What Americans working as Chinese tutors can teach you about education in this country

Quite a few of my (American) friends have accepted full- and part-time jobs working as after-school tutors for children living in China.

At first, I found it somewhat surprising that my friends were bragging about being professional tutors. Tutoring is a job most people in the US associate with teenagers. (Your parents might pay the nerdy kid in your class some pittance to bring up your grade.) But the Chinese are renting legitimate professionals in the US to teach their children.

Thanks to technology and the gig economy, tutoring Chinese children has become a serious side-hustle for licensed K-12 teachers (who only receive raises when state legislatures are politically bullied into voting for them and are often without an income altogether during the summer months) and homeschooling mothers seeking job opportunities that allow them the flexibility to stay at home and teach their own children.

These are gigs that can pay a lot of money – after-school tutoring in China is a $52 billion market, as Chinese parents will spend every dime they have to get their children into elite schools – and the difference in time zones makes it easy to balance the gig with other scheduling priorities. It seems to be the rare win-win.

Listening to the them talk about the education culture in China, it is difficult to escape the impression that this is the last generation of economic and intellectual hegemony in the United States. I always say US culture is a pendulum, and it inevitably will swing hard in the opposite direction. (After the USSR beat the US to putting a man in space, the US re-worked academic standards in a panic, for example.) I’m just not sure it will swing soon enough to protect our general prosperity.

I suspect some of the appeal that tutoring Chinese children has for K-12 educators in the US is that the student-teacher relationship in China is as it should be. The tutor is a respected authority, something of value that the family is paying good money for. And not in the fashion of the American consumer that we hear so much about at US colleges and universities. (“My mommy and daddy took out a second mortgage on their house for me to go to college, so you will give me an ‘A’ in this class whether I deserve it or not!” “Is your mommy going to go to job interviews with you?” “Yes, she actually is.”) In the Chinese culture of filial piety, children respect the sacrifices of their elders by contributing to the aggregate honor of their household.

Children in China – in nearly all of Asia, actually – spend most of their days on school work. One of my friends told me that the children she tutors are in school from 7 am to about 5 pm each day. They go home, play sports and do homework, and then they work with tutors into the night. In fact, the Chinese Ministry of Education recently imposed reforms to reduce the amount of time kids spend with tutors to ensure they do get some sleep. I asked her if it made a substantial difference in their academic performance. “Oh my God, yes,” she said. “Their youngest children are functioning at what would be a high school level in the US.” Our gifted is their normal.

(If you are curious about the differences in education culture, I’d recommend watching the documentary School, Inc., which examines the difference in academic performance between public schools in the US, Asia, and Europe through an economic lens. And reading the book Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. )

Compare that to schools in the United States. That kind of pressure to achieve is perhaps found in some elite private and wealthy suburban public schools in the US, but it is certainly not the common experience. The academic content covered in US public schools is rapidly decreasing and so are objective measures of academic performance, both domestically and globally.

Approximately 2.2 million American students took the SAT this year, which saw a fresh decline in the average score, which has been declining for over a decade. According to the Wall Street Journal, however, SAT results display an even greater reason to worry:

The percentage of students meeting benchmarks to indicate readiness for introductory college-level coursework slipped to 45% from 47%. Those not meeting any of the benchmarks increased to 30% from 27%. Students struggled most in math, with only 48% meeting college-readiness benchmarks, down from 49% the year prior. For the other section, 68% met benchmarks, a drop of a couple of percentage points.

So in China, normal elementary school-aged children are working at what would be high school standards in the US. In the US, college students haven’t even mastered high school level work.

In the US, liberal political activists have ruined the classroom experience. Common Core was built by academics who thought children from different ethnic groups “experienced” subjects differently, something that foreshadowed Seattle Public Schools debate over whether their K-12 curriculum should present math as an inherently racist and oppressive endeavor. (Ironically, this level of Orwellian bullshit wouldn’t get 30 seconds of attention in nominally Communist China.) Now half of the kids in any given classroom are working under “accommodation plans” for their perceived emotional or learning disabilities. Teachers who go to school prepared to teach are going to spend a lot of time navigating people’s feelings about school instead.

I’ve written before that this madness has even seeped into homeschooling culture. Historically, homeschooling was what parents who had a more Chinese perspective on education did to remove their children from the dumbed-down universe of public schools. Now you have granola “unschoolers” who are pulling their kids out of school because they want their kids to play all day (and they hate vaccines, etc.). I think these folks are far from the majority of homeschoolers, but they are increasingly vocal in presenting their clown schools to the world as some perverse sort of lifestyle decision, complete with Seattle-esque buzzwords about how they are teaching their kids “critical thinking” instead of horrible, boring facts that they will never use in “real” life. (Much to the dismay of those of us who still want homeschooling to be regarded as an “elite” education option.) These folks are as unserious as the group therapy that public schools have turned into.

It’s not hard to see the US and China are on wildly different trajectories, and failures in education and in home life are largely responsible for these phenomena. In the US, education is becoming something of a permanent infancy, from kindergarten to the outright sale of graduate degrees to unqualified young adults. (My alma mater, which is a highly ranked school, now offers an entire PhD online. I almost wonder if this is an effort to get students from foreign countries to inflate their averages as much as it is about money.) This has brought us a generation of over-educated adult-children who won’t move out from their parents’ house. In China, children are being taught to compete and to be masters of the global economy from kindergarten.

If you made this observation to an unschooler, of course, they would suggest that Chinese children are profoundly unhappy and perhaps lament the fact that their iPhone was built by someone in China who both lives and works at a factory with suicide nets. Americans are taught these caricatures of the Chinese from an early age to explain away competitive disadvantages. If a child is raised with a sort of Aristotle-in-the-extreme sense of purpose and flourishing, they must be miserable.

Meanwhile, it is American children who are miserable by every measure. Reported levels of depression, suicidal thoughts, and other mental illness are higher among US youth now than they were when Hitler was on our doorstep or during the Great Depression. (Presumably because those were some of the most communitarian eras in American history.) We have active shooter drills in schools. Dumbing down schools hasn’t made anyone’s life any easier. As waivers have replaced standards and nihilism has replaced purpose and familial pride, we’ve created generations with precious little hope for a better quality of life during the fattest economic times our country has ever seen. It’s an insane system that really isn’t serving anyone particularly well.

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