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Civil service exam hall
China has a vast and varied school system. There are preschools, kindergartens, schools for the deaf and blind, key schools (similar to college preparatory schools), primary schools, secondary schools (comprising junior and senior middle schools, secondary agricultural and vocational schools, regular secondary schools, secondary teachers' schools, secondary technical schools, and secondary professional schools), and various institutions of higher learning (consisting of regular colleges and universities, professional colleges, and short-term vocational universities). [Source: Library of Congress]

China has a top-down education system. Local school systems are expected to follow orders from the Education Ministry. School administrators are expected to follow orders from the local education bureaucrats. Teachers are expected to follow orders of school administrators. Students are expected to follow orders of teachers. Although the government has authority over the education system, the Chinese Communist Party has played a role in managing education since 1949. The party established broad education policies and under Deng Xiaoping, tied improvements in the quality of education to its modernization plan. The party also monitored the government's implementation of its policies at the local level and within educational institutions through its party committees. Party members within educational institutions, who often have a leading management role, are responsible for steering their schools in the direction mandated by party policy.

A report by the McKinsey consulting from called China’s Looming Talent Shortage China’s education system a “stuffed duck”---one that emphasizes the regurgitation of outdated knowledge and leaves students lacking in language skills and practical experience---attributes employers are look for in a global market place. Chinese educators are increasingly looking at Western models that emphasize critical, thinking and creativity as models to follow to improve learning and education in China. It is a bit ironic while China is doing this United States is aiming to improve its education system by taking a more test-centered, math-focused approach like that used in Asia.

The Chinese education system favors those in the cities. In rural areas schooling often is unavailable or prohibitively expensive. One study found that rural children have only a third of chance of getting into university as urban children. Hu Xingdu, a sociologist at the Beijing Institute of Technology told the Washington Post, “Farmers don’t see a bright future from receiving more education. Many believe it won’t help them much in making money. They also can’t afford to send their children to university and a university degree no longer guarantees a job after gradation.”

Chinese Education Under the Communists

The educator John Dewey traveled to China in 1919, where his ideas about the “student-centered” education were all the rage there.

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Red Guards burn books
The goal of the early Communist education policy was to teach the masses how or read and write, and channel talented young people into science and technology. It was oriented more towards meeting the needs of society and the state rather than fostering individual development. Schools were free, compulsory, universal and classless and were used disseminate Communist doctrine as well as educate children.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s schools were closed, teachers were harassed, young people went to work in the countryside and people had to study in secret. One woman who made it into university after the Cultural Revolution told Reuters, “We would get up to jog and study so early that the stars were still in the sky. Everybody wanted to win lost time back.” See Cultural Revolution, China Under Mao, History

Mao ended the university entrance exam in 1966, saying that education system was dominated by the exploiting class. Universities resumed partial recruitment in 1970, but only workers, farmers and soldiers with revolutionary credentials that had been recommended were admitted. Some ambitious students became manual laborers so they would have a better chance of getting into university. One such student told Reuters he made into a university in part because he was “a good hand in the cotton fields at anything from sowing and weeding to spraying pesticides and harvesting.”

The Chinese education system has been touted as providing a “a fair pathway to advancement” but is often criticized for not providing enough money for primary and secondary education and for not doing more to improve the poor-quality of Chinese universities.

Every school has a Communist Party secretary who outranks the principal, ensuring control over education.

Education and the Cultural Revolution

There have traditionally been tensions within the education system, which served, as it does in most societies, to sort children and select those who would go on to managerial and professional jobs. It was for this reason that the Cultural Revolution focused so negatively on the education system. Because of the rising competition in the schools and for the jobs to which schooling could lead, it became increasingly evident that those who did best in school were the children of the "bourgeoisie" and urban professional groups rather than the children of workers and peasants. The Maoist policies on education and job assignment were successful in preventing a great many urban "bourgeois" parents from passing their favored social status on to their children. This reform, however, came at great cost to the economy and to the prestige and authority of the party itself. [Source: Library of Congress]

“China’s education system was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. Cultural Revolution-era policies led to the public deprecation of schooling and expertise, including closing of all schools for a year or more and of universities for nearly a decade, exaltation of on-the-job training and of political motivation over expertise, and preferential treatment for workers and peasant youth. Educated urban youth, most of whom came from "bourgeois" families, were persuaded or coerced to settle in the countryside, often in remote frontier districts. Because there were no jobs in the cities, the party expected urban youth to apply their education in the countryside as primary school teachers, production team accountants, or barefoot doctors; many did manual labor. The policy was intensely unpopular, not only with urban parents and youth but also with peasants and was dropped soon after the fall of the Gang of Four in late 1976. [Ibid]

