Is the SAT test too tough? Are American kids buried under too much homework?
We can look at American math and science secondary school educational attainment, which suggest a system-wide failure. Another factor we can consider is to compare ourselves to the two largest nations, India and China. Their college entrance exams are taken far more seriously than most Americans take the SAT. I share below anecdotal tales from actual Indian and Chinese MBA students I’ve known.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal includes a 1,200 word piece looking in detail at the difficulty of the Indian and Chinese university entrance exams. The article is free, there is no paywall barrier.  Statements like “Good luck finding a place in the [Peking University] library” should catch American attention.
India’s top engineering programs are world elite, the Chinese have committed to creating a “C9” League on par with the US Ivy League.
At the Indian Institute of Technology…we met Shriram, a 21-year-old man who ranked 19 out of 485,000 on the school’s very demanding entrance exam…
The exam—and the preparation for it—dominated his teenage years. He was singled out as a “big talent” at an early age, with an aptitude for mathematics and science. To get ready for the IIT entrance exam, he enrolled at a private coaching institute that prepares students with aggressive drilling in the major testing areas—physics, chemistry and math. Over those two years, Shriram estimates that he studied 90 hours every week.
When Shriram arrived at the IIT, he found a class filled with academic superstars. The faculty has high expectations. On the first math exam, his freshman class received an average grade of 30%. Shriram did poorly too but soon bounced back, sacrificing sleep so that he could study. “All my life I wanted to be here,” he says. “I knew that if I could go to IIT, major in engineering, work and study hard, my life would be perfect. I would marry a beautiful girl, start a company, help my country advance and deliver on my family’s hopes and dreams.”
My Master’s is from the University of Chicago and a number of classmates earned their undergraduate degrees from Chinese and Indian colleges. In my time there, one of the largest feeders of Chicago MBA students were the campuses of the Indian Institute of Technology. I was impressed with their talent for quickly grasping complex financial theorems and economic concepts, given their backgrounds in science.
At a ten-year graduation reunion last fall, I spoke with a number of alums. The topic of American education came up. One Indian-American first emphasized his appreciation of the American economic system and the freedom here. But, he said, in a bit of an undertone, Americans don’t understood our position. He and his wife, though living in a pleasant American suburb we would consider home to “good schools,” pulled their daughter out of the town’s public school. The reason? To home-school her, not for religious reasons, but because they believe American schools are too soft. Since the alum graduated from a top Indian school before graduating from the University of Chicago and advancing into a very successful career, I think his opinion is worthy.
Other alums from China and India expressed similar feelings that native-born Americans simply do not work hard enough. One alum, who manages people, said he believes many Americans hold these values not just in school but in the work world, where many feel “entitled” to a job. He expressed that there are many, many people worldwide who would be willing to work much harder than many of us, if they could enjoy our living standards.
The rejoinder to the assertion Americans should study more and complete additional hours of homework is that there is more than rote memorization to learning. This is true. The linked WSJ article points out the World Economic Forum rates 81% of American university graduates as (many of whom are actually students from other nation’s primary and secondary systems) being immediately “employable”, compared to 25% in India and only 10% in China.
The argument against the Chinese system is that it is primarily focused on rote memorization of knowledge compared to original thought and innovation. The Indian and, especially, the American universities are superior in original thought. Thus, countless hours of memorizing chemistry tables may not create the next Silicon Valley inventor. Still, is the Chinese focus on memorization actually worse than an American student’s after hours viewing Keeping Up With the Kardashians in lieu of homework?
This analysis also shows the obvious value of immigration. Driven, gifted students graduate from high schools and top universities in India, China, Korea, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. They will go into engineering and science careers somewhere. Why not allow them to bring their talents here, working for a Google or Apple, rather than having them living and working in Asia for HuaWei, Samsung or other competitors?
Comments are always welcome. Do you agree? Pictures of IIT campuses from Wikipedia Commons.