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
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
Several Suzhou teachers and administrators had their own reasons
for being skeptical about school reform. …