Reforming Chinese Education: What China Is Trying to Learn from America


Ernie French
Anxious parents await their children's return from the gaokao college entrance exam in Beijing, China.

In Brief

When Shanghai, China, was awarded the number one spot for educational achievement by the Program for International Student Assessment, a number of Western countries began to ask what had sparked the country’s rise. One answer is five years of education reforms that began with the Chinese government’s recognition that it needs to improve its teaching system as the population ages and the country’s pool of cheap labor runs out. The plan, called the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development, aims to significantly increase government investment in education, universalize access to early childhood education and high schools, develop world-class universities, and improve the overall quality of education. The aim is to quickly transform a low-level manufacturing economy into one based on knowledge. But a well-educated workforce does not mean simply more years in school, or more testing—as China’s history of training innovators shows. There is currently a surplus of college graduates unable to find work in innovative but elite private firms or oversubscribed government agencies. Meanwhile, the Chinese service industry, the mainstay of the U.S. economy, remains tiny. Unlocking the potential of that industry is going to take a radical overhaul of how the Chinese think about education.


Key Concepts

  • China’s growth has been fueled by low-skilled cheap labor. As the population ages and labor costs rise, China must create more high-value jobs, which are often connected with innovation.

  • Recent education reforms seek to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. They include relaxing central control of the curriculum, retraining teachers, reducing student academic load, and broadening college admissions criteria beyond test results.

  • Central to the reform debate is the College Entrance Exam, or gaokao, which has played a role in Chinese culture for centuries. Some educators have started to experiment but reforming the gaokao will require a deeper shift in Chinese attitudes.

On November 20, 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao of China invited six education leaders in higher and basic education to the state council for a special meeting. In his usual straightforward and humble manner, Wen told them of a visit with Qian Xuesen, a well-known rocket scientist who had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology, and served on the faculty there before returning to China in the 1950s and leading China’s early space programs. “Last year, when I visited Qian Xuesen, he told me that China has not fully developed one university capable of following a model that can produce creative and innovative talents; none has its own unique innovations, and thus has not produced distinguished individuals.” Wen continued, “In my understanding, Mr. Qian’s ‘distinguished individuals’ are not ordinary talents, but truly distinguished masters. Our student population has been on the rise, and our universities are getting larger, but how to prepare more distinguished talents? This is a question that causes great anxiety in me.” Wen spent the next three hours listening and talking with the participants.1

Wen had plenty of reasons to be anxious and concerned over the shortage of innovations. Despite China’s astounding double-digit growth for more than two decades, its economy remains one that is labor intensive rather than knowledge intensive. According to a report of the Chinese National Statistics Bureau, only about 2,000 Chinese companies owned the patent for the core technology used in the products they produced in 2005; that number represents less than 0.003 percent of all Chinese companies in that year.2 Merely 473 innovations from China were recognized by the world’s leading patent offices outside China in 2008 versus 14,399 from the United States and 13,446 from Japan.3 As a result, although products worth billions of dollars are made in China, they are not made by China.

The Land of High-Stakes Testing

Education always performs two functions—to select and to educate. A nation’s education system functions on behalf of society to decide what kinds of talents, knowledge, and skills are useful and what kinds are not. It is intended to cultivate the ones that are valuable and suppress the ones that are deemed undesirable. High-stakes testing is one of the most effective ways to convey what a society values and to pressure all involved in education—parents, teachers, and, of course, students—to focus all their efforts on what is tested.

China has a long history of using tests to select government officials, the elite class. As early as AD 605, during the Sui dynasty (AD 581–618), the central government began to use a national exam system to select government officials. The system, the keju, also known as the Imperial Exam or Civil Exam, was further developed during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) and continued to be used by successive emperors until 1905, when it was officially abandoned by Emperor Guangxu of the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).

Hailed by some as China’s fifth grand invention (after the compass, gun powder, paper, and movable type), the keju was an effective way for the emperors to identify and recruit talented individuals to join the ruling class from a broad pool—that is, the whole nation instead of just a small group of existing elites and their descendants. One of the greatest emperors of the most prosperous dynasty in Chinese history, Taizhong of the Tang dynasty, upon seeing the files of the individuals who had just been selected through the keju, exclaimed, “All great people under the sky are now working for me.”

