The Sad Truth of China’s Education
Image Credit: Sam / Olai Ose / Skjaervoy

The Sad Truth of China’s Education


June 7 and 8 are the two days that China’s senior three students (twelfth graders) have lived the first 18 years of their lives for, and whatever anxiety, neurosis, and insanity that has simmered beneath the surface among students, parents, and teachers this past year will now reach its climax.

Everyone’s in agreement: the national college entrance examination (gaokao) robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood. So as gaokao students, with their thick textbooks and memory pills, sequester themselves in four-star hotels while their parents prowl the neighbourhood for construction noise and rambunctious restaurant patrons, now might be a good time to devise an alternative to the gaokao.

In his book A Theory of Justice, the political philosopher John Rawls conducted a thought experiment in which people, shrouded under a ‘veil of ignorance,’ were asked to devise a new social structure to live under. Unsure of their lot in this new society, people would be risk-averse, John Rawls assumed, and would agree to a society that ‘maximised the minimum,’ which is to say a society that aimed for equality, fairness, and social mobility.

So let us return to John Rawls’ ‘original position’ and ‘veil of ignorance,’ gather 1.3 billion Chinese into a nice conference room, and see if we can all work together to negotiate an alternative to the gaokao.

Because everyone in the room has Chinese cultural values and lives in the not too pleasant realities of modern China, there’ll be certain constraints that this new education system must consider. 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.

So, given all this, we can now begin constructing an alternative to the gaokao.

First, this alternative must be an objective indicator of a student’s academic performance. College admissions committees or admission interviews would be unacceptable because it would offer too much power to individuals and institutions that can’t be trusted. No one would agree to a college lottery whereby qualified students are just randomly assigned a college. And artificial intelligence technology hasn’t yet advanced to the point where computers can replace college admissions officers. Thus, the only alternative seems to be a series of tests.

Austin Hogan
January 9, 2013 at 12:15

 scarce education resources.* or scarce educational resources.*
To comment for me, is to be hypocritical. I just hope somebody I know does well on these tests for their own future and the sense of family honour imposed on this person causing great success or great failure.
The title says it all.

July 13, 2012 at 20:19

Social mobility is available in the United States.  I was raised by a single mother, who worked as a waitress for 30 years.  Due to her sacrifice and diligence, I was able to attend school, earn my Bachelor Degree while serving in the US Army, and since retirement have earned a Master Degree and am currently completing my Doctoral Degree.  Alternatives are always available where freedom reigns!

July 3, 2012 at 12:56

Just read this today after a year. It is a truly intriguing article, followed by truly informative comments. Having just finished interviews with two dozens of test stakeholders, what emerged from interview data actually confirmed what this paper concluded. There is no better alternative ways to replace this large-scale high-stakes test. Given the influences of financial (what to test), cultural (testing-oriented society), and societal (man-ruled) situations, this test will remain to be used to achieve fairness, justice, and mobility. It is not yet timing for Rawls’ justice.

July 25, 2011 at 05:35

Educational achievement in Shanghai is considered average. In China, the wealthy are not the high scorers. Lower middle-class are the best students. They’re hungry.

July 25, 2011 at 05:21

Not everyone agrees that gaokao “robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood.” Have you spent time with your typical college bound American students? They lack curiosity, creativity, AND fundamentals (necessary for creativity). In the US, most students are so obtuse that they actually think being creative is a social identity, that a “writer” or “artist” is creative (no matter how bad their work), while a mathematician isn’t.

Also, gaokao doesn’t just test knowledge. It tests critical thinking and problem solving skills. One has to be somewhat creative to do well on this test.

Gaokao doesn’t rob childhoods and stifle creativity. It ensures that many students don’t waste their childhood, as many do in the US. It provides the foundation for creativity, whereas US students can graduate from a respectable university without mastery of fundamentals essential to creative work.

Don’t tinker too much with the Chinese school system. And don’t romanticize US education system, as many of its best and brightest (disproportionally 1st or 2nd generation Asian or Jewish) were educated in schools and/or households that followed the Chinese method. The best high schools in the US push their students just as hard as the most competitive schools in China. If you want more creativity and innovation, end corruption and nepotism so that the best rise to the top, and create an environment that encourages risk-taking so people will dare to think differently.

