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LEE, Maine — Imagine sitting in a classroom from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday with as many as 64 other students, stationary except for a 2½-hour lunch break, and having to take classes on Saturdays and Sundays, too.
Imagine lessons heavy with memorization and detail, with little opportunity to question, analyze or even explain what you’re expected to learn, where dead silence is normal, and teachers rule with strict discipline and give you little if any personal attention.
Imagine having every grade intensely scrutinized by parents who view your educational achievement as their ticket to a better life, and a massive annual exam that strictly regulates your chances to get a better education.
If you can envision that, you can begin to see why many Chinese parents prize the opportunity to send their children to American high schools as diverse as John Bapst, Lee Academy and Stearns. Those are among several state high schools that, like others in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia and Washington, will have dozens of Chinese students enrolled in September.
Yet the picture drawn of a typical Chinese classroom — if there ever can be such a thing in a country of more than 1.3 billion people — could be starker still, said Bruce Lindberg, headmaster of Lee Academy, one of the state’s pioneers of large international student programs.
“There is no classroom participation, no ability to get help, no vehicle to get help, and then at the end of the year, you take a culminating exam and the results of that exam determine your fate, whether you stay in school or not stay in school, or whether you progress to a different school with a higher ranking,” Lindberg said.
“The observation that I make is that there’s no nurturing whatsoever. There is no showing of emotion,” Lindberg added. “There is very little as far as the personal relationships that typically develop between an adult and child. How often have you had a conversation with somebody and they will say, ‘Mr. Weatherbee changed my life,’ Mr. Weatherbee being their principal, math teacher or whatever? I really don’t believe that this happens in China.”
A rush for money, culture
Camden Hills Regional of Rockport and Orono high schools and Erskine, Foxcroft and Thornton academies are other Maine secondary schools that have or are starting international student programs to broaden their schools’ cultural and educational base. Husson University and the University of Maine also are looking to expand their Chinese student populations.
All of the schools seek student tuition, which starts at about $18,000 annually, to bolster coffers depleted by population declines, shrinking financial aid and rising costs.
Lee Academy might be the state’s first to run a summer program for Chinese eighth- and ninth-graders, enrolling 52 who paid $1,200 each for a three-week program of English lessons and cultural acclimatization that began July 8.
And students are starting to head the other way. Twenty Maine high schoolers will go to China this month as part of a two-month program that will immerse them in Chinese languages and culture. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth program is administered through the Chinese Language & Culture Center of Maine in Bangor and endorsed by the American Council for International Education.
Lee Academy has started satellite schools in China and South Korea that have hundreds of Chinese students enrolled.
Yet Maine’s move toward international student money has its critics.
Arnold Hopkins, chairman of the Millinocket School Committee, has warned that the 60-student program proposed for Stearns could be disastrous if done poorly, and Patrick Mattimore, an American editorial writer for The Global Times, a state-owned, state-operated newspaper in China, wrote that Stearns was not a top-flight school, noting what he called poor test scores and Millinocket’s lack of student recreational facilities.
“Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn’t appear on any ‘best high school lists,’” Mattimore wrote. “The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era.”
Profoundly different philosophies
Millinocket leaders reacted with outrage to Mattimore’s warning, and they and other sources said he wasn’t as much inaccurate — Stearns’ test scores are generally below average — as unfair and perhaps irrelevant. Millinocket’s leaders never advertised the school as a place of top-ranked test takers.
They said their program’s great attraction for Chinese is the opportunity it provides to experience rural American life and a fabulous North Woods climate with students of varying intellectual ability.
Lindberg said it is probably a mistake to make qualitative comparisons between the American and Chinese educational systems. Both are based in, and reflect, profoundly different histories, cultures and educational philosophies, and life experiences in China and in America both offer weighty lessons to international students outside of the classroom.
“It isn’t that we are good and they are bad,” Lindberg said. “It’s that we each do things differently, and we can learn from them and they from us.”
Chinese education is based largely on memorization and rote learning, and probably most Chinese students outstrip most American students in the sheer amount of data they absorb and work they do. Americans are probably better thinkers because their educators and culture place a greater stress on independent analysis and explanation, said Suzanne Fox of Fox Intercultural Consulting Services, which is advising Stearns officials on their international student program.
