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student teacher
In China, there are six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, and three years of high school. There is an exam at the end of middle school to decide who attends high school. Only 30 percent of middle school students go on to high school.

School begins around 7:30 with a flag raising ceremony and a lecture from the principal who speaks through a bullhorn. Describing the first day of school in a small town school, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “The loudspeakers crackle, and music came on for the flag-raising. The older children, wearing the red kerchiefs of the Young Pioneers, marched in place while the national anthem played."

Children typically go to school from 7:00am to 4:00pm. Elementary school begins at 7:30am. They study mathematics, reading, writing and propaganda, and often write on thin, brittle paper that feels like onion skin and glows if held up to the light. During recess children do calisthenics and relaxation exercises that consist of pressing two finger on one's eyes, nose or cheeks.

A typical school has few academic and athletic facilities other than a chalkboard, some desks, chairs and a Chinese flag and courtyard where children play. Better schools have a dirt soccer field. Few schools have air conditioning or heating. In the winter, teachers and students are often bundled up in heavy coats and gloves in the classrooms, their breath forming clouds.

Middle class children fill the hours after school with homework, music lesson and other enrichment programs. English classes and math Olympics are popular. Parents spend sizable chunks of money on classes at computer schools and language academies. Children often have lots of homework, which they often do in copybooks in front of their parents.

Pictures of Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, hang on the walls of classrooms. Above the playing fields at schools are signs that say things like “Education Changes Fate” and “Wisdom Leads You to Glory.” The top two school rules are: 1) love the motherland; 2) “Cherish the honor of the group.”

Calvin Henrick wrote in the Boston Globe, “Medfield social studies teacher Richard DeSorgher, who spent six weeks in Bengbu, said the differences between the two systems are stark. He said students in China spend long hours at school, and extra time being tutored on nights and weekends for college entrance exams. Class sizes of up to 60 students mean rote learning is common, he said. DeSorgher said he asked a Chinese-born student living in Medfield for advice before the trip. “He said, “Make it fun. The more you can make it fun, the more they’ll want to continue to learn English.” So I went over there armed with a ton of American candy."I think I was kind of an oddity there," DeSorgher added. “I put them in groups, I had them standing and sitting. It was just very different, I think." [Source: Calvin Henrick, Boston Globe, March 20, 2011]

Websites and Films About Schools in China

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Good Websites and Sources: School Life in Beijing ; Life in New China ; Scenes from Primary School Life School Life Video YouTube ; Precious Children PBS Show ; China Education Blog

Links in this Website: CHINESE EDUCATION ; CHINESE SCHOOLS ; CHINESE UNIVERSITIES ; Good Websites and Sources on Education in China : History of Education System in China ; Center on Chinese Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College ; China Today on Chinese Schools ; China Education Blog ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Education Wikipedia ; China Education and Research Network (Chinese Government Site) ; China Education and Research Network Statistics ; Busy Kids ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Education Bibliography ; Chinatown Connection ; Education in the 1980s ; China Research Paper Search

“ Senior Year “ (2005), a film by Zhao Hao, is an in-depth examination of how a class of teenagers prepares for the national college entrance exams in China. When it comes to anxiety about how the U.S compares with other nations, there’s always plenty to go around. But for a real wake-up call, nothing can compare to Zhou Hao’s Senior Year, an in-depth examination of how a class of teenagers prepares for the national college entrance exams that will determine their destinies. Faced with mountains of memorization and rigid behavioral standards, most buckle down, but some rebel and some simply crumble under the pressure. Zhou brings tenderness, humor, and quiet outrage to this rare, behind-the-scenes look at China’s educational system.

“” The Village Elementary “ (“ Changchuan cun xiao “) by new director Huang Mei is a deceptively simple film about rural education and poverty. Huang’s honesty, her respect for her subjects,including a charismatically intellectual, politically aware, but sadly frustrated Sichuanese elementary teacher, gives the film a dirt-poor lyricism that tightly binds the minute details of individual lives to larger issues of political powerlessness and economic dependence.”

