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

American Teachers in China

I’m guest-blogging this week about education in China.  Yesterday I described the fast growth of Chinese private schools.

That surge has only worsened the shortage in American and British teachers over there, for which there is high demand.

One headmaster told me he’d attended a particular international recruiting conference in 2017, where 2 Chinese schools were in the mix.  There he made 8 offers and hired 3 teachers.  In 2018, at the same conference, 20 Chinese schools were there.  There he made 0 offers.  Increased demand, lower quality of supply.

Add in teacher visa issues.

Add in competitive alternative employment: that American and British teachers can stay home on their sofas and teach online if they wish.  VIP Kid is just one of the unicorns rapidly adding teachers.

Add in the short stay at these schools.  Often expat teachers stay just 2 years.  Eduwonk readers: what does that remind you of?

You may have said: urban charter and district schools.   After Match’s first year back in 2000, we lost 3 of 6 teachers.  I did a lot wrong.

Rapid turnover makes it hard to build a positive professional culture.  Which in turn drives even faster turnover.

One substitute in China is more Filipino teachers.  Down the road, Chinese parents will probably become more comfortable with Chinese-born English teachers, as another substitute for expat teachers.

What about the core issue?  How could these Chinese schools keep these expat teachers for an average stay of 4 years, instead of 2?  This would halve their hiring, and improve culture.

I asked that in my travels.  Most common answer?

“More training.”  And by that they mean traditional “sit in the room, hear a presentation” type training.  Hey Dan: I suggest TNTP translates The Mirage into Mandarin.

I suggested that America’s top charter schools focus more on improving professional culture.  Alex Hernandez describes this as rowing in the same direction in his excellent June article on The74.

Indeed, in China, I saw bilingual schools where the Chinese teachers were in fact doing that, but the expat teachers were all individuals…”let me close my classroom door and do what I wish.”

To my suggestion, recruiters in China pushed back: “Sounds nice but idealistic. The reality is I’m already coming up short.  If I add another box to check, I’ll be even further behind.”  Again, reminds me of urban district recruiters.

I had to concede that point.  Short term.  My argument was that the “winning” happens in the medium term.  That’s why outlier, high performing schools follow Jim Collins, and absorb 2 types of pain.

  1. Define in plainspoken language what it means to truly row in the same direction – what teachers all need to do, emphasizing not the “cool stuff” (perks) but the hard, more controversial stuff that candidates might like the least (therefore giving them a really easy path to opt out).  Writing that out can be painful.
  2. Get the right people on the bus.  “Right” means aligned with your school’s specific details, not inherently “better.”  If it’s a close call, say “no” – even more pain that can only be overcome with sheer recruiting hustle.

If you get that right, I said, recruiting within a couple years will be WAY easier.

If I manage to help start a school in China, I’ll try that approach, and report back to you on whether it worked.

– Guestblogger Mike Goldstein, cross-posted at

Gaokao or SAT?

This week I’m guest-blogging about schools in China.

  1. What is the Gaokao?

From a CNBC story in June:

Nearly 10 million Chinese students have been preparing for this Thursday and Friday since kindergarten.

Gaokao, China’s university entrance exam, directly determines which universities students can go to. To some extent, it determines whether they will become blue-collar or white-collar workers later in their lives. 

Many countries have a similar approach for college admissions.  No GPA.  No essay or recs or interview.  No list of extra curricular activities.

Just the test.

In the USA, we use the expression high-stakes tests, but compared to other places, our “stakes” are perhaps in the 3 out of 10 range, versus 10 out of 10.

So most Chinese parents spend a ton on after-school tutoring centers, way more than Americans spend on the likes of Kumon.

More recently: coding at some of these centers, per the excellent Sixth Tome.

  1. Chinese to America

A growing number of Chinese families hope to bypass Chinese universities altogether, and send their kids to American universities.

It’s estimated to be about 330,000 students now.  So a large number in absolute terms, though low compared to Gaokao takers.

Four thoughts/trends:

a. First, partly because of this aspiration to American colleges, brand new private K-12 schools are cropping up all over China.

School is taught either partially or totally in English.  Overview here.  AP courses, SAT prep, etc.  Lots of Harkness tables.

For Eduwonk readers, of interest is perhaps that BASIS is operating schools in China, as well as Chris Whittle.

I was impressed with the excellent HD schools; their campus in Ningbo just had its first graduating class.  School is taught half in Mandarin, half in English.

Many parents I met in China want Western style teaching.  I’m not sure whether the cause of that is “Western teaching helps you prepare for Western universities” or simply “We’d rather our kids in classrooms with more discussions and less cramming/lecture.”

No charter schools, though.  No Catholic or other lower-cost private schools, either, that I saw (though it’s a big country…so I’m probably wrong about that).

I’ll write more tomorrow about teachers in these new private schools.

b. Second, bumpy Trump/Xi relations will affect things.

Propaganda/spy concerns here and here.  New visa limits for science grad students, with implications here.  The trade war.

c. Third, anxiety/depression/isolation.See NY Times here.

And for Chinese kids attending American private boarding schools, that issue is even worse…according to my decidedly unscientific survey of conversations with prep school teachers and headmasters back here in USA.

In some ways, this reminds me of minority Americans who are first in their families to go to college, where the likes of KIPP and Posse Foundation do great things to support them.

– Everyone wants to celebrate upon admission to the prep school or university, but the sizable risk of failure is swept under the rug.

– The “Do I belong here?” question never quite goes away.

– If you fail, it’s not just a personal setback: you feel like you let your whole family down.

d. Finally, in part because of the bamboo ceiling, more sea turtles are returning to China after graduation from American colleges.

– Guestblogger Mike Goldstein, cross-posted at


Greetings Eduwonk readers.  My first guest blogging stint here was 13 years ago.  Plus ca change: Boston needed a new superintendent, etc.  Yet progress too!  A 2005 concern, now progress.  Idea here, actuality here.

I’d founded Match, a small charter high school, and in 2005, we’d just had our first graduating class (+ lots of attrition).  These days Match is K-12 but less tutoring, provides free curriculum to teachers, runs a small grad school, has a tutoring spinoff called Saga, and a higher-ed spinoff called Duet.

More recently, I spent 4 years as CAO of Bridge International Academies.  Bridge has schools in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, India, and Liberia.  I know: Eduwonk readers usually shy away from “international,” with the possible exception of Chilean sea bass.  I invite you to reconsider!  Bridge operates (way) more schools than awesome CMOs like KIPP, IDEA, Uncommon, and Green Dot combined.  With results, questions about pedagogy, parent motivation, and politics that you’d recognize.  And there are many other fascinating international efforts, like thisthis, and this.

No matter what your policy preference, I submit that working (with appropriate humility) with folks abroad is an amazing way to learn about other cultures and expand your thinking.  Also, not everything is red/blue tribe like here.  It’s way better than reading Twitter all day and feeling jumpy.

My next adventure: China.  Or so I hope.

I’m just back from Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen.  I’ll share thoughts all week.  Context: one-child policy is over, class size can hit 70 (paging Leonie), there’s a vast migration from the sticks to the cities, private schools are tiny in number but growing fast, and China really wants to do better in World Cup.

Here are impressions from Christi Edwards, a North Carolina math teacher who just visited Nanjing and Chengdu.  “Teenagers are teenagers wherever you go,” she said.  I agree.

– Guestblogger Mike Goldstein, cross-posted at