College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Educational Equity in China: Strategies From a Leading Province

By Heather Singmaster — December 15, 2015 7 min read
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A new report on California high schools with increased graduation rates (by up to 26 percent) highlights intervention strategies taken by these schools, including: allowing student choice in their courses; extra supports for students; sharing of staff resources within and across districts; and partnerships with outside groups, including higher education campuses.

All of this sounded very familiar to me as I have recently returned from a study trip to China with the Global Cities Education Network where our focus was on equity strategies in education. In China, a great deal of education reform focuses on ensuring that students from migrant families—those who have moved from rural areas to find jobs and a better way of life—have equal access to a high-quality education. According to the MDG Achievement Fund, “China’s migrant workforce of 150 million represents the largest movement of people in modern history.” The migrant population comes from various regional and cultural backgrounds across China and is often marginalized, facing large socio-economic challenges.

One city, which ably illustrates equity reform efforts in the country, is Hangzhou. Hangzhou is a city of approximately 7 million people located in Zhejiang province, one hour from Shanghai by bullet train. It ranks among the top 15 school systems in China. Like Shanghai, Hangzhou has a large population of migrants—in fact, 36 percent of students in Hangzhou are from migrant families.

Resource Supports
The Hangzhou Education Bureau takes equity seriously and is taking the national lead in extending compulsory education to twelve years instead of the nine currently required. Ms Jiang Feng, Chief of Compulsory and Preschool Education, spoke to us about the strategies the city is using to more equitably allocate resources:

1. Financial
To ensure students do not drop out due to financial issues, a large effort is being made to reform the way financial resources are allocated. For instance, students from low-income families no longer need to pay tuition fees (still required for compulsory education in many parts of China) or will have their fees reduced through either a subsidy from the province or from the national government. In Hangzhou we visited the The High School attached to Zhejiang University, where 30 percent of students receive additional subsidies to help offset their living and studying expenses.

2. Specialized
In addition to financial supports for students in need, there are other support systems to help further the education and health of the whole child. Special services at all public schools include academic help, and access to health and mental care for students who might require the additional support.

Students with disabilities also have access to specialized supports; however, they are not placed in separate classrooms but rather integrated into classrooms with all of the other students so that they can be involved in regular school activities.

3. Mentorship and Teaching
In 2004, the Hangzhou Education Bureau began the prestigious schools program—top-performing (“prestigious”) secondary schools are matched with low-performing rural high schools in other parts of the province in order to encourage resource sharing and create a mentoring partnership between schools. Strong teachers who want to become teacher leaders are encouraged to first spend time teaching in these rural schools. This ensures access to good teachers throughout the system. In 2004, there were 28 prestigious schools and today there are 322.

4. Special Projects
There are additional special projects taking place as well:

  • Resource Expansion Project: As the urban areas continue to expand, schools are being built in residential areas so students don’t have to face hardships by traveling to other parts of the city. The schools are being planned in conjunction with the city planning officials.
  • IT Project: A new online system allows teachers to share curriculum resources with each other across the province.
  • Entrance Exam Reform: Students do not have to take an entrance exam for compulsory school and Zhejiang province takes the lead in enrolling students online—making education more accessible to all students.

Teaching and Learning
The High School attached to Zhejiang University is a prestigious school that opened a second campus in another part of Hangzhou this year in order to accommodate more students. One advantage of attending the school is that it is implementing and deepening some of the curriculum reforms piloted in Shanghai schools (the education reform leader of China). These reforms are aimed at engaging students to ensure they graduate as well as giving them access to the knowledge and skills they will need to be competitive in the 21st century workplace.

For instance, students can choose from 126 different elective courses—80 percent of these courses were started by teachers partially in response to student interest. The remaining 20 percent are taught by university professors from Zhejiang University, which is affiliated with the school. There are also many different types of afterschool clubs, which were started based on student input/desires and allow students to demonstrate their interests and abilities outside of the classroom while also learning about topics that might not be offered in the curriculum.

Emphasis on teaching 21st century skills, such as collaboration, communication, creativity, and persistence, was on display throughout the school. In the English class I observed, students used a white board to display a personal photo and talk about its significance to the lesson topic (life) while using key vocabulary. In small groups, students then chose three adjectives to describe life and presented on them. After viewing a TedTalk and pulling out key vocabulary words, students paired up and wrote short metaphors for their lives. The homework assignment was an essay. There was none of the rote learning and memorization that one might stereotypically expect to see in a language classroom in an Asian country.

Students also receive assistance with three different kinds of planning: academic planning, career planning, and life planning. This is unique to Zhejiang University High School—but it is likely to spread to other schools as well.

Student-Teacher Relationships
Although the class I visited had 40 students and 1 teacher, for the school overall, there is a 10:1 student-teacher ratio. Teachers are encouraged to build personal relationships with students and visit their homes and families. This is to assist the teachers in ensuring equity by better designing courses based on their students. Not only are teachers expected to assist struggling students, but students are expected to help each other as well—all students are encouraged to form a learning community with each other.

Personalized Learning

We also had the opportunity to visit the Hangzhou Sijiqing Primary School, where 76 percent of students are children of migrant workers from 10 different provinces across China. Here the emphasis was very much on individualized/personalized learning of the whole child. This was apparent in the specialized curriculum called the “Four Seasons Cultivation Program,” which is based on national standards and takes into consideration the characteristics of the students. There are four major subject areas: “Spring in Bloom” focuses on etiquette; “Summer in Rhythm” emphasizes arts and humanities; “August in Harvest” features science and technology; and “Winter in Delight” addresses physical health.

The whole child focus was also obvious in the facilities of the school, which included different rooms for tennis, pottery, dance, choir, and mental health interventions. Most impressive was that an entire floor was dedicated to an interactive science/STEM activity center for the students.

In addition, every teacher in the school has a certificate of psychological health education to better help students who have come from difficult situations. A parent center dedicated to educating, integrating, and engaging the diverse parent population the school serves also supports the school’s whole child focus. The school helps the parents feel comfortable and engaged in their child’s education and life, which can be critical for recent migrants who often may not be familiar with Hangzhou’s culture or education system.

Hangzhou is a rapidly growing city, facing a huge influx of migrant families struggling to make a living and better their situation. Recoginizing the potential benefits of this growth—we were told the GDP of Hanzhou is expected to grow to over 1 trillion RMB (US$157 billion)—the city is working to provide an equitable education for all of its students. Here in the United States, while we have good examples and lessons on equity from within our country, such as those featured in the new CA report, we continue to wrestle with building an equitable system at scale. Examining the emerging success in enrolling and graduating migrant students in Hangzhou may spark ideas for us to consider as well.

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Photo of students in Hangzhou Sijuqing Primary School is courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.