It's 7:30 on a Monday morning, and the 3,500 students who attend Suzhou Middle School No. 9 are streaming toward the school field. The kids are getting their midterm exams back today, and the nervousness in the air is palpable.
"We call it 'the last breakfast,' " jokes 17-year-old Shen Wenjie, a somewhat unexpected Christian reference to the morning meal before the exams are returned.
Like all schools in China, School No. 9, located in the city of Suzhou in the Jiangsu Province, revolves around a competitive system of standardized tests and exams. This process culminates with three "black days" in July: a comprehensive national college entrance examination for high school graduates that determines placement in the nation's university system.
But as China's economy continues to grow at a breakneck pace, the nation's education system is beginning to change. Just like the United States, the world's most populous country is in the midst of national school reform. But the US, under No Child Left Behind, is moving toward national standards with a focus on reading, writing, and math. China, on the other hand, is restructuring its system to stress creative thinking and local control.
"In the past, education was very rigid; we call it 'force-fed' education," says Gu Yue Hua, deputy director general of the Suzhou Education Bureau. The teacher used to be the authority, she says. "Now the teacher's job is to promote, cooperate, and guide. Now we emphasize hands-on experience for students."
Located 30 miles from Shanghai, Suzhou has a population of 2.2 million people and a reputation as a sophisticated high-tech metropolis. Many of its public schools, including No. 9, are considered national models of excellence.
No. 9 may represent one end of the spectrum. But it also exemplifies the challenges associated with fostering ingenuity and innovation in a culture that has valued rote memorization since the days of Confucius.
"The students' endurance for work and their ability to focus is amazing," says Kevin Crotchett, a principal in Portland, Ore., who spent the 2001-02 school year teaching English at Suzhou Middle School No. 10. "We're constantly talking in the US about creating lifelong learners," he says. "The kids I was with [in Suzhou] were lifelong learners."
Still, says Crotchett, China's social and political history of conformity complicates efforts to create a more student- centered, exploratory curriculum. "The Chinese do a phenomenal job in the sciences and mathematics," he says. "But the students don't have the discussion skills."
Several Suzhou teachers and administrators had their own reasons for being skeptical about school reform. "Education reform in theory gives principals more choice," says Ni Zhenmin, principal of No 9. "But we still must give the same national exam. So it still determines the curriculum."
Accustomed to budget and program cuts, parents in urban school districts in the US might find much to envy about schools in the wealthier Chinese cities.
At Suzhou Experimental Elementary School, for example, the school budget increased 40 percent over the past six years, the majority of it going to teachers' salaries and programs. In most of the city's primary and middle schools, art, music, and physical education are staples of the curriculum. Many schools stay open as late as 11 p.m, helping build what Crotchett describes as a powerful sense of community in the schools.
Of course, the kids also double as janitors, sweeping the floors and cleaning desks before and after each school day. And state of-the-art computer labs belie the universal lack of heating in the schools, even though temperatures fall to 32 degrees F. during the winter.
China's national school reform debuted last year in 500 counties, serving 25 percent of the Chinese student population. At School No. 9, incorporating "progressive" ideas about education means that senior math students are sometimes called on to lead the lecture and discussion themselves.
It means new history textbooks, ones that acknowledge the role the Chinese Nationalists - who lost to the Communists during the 1949 revolution - played in fighting the Japanese during the 1930s. And it means extracurricular activities like the drama club.
A top English and speech student, Shen says he notices teachers interact more with students than they used to. "We call them friends," he says. But Shen also says rote methods still dominate, especially when it comes to homework: "Exercises, exercises, that's all we do. It's so boring."
As part of the move toward local innovation, School No. 9 has published five of its own textbooks, on topics ranging from the school's 1,000-year history to Kung Fu. "The students are interested," says Ni, "but since it doesn't help them on the exam, they are useless."
More exchanges with American students and teachers would facilitate efforts to retool teaching methods and curriculum, say some Suzhou teachers.
Last year, a teacher from Suzhou Primary School No.1 spent a year at Woodstock Elementary in Portland, Suzhou's sister city. This spring, a group of Portland students will travel to Suzhou.
"Tell American teachers we would like them to teach here," says Xu Tainzhong, principal of the Suzhou Experimental Elementary School.