Rural Schools in China

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Assembly at a rural school

A typical rural school is a dirty, whitewashed building made of mud brick and cement. In the classrooms there is no heat or electricity. Light comes from two small windows. There are generally few academic and athletic facilities other than a chalkboard, maybe some desks and chairs and courtyard where children play rough games. Schools are considered well equipped if they have a dirt soccer field.

Describing the classroom for kindergarten class in a small town school, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “The classroom was dirty, and there was a hole in the ceiling. The blackboard was chipped and scarred, Twenty children sat at their desks; each of them playing with a pile of Lego-like bricks. There were only three girls.” There was no bathroom. Children relived themselves through the schoolyard fence.

Children from a wide range of ages and abilities often attend the same class. Bright students are often selected by the family to go to school while slow learners have to stay home and help with chores around the house. In rural areas, many children have to walk several miles to their schools.

In villages that have lost their schools due to declining populations as adults have left to find jobs, kids begin boarding at away schools when they are in the first grade and come home only for weekends.

In some villages about only one kid every ten years makes it to college.

Young Pioneers in China

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Young pioneers

The Young Pioneers is the youth branch of the Communist Party. Nearly all students between the second and sixth grades are required to join and wear a red kerchief to school everyday, except when the weather is exceptionally hot and they wear a red pin instead. Eric Eckholm wrote in the New York Times, "Combining elements of the Scouts, the Safety Patrol and the Hall Monitor, larded with thick, simple doses of patriotism and Communism, the Young Pioneers remains a shared experience of China's children.”

Every year, nearly every second grader in China goes through a solemn rite of initiation and becomes a Young Pioneer. Describing the ritual, Eckholm wrote: "Lined up before an audience of classmates, teachers, and perhaps some beaming parents, the school band playing at the side, they stand at attention as sixth-graders march up and place red kerchiefs around heir necks." Older students leads them in the pledge that goes: "I am a Young Pioneer. I pledge under the Young Pioneer flag that I am determined to follow the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party, to study hard, work hard and be ready to devote all my strength to the Communist cause."

Under the supervision of their teachers, the students are organized into teams with the most strait arrow student acting as leaders. One young girl told the New York Times, "As a leader, I have to be a good student, get good grades and be willing to serve the other students. I feel that we have to study hard to build our country stronger."

The students are taught the proper way to raise the flag and salute their superiors; how to dress properly; they read about good deeds performed by model Pioneers. The organization also sponsors summer camps and hobby clubs. Many Chinese look back on their Young Pioneers with a chuckle. Even so many of things that were drilled into them’such as the belief that Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China remains lodged in their brain.

The Communist Youth League is the equivalent of the Young Pioneers for high school students. Most high school students join for social reason and because they are required to. In universities and work places, promising members of the Youth League are chosen to be members of the Communist Party.

Silly School Rules in China

All the students at Luolang Elementary School, a yellow-and-orange concrete structure off a winding mountain road in Huangping county in southern China, know the key rules: Do not run in the halls. Take your seat before the bell rings. Raise your hand to ask a question...and salute all cars when they pass by. Education officials were sharply criticized when news of the rule found its way to the Internet. This is just pitiful, wrote one in a post last year. Only inept officials would burden children with such a requirement rather than install speed bumps, others insisted. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, October 25, 2009]

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Morning exercises at an elementary school

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Education officials say compliance is strictly voluntary. Asked whether they follow it, elementary students here tend to burst into nervous giggles. The rule’s purpose is twofold: to keep children safer on the county’s corkscrew mountain roads and to teach manners. Nearly 30 schools are located along roads without sidewalks or speed bumps. Signs posting speed limits are few and far between; virtually no signs indicate a school nearby.

“Long Guoping, deputy chief of the county education bureau, said those measures were coming. Little by little, the government is installing them, he said. In the meantime, the salute might avoid some accidents, he said. It allows the drivers to notice the children and the children to notice the drivers.”

“Luo Rongmei, who teaches first grade at Luolang Elementary School, is all for it. Since they started saluting there has not been one traffic accident, she said, as the students ran and shouted in the yard. Guo Yuozhang, 63, whose grandson attends the Luolang school, said he was more ambivalent. If the cars come from one direction, that is not too bad, said. Cars coming in both directions is a bigger hassle. Sometimes they are just turning in circles and they get kind of stuck, he said. He spun around to illustrate the point, smiling slyly.”

