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Originally published Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Despite recent test scores, China is not 'eating our lunch'

American students are not getting their lunches handed to them by Chinese students despite the scores of a recent test.

Special to The Times

THE lackluster performance of our 15-year-olds in math, science and reading in a standardized test compared with Shanghai's students scoring first in all three subjects, have stirred some interesting and somewhat self-deprecating comments. President Obama declared it a "Sputnik moment," and columnist Esther Cepeda opined alarmingly about China "eating our lunch."

To be sure, our 14th-to-25th ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment is no cause for complacency. Neither is China eating our lunch, or any meal — at least not yet.

We know that China is a master of turning out sparkling economic statistics. Some of those are real and deserve congratulation — China's economy is indeed on a meteoric rise. But many others are not so real, gamed by bureaucrats whose careers are tied to certain short-term statistical yardsticks, or as a result of our ignorance of how China functions.

Cepeda is right in pointing out that the contrast of the U.S. scores with Shanghai's is not totally appropriate: It is comparing the entire U.S. population — including many who are on free or reduced-price lunches — with China's cream of the crop, the Shanghai kids.

Even more important, but far less-known, is that in Shanghai, as in most other Chinese cities, the rural migrant workers that are the true urban working poor (totaling about 150 million in the country), are not allowed to send their kids to public high schools in the city. This is engineered by the discriminatory hukou or household registration system, which classifies them as "outsiders." Those teenagers will have to go back home to continue education, or drop out of school altogether.

In other words, the city has 3 to 4 million working poor, but its high-school system conveniently does not need to provide for the kids of that segment. In essence, the poor kids are purged from Shanghai's sample of 5,100 students taking the tests. The Shanghai sample is the extract of China's extract. A fairer play would be to ask kids at Seattle's private Lakeside School to race against Shanghai's kids.

More fundamentally, I would argue, the winner of the next true "Sputnik race" will not be called by PISA test scores.

It will be decided, instead, by other strengths the U.S. still has over China. We have a more open and receptive social system. For example, Washington state, like many other states, accepts undocumented immigrant children in their public schools and universities. Whereas in China, children of migrant workers — and these kids are Chinese nationals, not foreigners — are barred from attending high schools in cities where their parents work.

Moreover, U.S. education is generally far broader than simply getting good test scores, while top Chinese schools fixate on those. Kids in many American schools are exposed to a wider, sometimes open-ended, learning experience and are encouraged to explore beyond the conventional.

It is the openness and creativity of the American system and the opportunities it brings — the crucial factors that unleash the Bill Gateses of the world — that not only determine who eats the lunch but even what's on the menu.

After all, just a mere 20 years ago the menu did not have anything to do with American inventions like iPods, Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Kam Wing Chan is a professor in geography at the University of Washington. His research focuses on China's migrant labor and urbanization.

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