“Mao led vicious attacks against intellectuals, who were vilified as the “stinking ninth category.” As a result of the Cultural Revolution a rising generation of college and graduate students, academicians and technicians, professionals and teachers was lost. The result was a lack of trained talent to meet the needs of society, an irrationally structured higher education system unequal to the needs of the economic and technological boom, and an uneven development in secondary technical and vocational education. [Ibid]

Education Reforms After Mao

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Mao-era poster
The education system was expanded under Deng Xiaoping with the understanding that an educated population was needed to make the economy grow and for China to prosper. The process was slowed by Tiananmen Square in 1989 but relatively quickly regained momentum again. The Decision on the Reform of Education System issued in 1985 aimed to change the Soviet-style, highly-specialized universities into more comprehensive institutions. The Compulsory education law if 1986 mandated nine years of compulsory education for all Chinese.

In the post-Mao period, China's education policy continued to evolve. The pragmatist leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, recognized that to meet the goals of modernization it was necessary to develop science, technology, and intellectual resources and to raise the population's education level. Demands on education--for new technology, information science, and advanced management expertise--were levied as a result of the reform of the economic structure and the emergence of new economic forms. In particular, China needed an educated labor force to feed and provision its 1- billion-plus population. [Source: Library of Congress]

“By 1980 achievement was once again accepted as the basis for admission and promotion in education. This fundamental change reflected the critical role of scientific and technical knowledge and professional skills in the Four Modernizations. Also, political activism was no longer regarded as an important measure of individual performance, and even the development of commonly approved political attitudes and political background was secondary to achievement. Education policy promoted expanded enrollments, with the long-term objective of achieving universal primary and secondary education. This policy contrasted with the previous one, which touted increased enrollments for egalitarian reasons. In 1985 the commitment to modernization was reinforced by plans for nine-year compulsory education and for providing good quality higher education. [Ibid]

“By 1980 the percentage of students enrolled in primary schools was high, but the schools reported high dropout rates and regional enrollment gaps (most enrollees were concentrated in the cities). Only one in four counties had universal primary education. On the average, 10-percent of the students dropped out between each grade. During the 1979-83 period, the government acknowledged the "9-6-3" rule, that is, that nine of ten children began primary school, six completed it, and three graduated with good performance. This meant that only about 60 percent of primary students actually completed their five year program of study and graduated, and only about 30 percent were regarded as having primary-level competence. Statistics in the mid-1980s showed that more rural girls than boys dropped out of school. Rural parents were generally well aware that their children had limited opportunities to further their education. Some parents saw little use in having their children attend even primary school, especially after the establishment of the agricultural responsibility system. Under that system, parents preferred that their children work to increase family income--and withdrew them from school--for both long and short periods of time. [Ibid]

Deng Xiaoping's far-ranging educational reform policy, which involved all levels of the education system, aimed to narrow the gap between China and other developing countries. Modernizing China was tied to modernizing education. Devolution of educational management from the central to the local level was the means chosen to improve the education system. Centralized authority was not abandoned, however, as evidenced by the creation of the State Education Commission. Academically, the goals of reform were to enhance and universalize elementary and junior middle school education; to increase the number of schools and qualified teachers; and to develop vocational and technical education. A uniform standard for curricula, textbooks, examinations, and teacher qualifications (especially at the middle-school level) was established, and considerable autonomy and variations in and among the autonomous regions, provinces, and special municipalities were allowed. Further, the system of enrollment and job assignment in higher education was changed, and excessive government control over colleges and universities was reduced. [Ibid]

“Among the notable official efforts to improve the education system were a 1984 decision to formulate major laws on education in the next several years and a 1985 plan to reform the education system. In unveiling the education reform plan in May 1985, the authorities called for nine years of compulsory education and the establishment of the State Education Commission (created the following month). Official commitment to improved education was nowhere more evident than in the substantial increase in funds for education in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90), which amounted to 72 percent more than funds allotted to education in the previous plan period (1981-85). In 1986 some 16.8 percent of the state budget was earmarked for education, compared with 10.4 percent in 1984. Since 1949, education has been a focus of controversy in China. As a result of continual intraparty realignments, official policy alternated between ideological imperatives and practical efforts to further national development. But ideology and pragmatism often have been incompatible. The Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Socialist Education Movement (1962-65) sought to end deeply rooted academic elitism, to narrow social and cultural gaps between workers and peasants and between urban and rural populations, and to "rectify" the tendency of scholars and intellectuals disdain manual labor. During the Cultural Revolution, universal education in the interest of fostering social equality was an overriding priority.

