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Exchange students exchange ideas

While their schooling abroad was tougher, students find their American learning experience prepares them better for life.

By JOHN PETRIMOULX
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


CITRUS PARK -- Viewed through the eyes of Chinese exchange student Herui Sun, an 18-year-old Sickles High School junior, American students don't pay much attention to academics.

Even if they did, their classes lack depth and rigor.

So why does Sun believe students may be better off here than in China?

It boils down to the purpose of the high school experience. "Their goal is their future," he said. "They think more about their future jobs."

Sun is just one of many students who have spent the past school year comparing our system to theirs. North of Tampa caught up with three -- including an American who has studied in Japan -- at Sickles and Wharton high schools.

The consensus among them is that while U.S. schools might be less rigorous than their counterparts around the world, the high school experience here is richer and can be a better preparation for life after school.

In China, Sun said, the goal is to be part of the 40 percent who pass college entrance exams. As in other Asian countries, high school students lead a pressure-cooker life with little time for learning anything not needed for the exams.

The end result?

"China produces good test takers," Sun said, "but they have no real experience with work."

The students agreed they learned more information and took harder tests overseas before they came here.

"We have three or four hours of homework a night," said Sun, 18, who comes from Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. There, his school day runs from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Students are allowed two hours a day to go home for lunch, he says, but many spend their Saturday evening and Sunday morning with a tutor in "cram school."

Sickles senior Jason Thompson, 19, is familiar with the system from his years in Japan, during his father's tours of duty in the U.S. military.

"I first went to cram school to learn Japanese," he said. He believes that the Japanese are easing up on requirements such as Saturday classes and uniforms, in an effort to take the pressure off.

"Students still get good grades, but the rest of the world is catching up," he said.

In Germany, even tests are more in-depth, said Leo Redlich, 16, a Wharton sophomore from Hamburg, Germany. "There aren't multiple choice answers," he said. "We have to write. And in math, we have to include how we got the answer."

What Sun and the others say is unique to the American high school experience is the broad exposure to academic and other learning. The numerous electives, extracurricular activities, clubs, and the whole notion of school spirit were novelties to Redlich, who played on Wharton's soccer team.

"There are a lot of choices what to do here," he said. "There was almost nothing at my school in Hamburg."

And while many students here gain real work experience during high school and college, elsewhere students work only in hardship cases. It's part of the practical side of the high school experience Sun sees as a strength of the U.S. way of educating. He says once students back home get into college, the pressure is off and attitudes shift dramatically.

"College in China is easy," Sun said. "Students don't learn good work habits."

Those habits carry over to the workplace. To Thompson and Sun, it's an outcome less likely in U.S. education, which starts more broadly in high school, then becomes more focused in college as students complete majors, gradually increasing the level of difficulty.

So while he clearly learned more information back in China, Sun pointed to a class he is taking at Sickles to show the difference in the two systems.

"In my computer technology class I get hands-on experience working on the computer," he said.

"In China the teacher would be writing about the computer on the blackboard and students would be taking notes."

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