“Their strength is certainly [in amassing] factual knowledge,” Lindberg said of Chinese students. “They mathematically can do any formula, but they can’t necessarily put it into practical application. That’s why research and development in China is dependent upon other countries, but because of their discipline and their ability, too, they are great workers, great in productivity.
“Once they get a task, they are almost machinelike, because that system develops that quality extremely well,” Lindberg added.
Another vast difference: The American educational philosophy, Lindberg said, sets recreation as a key element of success. The Chinese philosophy doesn’t, which is among the elements that create in the Chinese a vast capacity for hard work.
“Our culture believes that a person needs to recreate to be fresh and alert,” Lindberg said. “And recreation in their world is nonexistent, so they will work 18 hours. They don’t need four hours of playing basketball or listening to music.”
Less freedom, more discipline
Hailing Lei, deputy principal at the Xiguan Foreign Language School of Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, said that the Chinese education in biology, chemistry and physics is stronger than the American, but concedes that its rigidity has produced limitations.
Lei, who is leading four Chinese educators who are chaperoning the 52 Guangzhou students in Lee Academy’s summer program, said her team hopes to study how American teachers provide individualized instruction to students and encourage creative and individual thinking.
“The American educational system is more democratic,” Lei said through an interpreter, “but we are catching up.”
The most profound educational difference between America and China, Lei said, is also cultural. Since 1978, China’s communist government has maintained population controls that limit families to one or two children, a restriction most Americans probably would find unfathomable.
China’s huge populace necessitates big classrooms. Some high schools have 8,000 students, Fox said, and the generally quiet, reserved, disciplined nature of Chinese students is a practical response to the vast population, Lei said.
A lack of discipline or restraint, Lei said, could create chaos.
“The education in China is more structured,” said Stevie Wang, a 21-year-old Boston College student and China native who graduated from Lee Academy two years ago. “There you don’t get to choose classes until college, and even then there are some you have to take. Everything is more strict.”
The population controls also probably help create a more competitive atmosphere among parents, who monitor their children’s education very closely, Lei said. Education in China, as in most cultures, is seen as a route to success, and the Chinese emphasize education much more than most Americans do, Lindberg said.
“In their world,” Lindberg said, “their first dollar is spent on education.”
Much of the crush for American education, Fox said, comes from Chinese government leaders demanding improvements in their educational system and their desire to have China become an economic superpower. Many Chinese parents feel that an American education will help children who don’t test well.
“Parents have so much pressure on their child to succeed and they want those kids to have the opportunity to go overseas,” said Fox, who has visited China 27 times. “They see themselves being such a powerhouse in the 21st century and they want their youngsters to know how to interact as global citizens. They were just so shut off from the outside world for the long time.”
Still a repressive society
Much of that communist isolation from the democratic world, and restrictions on freedom, still exists in China, Wang said. Censorship is common. Internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned. Criticism of political leadership is repressed, he said.
The communist restrictions on religion have produced a harsher atmosphere. The population controls help create Chinese children, used to a great deal of parental attention, who are “selfish, and they don’t have a brother or sister to follow or lead,” Wang said.
One of the Chinese students visiting Lee Academy this month, 14-year-old Aitong Chen, said his experience in the school’s dining hall on the first day was a rare occasion for him: He had to bus his own tray and serve himself in the cafeteria line.
“We don’t have to clean our dishes and put our dishes down,” Chen said. “We just leave it all.”
And while American students could learn from the Chinese in comportment — Chinese culture tends to emphasize politeness, respect for teachers and elders and quiet — the Chinese could learn from Americans how to enjoy and preserve the environment, Lindberg said.
“Environmentally, they are where we were in 1900 with the pollution of their air and water,” Lindberg said. “Their industry just billows smoke. Everywhere in China you see these signs that say, ‘Do not drink.’ They are in every lavatory and at every faucet.”
How to live life with relative freedom might be the biggest lesson Chinese students learn in America.
“It is very hard to criticize American society compared to China,” Wang said, “because this culture is in most ways better, in my opinion. There’s more emphasis on freedom and human rights here.”