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5. Look over the horizon
2. Education Matters
On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a nice restaurant in central Shanghai, Liu Zhi-he sat fidgeting at the table, knowing that it was about time for him to leave. All around him sat relatives from an extended family that had gathered for a momentous occasion: the 90th birthday of Liu's great-grandmother Ling Shu Zhen, the still spry and elegant matriarch of a sprawling clan. But Liu had to leave because it was time for him to go to school. This Saturday, as he does every Saturday, Liu was attending two special classes. He takes a math tutorial, and he studies English.
Liu is 7 years old.
A lot of foreigners — and, indeed, a fair number of Chinese — believe that the obsession (and that's the right word) with education in China is overdone. The system stresses rote memorization. It drives kids crazy — aren't 7-year-olds supposed to have fun on Saturday afternoons? — and doesn't necessarily prepare them, economically speaking, for the job market or, emotionally speaking, for adulthood. Add to that the fact that the system, while incredibly competitive, has become corrupt.
All true — and all, for the most part, beside the point. After decades of investment in an educational system that reaches the remotest peasant villages, the literacy rate in China is now over 90%. (The U.S.'s is 86%.) And in urban China, in particular, students don't just learn to read. They learn math. They learn science. As William McCahill, a former deputy chief of mission in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, says, "Fundamentally, they are getting the basics right, particularly in math and science. We need to do the same. Their kids are often ahead of ours."
What the Chinese can teach are verities, home truths that have started to make a comeback in the U.S. but that could still use a push. The Chinese understand that there is no substitute for putting in the hours and doing the work. And more than anything else, the kids in China do lots of work. In the U.S., according to a 2007 survey by the Department of Education, 37% of 10th-graders in 2002 spent more than 10 hours on homework each week. That's not bad; in fact, it's much better than it used to be (in 1980 a mere 7% of kids did that much work at home each week). But Chinese students, according to a 2006 report by the Asia Society, spend twice as many hours doing homework as do their U.S. peers.
Part of the reason is family involvement. Consider Liu, the 7-year-old who had to leave the birthday party to go to Saturday school. Both his parents work, so when he goes home each day, his grandparents are there to greet him and put him through his after-school paces. His mother says simply, "This is normal. All his classmates work like this after school."Yes, big corporate employers in China will tell you the best students coming out of U.S. universities are just as bright as and, generally speaking, far more creative than their counterparts from China's élite universities. But the big hump in the bell curve — the majority of the school-age population — matters a lot for the economic health of countries. Simply put, the more smart, well-educated people there are — of the sort that hard work creates — the more economies (and companies) benefit. Remember what venture capitalist Tam said about China and the electric-vehicle industry. A single, relatively new company working on developing an electric-car battery — BYD Co. — employs an astounding 10,000 engineers. China, critics will point out, doesn't produce (at least not yet) many Nobel Prize winners. But don't think the basic educational competence of the workforce isn't a key factor in its having become the manufacturing workshop of the world. It isn't just about cheap labor; it's about smart labor. "Whether it's line workers or engineers, we're finding the candlepower of our employees here as good as or better than anywhere in the world," says Nick Reilly, a top executive at General Motors in Shanghai. "It all starts with the emphasis families put on the importance of education. That puts pressure on the government to deliver a decent system." And the Chinese government responds to that pressure in some intriguing ways. It insists that primary-school teachers in math and science have degrees in those subjects. (Less than half of eighth-grade math teachers in the U.S. majored in math.) There is a "master teacher" program nationwide that provides mentoring for younger teachers. Zhang Dianzhou, a professor emeritus of mathematics at East China Normal University in Shanghai who co-chaired a committee charged with redesigning high school mathematics programs across the country, says recent changes have begun to reflect more of a "real-world emphasis." Computer-science courses, for example, have been integrated into the math curriculum for high school students. And China is placing even more importance on teaching young students English and other foreign languages. If you think China's willingness to constantly fine-tune its educational system is not going to have much of an impact 20 years from now, there's a 7-year-old boy in Shanghai who'd be happy to discuss the issue with you. In English.(emphasis mine)