Testing, Testing: Yes, My People Know How to Take Tests

I walk my son to school every morning and wait as he sits in his class’ line in the schoolyard. When his teacher arrives, she gathers the class and walks them to their classroom. The other morning as we parents and our children were waiting, another Chinese American mom struck up a conversation. We exchanged names and somehow we got to chatting about how they chose this school district.

Her husband was attending graduate school, and when selecting a place to live, they had looked at all the surrounding communities in the area which have a higher proportion of Asians. The communities are also solidly working to middle class, and the parents are known to pressure their children quite a bit. They finally settled on our town because, as this immigrant Taiwanese mom told me, “I wanted them to have a good education, but…reasonable, not like how it was for me.”

From her accented English to other details she mentioned to me, it was clear that she’d grown up in Taiwan and had herself undergone schooling under a rigid, authoritarian system.


I read this NYT article with a little bit of amusement because there’s a huge panic about China in the air (their kids are better at math and science! their economy is roaring back from the brink to become the number 2 largest economy in the world! they’re beating us on green tech investment!). This newspaper article about rigorous teaching methods in China just seems to add to the panic in many ways.

The idea is that school children in China are tested frequently, expected to perform, and no one thinks twice about subjecting the tender snowflakes to the process. Having experienced this from a diluted, immigrant parents,  American-born kid’s perspective–summer math workbooks, anyone?–and seen my cousin’s children in Singapore and my other cousin’s children in China go through K-12, I can say that the Chinese approach is very no-nonsense, demanding, and results-oriented. What no one talks about is how school in Asia often extends from early in the morning to 6 pm at night, with homework and sometimes more tutoring into the evening. I wouldn’t be surprised if corporal punishment were still in effect. (Hello, Singapore? Caning?)

Those astonishing math and science results? It’s lots of drill and lots of round the clock schooling, sometimes to a harsh and unrelenting degree. (Also, it’s a numbers game, isn’t it? With 1.5 billion, or about a quarter of the world’s population, it stands to reason that the bell curve of talented and hopeless people in China will numerically outnumber Americans on both of our corresponding ends of the bell curve.)

As one example: our neighboring community prides itself on a high school that looks like a small college. The parents are pressured to donate about $2,000 per year to the public school on top of whatever individual music lessons or athletic teams they have their children participate in. It’s a wealthy community and in the past 40 years it’s gone from being mostly white and wealthy to now 40% Asian immigrant and affluent. The reason the calm green lawns and sleepy sidewalks are empty is that inside the very nice houses, children are sweating with academic effort and the parents fill the air around them with the supercharged electricity of the need to achieve.

The weekend Chinese school we send our son to in that community is a 3 hour long class with children as young as 4 or 5 (my son is now turning 7 and he’s in the second-most-basic beginner’s class). There are two breaks of about 15 minutes for snacks and the like, but otherwise the children sit at tables meant for middle schoolers and do in-class exercises where they recite or write, do contest-quizzes, and sing songs in Mandarin Chinese.

In a mainstream American classroom today, this would be unheard of.

Interestingly, my son doesn’t pretend to enjoy the class, but he’s proficient and luckily we seem to have a child who can focus and be seated for fairly long stretches at a time. The most important thing I notice about his behavior is that even though he can’t be said to enjoy the class, he’s conscientious and works hard and does well at it. (It helps he’s cute and well-behaved, which can’t be said for all the boys in the class.) And I think what he responds to is the culture of the classroom. There’s a culture of expectation.

The teacher is warm and kind, but very demanding. And my son rises to the occasion.

Now, the rest of his schooling seems to be a cakewalk. It’s the third week of regular elementary school and so far his teacher, whom we like a lot, is still doing diagnostic exercises. In the biographical information we parents supplied to the teacher, I noted that my child asked me when he was three years old what the difference was between odd and even numbers, and at various times since then has asked me about multiplication and division, percentages, and positive and negative numbers. So in response, I’ve taught him how to add and subtract 3-digit numbers, use a number line to compute positive and negative numbers together, and other basic math concepts. I explained to the teacher on the written questionnaire that this is all driven by my child’s interest. Therefore his ability and knowledge is extremely spotty, because he’ll be burning through pages in a math workbook I bought for him, and then long stretches will pass where he’s much more interested in dinosaurs or ghost stories or The Magic School Bus.

What I didn’t tell the teacher is that I’m competent in math but a damn lazy home-schooler, so part of the meandering quality of his math education is due to my variable attentiveness. And, I’m trying to respond to his interest as opposed to make it something I’m ramming down his throat. (Having myself put in many childhood hours whimpering over math sets before I could enjoy my sunny summer vacation day, I’m very sensitive to the compulsory math stuff. Because, of course, I turned out to be an English major.)

So here’s the ironic thing: I find myself wishing that my son’s elementary school teacher would push him as far as he can capably go in math, because in general I think if a child shows propensity for something, if the thirst for more information originates from the child, that child should have the thirst met. Yet I find the “Chinese-style” mode a little oppressive and soulless. (Don’t even talk to me about the dead-eyed automatons who stumble through med school and then have a 20-something life crisis where they decide they’d rather write novels or make movies or be pastry chefs instead. It happens.)

What I’m saying is that I think there has to be a sensible middle way, where we don’t coddle children and wrap them in cotton, but also don’t flog them so they lose a sense of who they are and what they want. Right now, I think I have it good because the minimum of what my kid receives at his public elementary school is good teaching, and I can always add on to what he gets myself. If he himself seeks it, that is.

Right now he’s insatiably curious and has a large appetite for novelty, which is another way of saying he likes the fun of mental stimulation. But having gone through the Model Minority schooling myself, then masochistically signed up for more graduate schooling, I’d like to help my kid be the best possible thing, a person with curiosity and the discernment to find the answers: an autodidact.

Because you can make a person go through a lot of schooling, but you can’t make them be curious and you can’t give them the burr under the saddle to always ask ‘why?’ The best thing my son could do is retain that burning desire to keep generating questions, and keep trying to answer them.

One thought on “Testing, Testing: Yes, My People Know How to Take Tests

  1. Amy Cheung von Haam on

    Hi, I came across your blog by chance as I’m looking for a Chinese school and was intrigued by some of the things you mentioned re San Marino Chinese School. Neither my husband nor I speak Mandarin but our daughter 6-year old has had a year of Chinese immersion. Can you share more thoughts about your son’s program. My daughter loves Chinese, and as you’ve alluded, I want her to have serious Chinese program without being whipped!

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