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Mina Choi Tenison

Why I Would Never Send My Kids to International School

Counting the reasons why Shanghai's private schools are inferior.

My expatriate friends in Shanghai always ask me whey we don't send our children to the international schools. They ask me, "How about the American School? How about Yew Cheung? How about Dulwich?" And we always shake our heads and say no, no, no.

Why? While I would love to give a loftier rationale, the number one reason is money. It's a simple calculation: local Shanghai public schools are free, and as foreigners officially registered in China, we pay the foreigner's rate, which is still only a fraction of the fee we would have to pay for the international schools. Of course, money is not the only issue, but in terms of value for money, we felt Shanghai's local system was the best option the world currently has to offer.

We had a discussion with an American friend and professor of Chinese literature who had also enrolled her children in a local school, and she agreed with us. Her comments were, "It's not just about the money. I've visited some of these other expensive schools and have seen their curricula. The fee for that school is 25 times more than what I'm paying now for a local school. Still if I really felt that the school was 25 times better, then I would try to raise the money for my children. In fact, even if it was 2 or 3 times better than the local school, then I might still try to raise the money for it. But I didn't think these expensive schools were that much better than the local school, at least not in terms of curriculum."

Not only did we agree with her, but we saw that more often than not, the international schools offered a less challenging curriculum that taught students merely rudimentary Chinese that would not pass muster in any local schools. I've interviewed some international students who have spent five years in China and have not taken a single year of Chinese. They barely spoke the language and felt so proud that their English was flawless. For me, I see that as a bewilderingly wasted opportunity. These same schools often make up for that by having a complete range of classes taught in English, in a much more luxurious campus, so luxurious that my children's eyes go wide when they enter it.

The number two reason that I decided against the international school is that I simply cannot stand the attitudes of many of the children who attend international schools. I once sat with a seven year-old European boy at my friend's house who had assumed that I was an ayi (the housemaid) just because I looked Chinese. He never took into consideration that I spoke to him in English for nearly half an hour. As far as he was concerned, all Chinese-looking ladies were there to serve him – a misguided notion hearkening back to darker colonial days. I didn't like the idea of my children consorting with children who have an inflated sense of self simply because the larger population of China cannot live on the same economic level that they can. But more than that, many of these students are segregated in an international campus from the local population and they are often out of touch with the reality of the very country they live in.

I quote yet more words of another friend visiting from the UK who found himself surrounded by expatriate children on the airplane back to Shanghai: "They spent the whole time talking about whether their driver would be arriving to pick them up on time. They were so spoiled and oblivious to the fact that they were in China that they made me sick."

Thirdly, many of these international schools are a hodge-podge of international residents and teachers who come through the city for a three or four year sojourn. Students come and go, and that is also true for teachers, school masters, and administrators. A revolving door of teaching staff is often not healthy for a school and does not offer educational consistency. In addition, the diversity of the international population means that oftentimes, English is rarely spoken at home for many of the international school students. Yes, it does make for a vibrant, diverse population, but the English level of the students and teachers is oftentimes less than desirable, especially when the school is charging more than $20,000 a year.

So at the end of the day, my husband and I do our sums and we ask: what exactly are we paying for? What exactly are we willing to pay for? And the answer for us always remains: no to international schools in Shanghai.

WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE Digital Edition, May 22, 2012

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