A middle school student sits behind a pile of books and notes in Anxian

by Xu Zhao & Robert L Selman

Combatting the effects of academic stress in Chinese schools

Twice in recent years – in 2010 and 2013 – Shanghai students have topped the rankings for reading, math, and science in the OECD’s triennial and international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), aimed at testing the educational skills of 15-year-olds. In response, commentators debated the meaning of these PISA differences and searched frantically for factors that could explain the apparent success of Chinese (really Shanghai) primary and secondary education.

Yet one simple fact was largely ignored by the PISA rankings, namely, the Chinese education system is notorious for producing graduates in urban areas with high standardized-test scores, but low ability and poor health.

Chinese education is a centralized system. At high school, it is oriented toward the competitive, high-stakes, national college entrance exam – the “gaokao.” To succeed in the gaokao, Chinese students spend most of their waking hours throughout their middle- and high-school years preparing for these tests. Chinese parents devote tremendous amounts of money and energy on selecting regular schools, cram schools, and tutors to put their children in the best position to succeed in the gaokao.

The outcome is predictable: Chinese media are replete with reports of the harmful impact of academic stress on adolescents’ physical and psychological health. Parents are described as slaving for their children’s education and children as enslaved by parents and teachers to take extra classes and do homework. Journalists in China plead with policy makers to save children from the tyranny of academic competition. Educators criticize the test-oriented education system as over-emphasizing rote-learning, smothering creativity, and favouring urban students.

Research confirms the debilitating effects of academic stress on Chinese students. In a study conducted by Therese Hesketh, a professor at the UK-based UCL Institute of Global Health, a total of 2,191 Chinese children of 9-12 years old from urban and rural areas were surveyed about their experience of academic stress. The researchers found that 81% of the children worried “a lot” about exams, 63% were afraid of punishment by teachers, and 73% were physically punished for lax academic effort by their parents. Over one-third of the children reported having psychosomatic symptoms at least once a week.

In a 2005 study by the Beijing-based China Youth and Children Research Center, researchers investigated 2,400 students of different ages in six cities and provinces. They found that 76.2% reported being in a bad mood due to academic pressure and high parental expectations, and 9.1% reported feelings of despair. Many large-scale studies conducted by a group of researchers at the Peking University have reported higher risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts among older Chinese adolescents due to increased academic pressure.

The impact of academic stress is not limited to individual psychological health, but extends to social relationships with peers and to attitudes toward authorities and society at large. Xu Zhao’s study in Shanghai showed that as a result of the pressure of academic competition, feelings of jealousy, distrust, and animosity were common in peer relationships.  Close friends were often seen as “enemies” and “rivals” in academic competition. For example, an 11th-grade girl recalled an experience she described as common among younger adolescents in middle school: “I had a friend whose ranking position was similar to mine. At school our desks were close. When I wrote my homework, she would secretly watch what I was doing. I would give her an angry stare.”

Another 11th-grade girl in the study stated:“I don’t think I trust anybody completely and nobody trusts me completely. Trusting another person is very difficult. I trust others in small things. But to be honest, when it is related to self-interest, I will hesitate and won’t be too trusting… Academic competition is the most important issue. When you know some important mathematic problems, you wonder if you should share them with your friends, and to what extent you help them.”

How has this come about? In a recent article published by the Education Week, we argued that the gaokao takes  too much of the blame for a series of top-down educational and social reforms that were implemented by the Chinese government in the 1980s and 1990s. From the mid-1980s, the Chinese government initiated massive educational reforms to make secondary schools more efficient and more responsive to economic development. While the central government maintained control over the purposes of education, system reforms, textbooks, and teaching guidelines,  policies were implemented to shift the responsibility of funding and managing schools to lower levels of government and to open schools to market forces. Introducing “competition mechanisms” into secondary education and promoting teachers’ and students’ “competition consciousness” became the norm.

In the same article, we pointed out that two key policies marked this process of decentralization and marketization: in 1985 the Party’s Central Committee issued “The Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Reform of the Educational Structure”, which sought to link education to economic reform, reduced rigid government control over schools, and allowed private organizations and individuals to establish and run schools. Then in 1993 the Ministry of Education issued “The Programme for Education Reform and Development in China” to quicken the pace of educational restructuring and attract private funding to support educational development. In the years that followed, “industrialization of education” (jiao yu chan ye hua) took place, forcing schools to offer after-school classes and charge parents high fees.

This financial quasi-decentralization of education led to systematic inequality and stratification. To compete for resources, Chinese schools had to outperform other schools on average student test scores by keeping students in classes for longer, giving them lots of homework, and organising countless mock exams. Schools rank students by their test scores and teachers by their students’ scores. Administrative districts in the same city are ranked and compared based on test scores.

