Education with Chinese characteristics: Educational reform measures in Nanjing fail to address structural concerns 中国特色教育:南京市的教改措施并不能解决结构性问题

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.

在近期对南京学校的检查中,官员们搜查了学生们的书包和储物柜,看是否有被禁止的课程。在西方人眼中,中国官员搜查学生的储物柜和书包这一现象看起来是《1984》里的一个场面。但这并不是家长们对中国教育感到气愤的原因。

Ninghai High School in Nanjing’s central Gulou district
南京市鼓楼区的宁海中学
Photo credit: Daniel Mikesell 

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.

中国正在实行一个给学生们提供更全面的教育的全国性战略。中央政府禁止老师课外辅导,也禁止私营培训中心教授以考试为导向的内容。南京教育局也发布了它自己的禁令:频繁考试、公布考试成绩、用成绩来分班、课外辅导班都被禁止了。教育局近期结束的全市检查就是为了确保这些新的规则被遵守。

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

中国学生一直在准备高压考试。一般来说,学生们每个月都有考试,而且学校会张贴他们的成绩和排名。中考决定学生上的高中的质量,最近连小学生们都需要通过竞争激烈的小升初考试。高中结束时,学生们要面对高考,这一大学准入考试很大程度上决定他们未来的教育和工作预期。

Most children take three to four private, after-hours classes per week.
大多数学生每周会上三到四节课外辅导课
Photo credit: Dai Lei, China Daily

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.

中国教育制度很有竞争力,所以家长为了让孩子占上风可以做任何事。为了准备高考,他们把许多私营辅导课挤在一块儿。据一位南京小学老师所说,家长们普遍让孩子每周上三到四门课,尤其是STEM和英文课。

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.

很多中国人坦然承认这个制度的坏处。中央政府也认识到了这个问题并回应要走“素质教育”的道路。根据一位化名叫周小姐的南京五年级的老师及家长所说,“素质教育”是一个全面的教育制度,它的目的是发展学生的体育、情感、艺术技能。对她来说,中央政府的政策是对的,而当地的强制执行是过分的。

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.

南京对国家战略的实施被很多家长批评。家长们认为它会减少学生的学习机会。南京本地人认为这种检查不会带来有意义的改变,因为它试图根除由极具竞争力、以应试为目标的中国教育制度所驱动的行为。南京市教育局发布了一个公开申明,承认新规则的简单化、形式化与机械化。

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.

此外,根据一位化名叫勇小姐老师说的,学校在检查的前一天就会被通知,从而提前准备。勇小姐说,来她学校的官员们参观了学校,重申了规则,问了学生和老师一些问题,打开了几个书包。对她而言,这次检查只是形式主义,只是政府为了表示他们在减少学生负担的一个表现。她说她的学校将这次检查作为一个暂时的风波,她猜测检查过后学校就会恢复常态。

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.

除了提供一个更全面的教育,新教育制度也旨在解决贫困学生们面临的结构性劣势。这些生气的家长也是那些可以支付课外辅导班的家长。传统制度通过昂贵的小班制让富有家庭获得了更好的教育。虽然中国有针对教育不平等的相关政策,但富裕家庭的孩子一般来说有更好的成绩、被更好的大学录取,毕业后也会得到更好的工作机会。

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.

一位经营培训中心的名叫Angela Hu的南京人也说,这次检查无法改变结构性的问题,亦即高考制度。但凡孩子的未来由一场考试决定,家长就会继续让孩子上最好的、他们可支付的课外班。教辅导班的老师也会形成一个劳务市场,并且一些老师因为教课外班能赚很多钱而不顾落网的风险。繁荣的课外班市场是学生们压力的一种表现而非压力来源。政府能呼吁“素质教育”,但人们仍会继续用考试成绩来判断教育成就,只要结构性的激励仍然存在。

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.

许多中国人承认高考制度的不完美,但想不出其它的方式。周小姐和Angela Hu都认为高考制度是唯一平等的招生制度。勇小姐也这样想:腐败是中国文化中的一个部分,所以中国需要一个客观标准,比如高考提供的考试成绩。她说,如果一种美式招生制度将会带来多的不平等。

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.

由于这次检查结束了,一切都恢复了常态。没有人认为解雇几个老师、搜查一些储物柜能带来结构性的改变。学生回去学习了,随着高考临近,他们的负担将会继续增加。

A primary school in Nanijng’s central Gulou district
南京市鼓楼区的一所小学
Photo credit: Daniel Mikesell