By Daniel Mikesell
December 12, 2019
NANJING, China — Under a recent inspection into Nanjing schools, officials rummaged through students’ backpacks and lockers looking for forbidden educational materials. To Western audiences, such an image may seem like a scene out of George Orwell’s “1984.” However, this is not the aspect of China’s education system that upsets parents.
China is undergoing a national strategy to provide students with a more comprehensive education. The central government has banned teachers from teaching outside of the set curriculum and similarly restricted private training centers from teaching exam-oriented content. The Nanjing Education Bureau has issued several bans of its own, forbidding scheduling frequent tests, posting test scores, dividing students based on test scores, and enrolling students in private evening and weekend classes. The bureau recently concluded a city-wide inspection to ensure compliance.
Chinese students constantly prepare for high-stakes exams. Most schools administer tests monthly and publicly post students’ grades. At the end of middle school, students take an entrance exam that determines their high school, and until recently, primary school students took competitive middle school entrance exams. At the end of high school, students take the gaokao, the university entrance exam which largely defines their future education and employment prospects.
Parents have gone to great lengths to give their children an advantage in the fiercely competitive system. They plan backwards from the gaokao, cramming in as many private tutoring sessions as time and money allow. According to a primary school Chinese teacher in Nanjing, most parents enroll their children in at least three to four private after-school classes per week, especially in STEM subjects and English.
Many Chinese citizens openly acknowledge the flaws of this system. The central government has responded with a movement towards “quality education.” A fifth-grade Chinese teacher and parent of a primary school student using the pseudonym Ms. Zhou due to privacy concerns, defined “quality education” as a comprehensive education system aimed at developing students’ physical, emotional and artistic capabilities.
Many parents have criticized Nanjing’s implementation of the national strategy, saying it will reduce students’ learning opportunities. Locals do not think the inspection will lead to meaningful change because it attempts to eradicate behavior that is incentivized by China’s hyper-competitive, exam-oriented education system. The Education Bureau addressed these concerns in a public response acknowledging the oversimplified, formalistic and rigid nature of the new policies.
Additionally, according to a Chinese middle school teacher who is using the pseudonym Ms. Yong due to a fear of retribution from her school, schools are notified the day before an inspection takes place, so they can plan accordingly. Ms. Yong explained that the inspection officials who came to her school walked around, reiterated the policy, asked students and teachers a few questions, and opened a few backpacks. She said this inspection was nothing more than an empty, formalistic expression from the government to show that they are doing something about the excessive burden on students. Her school treated the inspection as a passing craze, assuming that everything would return to normal once it ended.
In addition to providing a more holistic education, the new system aims to address the structural disadvantages facing poor students. The traditional system disproportionately benefits wealthy families with access to better education through expensive private classes. The parents who are angry often seem to be those who can afford to send their kids to after-school tutoring. Notwithstanding China’s affirmative action policies, students from wealthy families generally have higher test scores, are admitted by better universities and get better jobs later in life.
Angela Hu, a Nanjinger who operates an after-school education center for primary school students, said the inspection will not change the structural problem, which is the gaokao system itself. As long as the weight of their children’s future rests on a single test, parents will continue to enroll their children in all the best classes they can afford. There will continue to be a labor market for teachers willing to teach after-hours classes and some teachers will continue to risk getting caught because teaching these classes is lucrative. This booming market for extracurricular classes is a reflection, not the cause, of the pressures students face. The government can call for “quality education,” but Chinese people will continue to define educational achievement in terms of test scores as long as they are structurally incentivized to do so.
Many Chinese admit that the gaokao exam-based system has flaws, but they cannot imagine an alternative. Ms. Zhou and Ms. Hu both think the current system is the only way to ensure fairness in university admissions. Ms. Yong, who shares this opinion, added that corruption is a part of the culture, so China needs an objective standard like a test score, which the gaokao provides. She said an American style of university admissions would lead to an even more unequal system.
Things are back to normal now that the inspections have ended. Nobody believed firing a few teachers and searching some lockers would result in structural change. Students continue their studies, and as every passing day brings them closer and closer to the gaokao, their burdens continue to increase.