If you think China’s rapid economic climb and looming threat over the U.S. may be a fad, think again.
The country's debut in a recent study shows an educational system that far exceeds those in the West, cementing the view that the economic powerhouse is here to stay, and offering troubling news for the U.S. as it struggles to rebound from its worst economic downturn in eight decades.
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Some observers, however, say China's overabundance of qualified recent graduates is bittersweet for the Asian giant, which has found itself unable to provide enough white-collar jobs, leading to a recent surge in graduate-filled slums.
“Educational strength is a two-edged sword in developing economies,” said Dr. Marshall W. Meyer, a professor of management and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who focuses on China.
“While their educational system may surpass the US right now on paper, China is not necessarily sitting comfortably knowing the wide gap between jobs and the educated unemployed,” he said.
That’s not to say China’s scores aren’t impressive. The Asian behemoth swept the top results in all three categories of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. The study's 60-plus participating countries represent nine-tenths of the world economy.
One of China’s three tested cities, Shanghai, a sprawling area of some 20 million situated on the country’s eastern coast, scored the highest comparatively in math, science and reading, with a mean score of 600, 575 and 556, respectively, widely trumping average OECD scores of 496, 501 and 493.
Fifteen-year-olds in China’s other tested cites, Hong Kong and Macau, also boasted strong comparative scores, while more than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking to solve complex problems, trumping an OECD average of just 3%.
The U.S. came straggling much farther down the list, under some 30 economies in math and 22 in science, with its scores bordering the OECD average.
Of course, the three Chinese cities are not wholly representative of the country, particularly one that has more rural than urban residents and an “enormous variation in the quality of education” between the two, according to Dr. Nicholas R. Lardy, the Anthony M. Solomon Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Still, Lardy said that at its best, the Chinese educational system is “probably superior to ours” on average.
Kevin Miller, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who studies Chinese education, attributed China’s success to its focus on mathematics and teaching methods that focus more on each individual student.
Teachers in Beijing, for example, only provide some 30% of explanations in the classroom, allowing students to individually work through problems and explain the answers aloud one-by-one, while teachers in America offer a striking 80%.
The Chinese method provides students a “deeper, richer understanding,” Miller said.
Also, Chinese students are usually more challenged and able to pay attention to lessons more easily than those in America, according to Miller, who has extensively studied Chinese and American educational disparities.
Intensifying Competition - A Threat to the U.S.
The OECD believes policy makers can use PISA findings to gauge the knowledge and skills of students in their country in comparison with those around the world, allowing them to focus on improving educational policies in an effort to boost their economy in the long-term.
The organization’s secretary general, Angel Gurría, said the outcomes are a “strong predictor for future economic growth.”
GDP per capita influences only 6% of educational success, while the other 94% are reflected in public policy, according to Andreas Schleicher, head of the indicators and analysts division at the OECD’s Directorate for Education.
“In a global economy, the yardstick for success is no longer improvement by national standards alone, but how education systems perform internationally,” he said, adding that the findings pose both a warning and an opportunity for the low scorers.
At a time when global competition continues to intensify, lower scoring advanced economies like the United States are warned that they will not always have human capital that is superior to other parts of the world, and therefore need to maintain certain levels to keep up with changing demands, according to Schleicher.
“These are daunting challenges,” he said, and devising education policies that meet them will become increasingly difficult as schools strive to prepare students for “jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve economic and social challenges that we do not yet know will arise.”
Success, he said, will go to those countries that can swiftly adapt to change, as China has shown over the past decade.
America’s education problem could pose future consequences if it is not soon overhauled, Miller said, particularly as emerging economies like China continue their rapid economic and educational climb.
Luckily, he said, America’s system is in the early stages of a much needed turnaround, especially as teachers start to implement new methods that parallel the Chinese system, and individual states raise standards.
Ant Tribe - Problems for China
Thomas P.M. Barnett, the chief analyst at Wikistrat and author of Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, said there is currently a huge overestimation among American masses over the extent of China’s power.
“We really need to think about its issues in relation to its strengths,” he recently told FOX Business.
Despite China’s sweeping PISA results and its rise in the global economy, the country now struggles with an overabundance of high-qualified recent graduates and hardly enough high-paying professional jobs, leading to the recent surge of urban slums filled with young, unemployed diploma holders, a group dubbed the ant tribe.
The massive supply of qualified workers against a respectively thinning white-collar job market has caused the ant tribe's value to decline, an issue evidenced in salary role reversals over the last few years. Where the average starting salary for migrant laborers grew by about 80% from 2003 to 2009, those for recent graduates remained unchanged, according to the New York Times.
“China has really improved the quality of its work force, but on the other hand competition has never been more serious,” Peng Xizhe, dean of social development and public policy at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Times.
While it is too soon to judge whether the issue could grow into a more serious threat, Meyer said it is unlikely Chinese universities will be allowed to admit fewer students or that job-creation initiatives will prove successful enough.
Over the long-term, China may be able to transition from “manufacturing to a high-tech/service economy,” Meyer said, however it will take some time and will come at the expense of short-term GDP growth.