What's the difference between Chinese high school and American high school?

As a teacher who has taught in USA and China, I can answer this based on my observations -
1) Chinese schools are far more strenuous than American schools. the workload in the former is far more rigorous, work hours are longer, and there is always a sense of competition to do well. In that, I find Chinese schools very similar to schools in India.

2) Discipline - Chinese schools are far more formal. It is expected that the teacher will talk and students will listen. Children are not expected to think for themselves much as the teacher tells them facts. In American schools, there is more enquiry, kids are expected to question teachers and even disagree. How much of this actually translates into kids in American schools actually thinking (let alone thinking different) is an entirely different story!
The advantage is that kids go to school to study and behave far better than their counterparts in America.

3) Violence and guns - Guns in schools in China are naturally literally unheard of. In USA, many schools have guns. Ditto for drugs and violence and teenage pregnancies all of which affect students studies and lives adversely. Chinese schools literally have none of these as kids are too busy trying to study and prepare for the gaokao so that they will secure a "good job", thence "a good spouse" and thus a "good life"!

4) Infrastructure - Both Chinese and American schools have equivalent excellent infrastructure. I wish I could upload a photo of the primary school next to my house but for some reason Quora in China does not seem to allow this. It is an excellent 5 story building with a large playing ground in front, a rack and 6 basketball courts, and 8 table tennis tables. And this is just a primary school.

5) Funding - Chinese schools are luckier here - the Chinese government has been consistently increasing funding to schools. Hence there are exceptionally few private schools (mostly foreigners send their kids to private schools as the medium of instruction in Chinese schools is mandarin). IN USA, funding of government schools has consistently been cut

6) Access - School education is exceptionally low cost for Chinese students. hence it is rare to find a Chinese boy / girl who has not been to 12 years of schooling. It is far more common to find this in USA sadly

7) Participation of parents - This seems roughly the same in USA and China. Additionally, in China, it is a treat to watch the way crowds are excellently managed when kids leave for the day.

8) Sports - American schools seem to pay more attention to sports vis a vis academics, especially as the kids age compared to Chinese schools. Chinese schools on the other hand are more focused - kids who excel at sports get exceptionally high class sports training (often by ex national and Olympian level Chinese and foreigner coaches) but for the others, it is accepted that the route to a better life passes through academics

9) Parents expectations - This indirectly dictates the reasons behind the above factors. Chinese parents have high expectations from their kid / s (34% of Chinese families have 1 kid, the rest have 2 kids) and expect them to excel in school and academics. American parents generally seem to have a more comparatively laissez faire attitude.

Any generalization is fraught with the danger of making assumptions - and exceptions to the above can occur. However this is the general trend that I have noticed based on my personal interactions with students, teachers and parents in China and USA.

As a Chinese-American 18-year old who has experienced both education systems first-hand, I feel uniquely qualified to answer this question.

Based on my experiences, there are several major differences between American high schools and Chinese high schools.


Technically speaking, Chinese high school curricula are much more demanding and advanced. Most Chinese students must learn calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, English, Chinese literature and language, and most of it, especially the STEM classes, are comparable to college undergraduate level courses. However, much effort is placed on rote memorization, and all of this is tested on the GaoKao (高考), the nationwide high school exit examination that all high school seniors take over the course of 2 to 3 days in June.

American high schools, on the other hand, are less rigorous academically. Obviously, classes must still be taken in all of the core areas, but the material is not as challenging, nor is the culture as demanding of academic excellence. Furthermore, there is a greater emphasis, though in my opinion still not enough, on critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. As a result, quality of instruction is more important in the US, where teaching philosophy, method, and behavior is extremely important, compared to in China where teachers are mostly responsible for getting factual information across.


Contrary to popular stereotypes, Asian students do not spend all day studying. They, too, have sports teams and clubs and social lives. However, in contrast with American high schools, Chinese high schools are not super big on those things. Whereas in the US football games are a big thing and there are athletic superstars in high schools, that's much less common in China because there simply isn't as great of an emphasis on athletics. Clubs are few in number and limited in nature. American traditions such as Homecoming and Prom are not a thing.

Chinese high school students do lead wide and varied social lives, though, like any other high school student. They'll go out with their friends to karaoke and dinner and hanging out downtown, complain about teachers and grades, and probably a few of them get drunk (no drinking age in China). They pay attention to fashion, sports, and entertainment. But because of the nature of Chinese high schools, more of this is discussed and expressed outside of school compared to what happens in he US.

College Applications

Chinese college applications are very straightforward. Based on the results of their GaoKao (see Academics section), they either are accepted or rejected by the university they applied to. Admissions is completely and only dependent on this exam score.

