Assessment Opinion

Tom Loveless on Hukou in China

By Marc Tucker — January 24, 2014 5 min read
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Last October, Tom Loveless wrote a post on the Brown Center Chalkboard titled “PISA’s China Problem”. In that piece, he charged that the authorities in Paris were ignoring the systematic exclusion of migrant students from the reported scores on the PISA assessment and suppressing the PISA scores of other provinces in China, and he challenged OECD to disclose the terms of its agreements with the Chinese authorities. That was just before the release of the latest PISA scores in Washington, DC. Shortly after the release of the latest PISA data, Loveless wrote another post on the same subject, extending his argument that the operation of China’s Hukou system completely undercut OECD’s assertions that Shanghai runs an equitable education system.

After Loveless’ second piece came out, Andreas Schleicher and I wrote a response that appeared in this spot and on the OECD web site. And Loveless wrote an 18-page post responding to our response and remarks from Minxuan Zhang, President of Shanghai Normal University. Much that was said in his third piece, as in the earlier ones, was directed specifically to the OECD, and I will leave it to Andreas Schleicher to respond if he wishes. You will be relieved to learn that I have a two-page limit on this blog and I do not intend to exceed it.

After I read Tom Loveless’ first post, I sent away for a book that arrived only after Andreas Schleicher and I had responded to Loveless’ second blog. The book, by Tom Miller, is called China’s Urban Billion: The story behind the biggest migration in human history. Miller is a first rate reporter who knows China very well. His account of the Hukou system in China is detailed, full of stories that seem authentic—and harrowing. He charges that the Chinese authorities used this household registration system to create an army of hundreds of millions of migrant workers—people with low wages, no benefits and few rights—to power the spectacular growth of the Chinese economy. Among the rights of which those workers were deprived by the Hukou system was the right to have their children educated in the same schools as the registered residents of the provinces to which they moved their families to get work.

I have no reason to quarrel with Miller’s description of the Hukou system or its effects on migrant workers. But Miller does not describe a static picture. Instead, he points to experiments with the Hukou system in different parts of China, different from each other, but all intended to ameliorate the effects of Hukou on migrants. He explains that the system is evolving. He’s clear that it is often a case of two steps forward and one back.

What I conclude from my reading of a lot of material on this subject is that a growing number of well-placed Chinese officials, Minxuan Zhang among them, believe that it is very important to work toward the abolition of the Hukou system. For some, that is a clear moral imperative. For others, while the Hukou system might have helped to enable China to succeed when its decisive advantage was low cost, low skill labor, its labor is no longer very cheap on the world market and China can only succeed now by offering highly educated labor. That cannot happen in the case of Shanghai unless Shanghai takes the bull by the horns and educates its migrant workers to the same standards to which it is educating the children of the residents of Shanghai who are registered there.

We are seeing steady progress toward that goal. The first step was to open the government primary schools to migrant children, then middle schools. Enormous sums of money have been spent building new elementary and middle schools in communities serving mostly migrant children. Major efforts have been made to build partnerships between schools serving mainly migrant children and higher performing schools serving mainly registered Shanghainese. More recently, Shanghai’s vocational high schools have been opened to the migrant children.

Which brings up an interesting point. Migrant parents who think their children have a shot at college are sending their children back to their home province because, under the Hukou rules, they have to take their Gaokao—college entrance exams—in their home province. But, if they want their children to get into a vocational high school, they can go to the government schools in Shanghai. It would not be unreasonable to think that this transaction works out so that the more talented kids go back to their home province for high school and the less talented stay in Shanghai, very different from the picture that Loveless has painted. I don’t know that that is the case, of course, because no one has that kind of data, but it is not obvious that the Hukou system is making it possible for Shanghai to shine in the PISA rankings. That is especially true given that a large fraction of the migrant 15-year-olds are not back in their home provinces or out of school altogether, as Loveless charges, but in government middle schools, where they are taking the PISA assessments.

I am not a Polyanna. There are many in Shanghai who oppose changes in the Hukou system, for a variety of reasons. And, I must say, the evidence that the government is segregating the migrants in the government schools from other students is very disturbing.

But I am not as quick as Loveless to take a superior moral stance here. It is hard for me to distinguish the Hukou system from rural districts in the American south with white majorities who send their children to private academies and then put their fellow white citizens on the school board with instructions to impoverish the public schools serving African-American students in order to keep their taxes down, or northern communities which segregate poor and minority students into districts with no property wealth and high tax rates, while wealthy people are allowed to congregate in communities with low tax rates, gorgeous buildings and highly paid teachers.

Hukou needs to be fixed. But the important point for me is that there is a great deal to learn from Shanghai. Shanghai signed up for PISA because it wanted to use PISA to improve its performance. And it has succeeded. Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore are not far behind. They did not get there by cheating. Nor did Shanghai. It got there by being very good at educating its children. It is time we paid attention to the strategies it used to do that. And that is what my next blog will be about.

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