School Files in China

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student essays
Everyone in China who has been to high school has a file — a sealed Manila envelope stamped top secret, containing grades, test results, evaluations by fellow students and teachers, and if they have one a Communist Party application and proof of a college degree. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in New York Times, “The files are irreplaceable histories of achievement and failure, the starting point for potential employers, government officials and others judging an individual’s worth. Often keys to the future, they are locked tight in government, school or workplace cabinets to eliminate any chance they might vanish. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, July 26, 2009]

The files are crucial for getting any kind of good job. Heaven forbid if they ever get lost . But that is exactly what happened to Xue Longlong and 10 others, all 2006 college graduates with exemplary records, all from poor families living in Wubu, a gritty north-central town on the wide banks of the Yellow River. With the Manila folders went their futures, they say.

“While not quite as important as in Communist China’s early days,” Lafraniere wrote , “when it was a powerful tool of social control, the file, called a dangan, is an absolute requirement for state employment and a means to bolster a candidate’s chances for some private-sector jobs, labor experts say. Because documents are collected over several years and signed by many people, they are virtually impossible to replicate.”

“Today, Xue, who had hoped to work at a state-owned oil company, sells real estate door to door, a step up from past jobs passing out leaflets and serving drinks at an Internet cafe. Wang Yong, who aspired to be a teacher or a bank officer, works odd jobs. Wang Jindong, who had a shot at a job at a state chemical firm, is a construction day laborer, earning less than $10 a day...If you don’t have it, just forget it! Wang Jindong, now 27, said of his file. No matter how capable you are, they will not hire you. Their first reaction is that you are a crook.”

Difficulty Getting Kindergartens for Kids Born in the Year of the Pig

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students playing basketball
Mei Jia wrote in the China Daily: Getting a place in a kindergarten that is affordable and conveniently located is posing a major headache for parents with children born in and after 2007. Two popular sayings doing the rounds this summer are that, "Entering kindergartens is harder than being recruited as a public servant" and, "Attending kindergartens is costlier than going to university." The existing capacity in public kindergartens is unable to cope with the sudden increase in births in 2007, the year of the golden pig, considered auspicious for having babies by the Chinese. The baby-boomers have now entered the kindergarten-going age of 3 this summer. [Source: Mei Jia, China Daily, September 7, 2010]

Xinhua News Agency reports that only 73,000 out of Shenzhen's 135,000 kids born in 2007 will find a kindergarten spot. A Southern Daily report says Beijing saw 415,750 births between 2007 and 2009, but has only 248,000 spots in the registered kindergartens. Gao Yuexia, 96, her son and grandson, took turns to line up for nine days and nights to enroll Gao's 2-year-old great-granddaughter in a public kindergarten in northeastern Beijing's Changping district. "While waiting for days is no 100 percent guarantee of a spot, not joining the queues could mean very little chance of finding a proper kindergarten for our child," father surnamed Chen told the China Daily.

Song Lihong, 34, a full-time mother of a 3-year-old in Beijing, began her hunt for a kindergarten last April. The public ones, known for their lower fees and more reliable quality, were Song's preferred choice. Some 200 parents vied to get their kids into the kindergarten whose modest monthly charges of 400 yuan ($59) made it a popular choice with many young couples. She went to almost all of those near her home, and found they charged 600-900 yuan per month, but would accept only children who meet the strict requirements of hukou (registered household certification). "Parents with no Beijing hukou, like us, have to pay a so-called voluntary amount of at least 50,000 yuan ($7,300) over three years, which is beyond us," she says. "But even so, we tried to find some way to give this extra money."

When she couldn't, she finally turned to a private kindergarten and got her kid in after waiting for three months. "It's more expensive, but we have no choice," she says. Song says her family is under intense financial pressure. "Our threshold for kindergarten fees was 1,000 yuan, but now I pay 1,700 yuan. And then there is the rent to take care of," she says.