Compulsory Education Law

The Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education, which took effect July 1, 1986, established requirements and deadlines for attaining universal education tailored to local conditions and guaranteed school-age children the right to receive education. People's congresses at various local levels were, within certain guidelines and according to local conditions, to decide the steps, methods, and deadlines for implementing nine-year compulsory education in accordance with the guidelines formulated by the central authorities. The program sought to bring rural areas, which had four to six years of compulsory schooling, into line with their urban counterparts. Education departments were exhorted to train millions of skilled workers for all trades and professions and to offer guidelines, curricula, and methods to comply with the reform program and modernization needs. [Source: Library of Congress]

Provincial-level authorities were to develop plans, enact decrees and rules, distribute funds to counties, and administer directly a few key secondary schools. County authorities were to distribute funds to each township government, which were to make up any deficiencies. County authorities were to supervise education and teaching and to manage their own senior middle schools, teachers' schools, teachers' in-service training schools, agricultural vocational schools, and exemplary primary and junior middle schools. The remaining schools were to be managed separately by the county and township authorities. [Ibid]

“The compulsory education law divided China into three categories: 1) cities and economically developed areas in coastal provinces and a small number of developed areas in the hinterland; 2) towns and villages with medium development; and 3) economically backward areas. The third category, economically backward (rural) areas (around 25 percent of China's population) were to popularize basic education without a timetable and at various levels according to local economic development, though the state would "do its best" to support educational development. The state also would assist education in minority nationality areas. In the past, rural areas, which lacked a standardized and universal primary education system, had produced generations of illiterates; only 60 percent of their primary school graduates had met established standards. [Ibid]

Generating More Teachers in China in the 1970s and 80s

A scarcity of qualified teachers afer the Cultural Revolution led to a serious stunting of educational development. In 1986 there were about 8 million primary- and middle-school teachers in China, but many lacked professional training. Estimates indicated that in order to meet the goals of the Seventh Five-Year Plan and realize compulsory 9-year education, the system needed 1 million new teachers for primary schools, 750,000 new teachers for junior middle schools, and 300,000 new teachers for senior middle schools. [Source: Library of Congress]

“To cope with the shortage of qualified teachers, the State Education Commission decreed in 1985 that senior-middle-school teachers should be graduates with two years' training in professional institutes and that primary-school teachers should be graduates of secondary schools. To improve teacher quality, the commission established full-time and part-time (the latter preferred because it was less costly) in-service training programs. Primary-school and preschool in-service teacher training programs devoted 84 percent of the time to subject teaching, 6 percent to pedagogy and psychology, and 10 percent to teaching methods. Inservice training for primary-school teachers was designed to raise them to a level of approximately two years' postsecondary study, with the goal of qualifying most primary-school teachers by 1990. Secondary-school in-service teacher training was based on a unified model, tailored to meet local conditions, and offered on a spare-time basis. Ninety-five percent of its curricula was devoted to subject teaching, 2 to 3 percent to pedagogy and psychology, and 2 to 3 percent to teaching methods. [Ibid]

“By 1985 there were more than 1,000 teacher training schools--an indispensable tool in the effort to solve the acute shortage of qualified teachers. These schools, however, were unable to supply the number of teachers needed to attain modernization goals through 1990. Although a considerable number of students graduated as qualified teachers from institutions of higher learning, the relatively low social status and salary levels of teachers hampered recruitment, and not all of the graduates of teachers' colleges became teachers. To attract more teachers, China tried to make teaching a more desirable and respected profession. To this end, the government designated September 10 as Teachers' Day, granted teachers pay raises, and made teachers' colleges tuition free. To further arrest the teacher shortage, in 1986 the central government sent teachers to underdeveloped regions to train local schoolteachers. [Ibid]

“Because urban teachers continued to earn more than their rural counterparts and because academic standards in the countryside had dropped, it remained difficult to recruit teachers for rural areas. Teachers in rural areas also had production responsibilities for their plots of land, which took time from their teaching. Rural primary teachers needed to supplement their pay by farming because most were paid by the relatively poor local communities rather than by the state. [Ibid]

Education Reforms in the 1990s and 2000s

In the 1990s a move was made to reduce the emphasis on entrance exams, encourage “social forces” and make it easier to establish private schools. During this time parents who were denied an education by the Cultural Revolution pushed their “Little Emperors” to study and work hard in school. The privatization of schooling and the increase in the number of schools occurred swiftly in the 1990s and early 2000s.

