Shanghai ninth-grader Li Sixin spends more than three hours on homework each night and takes tutorials in math, physics, and chemistry on the weekends. When she took an international exam in 2012 given to half a million students worldwide, Li breezed through it.
“I felt the test was just easy,” she said.
The Chinese education system’s heavy emphasis on test-taking skills helps explain why students like Li once again dominated the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, the results of which were released last month. Yet the focus on testing is also pushing Chinese parents to send their children to the United States for a more well-rounded education, creating a unique opportunity for Christians to evangelize.
Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong topped the PISA scores, with the United States failing to break the top 20 in any of the three content areas: mathematics, reading, and science. Administered every three years since its inception in 2000, the PISA emphasizes a different subject each time it is given. This most recent test focused heavily on mathematics.
The results have led to hand-wringing here in the United States. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a “picture of educational stagnation.”
Still, many affluent Chinese parents are sending their children to the United States, fearing they lack the skills needed beyond the test. “The biggest criticism is that China’s education has sacrificed everything else for test scores, such as life skills, character building, mental health, and physical health,” said Xiong Bingqi, a Shanghai-based education scholar.
Many American schools—both public and private—see the influx of Chinese students as a way to fix their budget crises, as they can charge international students substantial fees for tuition that include room and board. Christian schools in particular are able to offer an attractive combination of high-caliber academics, varied electives, and a strongly grounded moral atmosphere.
“Their main motivation is to get a better education than they can in China,” said Rachel Mulder, director of international student programs for Grand Rapids Christian Schools (GRCS) in Grand Rapids, MI. “They realize that they need critical and creative thinking skills.” Mulder said prospective families are seeking to not only position their children well for entrance into U.S. universities, but to prevent the loss of childhood that seems endemic to the Chinese educational system.
Mulder remembers one incoming student’s comment: “I don’t want to be a study machine.”
In addition to a reputable academic experience, GRCS focuses intently on the opportunity for evangelism.
“About half of our new Chinese students this year were already Christians,” Mulder said. “But that’s not the norm.” Like many similar schools, GRCS places the international students in Christian host homes so they can see how Christian families live on a daily basis and give them a chance to hear the Gospel.
“What we’re really focusing on is the host family experience,” Mulder said. “This is where we’ve seen the biggest impact.”