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Like Song, Liu Jingjia, 32, a vocational school teacher in Kunming, Yunnan province, is also considering a kindergarten although her daughter is not yet 2. "The public kindergartens are cheaper but hard to get in; the private ones are easier but far more expensive," Liu says. She says she hopes starting her search early will bring her better luck than Song.

Zhang Yan, a pre-primary education expert with Beijing Normal University told The Beijing News: "The real problem is not getting into a kindergarten, but into an affordable and reputable one." Feng Xiaoxia, with China National Society of Early Childhood Education, told Xinhua recently that "the imbalance in public and private kindergartens, and limited governmental input in pre-primary education, are the reasons" for the difficulties facing parents.

In growing recognition of the problem, the National Education Conference held this July made "advancing the equality in education" a major emphasis. The final draft of the National Plan for Long-Term Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020) released recently also pays particular attention to the "kindergarten puzzle". It hints at increasing official input to promote the development of both public and private kindergartens.

Shanghai is already taking the lead by extending the number of kindergartens to keep pace with the construction of new residential buildings. Beijing is also planning to build 118 new kindergartens and renovate 300 old ones in the coming years. "If we're lucky enough, I'd like to get my daughter registered by September next year," says Liu, expressing a hope that is on the minds of many young parents.

Elementary School Classes

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A typical class has a Class Monitor, Homework Monitor, Hygiene Monitor and Politeness Monitor. Among the duties of the Politeness Monitor are reporting on students that have gotten into fights and said bad words. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, March 31, 2008]

The elections for these junior cadres positions is serious stuff. Typically every students run for something. The campaigns are like self-criticism sessions with the candidates admitting flaws and vowing to improve them, and then asking for votes.

Fifth grade in elementary school is particularly tough. Many students take their regular classes plus preps classes for the entrance exam to middle schools. Students are given backs tests with their class ranking on the test. Those that lag behind are often punished. In gym class the slowest person in each group in running races has to do an extra lap.

Many kids take entrance exam to get into good middle school. If you don’t get in a top middle school, your chances of getting into a good high school are diminished, which hurts your chances of getting into a good college.

Report Cards

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Shenzhen middle school
Elementary school report cards are 30 pages long. On them are measurements of weight, height, eyesight, hearing, lung capacity accompanied by information on where one fits in with the national average. Teachers give grades, but parents and other students are encouraged to add their assessments, usually pointing out some fault or weakness. On one page there are blank faces where students are expected to evaluate themselves with smiley or frowning faces for things like “takes care of himself” and “cherishes the fruits of physical labor.”

A typical teacher evaluation goes: “Everybody loves you. Your thinking is very nimble and the teacher and the other students all admire you. But only if cleverness is combined with hard work will you have improvement.”[Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, March 31, 2008]

Students and Parents

Students are swamped with after school classes: music lesson, English, art and martial arts. All these activities are very competitive and rank students. English is graded on five levels.; piano-playing, 10.

More than half of preteens take outside lessons. When parents are asked why they enroll their children in such classes the most often heard answer is “to raise the child’s future competitiveness.”

Students routinely snatch essays off the Internet.

Students try to stay on their teachers good side, following the proverb: “A person who stands under someone else’s roof must bow his head,”

If a kid is bullied and his parents are politically influentially they can pressure to have the bully transferred to another school. There are also stories of students getting into schools without taking entrance exams because their parents had a cousin who knew someone in the education bureau.

When students are studying for major exams, parents switch television on mute so hey can study better.

Learning in Chinese Schools

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Elementary school class

Children have traditionally learned by rote, memorizing material without asking questions. Many topics are banned. A great amount of time is spent learning numerous Chinese characters, which are basically memorized.

There are often 40 to 50 students in a classroom and can be up to 60 kids in a class. Students sit in rows and are often expected to sit upright with serious expressions on their faces. The school day often begins with the teacher tapping her pointer on the desk and the students rising in unison and dutifully shouting, “Hello, teacher!” The teacher them signals every everyone to sit down and leads them like a conductor as they shout out memorization drills.

