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Why are Chinese parents sending their kids to high school in the US?

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Frank Schultz
October 26, 2013

China's rising economy is behind the desire of many Chinese parents to send their children to school in the United States, but there's a human element, too.

As Janesville schools look to tap into this trend, The Gazette explored the phenomenon in interviews with two Wisconsinites who have close ties to China.

Weijia Li graduated from a Chinese university and then landed a spot in a graduate program at The Ohio State University.

Li now teaches German and is coordinator of the Global Higher Education Master's Program in UW-Madison's education department.

His journey is different from those of tens of thousands of Chinese students today, who come to America for their undergraduate degrees and even for high school.

The Chinese already make up 25 percent of all international students at U.S. colleges, and their numbers are growing.

Nearly 24,000 high school-age Chinese were studying in the United States in 2010-11, up from almost none five years ago, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

The difference is a new generation of Chinese parents who have the money and international interest to send their children to America, Li said.

Not all of these parents are rich. Some have average or above-average incomes for Chinese urban areas, Li said.

Most also have only one child as a result of Chinese government policy.

The Chinese have traditionally valued education. “That's just part of our culture,” Li said.

Single children tend to be spoiled, and their parents know that. So one reason Li has heard from parents for sending children abroad to study is to teach them to be independent, to negotiate, to compromise and to make friends on their own—skills they didn't need growing up in a protected environment.

“It's not an easy process, but the parents are willing to do that. … They believe in the long run that's definitely good for their kids,” Li said.

Success in an American university—and sometimes later in life—depends on learning English, Li noted, so may parents send their children to the United State for high school to learn the language and culture so they are ready when they get to college.

Li believes he received a quality undergraduate education in China, but Chinese educators now are debating whether their schools do enough.

Some believe Chinese education doesn't do enough to teach students how to be creative. Many in China think the United States does a better job of that, Li said.

The Chinese government has been looking at this issue for about 20 years because, in the long run, leaders don't think their economy can continue to compete based on cheap labor, Li said. They see innovation and creativity that can be learned from U.S. culture to be a stronger base for economic progress.

On the other hand, Chinese worry that U.S. high schools don't work students hard enough, Li said.

Randy Refsland, the superintendent of the Clinton School District, recently spent a year in China. He confirms much of what Li said.

Refsland worked as chief academic officer for an educational foundation that runs Advanced Placement courses for 1,500 students in 14 Chinese high schools, as he discussed in an article in School Administrator magazine.

“Every one of those kids' and their parents' goal was for their child to go to school in the U.S.,” Refsland said, and that has led to international education being one of the fastest-growing businesses in China.

Many parents can afford it, Refsland said. They were paying $10,000 to $15,000 a year to place their children in Refsland's programs, which operated like charter schools within Chinese public high schools.

Chinese students compete to be placed in the better high schools. A test in ninth grade determines their placement, just as  a later test will determine their university placement.

About 70 percent of high school students in the city are away from their homes in the country, so the schools have a big boarding-school component, Refsland said.

“They look very similar to small colleges here, from the way they're set up,” Refsland said.

A national exam called the Gaokao determines the quality of university the student may attend, Refsland said. “You don't have a choice.”

A student who scores well in English, for example, might be told to study to become an English teacher. They have no choice in the matter and no choice in where they are assigned to teach after they graduate.

“For Chinese kids and for Chinese parents, going to school overseas, whether in the United States, Britain, Canada—it doesn't make any difference—their child has two options already that they don't have in China: They can pick the college they go to, and they can choose what they want to be when they grow up. Those are two pretty powerful incentives,” Refsland said.

Refsland sees growing pressure to send Chinese students to the Untied States not just for college, but for high school, as well, to prepare them for college.

Refsland said Janesville Superintendent Karen Schulte's work to bring in tuition-paying Chinese students taps into this desire.

“She's got the right idea,” Refsland said, noting that schools around the United States have set up similar programs.

“I've been following it with admiration, frankly. I think it's a great idea. I wish we had the resources here (in Clinton) to do it,” he said of the Janesville initiative.

“I've talked to my board about this, and the fact of the matter is that one way to increase revenue is to increase students,” Refsland said.

Refsland noted that Wisconsin school districts can get more students from surrounding districts through the state's open-enrollment law.

“If there's another option to grow your enrollment, and this option is based on tuition, why not explore it? It's legal, and it's a way to increase the revenue in your school district,” Refsland said.

Li and Refsland both gave strong support to efforts to globalize education in U.S. schools.

 “From my personal experience, I think it is definitely a good thing for both countries. I think it's important for the young people to understand each other,” Li said.

With communications technology bringing the world closer together, opportunities to experience different cultures at school will grow, even without long-distance travel, Li said.]

Refsland said foreign-exchange students expose Clinton students to cultures they might otherwise never experience.

“The vast majority of kids are not going to be exposed, normally, to a person who grew up in Malaysia or Norway or China or Thailand. To me, that's an advantage. … I frankly don't see a negative,” Refsland said. “It's a win-win for everybody involved.”

Refsland's own life has been enriched by his time in China.

“The Chinese people love Americans. They think highly of our country. The Mandarin name for us is “beautiful land.”

Refsland said he made lifelong friends in China and marveled at how people went out of their way to help strangers.

“Those kinds of things happened on a regular basis. I have a great deal of respect for the Chinese people, that is for sure,” he said.



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