Susan Kroll/NBC News
By Rehema Ellis
NBC News Chief Education Correspondent
Before I arrived in Shanghai, I had this image of people obediently doing what they were told because that's what happens in Communist China, right? I thought that would explain how Shanghai's 15-year-olds managed to beat their competition - including the United States - on international tests in reading, math and science. They did so well on the tests, I thought, because the government gives them the tools they need. They are admonished by everyone around them to study hard and they do.
I saw some of that when I visited Yucai High School in Shanghai, where I met a young student, Xing Hao, who actually took the international tests.
"The math is not very difficult," he said in perfect English, "because I studied."
But Xing Hao went on to say he was self-motivated to study hard because his goal is “to organize to protect ocean creatures so [he has] to study to attend a good college to make [his] dream come true."
China's college entrance exams are grueling and are viewed as the gateway to adult success. In Shanghai, a city of 23 million people - almost three times the size of New York City - there is a lot of competition and students had better be prepared. But beyond a commitment to work hard, what I found in China is that Shanghai's academic success is rooted in a national culture that embraces education as a real asset.
It should be mentioned, however, that the academic success in China's largest city has not yet spread to the vast rural areas such as Loudi in Hunan Province, about 1,000 miles from Shanghai. There, I visited an elementary school surrounded by rice paddies. The buildings were in disrepair. Children sat at worn out desks and worked with broken pencils and pens.
Susan Kroll/NBC News
But their spirit for learning was intense and inspiring. Twelve-year-old Wang Zhihong told me her parents and grandparents want her to be a doctor. The harsh reality is that only 25 percent of rural Chinese kids go to college, versus 80 percent in Shanghai and 70 percent in the United States. But Zhihong and her family know nothing about those numbers and their dreams are still big.
Back in Shanghai, students like Xing Hao are well aware that they are helping to enhance their nation's image. And yet, I saw something in Xing Hao and many of his classmates that wasn't just obedience to an idea. I got the sense that he really believes in the importance of learning. He didn't sound coached or rehearsed.
He went on to say he'd like to have more free time "to expand [his] horizons." But he told me that pursuit of idle pleasures will come later - after he's taken care of the business of getting an education.
For about 900 students at Yucai High School getting an education doesn't involve the latest high-tech tools. With about 40 students per class, I didn't see any Smart Boards or iPads in classrooms. I saw only one computer in the science lab. I did see many motivated and engaging teachers. Shanghai prides itself on teacher training.
There were other indications that the Chinese society as a whole is genuinely interested in Shanghai students. From the gardeners at Yucai High who meticulously cared for the campus grounds dotted with Confucius statues, to the lunch room workers who served healthful dishes of rice, meat and steamed vegetables, to the security staff members who were polite and watchful, they all seemed focused on creating the best learning environment possible for kids.
That environment creates little space for anything besides studying. At Yucai High students watch just 30 minutes of television a day during the school week. The program they watch is the news.
Susan Kroll/NBC News
By contrast, American students between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of seven and a half hours per day using electronics, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's more than 53 hours per week.
For those who wonder if the rigorous study habits make Chinese students robotic, unimaginative and therefore great test-takers but not great students - who have yet to invent their own Silicon Valley - some Chinese educators also wonder. Teachers told me the government is now encouraging schools and families to give kids more free time to be creative.
The kids I met were already engaged in creative thinking. They were inquisitive and funny and always polite. During class breaks I saw them fooling around and making jokes. They asked me questions about American life, President Obama, rap music and Oprah. They also wanted to know what other countries I had visited and what life was like there and how it compared to what they learned in school about different places.
Shanghai kids are studying how global events might have local consequences and it's not just because their government is telling them to. They are starting to think outside the box of preconceived notions that folks have of them. That's what prepared them to ace the international tests.
There is a lesson there for all of us.
Photos by Susan Kroll, NBC News producer