BANGOR, Maine — More than 6,000 miles from home, Chinese students in Maine high schools are finding that the United States’ system of learning is worlds away from education in the People’s Republic.
Reflecting on their first year of education in the United States, Chinese students from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Orono High School said they made the right call in coming to America, even if it means they might not be learning as much as they could be learning at home.
In China, high schoolers trudge through long days of rigorous coursework that stretch from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at most schools, with a short break in the middle of the day to eat and rest. When students go home, they chip away at piles of homework and thumb through stacks of books in an attempt to keep on top of assignments.
Contact between students and teacher is largely kept to the classroom, where dozens of students listen to their instructor’s lecture with little to no chance for participation or input. Avoiding disrespect is a major concern.
Competition among peers is intense, the high schoolers said. Students in schools with enrollment numbers sometimes as high as 6,000 push hard to learn as much as possible before taking one of the most important tests of their lives — the gaokao — a standardized test taken during the last year of high school that almost single-handedly determines what, if any, university a student qualifies to attend.
Test scores in recent years suggested there may be benefits to the Chinese model. In a 2009 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey, China registered top scores globally in reading, math and science, while the United States scored 17th, 31st and 23rd, respectively.
While most of the Bapst and Orono students said they felt their peers in China were probably learning more at a faster rate, they still feel they made the right decision in coming to America.
“I think Chinese high school students have more knowledge about math, physics, chemistry and biology,” said Tony Zhang, a 17-year-old Bapst student from Shijiazhuang, China. “In America, I think we learn much less than we learned in China, but we have fun in class; we enjoy our time.
Zhang, who spent one year in a Chinese high school, said the Chinese method of education was “very stressful” for students who are constantly in competition with their peers to earn a spot in a good university.
Shuang “Amber” Zhang, 18, a Bapst student from Tangshan, China, said some Chinese students believe American students are saddled with less work and get less value and knowledge out of their education.
“Actually, they’re wrong,” Amber Zhang said. “The American schools and Chinese schools are just focused on different things.”
While Chinese schools are focused on following strict curriculum and student memorization, “in America, you also need to work really hard — do lots of work by yourself and be more creative and plan your time really well. It’s hard in both countries,” Amber Zhang said.
American schools have the added benefit of allowing students to deviate from required coursework to study topics that interest them, join a club or play sports.
Orono High School senior Tim Mo of Changsha, China, said he has take advanced placement math courses, as well as classes at the University of Maine because of the flexibility the American curriculum offers. He said he even studied Spanish to add a third language to his repertoire.
“In China, you’re focused on a task-oriented education,” Mo said, “but here you’re more interest-oriented.
“I don’t think either education is superior to the other one,” Mo said.
One of the Chinese students in Bapst’s international program plans to help start up a school newspaper, according to international program director Craig Butler. Others have joined everything from robotics clubs to basketball teams.
Many of the students said that their year in American schools has helped them develop confidence and interpersonal and communication skills they might not have learned as easily under the education system in China.
The concept of “free time” is relatively foreign to a Chinese high schooler, students said. When they do spend time with friends, there’s often an open textbook on the table.
“Back in China, I would study from early morning to late evening and I’d barely have time to do what I like,” Zehua “Flora” Yin, a 16-year-old Bapst student said. “But here, you are the director of your own life.”
A large majority of Chinese students said they will enroll in American colleges and universities. Mo said he was accepted into eight universities this year and has chosen to attend the University of Minnesota next year.
Universities in the United States are held in high esteem in China, and Chinese parents, who for the most part are only permitted to have one child, want the best education possible for their children.
Sending children to the United States for high school is appealing to Chinese parents because it allows their child to get acclimated to American culture and practice the language before starting college, according to Orono High School Principal Jim Chasse.
That ideal melds well with Maine’s schools because Maine has one of the oldest populations in the nation and could face declining pools of potential in-state students to draw from in the future.
Both Bapst and Orono plan on growing their international programs in the future.
Orono, a school of about 360 students, has an international program of 18 students. Half of them are from China, according to Chasse. A recent recruitment trip is expected to bring 15 Chinese students next school year, with the ultimate goal of bringing in 30.
Bapst just wrapped up the first year of its international program, which saw 40 students this year, and all but three were from China. Butler said he expects 52 international students next year, but the school will be reaching out to other countries as well.
In recent years, more and more Maine schools have turned eyes to China while seeking higher enrollment. Lee Academy will host 100 students this summer for four-week Advanced Placement or college-level courses. Wiscasset High School and Stearns High School in Millinocket, among others, also have thrown their hats in the ring.
Mo said, given the chance, he wouldn’t change his decision to come to America.
“It’s not only the knowledge that changes me,” he said.