There have been a lot of calls for reform of the exam system. Some provinces have introduced their own tests. Fudan University has taken the step of admitting students based on a broad criteria not only the entrance exam. There is still a lot of resistance to changing the exam system in part because of concerns that if the test system were abandoned or down played the admission process would be affected by corruption and cronyism.

Since the late 1990s there has been an emphasis on improving China’s education system by upgrading rural schools and quintupling the size of the university system and bringing more critical thinking and creativity into the classroom. To achieve these goals there has been an effort to introduce better textbooks and train teachers in new teaching methods such as teaching students in groups.

In November 2009, China’s unpopular education minister Zhou Ji was ousted by the Chinese legislature amid a corruption scandal and displeasure with the education system. The corruption scandal centered on bribery at the main university in Wuhan, where Zhou worked in the education system and was mayor.

On reforming the Chinese education system, Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the Peking University High School, wrote in The Diplomat: “First, every Chinese can agree that this new education system ought to be a meritocracy and that the most diligent and brightest students ought to reach the top. Second, every Chinese can agree that China has limited education resources for too many people; while it would be nice to educate everyone to the best ability of the state as is the case in Finland and Singapore, China is too poor to do so. Third, China is a guanxi-based society with little respect for institutions, processes, and laws; whatever new system that everyone agrees to must be able to resist the pull and power of the well-connected and wealthy. Fourth, Chinese can agree that education is first and foremost about social mobility (rather than about national economic development), about the opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard to rise in society.” [Source: Jiang Xueqin The Diplomat. June 3, 2011]

Modern Reform of the Chinese Education System

China’s education system is plagued with problems, such as underfunding of primary and secondary schools and poor standards in higher education. In June 2010, China’s leaders released the National Outline for Medium- and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development. President Hu Jintao stressed that education was the key to social development and promised to improve quality and accessibility in the coming decade. [Source: : Mitch Moxley, Asian Times, July 2010]

The document, which highlights China's strategic goal for education before 2020, promises to reform the annual gaokao and force high schools, colleges and universities to adopt more flexible enrollment policies. The plan pledges to guarantee equal access to education while improving quality and balancing the development of compulsory education in urban and rural areas. [Ibid]

In September 2010, Chinese President Hu Jintao, during a visit to the Renmin University of China in Beijing and its affiliated high school, called on teachers to embrace reform and innovation in teaching and enhance teaching standards. At the high school, after observing some art classes, Hu urged school authorities to respect students' individuality, tap their potentials, and help students improve their overall competence. He called on the country's teachers to learn from the model teachers, cultivate noble virtues, improve their professional standards and make greater contributions to the scientific development of the country's educational cause. [Source: China Daily, September 10, 2010]

At a lecture hall of the university, he called on university professors to be more productive in their scientific research so as to provide more reference for the government in decision-making. Hu also urged the university administration and teaching faculty to promote glorious university traditions, embrace reform and innovation, and improve its education quality. [Ibid]

Yang Dongping, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology's School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the president of the 21st century Education Research Institute, said the government's development plan would help establish a new education philosophy in China. He said that experiential education methods are already being tested in China, including one case in eastern Shandong province, where teachers leave students to learn primarily on their own, offering help only if a student requests it. [Ibid]

Tao Hongkai, a sociology professor at Central China Normal University, told the Asian Times true education reform will be difficult in China. Education officials are being charged to reform the same system from which they graduated, and surrounding the education industry are well-entrenched and profitable businesses. “China claims to have quality education,” Tao said, “but I don't think there's any quality education here. I think China's teachers don't even know what quality education is.” [Ibid]

China Dismisses Its Minister of Education

In November 2009, amidst rising criticism over the quality of schools and the high number of jobless college graduates, China’s minister of education, Zhou Ji, was dismissed by the Chinese legislature after six years on the job and replaced him with a deputy. His dismissal follows revelation of a corruption scandal involving a university in Wuhan, where Zhou had been mayor and, before that, president of another university. Zhou has not been publicly linked to the corruption charges, but many suspect he may have been involved somehow. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 3, 2009]

Zhou became education minister in 2003, but he was widely criticized for moving too slowly on problems such as the underfunding of primary and secondary schools and poor standards in higher education to correct them. When all 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress voted in March to retain or replace cabinet-level ministers, Zhou drew 384 no votes---putting him in last place among the 72 ministers who were considered.

