Educational Trends in China and the United States

Table of Content

Over the last two decades, educators, business leaders, and elected officials all agree that there are new skills that students must have to be successful in the 21st century. To meet the demands of economic competitiveness and educational equity, it should be no surprise that what students learn, as well as how they learn is changing.

What is surprising is the approach that two global powerhouses, China and the United States, are taking. This article outlines how the Chinese educational system is becoming more decentralized and learner-centered and how the United States is becoming more centralized and teacher-centered. In her article, Ms. Preus analyzes trends in each educational system and addresses implications for policy. The author begins the article by providing a comparison between the most recent reforms in each educational system.

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In China, the current educational reform began in the late 1990’s. Not only was the curriculum guidelines reevaluated and published, one also observed a decentralization of elementary and secondary education, emphasis on a “quality-oriented” rather than a “test-oriented” system, and an increase in the amount of pre service and in-service education for teachers. In response to governmental policies, must importantly No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the United States appears to be on the opposite end of the continuum.

The author uses the following reforms: centralization of elementary and secondary education, a more test-oriented system, with greater emphasis on direct instruction, and a decrease in the amount of professional preparation for teachers to illustrate the differences. Ms. Preus uses information that she collected while attending meetings in China in 2005, as a professional education delegate, to analyze these two converse approaches.

Educational Trends in China and the United States: Proverbial Pendulum or Potential for Balance? If students are to succeed in today’s complex conomy, they need to know more than just English, math, science and history. They also need a range of analytic and work place skills. In the past, it was not considered essential for every student to learn rigorous content. Many jobs were available for students with minimal academic skills. In today’s information age, jobs that once required only low levels of reading and mathematical skills now require high level skills. Schools that do not infuse 21st century skills into the traditional curriculum are not meeting these children’s expectations and needs.

For the article, Educational Trends in China and the United States: Proverbial Pendulum or Potential for Balance? ”, Betty Preus (2008) examined how two of the world’s proverbial powerhouses are reforming their educational systems so that their students are prepared to compete globally. In the article, the author mentions that China has reformed their curriculum (what they teach) and their methods (how they teach). Even though the author does not define “quality education”, it is suggested that they have created a curriculum that now teaches students in a 21st century context.

While reading this article, the impression was given that China’s emergence as a global economy (Preus, 2008, 1), is largely due to their shift from just teaching content to placing emphasis on analysis, critical thinking, and cooperative learning skills. China’s current success could be accredited to the realization that content under grids critical thinking, analysis, and innovation. To critically analyze a situation requires engagement with content and a framework within which to place the information. (Rotherham, 2008, 7) Since students now have a basic skills foundation, they are now prepared to apply what they know.

An integral component of China’s educational reform is the time and energy that has been allotted to professional development for their instructors. China has recognized the importance of providing teachers the methodologies that will assist them in instructing their students as to how to make connections between the content learned in the classroom and real world experiences. In the article the author is very subtle in pointing out her beliefs as to how the United States’ educational system is responsible for the United States loosing their competitive edge.

Ms. Preus mentions how the United States’ educational policies, especially No Child Left Behind, has resulted in a more test oriented system with more emphasis on content matter than critical thinking skills, problem solving, and innovation. (Preus, 2008,  5) However, the author fails to provide a hypothesis as to why our educational system has evoked a familiar pattern: pendulum swinging between an emphasis on process skills (analysis, critical thinking, and innovation) followed by a back-to-basics movement with emphasis on content.

It is believed that the author’s evaluation of the two education systems would have been better supported if reference was made to the landmark report A Nation at Risk. It was when this report was presented to the United States Department of Education and to the general public that it became quite apparent that it was necessary to reform the nation’s educational system. The report revealed international comparisons of student achievement in which on 19 academic tests, American students were never first and last seven times.

The report also revealed that some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension. (National Commission of Excellence in Education [NCEE], 1983, p. 2) These among other findings led to the United States to centralize elementary and secondary education. During this time emphasis was placed on the content areas. Unfortunately, the United States still finds themselves in a dilemma. Concerns that the United States is losing its global competitive edge are now heightened by the nation’s performance on the most recent international tests.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) measure how well early adolescent students (eighth-graders) are fairing in their abilities to problem-solve in math and science. TIMSS found U. S. eighth-graders to be above average performers among participating nations and found substantial improvement in performance. But the PISA, designed to test students’ application of math and science to real-world scenarios, found U. S. students to be among the worst performers. Silva, 2008, 11)

Even though American students may be illustrating mastery of instructional material, they are unable to carry over to the application of the material to real-world problems. The author acknowledges that a balance between basic and 21st century skills must exist in our current curriculum, and I concur. Currently, our schools have been haphazard about imparting these skills to our students. Most students obtain the necessary skills as a result of lucky encounters with great teachers, schools, or other influences rather than an intentional curriculum.

This article is quite an eye-opener. Even though it may be difficult to assess, it is imperative that our nation find a balance between core content and 21st century skills. We must align curriculum with the demands of college and career. Content must be taught in a 21st century context with the use of relevant and real word examples, applications, and settings to frame academic content for students. Additionally, students must be given the tools they need to stimulate an authentic work environment in order to achieve these skills at a higher level than is urrently expected of them as students.

Regardless of post-secondary goals, all students need a solid base in math, reading, and applied skills to succeed in today’s economy. Not only is it of the utmost importance that 21st century skills be integrated within the traditional curriculum, but is of equal importance that American teachers be properly trained. First, they must be aware of 21st century demands. Building the resolve necessary for change is the first step toward fighting complacency and increasing understanding that a high school diploma is insufficient in today’s economy.

Secondly, American educators must be provided with quality professional development. We must equip teachers with the tools necessary to bridge the gap between basic skills and real world experiences. Instead of traveling from one extreme to the other, the United States educational system must find a balance.


  1. National Commission of Excellence in Education (1983).
  2. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Retrieved from www. ed. gov/pubs/NatatRisk/risk. html Preus, B. (2008).
  3. Educational Trends in China and the United States: Proverbial Pendulum or Potential for Balance. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(7). Retrieved from www. pdkintl. org/kappan/k_v89/k0710pre. htm

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