Miracle or Mirage?

by Ashley Feng

My Chinese friends smile when I praise their skyscrapers, their tree-lined avenues and high-speed rail. But when I praise their schools, they rush to correct me. Once, I mentioned education at a Beijing dinner party. My aunt, married and in her thirties, exclaimed: “That is one of the biggest reasons I don’t want to have a child! It’s horrible. I feel that putting my child through this would be even worse than not having children at all.”

Americans both admire and fear Chinese education, taking our own students’ mediocre scores on international exams as a sign of inferiority. Of course, the Shanghai middleschoolers who topped the 2010 PISA–a reading, math, and science exam administered in 74 countries represent an elite fraction of China’s students. But even if every Chinese teenager performed at Shanghai standards, it would hardly justify the nation’s assembly-line model of public schooling.

When I tell a group of parents at the gates of Beijing 161 Middle School how Americans envy China’s science and math scores, one father smiles grimly. “Of course Chinese students can take tests. They’re constantly drilled on repetitive problem sets. The thing is, they can’t do anything else.”

Chinese students pick up few practical skills, even in subjects in which they outscore peers abroad. Jane, a high school English teacher in Zhejiang province, lamented that her students graduate with little speaking ability, rendering their language training “almost pointless.” They’re too busy training for the gaokao, the national college entrance exam. One graduate of Qinghua—one of China’s top two universities—said that offering original ideas on the gaokao often does more harm than good; graders worry their careers will end if their supervisors find them awarding high marks to students who deviate too much from convention.

Nor is the gaokao as egalitarian as Westerners assume. Although students from rural areas comprise the majority of gaokao takers, less than 20 percent of the rural applicant pool makes it into China’s top universities. Top-tier schools are overwhelmingly urban and lower their cutoff scores by as much as 13 percent for rural students. Although free secondary education was recently expanded to children of migrant workers and villagers, and 12,100 university spots are now reserved annually for students from poverty-stricken counties, the millions of students from rural areas who take the exam each year continue to stand at a significant disadvantage compared to their urban classmates.

Tellingly, many families with the resources and connections to send their children to China’s top secondary schools prefer to send them overseas or to international schools to shield them from years of mind-numbing memorization and intense competition. Paul, a Hong Kong native now living in Beijing, just laughed when I asked if he would consider public school for his children. A Jiangsu police chief told me the only reason he hadn’t sent his daughter to the U.S. for high school was that he didn’t think she was old enough to be alone in another country. He does, however, hope she will go abroad for university to learn to think critically and independently.

Why does the usually pragmatic Chinese government retain such a flawed system? Every teacher, parent, and school official I spoke with agreed that a more subjective admissions process would invite rampant corruption and make higher education even less accessible to those without family connections. China’s schools may be failing its students, but the alternative would be worse as long as widespread corruption persists.

My theory is that the government keeps the system because the core purpose of Chinese education is not innovation or inclusiveness, but social stability. In this sense, it is remarkably successful. Passing an unruly group of Hong Kong students, I heard their tour guide remark to a museum staffer, “If they were from the mainland, they’d obey every word they were told instantly. They’d be too afraid not to.” The Chinese parents with whom I’ve spoken ended their frustrated tirades on the system’s failures and exclusiveness with a resigned, “But that’s just the way it is,” or, “There’s just too many kids. Competition is inevitable.”

Forget test scores. Instilling deference to authority and acceptance of the status quo at home while fooling the rest of the world into envy is the real triumph of Chinese education.

ASHLEY FENG ’16 is in Calhoun College. She is currently working in college counseling in Nanjing, China. Contact her at ashley.feng@yale.edu