Is China's Education System Good or Bad?

Yong Zhao is an internationally recognized expert on education who has delivered over 400 presentations in close to 20 countries. He was born in Sichuan and taught English at the Sichuan Institute of Foreign Languages. He is the author of "Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the Word” (Jossey-Bass, 2014). He is particularly scornful of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment [PISA].

Asia Sentinel contributor Victor Fic interviewed Yong, presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, on why he holds those seemingly contrarian views of China’s education system.

Q: Your grasp of Chinese history spans how ancient rulers used the keju or exam system to squelch rivals – amplify.

A: The Sui dynasty’s emperor Wen (581-618 CE) seized power through murder. He configured the keju to neutralize adversaries. Ambitious men had to pick up the pen – not the sword. Succeeding emperors emulated that indirect strategy.

Q: You say keju stifled Chinese innovation. But historian Joseph Needham enumerates myriad inventions in farming, silk making, cooking, etc. Why do you denigrate these as minor or accidental?

A: Ancient China had scores of scientific and technological discoveries. They were accidental because no deliberate social or government plan or institutions supported science and technology as during the Industrial Revolution. Inventors could not secure government positions unlike keju. Inventions were intuitive and improved or abandoned over lack of institutional support. They never evolved into systematic, cumulative science-driven revolutionary changes.

Q: You say China invented gunpowder only for fireworks. Yet American Sinologist Tonio Andrade at Emory University told this interviewer to appreciate “traditional Chinese firearms expertise…in the 1100s, 1200s, and 1300s.” Later, impressed Europeans “immediately began copying.” Are you wrong?

A: They invented it by chance to scare away evil spirits. But yes, it was first deployed militarily in China. However, the Middle Kingdom was defeated in the 1800s by modern, Western and much more sophisticated firearms.

Q: Yes, it lost wars. You excoriate the keju. But was the specific reason the exams per se or the dogmatic belief in anti-scientific Confucian ideas -- or both?

A: The keju was the major tool to perpetuate doctrinal Confucianism. It excluded dissent, innovation and exploration by rewarding orthodoxy.

Q: What are the chief demerits of China’s school system today?

A: It is too test-driven and is based on passing the gaokao, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. It values memorization, is too examination-oriented, provides a narrow education experience, imposes an excessive academic burden and harsh competition, promotes homogeneity, is risk-aversive, rewards compliance and discourages individuality and logical analysis.

Q: Chinese citizens do not demand political rights, but you document the notion of a "right to cheat."

A: In Zhongxiang city, Hubei province, in 2014, a new rule said that examiners could not be the students’ teachers but must be randomly selected. The invigilators used metal detectors to expose secret transmitters disguised like small pencil erasers. Angry parents demanded a right to cheat, one punched an official, students smashed things and trapped the officials inside. Hundreds of police rescued them.

Q: Why do naysayers even doubt the basic methodology behind the Chinese results?

A: Simply because it is unclear if PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, itself examines merely scores from Shanghai or if Chinese officials submit only that data.

Q: For ‘real world proof’ of these demerits, you write that only 10 percent of the graduates of Chinese universities have the skills that multinationals want.

A: It is from a study conducted by McKinsey in 2005, a global consulting firm.

Q: But didn't China’s graduates generate the post - 1977 growth?

A: It stems from the state's retreat from over-governing. After 1977, the government empowered farmers and citizens for micro-economic decisions and permitted foreign investment. Discipline is not purely from schools. The multiple, military-style political campaigns before and during the Cultural Revolution inculcated obedience, too. China now needs more innovation.

Q: Beijing insists that it wants trailblazers. But you catalogue “fooling the emperor” innovation: pressure to appear successful and to meet officials’ demands means creative scandals.

A: The most infamous case may be the Hanxin computer chip scandal. Dr. Chen Jin of Shanghai Jiaotong University tricked many experts, multiple ministries, Jiaotong University, the Shanghai government and others into believing he had developed the first high-end computer chips in China with chips he bought from Motorola. He was showered with hundreds of millions of R&D money, granted a college deanship at Jiaotong, won 12 patents and numerous honors and awards.

Q: Isn’t Chinese society now doubtful when the media trumpets these creative sensations?

A: The public is skeptical because so many claims of genius are exposed as scams.

Q: Who lionizes the Chinese system?