After the yearly results of the gaokao are released, cities and provinces are ranked and compared based on students’ average scores. Test scores, in turn, are used to evaluate the job performances of teachers, school principals, education administrators, and local government officials. The pressure to outperform competitors exists at each level of the education system and is passed on to the lower levels and ultimately to individual students.

Top-Down Reforms to Reduce Stress

Faced with mounting criticism of these educational reforms, at the turn of the 21st century central government issued new policies aimed at narrowing gaps among schools and reducing test-based competition. In 2000 the Ministry of Education issued the “Urgent Regulations for Alleviating the Academic Burden of Primary School Students.” The document set strict limits to the number of required textbooks, the amount of homework, and the time students spent in school.

Later, similar regulations were extended to  secondary education. The Ministry of Education called for parents to help supervise their enforcement. Alas, after six years, the regulations proved to be ineffective. Not only did schools find ways to get around the rules, parents also sent their children to tutorial schools or hired tutors to come to their homes.

In 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that the most important goal for future education reforms was to reduce the academic burden on students, foster the development of intellect and abilities, and teach Chinese youth how to use their minds and hands and how to be a good person. An “Outline for National Mid-Term and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development Planning (2010-2020)” was released in 2011. It still sets the goal of education as increasing China’s competitiveness in the world. However, “competition mechanism” and “competition consciousness” are no longer mentioned in the sections on secondary education. Instead, it extols the virtues of a well-rounded education and education for the purpose of enhancing abilities. Moreover, it emphasizes that education should be individual-based, aiming to meet the developmental need of each student.

Flying in the face of practice in other parts of the world, the new policies prohibit ranking schools based on student test scores. For primary and lower-secondary education, the policies try to reduce the pressure on students and parents to compete for the limited seats in the high-achieving schools by narrowing the resource gaps among schools and prohibiting schools from selecting students based on test scores. The policies also call on schools to reduce class hours, decrease the amount of homework, and increase the time students spend on extracurricular activities. Teachers are no longer allowed to make students’ ranking positions publicly available, and parents are asked to work with schools in reducing academic pressure. Yet, even in the face of such strong central government pressure, schools have found ways to get around the policies and parents continue to send their children to tutorial classes.

Parental Anxiety and the Diploma Disease

Paradoxically, it is parental resistance that is the greatest barrier to implementing the new regulations. In part this is due to Chinese tradition which emphasizes academic learning; both parents in China and Chinese parents in the United States endorse the idea of extensive parental involvement in promoting children’s school success.

However, what makes parents a powerful force in addressing the problem of academic stress is their anxiety over their children’s gaining an edge in academic and future job competition. Chinese parents’ anxiety results from many social and economic factors, including unequal distributions of human and material resources in secondary and higher education, fierce competition for white-collar jobs among college graduates, the lack of a functioning social security system, huge income gaps linked to educational credentials and their perception that the high-stakes gaokao will decide their children’s fate.

Furthermore, China, rather than avoiding the trap of the “diploma disease,” as Ronald Dore had hoped, has not only caught the disease, but its extreme manifestations in both social institutions and cultural values have turned it into a serious social illness. In a society in which the “quality” (suzhi) and value of individuals are often judged, in both the job market and daily social interactions, by what degrees they have obtained and from which universities, how can parents stint when it comes to making sure their children outperform others?

Finally, China’s one-child policy has been strictly enforced in cities since 1979. Urban youth are often the only child in the family to look after their elderly parents. Without the safety net of a social security system, these students’ academic and future career success is their parents’ only hope.

The “New Curriculum” and the New Burden on Teachers

As part of the efforts to reduce academic stress, in 2001 the Chinese government initiated a comprehensive curriculum reform to change the old knowledge-based and test-oriented curriculum. The reform turned out to be the most controversial since 1978. Designed by university-based scholars influenced by the American tradition of curriculum studies, the new curriculum emphasizes all-around development and promotes experience-based learning instead of factual knowledge and skills.

However, after its wide implementation, the new curriculum  quickly “took a nosedive”, triggering bitter debates about its theoretical soundness. Opponents criticized it for equating learning with accumulating direct experiences and for ignoring systemic knowledge. It was  found to be irrelevant to the realities of rural schools, increasing the workloads of teachers and students, and putting the latter at a further disadvantage in preparation for the gaokao.

Likewise in urban schools. Our observation of schools in Shanghai suggested that, under pressure to promote the new curriculum, schools often required teachers to teach in new and “creative” ways so that they could foster students’ independent thinking at the same time as they prepared them for test-taking. As a result, teachers felt confused, inadequate, and more stressed.