Having some many students encourages rote learning rather than student-driven activities and discussions. One Chinese educator told the New York Times, “You let them free, but it’s such a big group, its hard to get them back. It’s a real challenge how to get the balance right.”

Children are taught to be obedient and conform in accordance with an old Chinese proverb that goes: “The bird that flies out its flock is the first one targeted by hunters.”

A fashion designer told the Washington Post, “Chinese people are educated to be the same.” Schools emphasize group activities and discipline and repeating what one has been taught and play down individualism and critical thinking. Class activities generally features students dressed exactly the same — boys in blue tracks suits and girls in red ones — performing the same kind of banner-waving drills or marches.

Reforms include using a wide variety of textbooks, removing dense passages from textbooks, reducing class size, using groups and partners and more hands-on learning, encouraging students to figure out problems themselves and emphasizing project-based learning. Private schools are at the forefront of these reforms. They often have many clubs and activities outside of school. The main thing that holds these kinds of reforms back is that there are not enough teachers trained in such methods.

Problems with Learning in China

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “Everything revolves around repetition and memorization, which works beautifully for math. But other subjects often developed into scattered facts that careen between traditional and modern, Chinese and foreign. I was amazed by the stuff Wei Kia learned — the most incredible assortment of de-systemized knowledge that had even been crammed into a child in the forth grade.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, March 31, 2008]

When children learn to write they began with specific strokes and copy them over rand over. They then combines these into characters and copy them over and over.

“In English he memorized odd vocabulary lists: “Spaceship,” “pizza,” “astronaut.” A textbook called “Environmental and Sustainable Development” must have spawned from some collaboration with a foreign N.G.O. It taught the “the five R’s” — Reduce, Reevaluate, Reuse, Recycle, Rescue Wildlife — which make no sense when translated into a language with no alphabet. Fifth graders memorized pages of instructions for Microsoft Front Page XP.”

Among the things that the students learned were that Google was started by a brother and sister in America, that the Buddha in Leshan was 70 meters tall. Wei didn’t know what a province was, thought San Francisco was in China and thought the current leader of China was Mao Zedong, Among the things he did for homework was recite the Tao te Ching.”

High Rates of Nearsightedness in China Linked to Studying All the Time

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The children at the Bayi Xiwang elementary and middle school are doing something revolutionary by current Chinese standards: They're playing outside. Singing and skipping in the dizzying southern Chinese humidity, these students have been given 45 minutes a day to frolic under the sun while peers across the nation remain indoors, hunched over books or squinting at blackboards. By forcing youngsters to put down their pencils and expose their eyes to natural light, researchers think they can stem an explosion of nearsightedness in China. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2012]

“By the time they complete high school, as many as 90 percent of urban Chinese youth are afflicted by the condition known as myopia, in which close objects can be seen clearly but things just a few feet or inches away start to blur. That's about three times the rate among U.S. children. Even more troubling is the severity of the Chinese cases. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of nearsighted Chinese children are expected to develop "high myopia," which is largely untreatable and may lead to blindness.

“The problem for China is really quite massive," said Ian Morgan, a visiting professor at the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center at Sun Yat-sen University who helped organize the three-year clinical trial in Guangzhou. "Their best-educated kids — kids who are going to be the intellectuals or political leaders — are going to be progressively losing vision as they get older." Even China's authoritarian leaders have had to ask schools to ease off. In 2010, several provinces banned public preschools from instructing 3-year-olds to memorize 10 Chinese characters a day.

“Myopia has steadily increased in concert with China's urbanization and intensified academic competition. It's not uncommon for children in China to study four hours a day at home on top of a full day of school as well as attend several hours of tutoring on weekends. "Parents want their kids to get into the best primary school so they can have a better chance at the best high school that can help them get into Beida, Tsinghua and Fudan," Morgan said, referring to China's three elite universities. "Educational pressure and the disappearance of a strong preventive agent — time outdoors — is driving kids to myopia.”

