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2017-04-04 00:01:54 Commentary

In China’s primary and secondary schools, there exists an obvious paradox. On one hand, the official education system is attempting to ease the burden of schoolwork on students, with the Education Administrative Department repeatedly exhorting schools to lessen students’ workloads. On the other hand, more and more of the time students spend outside the classroom is being devoted to educational training organizations. Frenzied students are taking part in every kind of competition under the sun, from nationwide tournaments like the International Math Olympiad or the Chun Lei Trophy, to all manner of local competitions.

Like other East Asian societies, China has historically placed high value on educating children. Due to the country’s vast population and the limited resources of elite schools, not only is there intense competition during entrance exams, but there are also top colleges putting students’ unique abilities — such as performance in science competitions, writing ability, oral skills, musical talent, and achievements in dance — under the microscope.

Such cruel competitions have been denounced across society by those who feel that they monopolize children’s free time, place too much emphasis on performing under test conditions at the expense of cultivating creativity and imagination, and — most concerningly — stunt students’ interest in learning. Against this background, government departments have begun to staunchly promote holistic education.

The Education Administrative Department has put a lot of thought into enacting this policy. As early as 1993, instructional guidelines stipulated that junior middle school students should not be given more than 1.5 hours of homework per day. In a notice issued in 2000, officials reiterated that first- and second-year students should not purchase extracurricular tutoring books or be assigned written homework, while forbidding any department or group from unlawfully holding competitive activities for primary school students.

In 2013, a set of 10 guidelines for reducing student workloads made schools assume zero background knowledge when they teach new subjects; encouraged them not to give homework to primary school students; strictly prohibited them from running remedial or revision classes; and made them give their students one hour of exercise per day. Though the rules have become more and more detailed, the crazes for remedial classes and student competitions have not only continued, but also become more and more intense. What is the reason behind this?

Although reducing student workloads is a noble aim, blindly telling schools to give them less work ignores a fundamental truism of education. Attaining a high level of educational ability isn’t always an effortless, enjoyable process. To a large extent, the phenomenon of “happy education,” as the policy has come to be called, lacks any factual basis. In the West, elite schools also impose a relatively high degree of pressure on their students. The difference only lies in the fact that Western education not only emphasizes the student’s grades, but also looks at their physical fitness, their participation in clubs and societies, volunteering work, and leadership skills.

The very best schools hold student competitions in such high regard is because it allows them to overcome the diminished role of tests in their selection procedures.

In addition, throughout the education process, Western curricula use the students’ own interests as a guide, and encourage diverse methods of assessment and development. While the Chinese Ministry of Education’s unburdening policy superficially has the students’ best interests at heart, in practice it creates a lot of time spent away from learning. Because schools have lost the power to arrange how this time is spent, private education companies have stepped into the breach. In the end, the policy only reduces the amount of homework students get from schools, while failing to address the intense competition surrounding entry into the country’s best educational institutions.

Since the turn of the century, access high-quality educational resources has clearly become more and more unequal. In the 1980s and ’90s, while the quality of a basic education across China varied slightly between regions, it was nowhere near as polarized as it is now. At that time, many county-level high schools held strong reputations across their respective provinces; today, every part of the country has a rarefied clutch of so-called super schools clustered in provincial capitals, vacuuming up almost all the best students across the province, and creating further imbalance of educational resources.

Let me take two examples with which I am quite familiar: Shanghai and my home province of Hunan, in central China. A little over 10 years ago, the town where I grew up, Hengyang, was home to a few top provincial-level middle schools with strong reputations for quality. In the past decade, however, these schools have regressed dramatically as exceptional students from wealthy family backgrounds have fled en masse to the four best schools in Changsha, the provincial capital.

Shanghai’s experience is similar. In the past, the city was said to have “four great schools and eight great icons,” referring to the guardian deities that supposedly kept watch over the city. But now, the gap between presumed top schools and the “Big Five” senior highs — Shanghai High School, Qibao High School, and the high schools affiliated with Fudan University, East China Normal University, and Jiao Tong University — is expanding rapidly. The admissions procedures of top-tier universities like Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, and Jiao Tong also place too much emphasis on recruiting students from these “super” schools.

So on one hand, it is becoming more difficult for students to gain access to top schools, while on the other, schools are continuing to emphasize the importance of lightening students’ workloads. This will only bring about a new problem: What schools teach will become overly simplified, students will be assigned a bare minimum amount of work, and standardized tests will therefore lose much of their ability to separate the best from the rest. If test questions are too easy, they will only be able to separate high- and low-ability students, without being able to screen out truly exceptional ones — say, the top 1 percent — from the merely excellent. This is because there will no longer be an observable difference in these students’ scores.

In other words, grades achieved on the zhongkao — China’s senior high school entrance exam — can be used to pick out students from top junior highs, but they will not satisfy the most selective super schools. As a result, super schools will implement their own screening procedures, using more difficult tests and interviews to achieve their goal of selecting the cream of the crop.

The reason why the very best schools hold student competitions in such high regard is because it allows them to overcome the diminished role of tests in their selection procedures. Intense competition at such events provides the most prestigious schools with a comparatively cheap and reliable signal — namely, that to a certain extent competitions are more accurate than tests in reflecting the differences between high-achieving students. In this light, the rise of student competitions cannot be separated from unburdening policies in basic education. When combined with China’s increasingly polarized educational landscape, they’re also why the policy is being constantly undermined.

Editors: Hu Sumin and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Students and their parents consider buying learning-aids books in a book store in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Sept. 1, 2007. VCG)