When I began working in Chinese education two years ago, I came across an unfamiliar term: shengyuan. It translates as ‘student pool,’ and all Chinese school administrators are obsessed with it.
School administrators in China are less like educators and more like politicians who aim to rise in the education hierarchy. That ultimately means producing good statistics (percentage of students admitted into key universities is the most important statistic), which in turn means recruiting good students.
There are different strategies for attracting shengyuan. In Shenzhen, the most common practice is to devote a lot of resources to building a strong junior high school. Good students come in for the good education, and over three years school administrators can lobby students to sign contracts, pledging to enroll in the high school.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
My Special Curriculum students had terrifying stories of the consequences of trying to break out of their junior high school’s grasp. First, all the top administrators will take the student out of class, and spend long hours persuading him to sign. If the student refuses then he is ostracized, and not permitted to go to class. (Principal Wang Zheng eliminated this practice at Shenzhen High School’s junior high division.)
In Beijing, school administrators use more carrots than sticks. Every top school will have an ‘experimental’ class which will have access to the best teachers. Principals will lobby hard the parents of top test-scorers, making promises of individual attention and special treatment.
Very few Chinese administrators appear actually to believe that education is about improving lives. In fact, the pedagogical approach in China is blunt, harsh, and effective: recruit top test-scorers, oppress them with too much homework and test cramming, and they’ll do well on the national examination. And after three years of relentless cramming, their brains will be so fried, their individuality and imagination so shattered, that they’ll think they actually received a pretty darn good education.
The competition for top test-scorers has become so intense in China that top high schools start scouting and recruiting from elementary school. All high schools are looking for maths prodigies (in China, you’re a good student if you’re good at mathematics) so their teachers will teach maths weekend classes to gifted sixth-graders, run summer workshops, and slowly and deliberately befriend and lobby the parents.
This is, of course, no different from how America’s most successful high school coaches recruit the nation’s top teenage athletes.
Few American high school athletes will go onto the pros, and there’s no professional league of test-takers where Chinese test-taking stars can go after their one and only skill becomes redundant. The American high school athlete may win a state championship and a Chinese student may win a test-taking gold medal (yes, those things actually do exist in China), but their unhealthy obsession with winning translates into a narrow-mindedness and one-sidedness that will hurt more than help them in life. (I discussed the consequences of a results-oriented education system here).
Chinese students know they’re being used, and they know that education is just a game, and the very ‘best’ among them are determined to become players instead of being played. This partly accounts for why China’s very ‘best’ become so selfish and arrogant, something I criticized in my last article. Whatever innocence, idealism, and imagination Chinese student may have had is stamped out of them by the end of their junior high school years.
In China, it’s common for individuals to rise to the top by stepping on top of others. But for educators to rise to the top by stepping on children is perverse even by Chinese standards.