First Grader’s 'Wrong' Answer Trigger Weibo Morality Debate

In April 2012, the Ministry of Tofu reported: “In a quiz on Chinese reading, a first grader answered “No, I won’t to the question “Would you give up your pear out of courtesy to your brothers if you were Kong Rong?” He got a huge “X” for his answer from his teacher. The child’s father, upon seeing the answer sheet, took a picture of it and uploaded it to Sina Weibo, the hugely popular microblogging service, which has had the nation question the purpose of education. [Source: Ministry of Tofu, April 19, 2012]

The reading section of the exam is a passage, written in both Chinese characters and pinyin, about a classic moral story, commonly known as “Kong Rong giving up pears”, that has been taught in elementary schools since the Song Dynasty in the same way the tale of George Washington felling a cherry tree lingers in the U.S. classes. According to the story, Kong Rong, later a politician in late Han Dynasty, picked the smallest of all pears and let his brothers choose the rest that were bigger, despite being only 4-year-old and the youngest in the family at the time.

“The post by the child’s father was reposted by 2,000 users and received 400 comments within one day. It is heatedly discussed on Sina Weibo, as netizens debate if educators should enforce values onto students, and if honest expression of unorthodox opinion should be encouraged. A reporter from Dongfang Daily contacted the child’s father. The child is in Grade 1 at an elementary school in the city of Shanghai.

“When the father saw the exam paper, he questioned his son about the answer, but the son insisted that he was not being playful.” I asked him, “Why did you write that you won’t give up your pear?” He answered, “I don’t think Kong Rong, a 4-year-old, would have actually done that.” I asked him why not. He answered, “Because he was only 4 years old,” the father recalled. He said that his son was pretty confident in the answer and refused to correct it, at least not until he got an explanation from the teacher.”Actually, my son is not selfish. He understands the significance of sharing. He passes food to me, his mother and his grandma at the table every day.” The majority of the flurry of the online commentary it inspires is supportive of the little boy. In an online survey on Sina Weibo, 57.1 percent of all 3,569 respondents say they wouldn’t give up pears in Kong Rong’s situation, and 23.7 percent say “I don’t know.”

Chinese Teachers

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Village teacher in the 1920s
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “The saving grace of a Chinese school” are teachers that “sincerely care, often calling parents with updates” and the fact that “most adults have a deep faith in learning.”

In China, teachers have traditionally been strict and formal in their character and appearance and rarely make jokes. Students are expected to be obedient, let the teacher teach and address their teacher in formal terms. There is a notion that the teacher is always right. Students are reluctant to ask questions for fear of exposing the teacher as ignorant. In any case there is so much material to cover there is little time to ask questions anyway

In the Mao era, teachers were fairly well paid and held in high esteem and received good health care and other benefits. Eevn today teachers are regarded as advocates of the Communist Party line first and teachers of the subjects second. Students at teacher's college are required to take courses on Marxism-Leninism and Building Chinese Socialism.

Chinese teachers are not known for encouraging their students. Often a simple “”hao”,” meaning good, is as much as a students can expect. In Asia, it is common for parents to give money to teachers and for students to give any prizes they have won to their teachers.

Parent-teacher conference tend to be group affairs in which the teacher talks to all the parents at once. If a child is doing poorly everyone finds out. This form of humiliation is expect to pressure parents to keep their kids in line.

Many rural school are staffed by “barefoot teachers”’some of whom are peasants who teach math and Chinese even though they never made it past elementary school themselves and are given a short vocational training course and then tossed in the classroom. These teachers were paid $1.60 a month in 1974.

Problems for Teachers

There is a lot of pressure on teachers. Some have their pay linked to their students’ performances. Others have been forced out of their after parents complained they weren’t covering the material fast enough. Many are studying English and taking other classes to improve themselves. High school teachers sometimes lose their job if their students don’t do well enough on the university entrance exam.

Teachers are usually exhausted by the overcrowded classes and insufficient facilities. In the poor rural provinces many teachers rely on the charity of farmers for food and sometimes go hungry because they go months without getting paid. Some teachers live in rat-infested dormitories at the school, which have no running water or electricity and try to keep warm in winter by sleeping under piles of thick quilts.

