Parents in China

China now has about 800 “taught-in-English” private schools.  My guess is a 15% growth rate over the next 5 years, similar to American charter schools in the early 2000s.   So let’s say that in 2022, China will have 1,600 such schools.

In the USA, each of 50 states decided its own approach for charter schools, so political risk is spread out.  Arizona allowed many charters, Vermont forbid charters, Massachusetts chose a “medium” course.  In China, however, education policy tends to be national.  So the uneasy legal status of all these private schools could change at a moment’s notice.

On Wednesday I described the shortage of British and American teachers there.  It will only increase.

Today I’m thinking about parents. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, paired with Little Soldiers, are 2 great books from an American-Chinese perspective.

I asked a couple of very sharp Chinese school leaders: How are you planning for increased competition?  What will Chinese parents care about in 5 years that they don’t care about now?

They had sharply different responses.

Chinese Edu CEO #1 predicted:

Mike, 5 years is a short time horizon.  Parents won’t change much, in China or anywhere else in the world.  Understand: China is a low trust society.  So parents care about brand.  Beautiful buildings.  Affiliation with a famous school in USA or UK, with lots of Western sounding classes, like design thinking.  Plus hopefully a few graduates who went to Harvard.  That’s what brand means here.   

Teacher quality matters mostly “on paper.”  Credentials, certifications, years of experience.  But beyond that, parents don’t really sit in the classroom.  So they’re not good judges of teacher quality.   Is that so different in American private schools?  Can Andover parents describe the stylistic difference between their son’s math teacher and history teacher?  I doubt it.  They have no clue. 

Your idea, to help start an English medium school built on quality teaching, is nice-sounding but naïve.  Very naive.  Parents won’t respond well because you’ll be putting money into teaching (which they can’t see) and not in buildings (which they can see). 

Chinese Edu CEO #2 had a different take:

As more private schools open, Chinese parents will become more sophisticated customers.  They will care more about the actual day-to-day experience of their children.  That will be determined largely by teacher quality and teamwork.  

WeChat (China’s combo of Facebook, WhatsApp, PayPal) has parents constantly talking to each other.  Over time, word-of-mouth will re-rank schools.  Those with great teaching and “good brand” may overtake those with “great brand” but merely okay teaching.  

So, if you manage to bring a great team of American teachers over here, who do all this teamwork and parent engagement stuff you talk about, that should work with Chinese  parents.  Your teachers could even be a model that other schools study; Chinese are better than Americans at copying “what works.”  

Your problem is not the idea.  Your problem will be finding a trusted Chinese partner who is aligned with your vision.  Plenty of Americans have had school related partnerships here blow up, most unpleasantly.

Who to believe?

Basic psychology: I want CEO #2 to be right!

But I heard CEO #1’s narrative far more often while in China.  Most American teachers there were resigned to that reality (and it’s why they planned to leave soon).  And if that’s true, I’ll be wasting this next year of my life trying to start a school in China, because I’ll fail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Harvard Innovation Lab, and a key idea there is “Lean Startup.”   Test your ideas small.  Fail fast.

So a first step to opening a new high school in China maybe something real small: recruit perhaps 5 American teachers to move to China, launch an after-school English program, test hypotheses, and see “what works.”

If Andy will have me back on Eduwonk, I’ll check in with you, dear readers, in August 2019 — to let you know what happened.

In the meantime, get in touch to share any ideas/feedback/people-I-should-meet.

– Guest-blogger Mike Goldstein; cross-posted at