Zhou’s successor, Yuan Guiren, is regarded somewhat as a liberal and a reformer. He served earlier was president of Beijing Normal University, known by educators as one of the most progressive institutions in a nation.

Industrialization of Tertiary Education in China

Wu Zhong wrote in the Asian Times, “As early as 1993, Beijing set a goal to gradually boost government spending on education to the equivalent of 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). However, the goal still remains on paper, so that the "Outlines of Mid- and Long-term Education Reform and Development Plan", approved by the State Council at a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao on May 5, 2010, had to set 2012 as the deadline for achieving this goal. [Source: Wu Zhong, China Editor, Asia Times, June 22, 2011]

In the early 1990s, under Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji China began to "industrialize" tertiary education, allowing schools to charge students high tuition fees to help ease the government's financial burden. Regional governments saw this as a new "money tree" and enrolled more and more students by expanding existing schools or establishing new ones at a "big-leap-forward" pace.

Now unaffordable "housing, higher education and medical care" have become major sources of public complaints. The fast expansion of higher education has also caused other problems such as poor teaching quality and academic frauds.

Zhu Rongji on Education in China and the Egg Plus Milk Project

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Students inspired by Lei Feng
In a critique of education in China in January 2011, former premier Zhu, Rongji: "What happened to our compulsory education? Many [rural] students have dropped out of school and gone to work in cities.” He criticized education policy goals as "full of empty talk” but refrained from elaborating. "If you don't devote great efforts to civic education, many problems will arise. Now many people [in China] are interested only in personal gain," Zhu said. [Source: Wu Zhong, China Editor, Asia Times, June 22, 2011]

Then, taking the recent earthquake in Japan as an example, Zhu stressed the importance of civic education in China. "Japanese people have lost so much during this big earthquake that even we felt frightened. But Japanese people in general were not afraid. They remained very polite and public-spirited. This could never have happened in China. If such a big earthquake happened in China, there would have been big chaos. Improving [our] national character must start with civic education.

A few years ago, to show the government's concern and care for children, China began promoting the so-called "Egg plus Milk Project" in some inland rural areas to provide, free of charge, primary and secondary school pupils from poor families with an egg and a glass of milk for breakfast. In his 2011 speech Zhu, Rongji said in 2011: "Even now many pupils in rural schools still cannot get a glass of milk and an egg. In Qinghai province, only 800 pupils can enjoy this as pilots of the project. There are 30,000 primary and secondary school students in Qinghai."

Shanghai Ranks No. 1 in Global Academic Test Rankings

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English textbook
China as represented by students from Shanghai ranked at the top in reading, mathematics and in science out of 65 countries in the OECD academic aptitude tests conducted under in 2009 the Program from International Student Assessment (PISA). In the test 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai outperformed students from the other countries on an international standardized test that measured math, science and reading competency. American students came in between 15th and 31st place in the three categories. France and Britain also fared poorly. Although it was the first time China had taken part in the test, which was administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, the results bolstered this country’s reputation for producing students with strong math and science skills.

Though the programme covered every education level in the city, from elite schools to below-average suburban ones, most of the 5,100 15-year-olds who took part were consistently good academic performers with a strong motivation to do well. "Educational authorities hold this kind of international assessment programme in high regard," one high-school headmaster told the South China Morning Post. "We made sure students understood the significance of the test and tried our best to field good students."

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times: “Experts said comparing scores from countries and cities of different sizes is complicated. They also said that the Shanghai scores were not representative of China, since this fast-growing city of 20 million is relatively affluent. Still, they were impressed by the high scores from students in Shanghai. Many educators were also surprised by the city’s strong reading scores, which measured students” proficiency in their native Chinese. The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia---including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong---do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.” [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

“Although the figures of Shanghai students cannot be easily compared with those of their counterparts who participated as a country, their high scores stood out,” the Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. “Curriculums at Shanghai schools reportedly focus on helping students improve their ability to apply their knowledge and academic skills, and they are closely linked with university entrance exams there.” [Source: Takanori Kato, Tetsu Okazaki and Yasuhiro Maeda, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 9,2010]

