"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Meritocracy, Chinese and American Style

The biggest difference in Chinese and American education is that the Chinese only offer their best test scores in international comparisons.  Otherwise, the systems operate on the same principles of corruption and inequality, and they produce similar results based on a caste system sustained by instituionalized racism and classism.

China’s Education Gap
By HELEN GAO SEPT. 4, 2014

BEIJING — EVERY September, the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua
Universities, often called the Harvard and M.I.T. of China, brim with eager new
students, the winners of China’s cutthroat education system. These young men
and women possess the outlook of cosmopolitan youth worldwide: sporting
designer clothes and wielding high-end smartphones, they share experiences of
foreign travel and bond over common fondness for Western television shows like
“The Big Bang Theory” and “Sherlock.”

They are destined for bright futures: In a few decades, they will fill highpowered
positions in government and become executives in state banks and
multinational companies. But their ever-expanding career possibilities belie the
increasingly narrow slice of society they represent. The percentage of students at
Peking University from rural origins, for example, has fallen to about 10 percent
in the past decade, down from around 30 percent in the 1990s. An admissions
officer at Tsinghua University told a reporter last year that the typical
undergraduate was “someone who grew up in cities, whose parents are civil
servants and teachers, go on family trips at least once a year, and have studied
abroad in high school.”

China’s state education system, which offers nine years of compulsory
schooling and admits students to colleges strictly through exam scores, is often
hailed abroad as a paradigm for educational equity. The impression is reinforced
by Chinese students’ consistently stellar performance in international
standardized tests. But this reputation is built on a myth.

While China has phenomenally expanded basic education for its people,
quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, it has also created
a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and well-connected citizens,
thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.

A huge gap in educational opportunities between students from rural areas
and those from cities is one of the main culprits. Some 60 million students in
rural schools are “left-behind” children, cared for by their grandparents as their
parents seek work in faraway cities. While many of their urban peers attend
schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural
students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to grasp
advanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified

“Rural students stand virtually no chance when competing academically
with their urban counterparts,” Jiang Nengjie, a friend and independent
filmmaker who made a documentary on the left-behind children, told me. As a
result, he said, most young people from his hometown village in central China
head directly to factories in Guangdong Province, on the southern coast, after
finishing middle school, because “the return is larger than going to a third-rate

For migrant children who follow their parents to cities, the opportunity for a
decent education is similarly limited, as various government policies foil their
attempts at full integration. The hukou system — a residency status that ties
access to subsidized social services to one’s hometown — denies rural children
the right to enter urban public schools. Many migrant children are relegated to
private schools that charge higher tuition and offer subpar education. Recent
reforms in cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai have had only a tangential impact
on leveling the playing field.

In Beijing, home to eight million migrant workers, preconditions for
admission seem intended less to promote educational equity than to exacerbate
the discrimination. Some parents have switched jobs, sued the government and
even engineered divorces to get around onerous documentation requirements,
which often vary from district to district. Many urban migrants ultimately have
no choice but to send their children back to their rural hometowns for inferior

China requires a vast majority of students to take the national college
entrance examination in their home province, and elite universities allocate
higher admission quotas to first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai. One
researcher showed that an applicant from Beijing was 41 times more likely to be
admitted to Peking University than a comparable student from the poor and
largely rural province of Anhui.

Even an urban residency status doesn’t ensure educational equity among
city dwellers. The quality of urban schools varies widely, and the competition to
enter top schools has spawned rampant corruption. Parents fork out tens of
thousands of dollars under the guise of “voluntary donations” to secure a slot for
their children in elite schools. At top-ranked high schools, such as the one I
attended in Beijing, these charges can reach $130,000. Further advantage can be
purchased by parents who can pay handsomely to hire teachers to offer extra
tutoring to their children, a practice discouraged by the authorities but
widespread in reality.

To curb the culture of graft, Beijing has implemented policies this year that
require students to attend elementary schools in their home districts. But the
new rules, instead of stopping parents from gaming the system, simply
channeled the cash to another market. Property in well-regarded school districts
became Beijing’s hottest commodity this spring. Families have been tripping
over one another to trade spacious homes in posh compounds for dilapidated
flats next to prestigious elementary schools. In a sought-after neighborhood in
the Xicheng district, for example, a 107-square-foot flat was listed for $550,000.

CHINESE education, having always placed enormous emphasis on test
scores, is now becoming a game of another set of numbers. When graduating
high school students walk into test centers to take the most important exam in
their lives, their chances are determined not only by a decade of assiduous study,
but also by the costs of their cramming lessons, the years their parents have
toiled in cities in exchange for an urban residency permit, and the admission
quotas universities allot to the provinces. For poor students, it’s harder than ever
to overcome the odds.

My mother, who attended Peking University in the late 1970s, remembered
being surrounded by classmates of all walks of life — from the heirs of party
officials and the scions of intellectuals, to workers fresh out of factories and
peasants hailing from far-flung provinces. In the decades that followed, the
economic opening that has led to vast wealth, along with extreme income
inequality, has all but obliterated such diversity in the top tier of Chinese

In China, which pioneered the use of merit-based examinations to fill official
positions, an educational system that was once a great equalizer now reinforces

Chang Qing, a friend and mother of a 16-year-old girl, has been preparing
her daughter, Xiaoshuang, for America since the girl was a toddler. She played
her tapes of English lessons made from Disney movies, and later hosted a steady
stream of exchange students from America to hone her child’s accent. Now, her
daughter speaks impeccable English and attends a private academy in Beijing
where annual tuition is around $24,000. Ms. Chang believes that nothing short
of an Ivy League education will suffice.

On a trip to the countryside in Hunan Province (the home of Mao Zedong), I
met Jiang Heng, a skinny 11-year-old whose parents work in a handbag factory in
neighboring Guangdong. The boy attends a local elementary school that takes
him an hour and half to walk to and, together with his younger brother, is looked
after by his grandparents. I asked him what he wanted to do after high school.
He looked confused, as if the answer was too obvious. “I want to be a migrant
worker,” he told me, without blinking.

Helen Gao is a master’s student in East Asian studies at Harvard.

headline: China's Education Gap.
© 2014 The New York Times Company

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