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Changing the dreaded gaokao system

July 13, 2013 by Andrea Park

Every summer, over nine million students in China receive numbers they have been waiting for all of their lives: their gaokao scores.

All Chinese students hoping to attend university must take the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, also known as the gaokao. Nearly all Chinese universities evaluate prospective students solely on the basis of their gaokao scores, and the competition is stiff – each year, newspaper headlines announce suicides of students who buckle under the mounting pressure.

Established in 1952, the gaokao is supposed to be China’s great equalizer. The annual, two-day exam has Confucian roots in imperial China’s civil service exams, which awarded positions based solely on merit. Today, in order to gain admission to the country’s most prestigious universities, a privileged princeling from a smart Shanghai neighbourhood must take the same exam as a student from the sparsely populated deserts of Gansu province.

It is China’s single most important exam, but as the country’s demand for high-skilled workers grows, it has become evident that only teaching students how to take the gaokao is not enough. No one is more aware of this than the Chinese government, whose ministry of education put in place a 10-year National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development in 2010.

The gaokao paradox

The fact that universities only look at gaokao scores when admitting students (with a few exceptions) means that lower education in China is geared toward preparing for the gaokao. Problem sets and memorization exercises in elementary school begin a pattern of rote learning and intensive studying that will eventually come in handy for the ultimate exam.

Dong De, who graduated last year from Renmin University, a prestigious university in Beijing, said his childhood education had a narrow focus. “The biggest problem is that when we were growing up, the main focus was on exams and the gaokao, and that causes serious damage to creativity and social skills,” he said. “We were like products on an assembly line.” Tang Qinghua, a magazine editor in Beijing, hopes her eight-year-old son can eventually study abroad because she is not satisfied with his education in China. “There are over 40 students in a class,” she said. “You can only ask or answer questions after you get permission from your teacher, so you rarely get the chance to speak up in class.”

Employers in China bemoan that this restrictive form of education has produced university graduates who are not ready for the workplace. A 2013 McKinsey report found that a major complaint of employers is graduates’ lack of soft skills. One employer quoted in the report said, “Smiling and shaking hands: I have to teach this to people in their 20s and 30s.” A McKinsey report stated that though China graduated 600,000 engineers in 2005, only an estimated one in 10 were ready to work at foreign multinational companies.

The myth that a high score on the gaokao ultimately leads to a secure and desirable job crumbles in the face of recruitment surveys: international workspace provider Regus found in a 2012 survey that only nine percent of Chinese companies consider educational background a top priority. In contrast, 21 percent of companies rate personality as their top criterion when hiring employees.

Perhaps even more harrowing is a 2010 China Daily article featuring a survey that tracked over 1,000 gaokao top scorers and found that none stood out in the field of academics, business or politics.

A changing economy

China’s economy is on a one-way fast track from low-cost manufacturing to a consumption-led economy. This is natural for an increasingly prosperous country, but the world’s largest workforce falls short when it comes to filling high-skilled positions. Wang Dinghua, deputy director general for the basic education department in the ministry of education, highlighted the problem during a 2010 conference: ”We need to shift from a nation with large human resources to a nation with strong human resources.” As low-cost manufacturers move out of China and the low-skilled migrant workforce shrinks, the demand for service-oriented, high-skilled labour has rapidly increased and only stands to grow more.

New McKinsey research posits that by 2020, Chinese employers will need 142 million more high-skilled workers, or an estimated 24 million more high-skilled workers than China can supply. McKinsey estimates that if China does not close the labour gap, it stands to lose $250 billion in opportunity cost.

One of the strongest solutions for closing the labour gap is to start from the beginning, and reform China’s education system to teach students soft skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork. This requires a shift away from gaokao madness and the rote teaching techniques to which Chinese students are accustomed.

China’s educators, government officials and parents all agree that the system needs to change. In a 2010 report for the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), an experienced educator in Shanghai said while Chinese students have become adept at test-taking, they do not learn how to think independently. “There is an opportunity cost in terms of time and space,” said the interviewee. “Students grow within narrow margins.”

Eradicating the gaokao completely is unthinkable. In a country where bribery and corruption are rampant, university admissions cannot rely too heavily on subjective criteria, such as personal interviews, that lend themselves to shady dealings and back-door entrances.

In a 2011 essay for The Diplomat magazine, Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at the prestigious Peking University High School, said, “Given the complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions, given the stifling poverty that most Chinese find themselves in, and given China’s endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China’s scarce education resources.”

Education reform

However impossible it may be to take the gaokao out of China’s education equation, the government is making concerted and solid efforts to shift emphasis away from exams. In June, the Chinese ministry of education sent a document to all provincial education authorities outlining a new framework under which it will evaluate schools.

Yong Zhao, presidential chair and associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon’s college of education, posted translated passages on his blog. In one key part of the document, the ministry recognizes China’s misguided emphasis on rote learning:

“The tendency to evaluate education quality based simply on student test scores and school admissions rate has not been fundamentally changed. These problems severely hamper student development as a whole person, stunt their healthy growth and limit opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit and practical abilities in students.”In a concrete step toward reforming education, the ministry has moved away from evaluating schools based on university admission rates and test scores, adding a host of “softer” criteria, such as moral development and development of interest and unique talents – additionally, schools will be penalized based on academic burden indicated by class and homework time.

Earlier this year, Wang Dinghua stated during a Milken Institute conference that the ministry is focusing on improving the quality and quantity of teachers by offering financial assistance during higher education and increasing teacher salaries and benefits, particularly in rural areas. The idea is that a dynamic, young teaching force can inject China’s education system with new energy.

Though it seems unlikely that China’s education system will have a massive overhaul by 2020, the ministry of education has shown through its revised evaluation guidelines that it is taking real action in easing focus on the gaokao, if not emphasizing creativity and critical thinking. It is a far cry from eliminating the gaokao, but a major step in broadening the tunnel vision on test-taking and making room for other forms of learning. Teaching China’s next generation of employees soft skills is not just a good idea – it is an imperative.

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