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Nothing would be easier to look at the headline of Leonora Chu’s Wall Street Journal column on lessons that American schools could learn from their Chinese counterparts and conclude that it’s a naive whitewashing – at best – of education in totalitarian countries. And nothing would be more off-base. For the headline is utterly misleading, and the author acknowledges that propagandizing even very young children with communist dogma is only one of the numerous major failures and shortcomings of Chinese schools.

Still, Chu comes off as an unmistakable admirer of many crucial features of the Chinese system, and especially its insistence that parents as well as students respect the authority of teachers, along with the academic results that this attitude produces.

I agree with Chu that too often, “Western teachers spend lots of time managing classroom behavior and crushing mini-revolts by students and parents alike”; that “Americans have arguably gone too far in the other direction, elevating the needs of individual students to the detriment of the group”; and that, “Educational progress in the U.S. is hobbled by parental entitlement and by attitudes that detract from learning: We demand privileges for our children that have little to do with education and ask for report-card mercy when they can’t make the grade.”

Not that even these reasonable propositions are bullet-proof. Principally, how many American teachers today truly deserve this absolute respect? How many are flat-out incompetent? How many are determined to push their own political beliefs on students, at all levels of education, and in public and private schools alike? It’s true that the nation collectively has caused much of this problem by underpaying teachers and thus preventing many individuals of real talent (and integrity) from choosing this profession. But we don’t solve the problem by indiscriminately entrusting our children’s future to the present teacher cohort.

Yet oddly, Chu seems to overlook what seems like potentially the most damning indictment of the Chinese educational system of all. And so have her Wall Street Journal editors: Chinese parents appear to abandon Chinese schools whenever they can. How do I know this? In part because I read The Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, the very same day that Chu’s article ran, the Journal ran a report titled “U.S. High Schools Picking Up More International Flavor.” In this case, the headline was completely accurate. And guess where the plurality of the foreign students streaming into American high schools are coming from? Pat yourself on the back if you answered “China.”

Indeed, correspondent Tawnell D. Hobbs cites a federally funded study finding that the foreign student population in American high schools more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, to just under 82,000. And fully 42 percent are Chinese. Just as intriguing: Three of the other top student-sending countries are known for hewing to Chinese-style, Confucianism-based educational values, too – Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Moreover, why are so many students from these countries with China-like schools coming to America for secondary education? According to one of the study’s researchers, “For most of these students, the goal is to graduate with a high-school diploma. They’re really looking at seeing themselves as being more competitive to get into a U.S. university.”

On the one hand, the decision to try gaining entry into the (still world-class) U.S. higher education system may have nothing to do with any supposed advantage of American high schools. After all, foreign parents may assume that their children will benefit in terms of college admission simply from getting exposed to U.S. schools and their approaches, and to the broader society (including English speakers).

On the other hand, it’s surely no secret to foreign parents that American colleges and universities are turning cartwheels to attract foreign students – mainly for financial reasons. For both public or private institutions have taken to relieving cash crunches by welcoming students from overseas – who pay full freight. So especially if the family has the bucks, there’s no reason to think that junior can’t sail into an American institute of higher education without attending a U.S. high school. And still American secondary education is considered appealing.  

So it seems like the real takeaway here is that although there’s ample room and urgent need for improvement in American schools, and that although some foreign practices and attitudes no doubt can be imported, there’s no reason to think that some magic formula for success lies overseas. The main solutions for what ails U.S. education, as Shakespeare might have said, are “in ourselves.”