Gaokao doesn’t rob children of their childhood. It prepares them for a future that’s even tougher, more competitive.

July 1, 2011 at 08:28

Big help, big help. And suerpaltive news of course.

Lao Qiao
June 23, 2011 at 14:56

As a foreign teacher working in China for the last three years, I can agree only slightly with the conclusions of this article. As in the SAT or ACT, one’s gaokao’s scores depend not only on a student’s preparation, but also his or her state of mind, physical health, and psychological health. Unlike the SAT or ACT, if a kid bombs the gaokao, he or she has to wait a whole freaking year to try again — another year of study study study and near constant stress. Many of my university students say their gaokao scores were just a few points away from qualifying for a key uni, but China’s rigid system of allocating students shut that door in their face. Paper-and-pencil exams only test one aspect of a student’s abilities, which is one reason why American universities look at other aspects of an applicant’s background.

Mr Jiang is clearly not thinking very far out of the box by imagining the only alternative to the gaokao is in fact the gaokao. He’s also not too aware of the situation on the ground in some parts of China; I know of at least one university in ZhuHai that has devised its own admissions test and will accept students even without a gaokao score. Meanwhile, a growing number of parents (albeit wealthy ones) are sending their children off to western schools, freeing them of the entire gaokao pressure cooker.

Yes, China has a huge population. A paper-and-pencil test may be the most efficient way of sorting high school students into “appropriate” universities, but it is not the only way, nor is it the fairest way. Every system can be abused by people with money and power, even the gaokao. To say that alternative systems would lead to widespread abuse is sheer folly.

As for Jiang’s remarks about American education, he has no idea what he is talking about. My family was never part of the upper middle class, yet I was able to attend Princeton University with a lot of financial aid. In fact, Princeton and a few other Ivies are now making it possible for middle class kids to avoid taking out education loans, as I had to.

June 21, 2011 at 06:26

This kind of argument is astonishing. “When china starts creating something that is useful and accepted by the world at large instead of copying/stealing other peoples ideas then maybe its education system has succeeded…” rhetorical non-sense that tries to exploit the outdated stereotype of China.

June 17, 2011 at 22:22

Are you saying a poor man can not go to top university and colleges in America? Is china education system better than USA? Hmmm I guess all these new innovations of the 21st century are started in china?

FYI, majority of American students who enroll in community colleges here end up transferring to a four year university/college. In america any citizen can have second chance at higher education. If someone drops out of high school and decides to go back to school say 10 years later, he/she can start by enrolling at a community college provided they get their GED. If they get decent grades, they can easily transfer to a public/private university/college.

There is a reason why American education system is flooded with people from all over the world and that includes over 100,000 of Chinese. For you to say a poor student in america has no chance of going to top tier college is just ignorant and stupid…ever heard of scholarship?

When china starts creating something that is useful and accepted by the world at large instead of copying/stealing other peoples ideas then maybe its education system has succeeded. But until then, china is a place where americas corporation outsource to create cheap products for americans to enjoy. We rather china reap the pollution and use up its resources so that americans can enjoy it’s quality of life.

June 11, 2011 at 03:25

Having looked over and attempted the question in the literature (语文) and combined arts (文综)*, I highly doubt just memorise the textbooks will get you though the exam. You may get first two section of grammar/mechanics, but will bomb in the last two section of analysis and essay. For example, one question give you a bunch of stats and history. and ask you to compare and contrast the historical / international background, economic of Chinese currency re-evaluation in the 1930′s, 1980′s and 2000′s. Personally, I think this question should be asked of students in High school, since I doubt even professors could come up with a good answer.

*I’m lucky enough to avoid these exams, but my cousin have to take it. But I do have to memorize TENET : THEOLOGIAN :: hypothesis : biologist type of stuff for the SAT and later GRE; which to this day, I don’t see why that exercise helps me in my college or career.

June 9, 2011 at 22:46

A few points on evidence that China(and not just Shanghai) produce the best students (and not just students with the best memory):

1. Historically poorer provinces like Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang have been the most competitive when you compare gaokao scores. Shanghai have lacked far behind for many, many years. In fact the Gaokao test taken by Shanghai students are watered-down compared to provinces named above.