The success of students in Shanghai, analysts said, reflects fierce competition for entry to higher educational institutions in the city. Many people in Shanghai regarded the result as quite natural. "It isn't surprising," a female middle school teacher said. A local reporter on education issues in Shanghai told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "It wasn't a result that represents the whole of China. It only indicates how getting into better schools in an urban environment is highly competitive." [Ibid]

"We introduced school curricula that placed importance on how to apply students' accumulated knowledge, which is linked to university entrance examinations," a Shanghai city official told the Yomiuri Shimbun. In Shanghai, school entrance exams have become more competitive each year due to the difficulty in students finding jobs following the increased academic achievement levels. Examinations are held almost every month at middle and high schools, and lists of higher ranking students are posted on school walls at terms' end. [Ibid]

The higher the percentage of students who go on to prestigious schools, the more teachers reap additional income and benefits’so the incentive among teachers to raise student achievement levels becomes heated as well. China's one-child policy is another social factor inflaming the fervor for education. [Ibid]

Reaction to Shanghai Ranks No. 1 in Global Academic Test Rankings

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The reaction to tests in the United States was alarm. President Barack Obama talked of a "Sputnik moment", referring to the launch of the first satellite in 1957, when the Soviet Union beat the US into space, and warned that "America is in danger of falling behind" again. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reacted by saying: "We're being out-educated", and called on Americans to "wake up to this education reality". [Sources: Frank Ching, South China Morning Post, January 19 2011]

Frank Ching wrote in the South China Morning Post. “Interestingly, however, within China there was not much exultation. Certainly, there was pride in Shanghai's achievements but there was also a great deal of introspection as to the real significance of the test results and the need for reform of the Chinese education system. Chinese media widely cited the findings of a 2009 survey covering 21 countries conducted by the International Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that while Chinese students excelled at maths, they were in last place when it came to using their imagination and were fifth from bottom where creativity was concerned. [Ibid]

An article in the China Daily by Chen Weihua, the deputy editor of its US edition, while saluting the Shanghai students and teachers for their hard work, went on to say that the grooming of "superb test-takers" comes at a high cost, "often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood". Chen said the system that created high scores denigrated students who are little more than "test machines" who lack imagination and creativity. [Ibid]

Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests

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David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “In Li Zhen’s ninth-grade mathematics class here last week, the morning drill was geometry. Students at the middle school affiliated with Jing’An Teachers’ College were asked to explain the relative size of geometric shapes by using Euclid’s theorem of parallelograms. “Who in this class can tell me how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment?” Ms. Li called out to about 40 students seated in a cramped classroom. One by one, a series of students at this medium-size public school raised their hands. When Ms. Li called on them, they each stood politely by their desks and usually answered correctly. They returned to their seats only when she told them to sit down. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

“Educators say this disciplined approach helps explain the why Shanghai students outperformed students from about 65 countries on math, science and reading competency tests in 2010. Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16. “Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do,” said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “So if the test is on math and science, there’s no doubt Chinese students will win the competition.” [Ibid]

“Shanghai is believed to have the nation’s best school system, and many students here gain admission to America’s most selective colleges and universities. In Shanghai, teachers are required to have a teaching certificate and to undergo a minimum of 240 hours of training; higher-level teachers can be required to have up to 540 hours of training. There is a system of incentives and merit pay, just like the systems in some parts of the United States. “Within a teacher’s salary package, 70 percent is basic salary,” said Xiong Bingqi, a professor of education at Shanghai Jiaotong University. “The other 30 percent is called performance salary.” Still, teacher salaries are modest, about $750 a month before bonuses and allowances---far less than what accountants, lawyers or other professionals earn.” [Ibid]

In Shanghai, most students begin studying English in first grade. Many middle school students attend extra-credit courses after school or on Saturdays.

Problems with Shanghai Approach to Education

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David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “But many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.

Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the Peking University High School, wrote in a commentary in The Wall Street Journal, “These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests. For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.” He pointed out that China's most promising students still need to go abroad and "unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them". The current Chinese education system, he said, is holding the country back. "Shanghai's stellar results on Pisa," he wrote, "are a symptom of the problem." He added: "One way we'll know we're succeeding in changing China's schools is when those Pisa scores come down." [Sources: Frank Ching, South China Morning Post , January 19 2011]

Jiang told the New York Times produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently. “It creates very narrow-minded students,” he said. “But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators.” This is a common complaint in China. Educators say an emphasis on standardized tests is partly to blame for the shortage of innovative start-ups in China. And executives at global companies operating here say they have difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