During its 1,300-year history, the keju was almost the only path of upward mobility in China. It was practically the only way for ordinary Chinese to join the elite. The implementation of the keju varied during different times, but in general, especially in recent dynasties, it was hierarchically organized. The system began with local exams, which selected candidates for more advanced exams, and ended with a few individuals participating in the final exam held in the capital and administered by the emperor himself. Different levels of government positions were assigned to those who passed different levels of the exams. Passing the exams was considered one of the most important accomplishments in a person’s life. Indeed, the two happiest moments for an individual in China were said to be the wedding night and seeing one’s name on the list of people who had passed the keju. It was the pursuit of a lifetime for many. With no age limit or limit on how many times one could try, historical records show that some persisted in taking the tests into their 70s. The most famous case took place in 1699, when an individual took the test at age 102.12

The high-stakes nature of the test ensured that virtually all education activities were about preparing for the keju. What was tested was what was being learned and taught, and that meant the Confucian classics. In its early years, especially during the Tang dynasty, when the society was much more open and tolerant of different talents, the keju included a broad range of subjects. But in later centuries the test became mechanical and narrow, resulting in individuals with only one type of talent—those who could memorize and regurgitate the classics—being selected. Furthermore, the focus on rote memorization instilled a worship of the past and of book knowledge, and hence a disdain for physical labor, technology, and natural sciences.

The kejuprovides at least a partial answer to the “Needham question” (named for the British scholar Joseph Needham, who devoted his life to studying science and technology innovations in pre-modern China): Why didn’t China, once so advanced in scientific and technological innovations, continue to develop in these areas in the modern age? In 1905, following decades of colonial encroachment, the keju finally ended after a group of powerful governors and officials sent a request to the crumbling central government to stop requiring the exam because “the nation is in eminent crisis and every moment is critical. [Saving] the nation must begin with promoting schools and [promoting] schools must start with discontinuing [the] keju.”

Furthermore, an economy built on cheap labor is very volatile in a world where plenty of countries have a cheap workforce. Rising labor costs and the increasing value of its currency have already threatened China’s status as the “world’s factory.” Thousands of factories in the Pearl River Delta region have been closed since 2007. “As costs have risen in China, long the world’s shop floor, it is slowly losing work to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia,” The New York Times recently noted.4

Fea_Zhao_Figure2.jpg

Liang Qiang/World Bank
China has nearly eliminated illiteracy among its 1.3 billion citizens, in part, by extending its compulsory education program to 99 percent of the age cohorts.

Premier Wen’s assessment of China’s shortage of innovation stands at odds with its apparent progress in education. China presently operates the world’s largest formal education system, with a total student population of nearly 250 million, with about 30 million at the post-secondary level.5 China has almost eliminated illiteracy among its 1.3 billion citizens.6 By 2007, China had extended its nine-year compulsory education program to 99 percent of the age cohorts, an increase of 7.2 percent nationwide since 2003, and an increase of 21 percent in the western, less developed areas.7 The number of undergraduate students increased to more than 17 million in 2006 from just over one million in 1980, and the number of graduate (master’s and doctoral) students grew 50-fold over the same period.

China’s achievements have recently attracted favorable comparison with the American education system, which has been labeled as “in crisis” for years.
By some measures—percentage of population having access to schools, school completion rates at different levels, years of schooling, student performance on tests—there are grounds for comparison. Yet these results don’t measure the overall quality of what the education system produces, including such intangible qualities as initiative, attitude, and morals—the very qualities that Premier Wen sensed were lacking.

Part of the problem is connected to the centrality of testing to China’s education system. This is a concept that goes back over a thousand years. Traditionally a single test, the keju, granted access to China’s ruling class. The keju’s spirit lives on, in the body of the National College Entrance Exam or gaokao. The gaokao does not directly select government officials like the keju did, but a college degree is required for virtually all government positions. It also grants social status and the ability to change one’s legal residency from one province or city to another (a right denied to millions of migrant workers, therefore excluding them from local government services). Those who score well become immediate celebrities. They appear on TV programs, in news reports, on lecture tours, in books, and on other media outlets to talk about how they achieved such high scores. They are without question the best test takers. But their abilities have been questioned. According to a recent survey of U.S.–owned enterprises conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, 37 percent of the companies responding said that finding talent was their biggest operational problem at a time when a third of college graduates have not been able to find employment.8

