In an era when Americans are chronically dissatisfied with their country’s schools (if not necessarily with the ones their own kids attend) and increasingly anxious about the rise of China, Lenora Chu’s new book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, is timely and illuminating, as it looks at China’s education system through the lens of an American parent who is also a veteran journalist. Chu and her husband live in Shanghai and, as their son Rainey approaches school age, they must decide what type of education they want for him. This personal angle—plus a journalist’s attention to context—provides clarity and nuance that some other recent books touching similar topics, such as Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon and Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, have lacked.

As Chu talks to teachers, observes classrooms, and stresses about her parental choices, she raises timely questions about parenting styles, cross-cultural literacy, and varying approaches to education. She’s often skeptical of the practices and norms in Chinese schools that she visits, but confronting these cultural differences makes her—and the reader—question things that may otherwise get taken for granted.

In some cases, she easily concludes that the Chinese system is plain wrong. After all, this is an authoritarian country with an atrocious human rights record.

She has no problem condemning the country’s hyper-nationalistic curricula, its overwhelming focus on academics for young children (she describes a friend’s child as enrolled in an “early MBA for five-year-olds”), and the country’s exclusion of special needs and migrant students from mainstream education. In some other cases, it is American education trends that, seen from a distance, appear unhinged. When young Rainey returns home every day with worksheets covered in corrections from his teacher’s red pen, Chu recalls the new idea in America that red marks—even in college—are “like shouting” and may “upset” the fragile students.

Some of the best parts of the book are those that explore the pros and cons of the strict, paternalistic schooling models for which East Asia is known, and American readers may see parallels in the debates going on in American and Chinese education circles. As demand rises in China for less severe classrooms, more in the U.S. question our schools’ handing of character education, discipline, and the strict “no excuses” approach. By examining a famously authoritarian education system that is under pressure to reform and relax, Chu’s book offers a valuable perspective on how to balance freedom and structure in childrearing and schools.

Strict and structured classrooms

Despite sometimes troubling excesses, Chu comes to appreciate two qualities of Chinese schools that ours sometimes lack: an emphasis on holding students accountable for hard work and a well-structured school environment. Bathroom breaks are highly restricted, student posture is policed, lunches are to be eaten in silence, students are publicly ranked based on their performance, parents are expected to be actively involved, and the whole system is anchored by high-stakes tests. In contrast to the American focus on sunny attitudes, happiness, and self-esteem, a Chinese “child’s regard for herself is rarely as important as a stark evaluation of performance.”

Such schools are not unknown in the U.S., of course, particularly the “no excuses” kind that generally serve disadvantaged youngsters. This model, most often associated with charters such as New York City’s Success Academy, is known for its tough, no-nonsense culture. Here, too, we can find kids silently marching between classrooms, teachers meticulously regulating student posture, and grueling test prep. As the title of David Whitman’s 2009 book has it, these schools are Sweating the Small Stuff, meticulously managing classroom order—and students’ personal lives—to establish a foundation for learning. 

Are strict schools just for disadvantaged students?

But are such strict, almost militaristic schools, ultimately good for their pupils? In a recent article, a former teacher at a “no excuses” school argues that they’re “not helping” disadvantaged students. Comparing the environment of her previous school with the progressive school she works at now, the author says that “the way a school treats its students shouldn’t be based on race or class.” But, whether or not you agree with them, those who see value in strict parenting and highly structured schools, such as Chu, Whitman, and “tiger mother” Amy Chua, aren’t saying they’re just for disadvantaged kids. Rather, they contend that stricter parenting and schools can lead to stronger education and more productive lives for all kinds of children.

Whitman for example argues that, however paternalistic its model, the virtues of a “no excuses” boarding school, such as the SEED school in Washington, D.C., are the same as those of the elite schools where Kennedys and Bushes have traditionally sent their children. Likewise, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was written by and for upper-middle-class American parents, and she contends that what has been branded “Asian” parenting has much in common with traditional mainstream norms in the U.S. For her part, Chu sees both good and bad in strict parenting and education, but like Chua she does not view strictness as a ladder out of poverty so much as a source of benefits for her own child, a boy from a privileged background whose parents have options and resources.

If America’s “no excuses” schools mainly serve historically disadvantaged children, it’s partly because laws, priorities, and philanthropists are most focused on such youngsters and partly because the stakes are so high for them. For affluent kids, school mediocrity is less of a barrier to success in life. In a country where just 7 percent of black twelfth graders were proficient in math on the most recent “Nation’s Report Card,” advocates for the “no excuses” model believe that order and discipline are prerequisites of school success for young people who face many more challenges than their affluent peers. (Of course, many American advocates for strict schools also believe that, despite the term “no excuses,” both school-level and economy-level changes are needed to improve social mobility.)

Seeking balance

This interaction of social class and educational philosophy has parallels in today’s China, where affluent families sometimes reject traditional schooling and parenting models. In recent years, some top schools have been introducing project-based curricula—and, as more families get wealthier, more are opting out of the state system and enrolling in private Montessori and Waldorf schools, signing up for programs that prepare young people to go abroad for college, and even sending their daughters and sons abroad for high school.

In China, as elsewhere, having more money means having more options, and considering how spartan and uniform Chinese schools have always been, more families are able and willing to experiment with some new ideas. That said, China has a long way to go before anyone can say it has foresworn strict parenting and schooling, and not all affluent parents are abandoning the old ways. Just as many middle-class Americans still send their children to religious schools and boarding schools known for being strict and instilling traditional values, most affluent Chinese still value aspects of the traditional models, even if many prefer some changes.

After Rainey had attended his Shanghai school for a few months, Chu and her husband observed him coloring and worried that he may be on the road to soulless conformism because he was keeping everything neatly inside the lines. Even if this might sound like the neurotic worry of the stereotypical helicopter parent, Chu’s broader concern is reasonable: We don't want our schools to be so rigid that they produce children who only paint by number, compose formulaic stories, and apply ready-made solutions to every problem. For Chu, the solution is to have Rainey attend rigorous Chinese schools for a few early years, complement that with a freewheeling home environment, and then switch him to a less structured school in the later grades.

As the U.S. continues to evaluate the “no excuses” model, how schools balance freedom and discipline and how they best cultivate creativity as well as academic skills are questions we will surely continue to debate.

Adam Tyner is associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he helps develop and manage Fordham’s research projects. Prior to joining Fordham, he served as senior education analyst at Hanover Research, where he executed data analysis projects and worked with school districts and other education stakeholders to design custom studies. Adam has also spent several years leading classrooms, teaching…

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