Frank Ching wrote in the South China Morning Post, “A visit to see relatives in Shanghai last month confirmed the pressures that most children are under to do well in exams. Their mother sympathises but sees little alternative to the endless cycle of preparation for one exam after another. In fact, most Shanghai children are made to attend after-school and weekend classes, with little time to play or even sleep. [Sources: Frank Ching, South China Morning Post , January 19 2011]

“Because Shanghai is the most advanced city on the mainland, its children are competing against the best and brightest, and the pressures on them are greater than those on schoolchildren elsewhere. As a result of the intense competition, parents seek to uncover special talents in their offspring in other areas, such as playing the flute or other musical instruments, so they can be one step ahead of their competitors.” [Ibid]

Even in the PISA tests, Martin Zhou wrote in the South China Morning Post: While Shanghai students scored well above average in overall reading capabilities, they were poor at capturing information from charts, tables and lists. They also ranked well below average in independent reading strategies, which means they rely on teachers' instructions on what to read. Those two categories hold the key to practical problem solving and research capabilities, which don't feature prominently in early studies but are crucial to success in higher education. Imagine the damage a university system notorious for plagiarism and result faking can wreak on straight-A students. [Source: Martin Zhou, South China Morning Post, January 8 2011]

“Across the mainland, the education system is still vulnerable because of a lack of investment, variations in teaching quality and school access, and integrity issues. In the same month that the PISA results emerged, media reports said more than half the pupils in Guangxi primary schools weren't able to use dictionaries. Many could not afford one. This shows the yawning gap that has to be overcome before a genuinely well-educated generation can be nurtured. And even if all the teens score in maths and know the periodic table like the back of their hand, more fundamental changes are needed, such as improving character building and physical fitness, to truly upgrade mainland education.” [Ibid]

Women and Education in China

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Cultural Revolution textbook
Confucius famously said that a good woman is an illiterate one. An estimated 70 percent of China's 140 million illiterates are female. In rural areas, girls are often so busy doing chores they don't have time for school. Patrick Tyler of the New York Times visited a school in Youyan, a village in the poor Guizhou Province, and only four of the 100 or so students were girls. "Girls at 5 to 6-years old begin a life of farm work," a teacher said.

It is not unusual for girls to be pulled out of school when they are ten or so to work in the fields. When they are 14 or 15 they are shipped off to work in factories far from their hometowns.

If a Chinese family with two children only has enough money to educate one child, they almost always choose a son over a daughter. One Chinese feminist told Newsweek, "There is an attitude that 'girls are going to get married and won't be part of the family anyway, so why waste the money?" One female migrant worker told U.S. News and World Report, "I thought that in the countryside, even if you finish high school, you still end up doing the same work."

Discrimination continues through the university level. One Chinese feminist told AFP, "When I applied for university, I found women needed higher grades than men to be accepted and, when I graduated, government units and private enterprise made it very clear they didn't want women."

Many men are reluctant to marry women with more education than them. Women with master’s degree who are looking for a husband or boyfriend often didn’t mention their education when they visit matchmakers or dating services.

Development of Chinese Women’s Education in the 1920s and 30s

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model student
In the 1940s, Nationalist Ministry of Education bureaucrats in conjunction with educators in teacher training schools developed social education experimental zones in China’s interior. The purpose of the zones was to improve the physical and emotional quality of citizens by addressing all aspects of their daily existence. The training document from which the epigraph is taken shows the significance the ministry attached to a mother’s role in developing the attitudes and behaviours conducive to a stable social order. The female and male intellectuals who worked in these zones, including Nationalist bureaucrats, educational leaders, and students, believed that improving the quality of how women dealt with the daily fundamentals of family management was key to the nation’s long-term success and positive development. The goals of creating a stable society and saving China from national disintegration were directly and intimately related to the work of making families happier. [Excerpt: Keeping the Nation’s House: Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China by Helen M. Schneider, University of British Columbia Press 2011, China Beat, May 31, 2011, Helen M. Schneider is Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech and currently a Research Associate at Oxford University.

