In a recent blog post which gained a lot of attention (via digg), the author, Dave Chen, makes a stab at explaining the so-called Model Minority Hypothesis. The post expands on a recent BBC article discussed the disparity between mathematics eduction between China and the UK. The BBC article uses a question taken from a Chinese entrance exam
and a UK entrance exam
The first thing to notice is how much simpler the UK question appear in comparison to the Chinese one. But first impressions can be deceiving. The UK question appears to be on par with an SAT math question. However, it's well understood that such questions serve as a baseline requisite for mathematical aptitude. It's unclear what the function of the Chinese question is (nor does the BBC article clarify this point).
Looking at a more difficult exam, the disparity is far less apparent.
It's probably true than the curriculum of the average school in China is more rigorous than that of the average school in western Europe or the United States. But on the flip side, US schools offer ample opportunity for students who show aptitude and interest for higher mathematics.
Honestly, I don't think a student's ability to absorb high school material is all that strong of an indicator of future success. Even the most difficult questions asked at the high school level are relatively simple in the grand scheme of things.
So while it's important to cover a breadth of knowledge in high school (which Chinese schools do very well), it's perhaps equally important to instill a desire to learn and contribute to society. I know many students from my high school who have since forgotten most of the mathematics forced upon them.
All in all, I don't think the state of the US school system is as bleak as many fear it to be. But it probably could be much better.