A: Andreas Schleicher, who heads the Program for International Student Assessment of the OECD.

Q: And why do you perceive that the assessment is shrewdly “marketed?”

A: It is sold to government and business leaders as a test for 21st century skills. Additionally, PISA insists it can detect what factors improve your system. Its cardinal technique is its ranking based on test scores. Shanghai is first in math and science, but it also gauges reading. For politicians, a high outcome wins plaudits.

Q: Why do you denigrate PISA – don’t tests tell?

A: I reject all high-stakes standardized tests used to determine the quality of students, teachers or education systems because they oversimplify and have the faults I list.

Q: Many are stunned that American students have logged lousy test scores yet that has little real-world impact.

A: In the 1960s, when the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) was done, students here were at the bottom. But then NASA put Neil Armstrong on the moon through a national effort. Doesn’t that prove me correct?

Q: You warn the US’s education secretary Arne Duncan he is foolish to mimic the Chinese system...

A: The reforms here such as Common Core that center on curriculum standardization, centralization and testing wrongly imitate China.

Q: How do Western and Chinese parents differ in explaining low results?

A: Chinese parents typically believe diligence causes achievement. So they blame disappointing results on laziness, while Americans list poverty, student disinterest, dearth of talent, ineffective teaching, unfair tests plus laziness. Simply citing indolence overlooks other variables. It is almost impossible for pupils from disadvantaged families in laggard Guizhou to match rich ones in Shanghai, for example.

Q: Do Chinese reject all environmental explanations or is it a difference of dramatic degree?

A: No, environment matters. Note the famous story of how ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius’s mother moved three times to find a suitable environment for him. Today, Chinese parents strive to get their children into prestigious schools and pay much for ‘enrichment courses.’

Q: But Beijing officials emphasize exertion. Do you perceive a Beijing gambit here?

A: The myth prizing toil conveniently ignores the social inequities resulting from policies like over-emphasizing development in first-tier cities, failure to accommodate the different needs of all children and funneling funds to the ‘best’ score schools.

Q: You disparage Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” pedagogy because she internalizes other people’s definition of success … meaning?

A: Chua defines success strictly as quantified results like straight A's in math and science – marketable and publicly impressive, or an externally approved, materialistic view. What about passion and interest, dignity of the child, personality, confidence, social skills, creativity, integrity and enjoying learning? All internal.

Q: The Chinese media reported that a father tied his son to a tree and beat him for three hours for dismal test scores. Many Westerners indict Chinese parents for spurning the concept of “child abuse.”

A: Some practices are construed as abuse by Westerners. Chinese parents concur that “it is for your own good.”

Q: Would the best school system meld China and the US?

A: No, combining would not make the ideal school for the future. That requires a new education paradigm. See my 2012 book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. It is about preparing entrepreneurial, creative, and globally-minded individuals to create jobs and opportunities versus looking for jobs. Education must be personalized and engage students in learning through making authentic products.

Q: What changes are transpiring in China?

A: The most recent is the goakao reform. In 2014, Beijing pledged to de-emphasize test scores in Chinese, English and math as the sole admission criteria and factor in morality, artistic talent and social good citizenship. I expressed my support for earlier efforts to de-emphasize testing on a CCTV show in 2010.

Q: But parents fear liberalization means favoritism, subjectivism and corruption versus “objective” testing. Can these reforms take hold?

A: I am unsure, but the thrust is correct.

Q: The Communist Party wants the prestige of Nobel Prizes. China has not won any in science or technology. Surely that portends change, no?

A: It incentivizes change, but the gaokao mentality is deeply entrenched, especially among parents and schools. Decades of reforms to reduce academic pressure and forbid extra tutoring during vacations and holidays have had little impact. Over 2,000 universities exist but the increased number has not reduced pressure because the best ones demand high scores.

Q: Are you exaggerating the brutalities of Chinese schools?

A: Take Maotanchang High School in Anhui. Children rise by 6 a.m., sit in class by 6:30 a.m., and finish around 10:30 p.m. for homework. A week lasts nine days. The tenth is for weekly exams. One year costs US $8,000, three times the local wage.

Q: You say to China: "Don’t be murdered by flattery!" Meaning?

A: PISA's accolades can halt reform, amounting to pengsha in Chinese – murder through praise! Being first is a heavy burden. Education systems in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan suffer from the bondage of soaring test results – preventing bold change.