One of the goals was “to cultivate children’s happiness. The basic idea is that you want your child to feel satisfied. Even if the food is unsatisfactory, the clothes are inadequate, or the habitation is insufficient, you still should tell your child that it is very good. You do not want the child to be greedy and insatiable. In the future whether or not he is law-abiding, well-behaved, satisfied, or works for his own knowledge and does not simply enjoy the fruits of other’s labor, these all start from this word: “Happiness.”--

In the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals felt that women were responsible for perfecting their management of domestic space in order to strengthen the Chinese nation. As the Qing dynasty experienced dramatic decline at the end of the nineteenth century, intellectual leaders believed that women, because they were uneducated and superstitious and had bad habits that were a negative influence on their children, were at least partly responsible for China’s weaknesses. They wanted women to be better prepared for their responsibilities as mothers and wives and, in the final years of the dynasty, Qing officials mandated that new schools for girls and teacher training schools should train women in important skills that would prepare them for their gendered responsibilities as household managers. [Excerpt: Keeping the Nation’s House: Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China by Helen M. Schneider, University of British Columbia Press 2011, China Beat, May 31, 2011, Helen M. Schneider is Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech and currently a Research Associate at Oxford University.

In these new schools, educators taught household management classes and encouraged women to take their roles as wives and mothers seriously in order to ensure the future stability of the nation. As more schools of higher education opened up to girls, the emphasis of domestic science shifted from a curriculum in housekeeping skills to the preparation of domestic managers with scientific skills. By the end of the 1920s, the field as it was taught in normal schools and colleges no longer trained women solely for their wifely roles; instead, the discipline of home economics prepared women who might not only manage households efficiently but also manage projects of social reform and help engineer a better China. The graduates of home economics programs and their fellow intellectuals, such as the participants in the wartime social education experimental zones, created and promoted a broader agenda of nurturing an emotionally stronger, physically healthier, and more productive citizenry prepared to meet the challenges of the modern age.

The discipline of home economics facilitated the formation of a group of white-collar professional women who advocated more rational ways of living and practical habits for all Chinese people. In the government’s support for home economics and its regulation of the social education experimental zones, it is clear that one cornerstone of social order was the division of fundamental responsibilities between men and women. Educators, administrators, and officials alike clearly delineated these differences as they asked women to pay particular attention to domestic responsibilities, to matters of emotional development, to internal management, and to significant daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and child rearing. The discipline of home economics thus tells us much about how a system of gendered responsibilities was institutionalized and made foundational to the Chinese nation-state.

Education Costs in China

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Muslim students in the 1950s
China spends less on education that most developing countries. Only 2.4 percent of China's GNP is spent on schools, compared to 6.7 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in Taiwan. China spends less than India. According to a survey it ranked 99th out of 130 counties on per capita education spending.

Free education was a hallmark of the Mao era. For the most part that era is over. In the old days people often worried about having enough money to pay school tuition. In the early 1990s, the central government began cutting off funding for rural schools.

The central government still promises a free education for every child for nine years but it provides little money for education. Most funding comes from local government. In poor rural districts in particular schools need to charge fees or come up with money other way to pay for school expenses. Fees vary from district to district. The education system in many rural areas has virtually collapsed.

In some cases schools force their students to help in harvests in return for food and grain and money that helps pay for school cost. To raise money, some schools rent their space to factories, shops, restaurants, and karaoke parlors and employ students in them. Teachers sometimes earn as little as $12 a month, if they are paid at all. But as poorly paid as they are teachers often use their own money to pay for school supplies and individual student fees.

Many have argued that China could better serve its people if it spent more money on education and less money on grandiose infrastructure projects like Three Gorges Dam.

In March 2007, the government announced it would increase spending on primary and secondary education by $5.02 billion over what its spent the previous year, increasing funds for scholarships and doing more to help university graduates find jobs. It has also earmarled more money for rural education.

Financial Aid to Education in China

In 2007, the Chinese government announced the removal of tuition fees from primary and middle school students. In 2010 a program was announced to provide financial aid to poor rural high school students, who typically attend boarding schools away from the their villages. Students that receive aid will be exempt from tuition fees. Some of the funding will come from national sources; some from local and province governments.

In 2009, the central government approved an education fund of about 198 billion yuan (around US$21.19 billion). About 28.7 million children from poor families received financial aid for their schooling. The government plans to increase the ratio of education expenditure to gross domestic product to 4 percent by 2012 from 3.48 percent in 2008. [Source: : Mitch Moxley, Asian Times, July 2010]

“By pledging to increase public expenditures on education and promote fair distribution of education resources, [the plan] has laid a solid foundation for China to develop into a powerhouse of human capital,” argued state-owned Xinhua News Agency. “China will no longer be able to rely on ample supply of cheap labor for economic growth.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters; Columbia University University of Washington; Ohio State University, Wiki Commons, Asia Obscura ;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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