It is smart for children to eat well, and eating well can make children smarter. This Bystander’s eye was caught by this story of a type we always find pleasing: research turning into policy with a beneficial outcome.
This particular piece of research was conducted in Shaanxi by a team of researchers from Stanford University in the U.S. which showed that 40% of school children in the rural parts of the province were suffering from anemia, and that their school performance improved once their diet was fortified with iron to address that. With an estimated one in three children living in rural areas across the country being anemic, Beijing now plans to spend 16 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) a year over the next nine years on a pilot project to improve school meals for 26 million elementary and middle school students in the countryside. The Stanford researchers conducted their initial study in 2008, with a broader four-province back-up study following. The results prompted the directive from Beijing last month to improve school meal nutrition. “The social return is huge,” says Scott Rozelle, the research team’s leader. “These kids will be able to do better in school, work harder and sustain China’s growth.”
Our man in London sends word that we got it all wrong about Dragon Mother Amy Chua, the Yale University law professor whose parenting book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been such a controversy-stirring best-seller. We had failed to realize the book was not a paean to alpha-mom parenting but a satire on it. Our man directs us to an interview with Chua in today’s FT:
The book was an attempt at satire. Chua tried to paint a self-effacing portrait and use humour to poke fun at her shortcomings. “It is a strange memoir. You hear me making fun of myself 18 years ago, and then I change. It is a self-caricature. Yet every review is on the parenting methods described,” [Chua] laments. “I had higher ambitions, that people would see it more for its literary merits,” she says, again with a laugh. “That’s not come out at all.” The authors she admires, and was hoping to somehow emulate, include Nabokov and David Sedaris.
Perhaps we should have guessed when we learned that the book was being published in the Chinese market under the title Being An American Mum. Our apologies. We are just too busing being post-ironic to keep up. And we are sure Chua is still able to be satirical all the way to the bank.
We take no convincing of the value of education in the first six years of life. Our eye was caught, however, by a startling number in a newly published World Bank policy note, Early Childhood Development and Education in China: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty and Improving Future Competitiveness. Taking into account the economic benefits and lower societal costs that ECDE programs promote over the long run, the internal rates of return on these programs, the note says, range from 7% to 18%. That would make investing in early-years learning “one of the most cost-effective strategies to break the inter-generations transmission of poverty, and to improve productivity and social cohesion in the long-run.”
The authors add:
Although China has made enormous progress in maternal and child health and has reached 51% gross enrollment for the 3-6 age group, rural children are under served, particularly the extremely poor and ethnic minorities. The 0-3 age-group is also underserved.
One reason: China isn’t devoting sufficient resources to early learning by international standards. In 2008, public spending on ECDE was a 0.01% of GDP, or 1.3% of the total public expenditure on education. This is far below the OECD average of 0.5% of GDP, or 8% of total public spending on education.
The Bank says China should aim to make ECDE universally available for the 0-6 age group. Over the next five-year plan it recommends that the anti-poverty program should include ECDE for the extremely poor, and that poverty monitoring should include child development outcomes. It also says that ECDE should be given greater emphasis and be considered a mainstream social service.
This is why we love the interconnected world. Dragon mother Amy Chua, the Yale University law professor whose book on alpha-mom parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has whipped up such a storm of controversy and publicity in the U.S., is being published in the Chinese market under the title Being An American Mum. Gone is the simple text cover of the U.S. edition to be replaced by a picture of Chua in black jacket with a star-spangled map of America as a back drop. “The changes are aimed at…appealing to Chinese sensibilities,” Xinhua quotes Wang Feifei, the acquisition editor at CITIC Publishing House, as saying. “Many Chinese parents want their kids to excel and join the social elite,” he adds. Everyone else’s grass is greener, it seems.
Our man in New York sends word that Chinese parenting styles are causing a stir. The Wall Street Journal extracted a new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, a high-profile professor at Yale University’s law school, extolling mother enforced rote learning to establish the mastery of academics and musical instruments that lets their children “see what they’re capable of, and [arms] them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away”.
Chu’s straight-A, piano and violin playing daughters stand testament to the accomplishments such tough love can hot house, though one flourished and one rebelled in the face of such strict parenting. (For a more acerbic take, try Amy Chua: Model Chinese Parent or Insufferable Elitist?).
The timing of Chu or her publishers is deft. Her WSJ article has hit a nerve (with a reported advance for the book of $500,000 her publishers will be delighted by the buzz for the book she has provoked; our man wonders if she hasn’t overegged her parenting pudding to that end). American parents — and employers — increasingly fret that their country’s system of secondary education is failing students, causing them to fall further and further behind their counterparts in other countries, an anxiety supported by America’s descending positions in international achievement rankings for maths, science and reading. All of which touches a bigger sensitive spot about America’s changing place in the world order. A return to the hard work, self-denial and discipline that Chua prescribes seems, to some at least, a return to elysian American values that would cure what ails the U.S. education system.
Yet at the same time, parents in China are questioning the approach Chua advocates, fearing it won’t produce the children needed for the 21st century, those that are creative, independent and armed with the ability for continuous self-learning rather than stuffed with facts. This Bystander recalls a similar debate over education in Japan three decades ago. There a subsequent generation of policymakers schooled in rote learning was unable to find the creativity to solve the exceptional problems that confronted the country in the 1990s and let its economy drift into its long stagnation.
“Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth,” says OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. Put your money on Shanghai, then. The city scored higher than any of the 70 economies included in the newly published survey of reading literacy among 15-year olds by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
China, as a whole was not included in the survey (it is not a full OECD member), but Hong Kong would have come third in the country rankings behind South Korea and Finland, the longtime number one that was pushed into second place this time. The survey also found that girls read better than boys in every country, which is no surprise, but quantifies the difference, which is, at “an average of 39 points, the equivalent to one year of schooling.”
Shanghai also topped the table in maths and science.
More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%.
One in seven of Shanghai’s 15-year olds achieved the highest levels of proficiency in all three of reading, maths and science, compared to one in twenty five across the OECD as a whole. It is a bit chalk and cheese to compare educational achievement in a city’s schools with those of a country, this is the first time Shanghai has been assessed and it is unclear how the sample of 5,000 tested children was chosen, so we are duly measured in our reaction. The key question is what makes the city’s schools so effective. The analysis that accompanies the survey’s results is too general to provide an answer. Yet, as the survey notes, high levels of skill are critical to innovation, so being top of the class should add up to something in future.
Among a bunch of newly approved measures to boost new-graduate employment — greater freedom to move about the country to look for work; more help to start a business — is an intruiging one: graduates who find jobs in towns and villages in central and western China will have their tuition refunded.
Similar terms will be available to those who join the army. The authorities have previously encouraged new graduates to “Go West”, but this is the first time the government has offered to refund tuition as an inducement, according to Chen Guangjin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, quoted in the China Daily.
Of China’s 10 million new graduates last year, more than one in eight — 1.5 million people — had failed to find a job by the end of last year. Higher eduction enrollments have risen sharply since 1999 in line with economic development ambitions. The consequence in an economic down turn has been a corresponding upsurge in new-graduate unemployment.
Unemployment has become an overriding concern for the leadership, but this group is a particular worry. The latest measures follow a meeting specifically on the subject chaired by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Unemployed new graduates represent not only a potential loss of valuable human capital but also a potential source of articulate dissatisfaction.