In the mid 2000s, as part of an effort to modernize schools and raise their quality, some barefoot teachers lost their jobs, even some well-respected ones with numerous years of experience and awards. Many achieved professional status by passing test. But those who failed were dismissed, going from heros of the socialist revolution to disgruntled unemployed who felt cheated by society and the government especially after hearing about teachers who failed the exam but were given professional status because they gave officials a $6,000 bribe

Some 10,000 teachers from Jilin province worried about losing their jobs staged a protest in Beijing. They were stopped by police and some were beat up.

Middle School and High School Life in China

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Middle school class

Middle schools and high schools are often located in towns far away from villages. Students from rural areas that want to attend them have to move from their family homes, live in dormitory and visit their families only on the weekends or Sundays. Often they have few friends in their hometowns and their parents treat them like little kids. For the most part their social life is focused around their school. To avoid breaking up their families, the goal of many village parents is to earn enough money or get a new job so they move to a large town or city where there children can receive a secondary education.

The dormitories in secondary schools are often packed. In rural Gansu 18 junior high schools girls share a single dormitory room, sleeping shoulder to shoulder like sardines.

“Keypoint” middle schools are relatively well-financed and receive the best students. Admission is often based on an entrance exam taken in the last year of elementary school. In recent years the middle school entrance exam has been officially abolished. In Shanghai there is a lottery system that spreads the best students around to different schools. Some bright students like the ordinary middle schools because they are not so competitive and time consuming and leave the students time to think for themselves and have free time.

High school is three years: The first year of high school in China is equivalent to the 10th grade in the United States. First year high school students at a top notch school study trigonometry and set theory. Second year students, the equivalent of 11th graders, study things like linear programming. The third and final year of high school is the hardest. One students told the New York Times, there is “endless homework, strict discipline, frequent exams, and per pressure.”

Students in English class listen to a teacher read form a textbook and recite translation about various topics, including American high school drop outs. Even though students often begin studying English when they in the third grade of elementary school they generally can’t really speak the language in high school. The program is geared mainly towards preparing students for the university entrance exams. A 17-year-old student told the Los Angeles Times through an interpreter, “There’s too much focus on grammar and little on actual communication.”

High schools have been described a very familial. A group of 40 plus students often stay together and share all the same classes in their first two years and often chose their classes to stay with their friends in their third year. Life is very different than at American high schools. A Chinese Students who attended a high school in Texas told the New York Times, “American high schools are more colorful, more like real life...more complicated.”

The struggle to get into the best universities has led to a struggle to get into the best high schools — the schools that get their students into top university or produce students that score well on the university entrance exam. Some of the best high schools are ones associated with top universities. Students that get into these are also pretty much assured of getting into the affiliated universities as well.

Chinese View on High School Life in China

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a high school
Eric Mu wrote in, “My high school life, which was not so long ago, might give you a small glimpse into the real situation: How too much competition poisons people’s relationships, and how when you feel that the guy sitting beside you is your potential enemy who may rob you of a lifetime of happiness, altruism is not going to be your guide. Students hold to themselves and are reluctant to help others. If you have a math question you cannot crack, you keep it to yourself, because all the students are very proprietary about their learning. To offer your knowledge or even your questions for free is not only time consuming but an aid to your enemies. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

I have to say that high school is a monastery and an army boot camp combined. Eleven classes every day. We had to rise before dawn and went to bed after 11. After the last class, we were encouraged to use any bit of extra time for study. There was one student who would go to read his lessons every night in the toilet, because that was the only place where the light would be kept on 24 hours. Everyone hated him, because his breach of a delicate equilibrium that is vital for us to live in peace with each other “he studied just a little too hard. The school encouraged us to be frugal with our time. It had a slogan hanging from the main building: “Time is like water in sponge; if you squeeze harder, there is always more.”

Even though you can always squeeze, even God may need to take a day off every week. For high school students, it was every four weeks. The day was meant for us to go home to pick up some spare clothes and money to sustain us for the next four weeks. But it also offered a rare chance of leisure. One day, think about it, ten hours of freedom, plus undisrupted sleep. How wonderful! I always anticipated the day so much that I kept planning and planning: Going to the bookstore to read the history book that I hadn’t finished? Going to the noodle place in the market to have noodles with lamb soup? When the day eventually came, not a single second passed without causing great anxiety in me like a stingy man counting every penny that he has to shell out.

