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Trends in China: Schooling Shifting With Market Forces

By Sean Cavanagh — April 22, 2008 3 min read
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China’s education system has undergone significant changes over the past quarter-century, some brought into classrooms directly by government policy, others swept along by the rising tide of free-market reforms.

Many of the policies pushed by national leaders in recent years have focused on increasing access to education for students in impoverished rural areas, while also improving curriculum and building broader academic skills among older students.

Teaching and learning in China have long been shaped heavily by the country’s exam system, which determines admission to high schools and colleges in the nation of 1.3 billion.

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But in recent years, the central government, which sets national education policy, has encouraged schools to emphasize applied skills and independent thinking, as opposed to simply exam-driven content—a difficult undertaking.

Many schools and colleges were closed during the Cultural Revolution. Following the death of Mao Zedong, the rise of reformist leader Deng Xiaoping sparked plans to rebuild and reorganize the education system.

Two of the most far-reaching changes were the establishment of nine years of compulsory education, and the re-establishment of a national college-entrance exam, said Jinfa Cai, a professor of mathematics and education at the University of Delaware. High school courses were tailored to meet exam content, he said; teachers were evaluated on students’ test performance.

Today, Chinese students attend schools with different academic demands. “Normal” schools offer a more standard curriculum, and more-elite “key” schools generally present a more demanding one. Students’ ability to gain access to more selective schools is often limited by economic circumstance, among other factors. Vocational education greatly increased in the 1980s, though the trend has been toward a general education in recent years, according to a 2008 study by the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy.

Education Highlights

Curriculum: Schools follow a curriculum established by the national government. A government agency, the People’s Education Press, has responsibility for curriculum and textbook development. The number of private or independent curriculum and textbook developers has grown in recent years, however. Most private schools follow the government curriculum, though some have adopted their own model, PEP officials have said.

Testing: Students take exams to gain admission to high school (grades 10-12) and college. Those exams, which shape curriculum and instruction, are especially important given the limited spaces in elite secondary schools and in China’s growing postsecondary market.

Spending: China’s spending on public education, as a proportion of its gross domestic product, is about 2 percent, roughly half that of India’s, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. In recent years, much of the burden of financing education has shifted from the national level to state and local governments, which has resulted in higher enrollment fees, a 2008 report by the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy says.

Access: Education is compulsory in grades 1-9, although school access and quality vary significantly by region. Access tends to be greater in the cities and eastern provinces, though the millions of migrant families entering urban areas struggle to find services; some have turned to low-cost, often unregulated private schools as a result.

Another change, emerging in the late 1990s, was the government’s attempt to implement stronger curriculum guidelines at the high school level, Mr. Cai said. Those changes have placed a greater emphasis on critical thinking, applied skills, and more in-depth content in mathematics and other subjects, as well as the integration of technology into the curriculum, said the professor, who has studied math curriculum in China.

Other factors have the potential to diversify China’s curriculum further, said Jianjun Wang, a professor of education at California State University-Bakersfield. In a reflection of growing free-market influences, more independent publishers, such as universities, are developing classroom materials that were once crafted almost exclusively by the government, said Mr. Wang, a former Ministry of Education official.

While U.S. officials have cited the need to improve schools in response to foreign competition, Mr. Cai said, the motives of Chinese officials are different. There is a sense that good schools are needed for the nation “to be prosperous,” he said. “Education serves society. … [There’s] not so much talk of ‘global competitiveness.’ ”

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Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Schooling Shifting With Market Forces

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