On the other hand, college admissions for US high school students is significantly more complex. The admission process involves multiple standardized examinations (SATs, APs etc), grades, recommendation letters, extracurriculars, personal statements and supplemental essays, interviews, and lots of luck.


At the end of the day, high schools in China are a government-administered system designed to facilitate the education of the greatest number of people as possible. There is a large emphasis on unity and uniformity; all students wear a school uniform, each of them wears a red scarf associated with the People's Republic of China (like we have our Pledge of Allegiance), all students take the same courses and the same tests. Grades are openly broadcast to encourage effort and academic improvement.

High schools in the US are an open system that provides a transition from middle school (where timeouts are still a thing) to college/university (where one makes life decisions). There is a greater emphasis on individuality and freedom; no school uniforms in public schools, students can choose which courses and their difficulty, to an extent, and there is a high degree of student privacy in the context of grades. Schools are arenas for socializing and, whether students realize it or not, learning how to communicate and interact with others in the real world.


They look different too! Chinese high schools look like government institutions. Note the large, gated entrance though which everyone enters and exits, the security booth next to it, and lack of indoor parking since students don't drive.

I believe I am in a unique position to answer this question since I've attended both Chinese and American high schools (I am Korean by the way).
 There are many differences between the two, but here are some that I think are most visible.
 Curriculum (uniform vs individualized) - students in China all take the same courses (Same math courses, same history courses, etc.) whereas students in America are given a choice of classes they can take (Students can choose to take AP Calculus, music theory, or art). They are given a general criteria they must meet to graduate (4 math credits, 4 history credits, etc.), but other than that it is highly Individualized.
 Classroom size - Classroom size is much bigger in China than in America. A typical classroom size in my Chinese high school was about 70, while in my American high school it never reached above 35. This is probably due to the difference in population.

I can't fully answer your question. However, I can tell you that my private students who received most of their education in China were not more advanced than my private students who received most of their education in the United States. I can also tell you that they tended not to have experience in independent leadership, independent projects, independent community service, and other types of independent activity that I typically guide my college counseling students into so that they can develop and document professional skills for college admissions and career success. Many are reluctant to immerse themselves in English and will use translation software when doing homework. This holds them back and prevents them from being as successful as they could be in studies in the U.S. While I have been able to overcome these barriers with some of them, it was challenging.

I am not saying that all Chinese students who come to the United States are like that, but I have often seen that as a special characteristic that they may have. My guess is that this is the case due to their educations and activities in China being much more regulated and controlled. In fact, many first generation Chinese Americans have told me that they did not have the same freedoms in China as they or their American born children have in the United States. While some will say that Chinese schools are more challenging, most of my students who have come from China after years in Chinese schools are not academically advanced and require a lot of tutoring to be competitive. This may be in part because their wealthy parents saw that they were not competitive in China and sent them to the U.S. for more opportunity. This may be in part due to language barriers. However, I have not perceived those students as being intellectually advanced after knowing them for extended periods. Your education can affect your intellect, after all.

I would say that the styles of education are different and the students have the full range of intellects in both countries. Students who are very bright and in whose families education is emphasized may complete very rigorous high school programs in the United States. For example, my son had eight high school math credits when he graduated. Some Chinese educated students are advanced as well. I would say that American society in general supports different perspectives, more individuality, and more opportunity for individual achievement outside of strict pathways.

The bottom line is that every person, no matter where they come from, will adapt within their context. No matter the educational system, some will thrive while others don't as much. I'd focus more on style and freedoms than on rigor if comparing two huge countries. Within the United States, one has options, though income can limit those options. Within China, there may also be options, but they will not be identical to those in the United States.

Another difference is that the Chinese and Japanese are in agreement on the purpose of education. In America, we can't even define it.

When it was discovered that people with degrees made more money than people without, nobody bothered to notice that the choice of degree made a huge difference. "XX Studies" programs produce indebted baristas, for example.

Since then, the discussion has grown more and more incoherent because nobody can even agree on the purpose of education. Democrats are convinced that the purpose of education is to provide safe jobs for academics who indoctrinate young people in liberal dogma.

Ivy league colleges have utterly different objectives from stem schools, for example. It's far too long to post here, but "The Purpose of Education - University Goals" at The Purpose of Education 1 - University Goals discusses competing convictions about the purpose of education.

What do you think is the purpose of education?

This video of school lunch in Japan illustrates a different point of view. They Put A Camera Inside This School Cafeteria In Japan. What It Captured? My Jaw Dropped! Note the class size - classes can be quite large if the kids are well-behaved.

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