Friday, June 17, 2011

US high schools no easy path to Ivy League

US high schools no easy path to Ivy League
Source: Global Times [17:24 June 06 2011]Comments
By Patrick Mattimore

As a record number of Chinese students compete for a limited number of spots at the most selective US colleges, representatives of those institutions and private organizations are lining up to profit from their ambitions.

The US-based Institute of International Education has reported that during the 2009-10 academic year, 39,947 Chinese undergraduates were studying in the US, a 52 percent increase from the year before and about five times as many as six years ago.

There are more Chinese undergraduate students at American colleges than from any other country or region and the numbers of pre-collegiate Chinese students in the US is increasing every year too.

This April, the Associated Press reported that American high schools are actively recruiting Chinese students. Ken Smith, a school superintendent from Millinocket, a small town in Maine, went on a recruiting trip to China in the autumn of 2010, reporting that "They didn't know where Maine was, but they knew where Harvard was. They all want to go to Harvard."

But there should be a whole battalion of warning flags before parents send their children to an American public high school, especially if they're looking to place their kids at a top university.

The first thing to understand is that the average US public high school isn't very good. On the most recent international tests from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), released late last year, US students performed about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members tested, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

Chinese students finished first in all three subjects, although the Shanghai schools the students were drawn from are accessible only to the nation's rich urban elite, and they were hardly representative of the average education received by Chinese children.

But if the families have the connections and cash to get their kids to the US, they should also be able to get them into a top Chinese school.

One year at Stearns High, the school in Maine, will cost Chinese families approximately $27,000 in tuition, room and board.

Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn't appear on any "best high school lists."

The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era.

Millinocket is isolated. The closest mall and movie theater is one hour away. The town gets 93 inches of snow per year. Millinocket has about 5,000 residents but has experienced increasingly hard times since its paper mill filed for bankruptcy eight years ago. There were about 700 students at the high school in the 1970s. Today there are about 200?and the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot.

Foreign students are eligible to attend public schools in the US for only one year, so unless a child was a senior when she went to Stearns High, she would have to leave the US before applying to colleges there. It's unlikely that a Chinese student would have the English proficiency to enter a secondary school as a senior.

Other than developing a student's English, it's unclear how attending an ordinary public high school in the US will improve a Chinese student's chances of being accepted at an American university.

Private secondary schools in the US have long recruited in China, but in addition to being generally much better schools, they are not restricted as to how long students may attend.

Unfortunately, some Chinese parents are likely to be drawn in by the possibility of getting their child an American education even at a mediocre high school like Stearns.

If Maine is able to recruit Chinese students, other US public school districts with similarly lackluster programs will no doubt follow.

Except for squandering some money, there is probably nothing wrong with the overseas experience.

However, parents should be wary and not expect that the average US public high school will do much to improve a child's chances of being accepted at a top-flight US university.

The author is an adjunct instructor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program and a US public high-school teacher.

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