The most obvious difference is size. My school has 6,000 students. There are 2,000 students in grade 10 and classes are roughly 55 students each. The students remain in their one classroom for virtually all of their classes. The teachers come to them.
Unlike the US, the schools here are ranked according to test scores. The top scores in the region get you into the top schools. I teach at the #1 school, so I teach the kids that scored highest on their exams. Some live near the school, but many live in dorms. A lot of them come from outlying cities and towns, and I even know one girl from Beijing. The school has an excellent reputation.
There are 38 classes in grade 10, and they are also ranked according to test scores. Having the students in one classroom has its advantages. They become a community. They are responsible for the cleanliness of the room, and they have class activities. There are class leaders. Each class also has its own personality. Some are messy, some are neat. The higher ranked classes are always clean and neat, as is the bottom class. They have desks with a compartment, but it doesn't begin to hold all their stuff, so there are big plastic totes in the aisles full of books. It gives them their own space at school where they can study, nap or hang out when there is no class. There is no need for lockers.
Like most students in the world, they wear uniforms. These vary. The colors are royal blue and white. Different grades and classes might have variations. There is a standard polyester sweat suit, a blue polyester blazer, white shirts, blouses, black slacks, and off white slacks. The school is a little lax on uniforms and you see civilian clothes mixed with uniform parts a lot. The atmosphere is a little more relaxed than other schools. Boys shoot hoops between classes, and kids spend time listening to music and talking. I think the administration knows that they work very hard, so they cut them some slack.
The food in the cafeteria is much better here than in most American schools and definitely healthier. Lots of great Chinese food!
The work load is bone crushing. All of the grade 10 kids take the following classes: English, Mandarin, Geography, History, Social Studies, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Advanced Math, and PE. No elective classes, no art, no music, no organized sports, no dances, no drama class, no film class, and no prom. Also no parties, drugs, drinking, teen pregnancy or car driving.
They go to school 6 days a week and have homework during holidays. They have little time for the Internet and little time to pursue other academic interests. They don't have time for things like TV, movies, or shopping.
They come out of this well prepared for college, and with an incredible work ethic. Their math and science skills dwarf most American kids.
This is the top school, and I don't know what most of the others are like. I have a friend who teaches at #2 school and it is similar, only more strict.
What they don't get in their education is a chance to explore. Since they don't have time, they are limited in the time they could have reading literature, surfing the Net, and socializing. One boy in my English discussion group said that Chinese schools teach you things, but American schools teach you how to learn and question. They could make classes, especially English, smaller. I also think it wouldn't hurt to let them have a dance every once in a while.
They also don't have organized sports. The government thinks this would be a distraction to their studies. Maybe. I do know that my students are bookish kids with puny arms, except for the basketball dudes, and when they had a sports day, the performances were a little pathetic. Kind of like Napoleon Dynamite playing tetherball.
I didn't tell the kids about how many fewer classes American kids had to take, that many take just a few classes a day and they have weekends off. I didn't have the heart. I did say that a lot of kids opted for easier classes, which didn't necessarily prepare them for the future. I also talked about how hard the top students worked, just like them, only it was a bit of a lie. They still have dances, and a social life. They might even have time to participate in sports! Our kids have it easier, a lot easier, and that was something I tried hard not to emphasize since I didn't want to crush their spirits. Instead, I tried to put a positive spin on how they were building on their future, and how impressed I am with their work ethic and intelligence. Which I am.