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Betsy,
In America, education often reminds me of the seven blind men and the elephant. Each one touched a different part of the beast and came away with a vastly different understanding of it than the others (the one who touched the tail thought an elephant was like a rope, the one who touched the side thought it like a wall, etc.). I wonder what you would think of American education if you only saw schools in Altoona or in Austin or in the Bronx. Our diversity isn't only in our many ethnic groups and lands of origin, it's in our many neighborhood groups and regional attitudes and experiences. Perhaps education in China (a vast country like our own) has been standardized (in the sense of highly regimented and homogenized)and what you saw would be repeated had you gone to the tiny hamlets on the outskirts, I don't know. Such organization has its advantages, as illustrated by the success of ants, but as you note, we are not that kind of a country. We value teamwork but we give the nod to competition over conformity. We group for strength but idolize the standouts. I am sure there are good things to learn from every system, just as a student can learn from every teacher, but it does not sound like the Chinese system is one we should emulate.
By the way, I work with teachers in a school that has a large number of Chinese immigrants (Chinese is pretty much the only language spoken in the hallways) and it is a real struggle for these teachers, many of the Chinese-born themselves, to release the students from a rote way of learning into the creative, flexible, critical thinking approach their New York school requires. The kids do well on standardized tests but have a real hard time on thinking and writing tasks. I find it interesting and challenging.

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