Homeschooling in China

Mr. Xu Xuejin, a 39-year-old owner of an international trade firm who retired to homeschool his children in 2009 is behind a controversial national movement in basic education. In December 2010 Mr. Xu established the China Homeschooling Association, which now has nearly 4,000 registered members and its website receives over 200,000 visits daily.10 Homeschooling was unheard of just a few years ago but has become a growing trend that is spreading fast in China.11 The reason behind this movement is widespread dissatisfaction with the test-driven education system that places a heavy burden on students. Although homeschooling in itself is not necessarily a solution, it represents a grassroots movement to seek alternative forms of education, which in turn could drive the Chinese government to loosen control over the school curriculum and hasten the reforms it has been pushing.

Some educators have come to the conclusion that China’s outstanding academic success, as indicated by test scores, may be what is holding it back. Now, China is searching for better education models elsewhere. Although the government does not publicly endorse American education as the model, the public seems eager to embrace what is viewed as a more liberal and creative system—ironically, at a time when many in the United States are gazing enviously at the discipline and order of the Chinese system, and the No Child Left Behind Act has brought a new focus on testing.

“No uniform textbooks, no standardized tests, no ranking of students, this is American education in the eyes of a Chinese journalist,” opens Encountering American Education, a story written by a journalism professor and now dean of the College of Journalism of one of China’s top universities, Renmin University.9 In this story, the author, Gang Gao, recounts his ten-year-old son’s experience in American schools when he was a visiting scholar at Arizona Sate University in the 1990s. The following sentences from his book, which were carved by a young Chinese girl into her desk, best summarize his observations of American education:

American classrooms don’t impart a massive amount of knowledge into their children, but they try every way to draw children’s eyes to the boundless ocean of knowledge outside the school; they do not force their children to memorize all the formulae and theorems, but they work tirelessly to teach children how to think and ways to seek answers to new questions; they never rank students according to test scores, but they try every way to affirm children’s efforts, praise their thoughts, and protect and encourage children’s desire and effort.

What the Chinese found valuable in American education is the result of a decentralized, autonomous system that does not have standards, uses multiple criteria for judging the value of talents, and celebrates individual differences. Recognizing the negative consequences of “test-oriented education,” China has launched a series of national reforms to cultivate more creative citizens. In 1999 China’s Central Committee sought to reform testing, abolish middle school exams, and encourage local provinces to experiment with their own examination regimens. This was followed by further decrees in 2001, encouraging more diverse curricula, and greater choice for students in subject matter—although any new material used must still “equip students with patriotism, collectivism, a love for socialism, and the Chinese cultural traditions, as well as moral-ethic values, democratic spirits with Chinese characteristics.”

The recent reforms of 2010 continue this trend, going as far as to suggest that other criteria beyond gaokao may be used in college admission procedures. As a result, China has begun to allow a small number of universities—76 out of more than 2,000 in the year 2012—to admit about 5 percent of the freshman class using criteria other than, or in addition to, scores on the entrance exam on an experimental basis. In March 2011, one university, the South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), went as far as enrolling students without using the national college entrance exam. SUSTC also does not follow the national curriculum, meaning that graduates will not receive an official diploma. Parents who send their children to the school are therefore taking a huge gamble, but then they are also freeing their children from the constraints of the gaokao. Instead of training their whole lives for the entrance exam, these students can seek to explore their individual talents. So far enrollment is full, and the end result may be to create a more creative and risk-taking spirit among graduates.

The hope is that experiments like the one at SUSTC will trickle through the whole education system. By removing entrance exams, it’s not just students who are freed. Parents, teachers, schools, and whole government agencies will have the time to explore what the government has been wanting: a broader curriculum, reduced academic burden, and a more balanced student life. The bold experiment of SUSTC has not been smooth—it has caused some students to leave the university and has led to the termination of relationships with prominent faculty and partnership institutions. And many of China’s broader curriculum and pedagogical reforms to promote “quality education” have remained only lip service. But in government circles, awareness is growing of the need for a deeper cultural shift in the country. For thousands of years, dynasties of emperors (with a few exceptions) followed the Confucian tradition of conformity, hierarchy, and respect for authority, and the Communist government continued this tradition by seeking to maintain control over all aspects of life. The result has been a highly disciplined but docile workforce. Fostering creativity suggests freedom, and though that prospect can be glimpsed in education reforms, the reality may still lie someway off.