China Power

Beijing’s Study Abroad Market

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China Power

Beijing’s Study Abroad Market

Beijing parents expect SAT cramming when selecting a high school. But what about the kids?

This February, Principal Wang Zheng left Shenzhen High School and returned to his alma mater, Peking University High School, to become its principal on its 50th anniversary.

After I left Shenzhen in July, Principal Wang asked me to build a new study abroad programme, which we’re calling the International Division. That means recruiting staff and students, building the curriculum, and overseeing the construction of the new building. And, because this is China, and Principal Wang is Principal Wang, he wants it all set up by September 1.

The two partners behind the International Division are Peking University High School and the Hotchkiss School. Peking University High School is China’s most famous high school, while the Hotchkiss School’s alumni include Henry Luce, and two US ambassadors to China, Winston Lord and Clark Randt. Its president of the board of trustees is former Goldman Sachs President John Thornton, who’s also a Tsinghua University finance professor.

So the project sounds like a winner. But there are many obstacles to overcome before next month rolls around…

When I was a journalist I lived in Beijing, and I know from experience that the corruption and complacency here are just as stifling and oppressive as the pollution and traffic. Reform and experimentation are far more possible in Shenzhen than in Beijing.

I also find Beijing parents too often to be ignorant of and indifferent to how to best prepare their children for success overseas. When they call our hotline they don’t ask what makes our programme special, tell us why their child is suitable for our programme and often don’t even know why they’re sending their child abroad. They ask three simple questions: Do you have SAT cram courses? Do you have an Advanced Placement curriculum? Do you offer an American high school diploma (some American high schools sell Chinese high schools the right to issue their diploma)?

These questions tell us how short-sighted and single-minded parents are: All that matters is that their child gets into an American university, and they ignore their child’s welfare, happiness, and development as a human being. They often don’t even ask their child if he wants to go study abroad, and most times the parents will send their child abroad because he can’t test into a Chinese university. (That’s ironic because a Western university is more rigorous.)

We tell parents our focus is on teaching students to write logically and read critically, the two most important skills necessary to succeed in US colleges.

Unfortunately, this message generally falls on deaf ears. The dominant mentality in Beijing is that the SAT and Advanced Placement system of tests is America’s version of China’s national examination, and that a school’s job is not to educate but to place students into top 50 US universities anyway possible.

Beijing Evening Weekly wrote of our programme: ‘No SAT preparation, no AP curriculum, no foreign diploma—will any students come?’  

It’s an attitude promoted and reinforced by Beijing’s for-profit education providers. The market leader is the New Oriental School, which provides TOEFL, SAT, AP, and college counseling. Shenzhen High School prohibited students from seeking private agencies for college counseling, but in Beijing it seems every student goes to a private agency, many of whom will unscrupulously write the college application for students.

For a new education philosophy to work in Beijing it’s not just about building a great programme, but changing a stubborn and single-minded and inward-looking culture.

So this summer I’ll be in Beijing, building yet another programme from scratch, embarking on yet another wild ride in the Chinese education system.

I’ll let you know if I survive the summer.