Educational Trends in China and the United States: Proverbial Pendulum or Potential for Balance?

By Preus, Betty | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2007 | Go to article overview
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Educational Trends in China and the United States: Proverbial Pendulum or Potential for Balance?

Preus, Betty, Phi Delta Kappan

To meet the demands of globalization, Chinese education is becoming increasingly decentralized and learner-centered. Ms. Preus points out that this is precisely opposite to the direction of recent U.S. reforms.

CHINA'S emergence in the global economy has captured the attention of U.S. policy makers, who have a vested interest in understanding how China has advanced so quickly. The Chinese government views education as a key to economic growth and has initiated several rounds of education reform since the late 1970s. (1) The most recent reform began in the 1990s and resulted in curriculum guidelines published in 2001 (2) and amended in 2002. (3) These reforms are designed to move the Chinese education system toward 1) decentralization of elementary and secondary education; 2) a "quality-oriented" rather than a "test-oriented" system, with an emphasis on learner-centered methods; 3) an increase in the amount of preservice education required of teachers, with greater emphasis on pedagogy; and 4) an increase in formal inservice education. A perhaps unanticipated outcome of these reforms is some movement away from the existing collaborative professional development model embedded in the school structure.

While these reforms have been getting under way in China, government policies n the U.S., most notably No Child Left Behind (NCLB), have been pushing American education toward 1) centralization of elementary and secondary education; 2) a more test-oriented system, with greater emphasis on direct instruction; 3) a decrease in the amount of professional preparation required for teacher certification, with greater emphasis on subject matter; and 4) the development of mentoring and induction systems that are often addons to noncollaborative organizational structures.

It appears that China and the U.S. are moving in opposite directions. Indeed, a visiting professor from China stated, "It is interesting that something we learn from you is just what you want to change." (4) It must be acknowledged that the American and Chinese education systems have been at opposite ends of the continuum in many respects, so these opposing trends might be considered a movement by each toward the center. However, lessons can be learned by examining how and why policy makers in two major powers are seeking to reform education in such strikingly different ways.

I was part of a delegation of professional educators who visited the People's Republic of China in 2005 to engage in dialogue with Chinese educators about teacher education programs and education systems in the U.S. and China. Delegates visited schools and universities in Beijing and Kunming through People to People International, which sponsors professional exchanges between Americans and their peers in other countries. Using evidence from the delegation's meetings with Chinese educational leaders and from the literature, I wish to analyze trends in each education system and address implications for policy.


While the standards movement and standardized testing have become associated with greater federal and state control over education in the U.S., the Chinese government has moved to loosen its control over curriculum and assessment. For example, up until recently, the Chinese central government had complete control over the development and selection of textbooks. Under new guidelines intended to stimulate innovation and creativity, teachers and local and state governments may develop and select textbooks (with the approval of the central government). (5) China is also encouraging curriculum development at the state, local, and school levels and promoting a more flexible curriculum with choices for students. (6) The reform movement, referred to as quality education, seeks to deemphasize testing and promote learner-centered approaches. However, China's assessment system has not changed to be consistent with the new emphases.

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Educational Trends in China and the United States: Proverbial Pendulum or Potential for Balance?


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