While Shanghai’s brilliant performance on international tests has given some outsiders the impression that China’s education system is one to emulate, the truth is much more complicated. (The students are virtually cherry-picked, for one.) Within China, dissatisfaction with the education system is widespread, from stressed-out students to policymakers worried about China’s economic future. This is a country that is undergoing one of the greatest social transformations of any society in human history, and China’s education system, which is heavily influenced from top to bottom by the centrality of a few high-stakes tests, will need to adapt to these epic changes.
With incomes, inequality, and people’s expectations all on the rise, here are three trends to watch as China’s education system evolves.
China’s K-12 education system is anchored by the gaokao, the country’s high stakes college entrance exam. Students spend countless hours mastering the exam’s subject matter, and the pressure is so intense that some local governments now deploy drones to catch cheaters and sometimes carry out draconian punishments including years in jail. Unlike their American counterparts, who may pad their college applications with GPAs, letters of recommendation, or personal statements, Chinese students who want to go to one of the country’s better universities know that a high score on the gaokao is the only ticket.
Although the whole education system revolves around the gaokao, recent years have seen some experimentation around the content of the exam as well as its role in admission to universities. China’s provinces have had flexibility in the design of their local test for a long time, but recent reforms are giving students more flexibility in what subjects to emphasize. In some provinces students can retake a few of the sub-tests in the same year, easing the pressure inherent to the one-shot exam.
Meanwhile, elite universities want to recruit more well-rounded students who are not just good at taking tests. To remedy this problem, some Chinese universities are experimenting with more comprehensive admissions policies for some students, using face-to-face interviews and other means of assessing “soft skills” to admit students based on more than just performance on the gaokao.
Still, reforming the system faces an obstacle that may surprise you: parents. Whatever its drawbacks, scores on this exam are simple, clear, and anonymously graded, giving the public faith in the integrity of the system. The same cannot be said for the interviews, personal statements, letters of recommendation, and other college application materials that would constitute a more holistic admissions process. Corruption in China is a serious social and political problem, and parents are understandably worried that Chinese elites will use their wealth and connections to make sure their own children take spots at the best universities.
Until more holistic practices can earn the public’s trust, the process of reforming this system and implementing more comprehensive college admissions policies will be slow. How provinces continue to change the gaokao’s content and structure – essentially, how much provinces can improve the test itself – will be the more important element of gaokao reform in the next few years.
Improved Practices within the Gaokao System
While its content and structure will continue to evolve, the fundamental primacy of the gaokao in China’s education system will continue for the foreseeable future.
Despite good reasons for keeping the test-based system basically intact, policymakers are aware of its drawbacks, and they worry it is stifling the creativity China will need as it shifts its economy to technology and services. To address this concern, educators are implementing local reforms to curricula and classroom structures that often include nods to America’s most fashionable education practices. Schools are rolling out STEM programs and makerspaces for creative projects, and they’re assigning new project-based coursework to supplement more traditional curricula. This represents a kind of compromise: school leaders can adopt practices that are more progressive, while teaching a curriculum that is still fundamentally aligned to the gaokao.
A concern with this approach is that pressure to align everything to the gaokao is so powerful that progressive-sounding programs can often amount to little more than lip service. Education consultant Jiang Xueqin says that while schools are adopting putatively innovative programming, “because the government is only really targeting short-term economic imperatives, they do not have a well thought-out and articulated reform strategy.” Still, educators, parents, and policymakers are increasingly concerned that “test-based education” is not preparing Chinese students for the 21st century economy, and upper middle class parents are more open to new programming meant to cultivate more broadly educated students. Someday, when gaokao reform picks up real steam, it is these local experimental programs – as well as programs for students opting out of the system altogether – that are likely to be the basis of more fundamental reforms.
Opting Out of the Gaokao System
While marginal changes are happening within the gaokao system, some more affluent families are taking a more radical approach: opting out entirely.
There are two main ways that families opt out of the system. The more expensive option is to simply send the child abroad for school, an accelerating trend in recent years. But many students who are opting out stay in China, attending a school that has a program for students planning to go abroad for college. Many of these programs are housed within public schools, although they require extra fees to enroll. These programs focus on English and include courses meant to prepare students for a college education in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. Of course, students in these programs must still perform well on the American gaokao, the SAT (or another country’s test), but since the students attending these programs will not take the far more intense Chinese gaokao, curricula have much more flexibility. Most high school programs follow a standard American college prep program, and such programs also include cultural exchange experiences such as having a foreign teacher or making foreign pen pals.
Private schooling in international schools is another option in most major cities, and parents of younger children may choose yet more radical kinds of schools. China’s largest cities all have private schools offering programs that are considered alternative education even in the West, and some Chinese families are breaking with “test-based education” entirely and enrolling their youngsters in Montessori and Waldorf schools that emphasize individual freedom and creativity.
Opting out of the system represents an extreme break with the core of China’s education system because students who opt out are ineligible to attend Chinese universities. Since this will mean attending college abroad and paying additional school fees in the meantime, this is a path available only to China’s wealthy. Still, in China’s highly unequal society, the elites have money to spend, and opting out is becoming much more prevalent: in China’s richest provinces, more than 10 percent of students are enrolling in local non-gaokao programs, and in some cities the programs are so popular that the local governments have begun to set limits on their expansion.
Jiang argues that the Chinese government sees education reform as a solution to three problems: transitioning to a more consumption-driven economy, youth unemployment, and “middle class dissatisfaction with the public school system.” All three paths described here – changing practices within the gaokao system, changing the system itself, and opting out of the system – have drawbacks, but are also already being pursued to some extent. These incremental changes and local government experimentation will continue, and the results of these experiments will influence curricula, pedagogy, and the overall character of China’s schools in the years to come. Which path – or mix of paths – becomes dominant over the next decade will determine the next chapter in China’s education reform.
Adam Tyner is associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank in Washington, D.C. His doctoral dissertation examined the social integration of migrant workers in China’s cities. His twitter handle is @redandexpert