China Power

The Games Adults Play

Is buying a BMW like purchasing a good education? Some Chinese parents seem to think so.

One-third into the spring semester, and here at Peking University High School International Division we’ve held another teacher-parent conference. Last time around it was quite the disturbing drama. But at the latest conference, all the parents said their child had improved greatly: they now spent weekends reading English books rather than online. But there was just one problem: the students’ grades were too low, averaging around 60 percent.  

One father, a lawyer, told me he supported maintaining these high standards, but wondered how such low grades would get his son into an American university. Another complained that despite his son’s English being better than his former classmates’, his grades were still lower.

The hard thing for people to see sometimes is that these high standards are keeping students taking notes in class, while the high-grade-but-lower-standards classes frequently see kids playing video games during lesson time.

Two days after the latest conference, I attended an international education ‘salon’ hosted by a Beijing newspaper. For three hours, a dozen Chinese private school principals waxed eloquently on pedagogy and education goals, and complained how gongli or ‘utilitarian’ parents were: parents just wanted the school to get their child into a top 100 American university, and didn’t care at all about their child’s development as a person. They talked a good game, but unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, their schools were no better than test-taking centres designed to send lazy kids to the States.

When I started in study abroad education three years ago, I naively hoped that US colleges and universities would help save the Chinese from themselves, but I soon saw that some American colleges and universities played a hypocritical game of their own. Rather than focus on education, more than a few US colleges and universities simply obsess over their US News & World Report ranking, which has tremendous financial implications. To break into the top 100 would mean applications from China instead of none at all, and to break into the top 50 would mean thousands of applications instead of hundreds.

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The obsession with US News & World Report rankings translates into an obsession with numbers and statistics. Never before has there been such widespread contempt of the SAT, but never before has it mattered so much. Not only are many American colleges and universities pouring resources into increasing their application rates (‘selectivity’), they’re also using early admissions and partnering with favoured high schools to win over students (‘yield’). This obsession with statistics and rankings has led to an epidemic of grade inflation in American education so that an ‘A’ really is for effort. The upshot is that young American graduates expect to be the next Mark Zuckerberg if they work hard, and to be well-paid and well-treated if they choose to work at all.   

I once thought that US college admissions promised an alternative to China’s national examination system, but now I wonder if American college admissions is just another numbers game that can be cheated. Chinese schools that fake transcripts, send their students to language schools for SAT and TOEFL classes, and subcontract to ‘consultants’ to write a student’s resume and application essays are merely playing a hypocritical game that US private and competitive public high schools have perfected with their grade inflation, Advanced Placement curriculum, and guidance office. 

And as I’ve said before, many Chinese parents don’t seem to care that schools here are more interested in getting students into a US university than giving them a rounded education. Many rich Chinese spend much of their wealth on luxury apartments, luxury cars, and study abroad for their child, and I’ve discovered to my chagrin that in sending their child to Peking High International they think they’ve bought a BMW, with early April 2013 as a delivery date.

All this means that in the hypocritical game that many US universities, Chinese parents, and schools play, the real and only losers are students. In a meeting with students after the parent-teacher conference, I asked our students if they felt happy and free here, if they were learning as students and developing as individuals. Despite the low grades, every student answered in the affirmative.

Up to now, the students have been sheltered and protected, and in having no control of their life they never developed the desire to improve it. Now they can be free to succeed or to fail on their own, and that’s both empowering and terrifying.

And this is perhaps what really unnerves parents: that the most expensive luxury item they’ve invested in could one day be free to be happy without them.