May and June are notoriously a nerve-wracking time for the parents of China’s high school seniors, as they anxiously watch their children make final preparations for the country’s grueling gaokao college-entrance exam. More recently, however, these months have become an annual source of stress for parents of younger children, too. With more and more cities allocating spots at top kindergarten, elementary, and middle schools via lottery, families’ best-laid plans often come down to the luck of the draw.
It’s no secret that not all public schools are created equal. China’s educational institutions tend to be highly stratified, resulting in huge disparities in student outcomes between well-funded “key” schools and their “ordinary” counterparts.
With so much riding on admissions, it’s no surprise the process would devolve into a free-for-all, with parents battling each other and the ever-changing government policies to give their kids a leg up. Such competition breeds controversy, not least for the way it favors the materially advantaged: First-come, first-served admissions policies have led to parents setting up tents a week in advance of admission dates, which critics claimed gave an unfair advantage to families who can afford to have someone take time off work. And in cities that tried allocating spots based on proximity, housing prices near quality schools exploded, again freezing poorer families out.
These debates have been especially acute in big cities. With closet-sized “apartments” in top Beijing school districts selling for millions of yuan apiece, exasperated local officials in 2017 at last reverted to the oldest method in the book: drawing lots. The system has since been gradually adopted elsewhere, including smaller cities like Shantou in southern China.
Parents have not responded positively. Education is seen in China as a rare path to social mobility that’s open to anyone. But this egalitarianism is predicated on the notion that success comes from hard work, not luck. For parents who have invested heavily in their children’s education, and whose children have excelled in their studies, the lottery is an unacceptable means of allocating educational resources. Among the most frequently discussed issues in my interviews with parents who did not win the lottery was how to explain to their children that good grades were no longer enough.
Adding to parents’ frustration, not all spots at top schools are allocated via the lottery system. Some institutions only admit the children of civil servants and university teachers, for example. This June, a parent left a note on an online message board for residents of a major northern city questioning why some of the city’s public schools had not participated in the city’s lottery. The message received no official response, but according to my own research, many of the area’s government bodies and public institutions have built their own kindergartens, as well as elementary and middle schools, which generally only admit children of their employees.
There are other loopholes. In the southern island province of Hainan, which is trying to transform itself into an international free trade port, the local government has advertised guaranteed spots in good public schools as a way to attract “high-level talent” to the area.
Those hoping authorities will scrap the lot-drawing system are likely to be disappointed, however. “If you have a better idea, let us know,” was the general sentiment of the officials I spoke with. More than school admissions are at stake: The entire focus of China’s education policy is undergoing a radical shift.
Historically, China has been deeply committed to basic education: Metrics such as the local college-entrance rate were a source of pride and achievement. But with only limited resources, localities have often mainly invested in a few schools meant to educate the best students and get them into top high schools and colleges. And teachers everywhere loaded students down with homework and forced them to study for as much as 18 hours a day.
In recent years, education authorities have sought to curb these practices through orders reducing student workloads in public primary and middle schools, as well as prohibitions on teaching ahead of the curriculum, assigning too much homework, scheduling excessive examinations, and publishing students grades and rankings. They have also sought to close the gap between top schools and their less elite counterparts by mandating regular teacher rotations and, more recently, distributing top students more evenly throughout the system.
Thus far, these initiatives have had limited success. Teacher rotations are unpopular with staff, last only a year, and are too few in number to have any real impact. Parents, on the other end, have objected to homework rules as potentially disadvantaging their kids on the college-entrance exam. It’s one thing to improve the quality of middling schools, they say, but quite another to do so at the expense of elite institutions.
Yet the educational officials I spoke with were clear about the overall direction: The public education system will focus on maintaining basic standards and ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources. Beyond that, it’s up to parents to decide what they want.
At the end of the day, everyone just wants to their kid to succeed. I myself breathed a sigh of relief when my own child was selected for entry into a solid elementary school a few months ago. But at a rough estimate, only about 10% of applicants will be so lucky. The parents of those less fortunate whom I spoke to were resigned, but not defeated. Their child might not have gotten into a good school now, but they still expect them to study hard. After all, there’s always the high school and college-entrance exams.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Relatives of children ask for enrollment information outside a kindergarten in Zhengzhou, Henan province, May 25, 2020. People Visual)