What might explain the theoretical and institutional resistance to the new curriculum? Some researchers  argue that, without reforming the test-based assessment system, the new curriculum is old wine in new bottles and only confuses already stressed teachers and students. Others  point to tension between a universally designed curriculum and its local implementations, suggesting the need for better ways of motivating teachers and improving their quality. Deng Zhongyi from the Nanjing Technological University  pointed out that controversies around the new curriculum reflect a “paradigmatic war” between the pedagogic tradition of the former Soviet Union that has shaped Chinese education in theory, classroom practice, and institutional power structure since the 1950s and the American tradition of curriculum studies that has guided the design of the new curriculum.

The Next Wave of Educational Reform in China

Scholars such as Yong Zhao argue that, regardless of top-down policy directives, as long as the gaokao is used as the single criterion for college admission, the Chinese education system will continue to define academic success based on test scores. However, as China wrestles with an educational system highly vulnerable to institutional corruption, it is important to remember that the gaokao is considered by most people as the lesser evil – a relatively objective and fair selective system. In fact, for students in poor rural areas, the gaokao is almost their only opportunity to obtain college education, gain city residency, find a white-collar job, and realize upward social mobility.

The Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China at the end of last year released a new wave of reform. These new reforms aim to address the issue of academic stress by reducing inequality in the distribution of educational resources and eliminating inter-school competition. Officials will no longer be allowed to classify schools into “keypoint (elite) and non-keypoint”, based on student test scores. Public schools building will be standardized and administrators and teachers will move around schools. Some subjects will be removed from the list assessed by the gaokao in order to gradually build a multi-dimensional evaluation system that combines the gaokao and students’ high-school grades. What then might these policies look like when translated into educational practices?

Bottom-Up Approaches to Reducing Stress

As the gaokao is likely to remain – at least for some time – the only criterion for college admission, what can be done to bring changes that reduce academic stress? Two alternative approaches are evident in China today. First is what we call the “sub-system” approach, building private (independent) schools and universities that allow for different models of education. Teaching in these schools is not singularly oriented toward preparing for the gaokao, but aims to provide the knowledge and skills that educators consider important for their students’ life. However, often run by commercial businesses that span non-educational sectors, these private schools charge relatively high fees, with few scholarships available for students from less well-off backgrounds.

Furthermore, there may be problems for students graduating from such schools to access quality higher education. Attending public universities does not seem to be a realistic option for students unprepared to take standardized tests such as the gaokao. Currently, even the few Chinese universities that are given the autonomy to select candidates with “special talents’ (as a substitute for high test scores), still rely on test scores as the most important selection criterion. Yet no commercial education business can afford to build a credible research university in China today. Even if they could, these universities would have difficulty in recruiting the most talented students. As a consequence, graduates from private schools probably have no choice but to continue their education in overseas colleges, as graduates from Chinese international schools currently do.

We call an alternative social strategy the “cultural” approach.  In the late 1990s, a small number of headmasters and teachers began to build internet networks to instigate discussions on how to change the culture of education. One such network is the “New Education” (xin jiao yu) group led by Zhou Yongxin, a former professor of the Suzhou University and former vice mayor of the city of Suzhou. Another is the “Education for Life” (sheng ming hua jiao yu) group led by Zhang Wenzhi, a journalist and self-taught educationalist.

Zhang argues that having been used to serve the purposes of nation-building and economic modernization, education should now return to the goal of helping students deal with the basic human concerns: learning, growth, love and respect. His group focuses on engaging teachers in reading and writing activities to broaden their views and promote their personal and professional development. Through changing the beliefs and practices of headmasters and teachers, the programmes aim to build a humanistic school culture that fosters students’ all-around development, even within the context of a test-oriented system.

In our view, this “cultural” approach has real potential to alleviate the problem of academic stress. We predict that once the culture moves in this direction, the conditions for system change will be realized. However, having a broad agenda of cultural reconstruction, the two cultural programmes still fall short at the systems level because they largely rely on individual headmasters and teachers to decide how to translate new concepts and ideas into day-to-day practice.

Our observation and interviews in one of the schools participating in the “Education for Life” programme suggests that there are no clearly defined goals and strategies to combat stress, nor are the humanistic values programmes well-integrated with vigorous academic learning. The students in the school are respectful to teachers and obedient to authority but not informed of and reflective about broader social issues.