2. Mark Schneider, a commissioner of the Department of Education’s research arm in the George W. Bush administration had this to say about the Shanghai (Chinese) students who came on tops of the 2010 international high school PISA standardized test “This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China, while that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

3. If you take a good look at any objective measure of the quality of Chinese high school students as compared to the world (International Mathematical Olympiad, International Olympiad in Informatics, International Chemistry Olympiad, International Physics Olympiad, ACM ICPC), what you’ll find is that not only does Chinese students do very well, they dominate these academic competitions.

June 9, 2011 at 08:53

It has nothing to do with your chances of a good education.

You can be a millionary selling drugs. You do not need education for that.

June 9, 2011 at 08:50

The only difference is poor guy in USA goes to community college. With that degree, you would be very lucky to get a good job.

If you are wealthy, you will go to private colleges. Your school mates will find you a job if you cannot find one your self.

In China, poor people with capabilities can go to top universities. They will become Chinese leaders or CEOs of Chinese companies.

Anne Henochowicz
June 9, 2011 at 02:41

Mr. Jiang is correct that a national exam is the only solution given that all other conditions remain the same. But in both China and the U.S., college admissions could be made more egalitarian by improving primary and secondary school education. If those rural children had updated textbooks, busses to school, and other resources available to them, they would have the chance to learn more. The same goes for the inner city child in America. With low-budget technology, like the XO-1 (a.k.a. $100 Laptop), students can access information without the benefit of location or background. The tyranny of the gaokao can only be ended if everyone gets a fair shake from the very start.

June 7, 2011 at 18:48

Strongly agree with @Andrew_M_Garland – critical thinking is not linked to social status/wealth. And, if the author intends to brainstorm, why not dare to think bigger? How about reform of the overall education system, better payment for rural teachers, encourgement of critical thinking starting in primary school…and also asking the question why all this is not wanted by the Chinese government.

June 7, 2011 at 17:21

Shouldn’t that then read ‘Shanghai has the best secondary education in the world’?

June 7, 2011 at 13:04

As an educator in South Korea, I have seen parallels in the system here and with what is described in the article about China. Korea also has a national university examination similar to what is described. In Korea it has become more than just a hinderance to a student’s ‘imagination, independence, and initiative’ as the author states, but rather a potential mental health crisis. There was an article in the New York Times (Elite South Korean University Rattled by Suicides, May 23, 2011) citing a plausible relationship between the national university entrance exam and the rate of suicides by Korean youth, which according to some OECD surveys is the sub-group with the highest rates of suicides and lowest rates of perceived happiness.

I would argue with Jiang Xueqin’s assertion that “the United States, where education is monopolised by the self-perpetuating and self-interested educated elite, and social mobility through education becomes a distant dream for everyone else.” This would be correct if it was absolutely essential to attend Harvard or Yale or the like to find success in the US. It doesn’t hurt, but it is not necessary. Mr. Jiang describes more closely the system of Korea, where it is the student’s prerogative to get accepted to Korea’s SKY universities–Seoul, Korea, and Yonsei Universities, Korea’s ‘Ivy League’–or basically nothing. For a Korean scoring high enough to gain admission to either of those schools, well, his or her future looks pretty bright. That is assuming that they can handle the pressure of even tighter competition for the next four years without deciding to jump off a bridge.

I’ve spoken with my high school students and university students about the pressures and anxieties they face to do well on the the entrance exam. No one that age should have to be subjected to that kind of stress in my opinion. When I asked, why doesn’t the Korean Education Ministry just offer the test multiple times a year, like the ACT, SAT,GRE, LSAT, etc. is offered in America (I took the ACT three times until I received the score I thought I deserved), I was greeted with the answer that it has just always been done that way, and that one test day has become a ritual holiday that would be sacrilegious to mess with. Apparently it was offered two times one year in the past during one instance when the system was being revamped, and according to one of my adult students he said it ended in catastrophe, so they never tried it again. I have yet to research the particulars of this claim.

The obvious answer in my opinion is to break the test up into multiple testing days, as well as make it less of a a factor when considering university admissions, as well as weighing more heavily high school GPA and extracurriculars. Give the kids a chance to go out and have some fun in sports, art, or drama instead of cramming all day. Of course culturally, I don’t see this happening.

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