities on most items but fell behind children in Sendai and Taipei in a few items. The Chicago children's scores were consistently lower than any of the Asian children's.


One reason may be the much greater attention paid to fractions, ratio and proportion, and decimals in Asian textbooks than in American textbooks. Coverage of other areas - general concepts, addition, multiplication, and division - is about the same, yet the American children still got the lowest scores.

Something beyond textbook content was involved. The researchers looked at starting times for teaching each subject and found that most topics were introduced earlier in Peking than in the other cities. One exception was fractions, with about half the material taught rather late in Peking. This was also one area in which Peking children fell behind their Asian counterparts. Thus, teaching time would seem to be an important factor affecting children's achievement. Another factor was concentration. Chinese and Japanese children spend more time in academic learning than American students do in order to pass highly competitive national examinations.

The researchers do not seem to consider age a factor (or class size). Other factors include family situation, teaching style, pupils' attitudes, and classroom organization. These are in the process of being analyzed, but earlier studies in the US, Japan, and Taiwan have turned up some interesting comparisons.

For example, it was found that American children spent half their classroom time without a leader; American teachers gave out less information than the Asian teachers; American children were more likely to be up to inappropriate activity than the Asian children - all indicating the importance of classroom activities on children's performance.

Researchers also found that American students spent more than twice as much time studying language arts as mathematics, and they paid attention to their teacher or did the assigned task less than half the time they were being observed, whereas the proportion was well over half in the Asian countries - indicating a difference in educational practices.

In interviewing children's mothers, researchers found earlier that American mothers consistently rated their children's performance in school higher than did Japanese or Chinese mothers, although American children got lower scores - indicating a cultural difference as to the importance of education.

When all the results of the most recent study are analyzed, including lengthy questionnaires for parents that ranged from the ``on a scale of 1 to 5'' type of question to ones requiring more thoughtful, evaluative answers, they should provide a fascinating comparison of cultures and aims. Meanwhile, Peking children, in a developing country, may be showing their counterparts in developed countries that school achievement is more a matter of attitude than money. American children, pull up your socks!

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.