High School Teachers in China

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dormitory bunkbed
Eric Mu wrote in, “Teachers are a mixture of army training sergeants and Amway salesmen. The former abuses, the latter promises. A teacher is not only expected to teach, he also needs to motivate. Some male teachers were very good at that, capable of evoking in their subjects the deepest sense of shame that even a Freudian would admire. They did it with verbal ingenuity that a rapper would envy. I remember a teacher once warned us that if we didn’t work hard we would “go and poke a dog’s teeth,” What he meant was that we would end up being tramps or beggars. Now many years have passed but the image of myself with a beggar’s pole trying to fend off a bunch of barking dogs still haunts me. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

The first few days of my high school life I was pumped up by a sense of triumphalism and I was a bit stuck up. After all, I had just passed a very difficult exam, I thought. My teacher spotted that dangerous tendency and he talked to me about it. At first he was using metaphorical language, telling me how a full bucket cannot take any more water. When he found out that I was not improving, he called me an ingrate and a mistake of my parents. It was only later that I realized that the teacher didn’t say that only to me. He said it to most students with the exception of the very best and the very worst in the class. The top ones were treated with respect and the worst don’t deserve his time because it won’t make a difference anyway. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

It was not only the students dealing with a lot of stress, but the teachers as well. A teacher’s salary was correlated by how many of the students that they were responsible for went to university. Even the school principal would be evaluated on such statistics. At my junior year, a girl committed suicide. Not a big surprise. There are always weak ones who just can’t make it. That is how natural selection works. The cause of the suicide was that the girl’s head teacher asked her to forgo the college entrance exam. Not that he hated her personally. He simply talked to all the students who were deemed hopeless and would only dilute the average results of the class. The girl refused. The teacher told the girl something that must have been very humiliating, and she drowned herself in the sea that afternoon. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

End of High School in China

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Eric Mu wrote in, “Three years of running this strenuous marathon. The inevitable climax was more of an anticlimax. The test didn’t turn out to be as I had imagined it — a grand battle. I had been seeing myself on stage, with a war bugle blowing and bullets whizzing by and here I was, a soldier crouching in his trench and ready for a bayonet charge, to take my fate by its throat. The reality was much duller though. A room packed with 40 students huddling in front of their small desks, under the scrutiny of a surveillance cam and two chatty supervisors. We were no warriors but prisoners. If we were fighting for anything, it was just for our own survival. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

During the few days prior to the exam, some interesting changes took place. My head teacher seemed to have a personality transplant. He appeared to be a different person. He was now such a nice guy that I barely recognized him. In our final class, he gave us his goodbye speech. He told us how pleasant it had been working with us for the past three years, that he had been proud of us and would never forget us. I had been thinking the exact opposite — that we were the worst class he had ever taught and that he had always hated us “particularly me, the sullen mean type who just won’t cooperate “and wanted to wipe us from from his memory as soon as we are gone.

He proceeded with his emotion-charged speech. “If I ever hurt any of you, it was not my intention. As a teacher , I always had my students’ best interests in mind.” Some girls were moved to cry. “One day as a teacher, a life as a father,” he quoted an ancient saying, which gave me a feeling of embarrassment for the hypocrisy. All theatrics aside, the message was clear to me: “I know I abused you but I don’t want to be hated. Now, as you are about to leave, there is no point for me to be harsh any more. What can be done can’t be undone, and it is all the past, so let’s move on and forget it and be friendly to each other.”

“I love you.” was the signal for the end of the speech, a rather clichéd wrap-up. “We love you too.” The students yelled back. Liars! But a ritual like this worked. Reconciliation was achieved. Damages were forgiven. Grudges healed. Even I, the most foolhardy, unrelenting hater, felt that it might not be fair to blame the guy for his offensive remarks about me. He was, after all, doing his job.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons: Nolls China website ; Columbia University;; University of Washington; Bucklin archives

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.

Last updated November 2012

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