The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shocked the world when it announced late last year that China took the top spot on its Programme for International Student Assessment. Though the PISA results have since come into question, with critics saying the wealthy city was not representative of China as a whole, the assessment still shows that at the very least, China is certainly not lagging behind in academic achievement.
Whether the sample is representative or not, one education expert told the Washington Post that even compared to elite, high-achieving American 15-year-olds, the Chinese still came ahead in maths, showing that at least in some aspects, China’s curriculum may be more advanced than those of its Western counterparts.
Despite the victory, China’s government is the first to acknowledge that the country’s education has ample room for improvement, both in curriculum and in teaching method. The ministry of education put in place a 10-year National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development in 2010 and frequently issues crackdown policies to eliminate extra homework, entrance exams for middle schools and other factors that encourage a cutthroat, exam-based learning environment.
In the 10-year National Plan, it says, “Through years of efforts, we have made school education available, but “quality education” is still a problem … It is not a simple question of an increase in quantity, but should rather entail a focus on quality.” The plan also mentions improving vocational education and taking a more well-founded approach to assessing students.
China’s biggest headache in the realm of education is the gaokao, the national entrance exam required for all hopeful university students. The gaokao is seen as the great equalizer between the poor and the wealthy, but it is also the root of China’s rote learning problem.
Betsy Brown Ruzzi, vice president at America’s National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), said the gaokao’s cram culture even seeps down to lower schools: “It really is the driver throughout the system, from high school down into primary schools,” she said. “The [education system] starts early in knowledge-based learning and not so much in what they learn and can do.”
That means that even though schools have the flexibility to design their curricula from ministry-approved materials, the focus tends to be on “core” subjects and exam preparation.
In Shanghai, which boasts some of China’s most advanced education initiatives, the curriculum revolves around eight topics, according to the NCEE, including language and literature, mathematics, natural science, social sciences, technology, arts, physical education and a practicum; in earlier times, art and physical education were considered extraneous. Additionally, in an effort to encourage critical thinking and student engagement, teachers are reminded that “to every question there should be more than a single answer.”
But these reforms can’t completely abolish decades of gaokao-centered learning. “That exam counts so much in a young person’s life for the direction they’re able to grow that it’s hard to argue with educators that they shouldn’t be doing that when the system that is holding students accountable measures that,” said Ruzzi.
Ni, a parent and former teacher, has seen both sides of the coin. Ni, who has a son in primary school, used to be an English teacher at a middle school in Beijing. Today, he sees the same tunnel vision-like focus on exams in his son’s school as he did at the school where he taught.
“I wish my son’s teachers would focus more on useful knowledge,” said Ni. He pointed out in particular that he wanted his son to take more computer and physical education classes. But Ni himself intimately understands the logic behind this. He said when he taught his students English, the oral component of the class was virtually non-existent because they had to prepare for written exams.
“I had hoped to teach them to speak English as much as possible, but because of the pressure of examinations, I had to tell them to write as much as they could instead,” he said. “I don’t think students in middle schools are learning what was most important, because their goal and the teachers’ goal is to get good marks in examinations. The teachers usually teach students how to deal with examinations.”
This focus on test-taking strategy in may help students get into university, but it does not help them in the workplace. According to Betsy Brown Ruzzi: “We visited companies in four different parts of China and the employers all said – whatever industry they were in – that the young people they get from Chinese secondary schools know a lot of things but have a very difficult time applying what they know to a real world situation.” She pointed out that Chinese students from engineering programmes are very advanced in maths and science from an academic standpoint, but fall far behind American engineering graduates in empirical knowledge.
Tang Qinghua, who has a son in primary school in Beijing, said of her son’s curriculum, “I don’t like his maths textbook as it is too difficult and theoretical. They should learn maths through fun activities the way American kids do.” She also said she wished her son would learn science through hands-on lab reports instead of from a book.
One Beijing mother of a high school student, surnamed Lin, told China Outlook she is envious of the Western education system. “It’s more useful and helpful for broadening children’s horizons and developing their imagination and creativity,” she said. Lin, too, fingered the gaokao as the culprit for an ultra-competitive learning environment.
The parents do agree that textbooks are less dry than they used to be and schools have been expanding topics and extracurricular activities, though they bemoan the time their children spend learning about the Party. Ni, who is a Party member, said he is displeased that his son spends school time reading fables about Lenin and learning Party songs. Again, he pointed to the West as having fewer politics-related classes for young students.
Ruzzi said that even at the most prestigious schools she visited in China, she found students who hoped to study overseas. “There are fantastic, world-class universities now in China but I do think that schools in the US and other Western countries are definitely seen as something to shoot for because of the prestige, even at the top [Chinese high] schools,” she said. “A lot of the time, people want to send their kids abroad, definitely.”