... But even as some parents in the West wrung their hands, fretting over an education gap, Chinese commentators reacted to the results with a bout of soul-searching and even an undertone of embarrassment rarely seen in a country that generally delights in its victories on the international stage."I carry a strong feeling of bitterness," Chen Weihua, an editor at the state-run China Daily, wrote in a first-person editorial. "The making of superb test-takers comes at a high cost, often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood."
In a sense, this is the underbelly of a rising China: the fear that schools are churning out generations of unimaginative worker bees who do well on tests. The government has laid out an ambitious set of plans for education reform by 2020, but so far it's not clear how complete or wide-ranging the changes will be — or whether they will ease the immense pressure on teens in families hungry for a place in the upper or middle class.
"We have seen the advantages and the disadvantages of our education system, and our students' abilities are still weak," said Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai's Jiao Tong University. "They do very well in those subjects the teacher assigns them. They have huge vocabularies and they do math well. However, the level of their creativity and imagination is low.
"In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity," Xiong said. "And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this."
... But Zhang also pointed out the implied embarrassments of the examination results: The Shanghai students who triumphed in the tests enjoy the very best China's uneven schools can offer. Their experience has little in common with those of their peers in rural schools, or the makeshift migrant schools of the big cities, not to mention the armies of teenagers who abandon secondary school in favor of the factory floor.
And even in the rarefied world of the Shanghai high schools, teachers and administrators are concerned about the single-minded obsession with examinations.
At Zhabei No. 8, a public school on the northern edge of Shanghai's downtown, administrators spoke cautiously of the students' success in the international tests. Nearly 200 students took the exams last spring; afterward, they told their teachers that the questions had been simple.
"We are fully aware of the situation: Their creativity is lacking. They suffer very poor health, they are not strong and they get injured easily," vice principal Chen Ting said. "We're calling on all relevant parties to reduce the burden on our students."
I dunno. I've read a lot about creativity over the decades, but it's hard to measure reliably contemporaneously. For example, in Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray only looked at artists and scientists up through 1950 because more recent judgments were too unreliable. So I never know what to think when East Asians go on and on like this about their lack of creativity.
The Japanese poormouthed themselves over their supposed lack of creativity exactly like this several decades ago. Were they right? I still don't know.