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The Other Olympics -- China's After School Program Crisis

New America Media, News Feature, Jun Wang Posted: Jul 11, 2008

Editor's Note: The drive for success in the highly competitive job market in China has driven parents to enroll their children in rigorous weekend and after school programs, which experts say, may not be effective. Jun Wang is a writer with New America Media recently returned from China.

BEIJING Jiaxuan Wang, 10, eats his lunch in the car every Saturday as his father drives him hurriedly to his weekend classes.

He takes a Cambridge English class from 10 to 12:10, says the fourth graders mother, Guanghui Yang. Theres only 50 minutes before his math olympiad class, which starts at one. His dad has lunch at home and brings our son a lunch box to eat on their way.

Like many youngsters in China, Jiaxuan has a full schedule of weekend classes. He takes a three-hour class that prepares students to compete in the regional and national mathematics olympiads, and a fencing class every Saturday and Sunday afternoon after his morning English courses.

The regional math competitions lead to the International Mathematical Olympiad, an annual math competition for high school students. Over 90 countries send teams of five to six students to participate. To be selected as a team member representing China, students must remain in the top five though a series highly competitive contests from the district to the national level.

We dont want to make him super busy taking all these classes on weekends, but we have no other choice since almost all parents are doing this, Yang says. Over 80 percent of the 38 kids in Jiaxuans elementary school class take multiple weekend courses.

Some parents envision their kids winning gold medals at the international math olympiads, or first-place awards in a national math contest. But more parents enroll their kids in the math course to prepare them for important tests, like the rigorous middle school entrance exams.

Elite middle schools and high schools keep an eye out for youngsters with impressive contest records, or special skills like painting and fencing. Since most families have only one child, parents try their best to give their children the very best education. That way, they ensure a better future for their children in the extremely competitive Chinese job market.

Jiaxuans father lets him out of the car in front of the office building that houses the weekend olympiad math school. After racing across the huge city of Beijing, he takes time to search for a parking spot among the hundreds of cars crowded around the building.

Parents come out of the cars and gather in groups, chatting to kill time. Sometimes, they show off about how well their kids are doing at school.

Jiaxuan and his classmates, however, hardly enjoy the learning experience that seems to take over their weekends.

And although many of the children will go on to achieve success in the math olympiads and other contests, mathematicians say all the training doesnt necessarily help in the long run.

Shing-Tung Yau, a professor of mathematics at Harvard University, said at conference in China, Math is about research; olympiads are a test. A gold medal at the olympiads proves ones ability in doing tests, not doing research. An important thing in research is to find new problems to solve, but olympiads only train students to work on other peoples problems.

Yau said he had taught quite a few olympiad gold medalists holders and, in his experience, their interest in problem solving was very limited. Their strength is test taking, which isnt enough to make it through graduate school. Some of them dropped out of the program, he said.

Kefeng Liu, a math professor at UCLA, said sending kids to a math olympiad camp is a good way to teach discipline, but that it shouldnt be forced upon them. Non-Chinese students do the olympiads out of interest. They dont go through systematic training. The method used in Chinese math olympiad schools in fact kills students interest.

Education experts expressed concern over the extra-curricular training in math and the sciences in China. Students and parents have complained about it, and some local governments have tried to cool it down by setting rules to ban olympiad-type questions on classroom exams.

Textbook publishers, learning centers and teachers in the olympiad training industry are resisting the backlash.

Fang Du, vice principal of Dongyang high school in Zhejiang province, says young teachers are enthusiastic about the science olympiads and put in lots of overtime teaching in training centers. They don't do it just for the money, Du says. She pointed out that the teachers gain good reputations when their students are academically successful. Young teachers especially want to be recognized, and helping students win gold medals is seen as a quick way of proving ones teaching ability.

Many middle schools have stopped promoting and investing in the olympiads because of what they see as a low return on investment. Only the 40 gold medal holders of the National High School Students Math Contest, out of the total 360,000 high school graduates in Zhejiang Province this year, got priority in college admissions. Easy questions can pick out capable students, too, Du points out.

Thank the only child policyWe cant afford a second one, says a father waiting out of Jiaxuans math olympiad class. Like Jiaxuans father, he spends all his weekends and over 10,000 Chinese yuan a year for his daughters after-school education.

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