The Prevention of High Stress and the Promotion of Integrative Skills: Potentials of an Independent Intervention Programme

Our research leads us to propose a direct, focused, research-based, and culturally appropriate approach for addressing the challenge of academic stress. Currently, there is no good educational programme tailored to the psychological, social and cultural needs of Chinese students. One evidence-based approach, now more accepted in the United States, involves developing school-based academic programmes to promote comprehension through reading and writing in subject matter areas such as science and social studies, with an increased emphasis on promoting discussion and debate skills, as applied to the academic subject matter areas, e.g., math, science, and social studies/history.

The academic skills associated with this approach have many names – 21st-century skills, critical thinking, deep-comprehension, learning for understanding. The social skills may be called perspective-taking, self- and social reflection, conflict resolution, and civic participation. Whatever they are called, the promotion of such skills involves the active discussion and debate of facts and ideas, both among students and with teachers.

This deep-comprehension approach is not only an “American” or “Western” approach. It is also the core of the neo-Confucian tradition of pre-modern East Asian countries. According to Theodore de Bary, the prominent scholar of East Asian Studies, neo-Confucian philosophy of education “was one of intellectual and moral learning for the whole man or person, almost from the cradle (the elementary learning, xiao xue) to the maturity of the Great Man (da xue) as the truly Noble Person (jun zi).

To achieve this goal, Confucian scholars put special emphasis on classical texts and a reading programme was widely followed in pre-modern East Asia. Learning involved two steps: first, reading the original texts for their direct meaning to one’s self, and second, discussing with others. Neo-Confucian scholars tried to strike three balances: between preserving the record of the past and meeting the need of the present; between learning for self and learning for society; and between a central focus on key issues and a broader exposure to literacy, history, philosophy, and current affairs.

This emphasis on “learning by discussion” or “discursive learning,” as pointed out by de Bary, is the joining point between the new liberal education in America and the classical education of pre-modern East Asia. To de Bary, this joining point opens the possibility for a global core curriculum that draws on traditional resources both East and West.

The intervention programme we propose here aims to integrate time-tested traditional wisdoms and empirically tested contemporary methods. It differs in two fundamental ways from the reforms adopted by contemporary Chinese educators and those modern American educational theories. First, core to the curriculum is the promotion of a climate in the classroom that fosters the development of engaged civic and social skills. Such programmes explicitly target stress by balancing academic achievement with the prevention of threats to  physical and mental health. This kind of holistic approach builds on the familiarity students will have with those expressive, discursive, interpretive, and communication skills they apply in their studies, for example in social studies, language arts, and history (and even math and science).

Second, and most importantly, due to the historical complexities of contemporary Chinese society, such a stress prevention programme must have Chinese characteristics and cannot be developed externally. It has to be done through building an international and interdisciplinary community of scholarship and research within China to gain a good understanding of the organizational context of the Chinese education system, the social and cultural changes in recent history, and the real-life struggles that are particular to China. It will take into consideration the huge differences in the social and other circumstances under which urban and rural students, families, and school function.


China’s leaders today have been forced to address the consequences that an over-emphasis on gaining wealth and power has left on the psycho-social development of Chinese youth  and on the cultural values built on the Confucian values of kindness, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and trustworthiness. In our view more than structural rearrangements will be needed by China to achieve its goal of providing universal “quality education.”

Educational research needs to accumulate evidence and gain insights into ways to stem the negative effects of long-standing educational policies. Attention also must be given to the developmental assets and the protective factors native in the cultural tradition and social environment of China. Such research-based knowledge and understanding are crucial for the development of culturally appropriate programmes for youth to reduce the risk factors in their social environment, prevent commonly occurring psycho-social problems, promote positive development and build skills for global citizenship.

In the context of extreme pressures of global economic competition, education both in the East and West faces the same challenge of sustaining the kind of humanistic learning that is critical for promoting public reasoning or discourse; a deep comprehension programme that addresses issues of central concern to human and societal development should be part of any contemporary education. Nevertheless, as In the United States, we have argued here that it makes no sense for China to try to introduce education reforms without understanding the place where education policy stands on the road to the ever-continuing reform of society: what social, economic, cultural, and developmental factors prevent students, teachers, and parents from achieving their goals and what promotes them to being what educational reformers want them to be.

Xu Zhao received her Ed. D. in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011. She studies education policy in China and the United States. She also conducts empirical research to explore how Chinese and American youth are similar and different in their understanding of self, others and society. She is currently completing a book about the impact of academic competition on Chinese adolescents’ psychosocial development.     

 Robert L. Selman is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Human Development and Education and Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Harvard University.  In 1992, he founded the Prevention Science and Practice Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Currently, Selman studies the developmental and cultural antecedents of the capacity to form and maintain positive social relationships, as well as ways to prevent negative educational, social, and health outcomes in youth. He is the author of The Promotion of Social Awareness (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).


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