It's ironic that just as the world is appreciating the strengths of China's education system, Chinese are waking up to its weaknesses. These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests. For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.
On Tuesday, Shanghai's 15-year-olds topped the global league tables in reading, science and math in the Program for International Student Assessment, a test run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This comes as no surprise to anyone working in Chinese schools.
With its demanding parents, ambitious students, and test-obsessed culture, China's K-9 schooling is probably the most rigorous in the world. And Shanghai, an open and cosmopolitan city that is boundlessly ambitious and fiercely competitive, has always been China's K-9 education leader.
So China has no problem producing mid-level accountants, computer programmers and technocrats. But what about the entrepreneurs and innovators needed to run a 21st century global economy? China's most promising students still must go abroad to develop their managerial drive and creativity, and there they have to unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them.
The failings of a rote-memorization system are well-known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning. Chinese students burn themselves out testing into university, where many of them spend their time playing World of Warcraft.
Both multinationals and Chinese companies have the same complaints about China's university graduates: They cannot work independently, lack the social skills to work in a team and are too arrogant to learn new skills. In 2005, the consulting firm McKinsey released a report saying that China's current education system will hinder its economic development.
But don't the PISA results at least show that China's K-9 education is the best in the world, and that standardized testing, as U.S. President Barack Obama seems to believe, is necessary to improve American schools?
Not really. According to research on education, using tests to structure schooling is a mistake. Students lose their innate inquisitiveness and imagination, and become insecure and amoral in the pursuit of high scores.
Even Shanghai educators admit they're merely producing competent mediocrity. The OECD report states, "[T]he dictates of the examinations have left students with little time and room for learning on their own. 'There is an opportunity cost in terms of time and space,' said [one experienced Shanghai educator]. 'Students grow with narrow margins' and are not fully prepared for their lives and work in the future. This is seen as a deep crisis, exacerbated by the reality of single-child families."
A consensus is growing that instead of vaulting the country past the West, China's schools are holding it back. They equip everybody with the basic knowledge to be functional in a socialist economy. But now that China is a market economy hoping to compete globally, it's jealous of America's ability to turn its brightest students into the world's best scientists and businesspeople.
Reform is on the horizon. This year the Chinese government released a 10-year plan including greater experimentation. China Central Television's main evening news program recently reported on Peking University High School's curricular reforms to promote individuality and diversity.
As director of Peking University High School's government-approved International Division, an experimental program to prepare students for study in America, I've attended meetings where Beijing's top education officials endorsed importing Western curricula. Nevertheless, it's safe to say China won't challenge America's leadership in education anytime soon.
Shanghai's stellar results on PISA are a symptom of the problem. Tests are less relevant to concrete life and work skills than the ability to write a coherent essay, which requires being able to identify a problem, break it down to its constituent parts, analyze it from multiple angles and assemble a solution in a succinct manner to communicate across cultures and time. These "critical thinking" skills are what Chinese students need to learn if they are to become globally competitive.
So the first step of education reform is trying to teach students who are good test takers to be good essay writers. To write well in English, students need to understand concepts such as thesis and argument, structure and support, coherence and flow, tone and audience, diction and syntax—concepts that are barely introduced in Chinese schools. One way we'll know we're succeeding in changing China's schools is when those PISA scores come down.
Mr. Jiang is deputy principal of Peking University High School, and director of its International Division.