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China’s new education reform will fail again

6 min read
Students taking the Chinese Gaokao exam

China‘s Education Department published the new rules of the college entrance examination. Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces are going to be the experimental regions of the new system.

Unfortunately, no matter how the Chinese government acts on the education system, all reforms are sure to be failures. The government is still unaware of the lack of substance of the education system and what is going wrong. I’d like to analyse why the Chinese can’t make progress on their education by commenting on the new policies for the education system.

Today’s Chinese education faces three problems. The first is the overly heavy burden of exams, rather than study. The second is the overly unfair burden of college entrance opportunity among different provinces and students with different backgrounds. The third is a dramatically growing number of young kids giving up their education in China and turning to developed countries, an alarming portion of whom are rather talented.

The three drawbacks of Chinese education is enough to make it one of the worst education environments in the world, except for those countries which are too poor to sustain their education system. The new policies are aimed at these disadvantages. For example, to select talented students, they put the independent tests of each of the universities at a time after the college entrance exam (known as Gaokao). They also stress that grades of exams won’t be so important and the process to select students into college will be different than before. However, based on the natural law of the policies of the Chinese government, these new reforms won’t change anything and maybe even worsen the current situation.

Chinese education’s problem  is lack of proper knowledge and content, rather than the framework of the system. The reform of Chinese education was started in the early 1990s. But 20 years later, the education system is even worse than before. Students get confusing results on their final Gaokao marks. Also, different provinces have different marking standards and exam papers to test students to allow them to enter universities.

That means more and more good students can’t receive good education. As example, a student in Beijing has 1/50 possibility to be admitted to Tsinghua University. However, a student in Hubei province has only a 1/7,500 possibility to be admitted to Tsinghua University. Hubei students are confronted with a much harder Gaokao test paper than Beijing students.

The reform changed the pre-1990s situation where all students used the same paper and the same marking standard. The confusing situation today is the result of the past 20 years’ reform on the framework of exams and admissions. However, the knowledge content and teaching rationality has never changed in the past two decades.

It is also confirmed that chemical reactions mentioned in the Gaokao test paper can’t happen actually happen in reality. That means for 20 years those who learn chemistry at high school must recite over 30 chemical reactions that just exist in the mind of the test’s fabricators, but never appear in scientific world! Those who are intelligent enough to doubt whether the reactions can happen can’t be admitted by a good university because they can’t remember those ridiculous and non-existent reactions.

Another example demonstrates it more. For many years, the Chinese exam has asked students to answer the questions with the results needed by the teachers. If the question asks “what’s your favourite sentence in this poem?” the students must answer the one taught by the teachers rather the one they sincerely like. Generally speaking, almost all questions on the Chinese Gaokao papers are in the same mode as the two examples above.

The purpose of the exam itself is to select students into a good university, but the knowledge content of the education system can’t test who is gifted and who is dull. The students in China are only studying for the content of exam. The change of exam time, exam form or admission process can’t impact how Chinese students study. If the exam questions are only liked by those hardworking but dull students, the change of the form will let more these students into good universities. Creative students are still kept away from Tsinghua or Fudan.

To remedy the poor education and exam system, the Chinese education department carried out an independent admission system in 2007. To make it “fair”, the new policies put the time of the independent admission tests in the days after the Gaokao. Quoting the then vice-minister, the independent admission test is aimed at enrolling more “talented students.”

Substantially, the independent admission test is similar to the Gaokao reforms of today and from the past. It is also just a form framework but never works properly. The trap of why Chinese educators always miss creative talent, but pick up those who are dull, is not only caused by the selection process, but by the quality of Chinese educators themselves. Chinese educators have no ability to select the talented students.

The reasons are because of both the educators and the students. Firstly, most students in China are trained with many skills. In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Shanghai students are always winning the first position. But the fact is the students have been trained to remember all the questions and their answers, but without any self-consideration of new questions. That partially explains why Chinese students are brilliant in PISA but China is still a country replying on over 90% foreign innovated technology .

Thus, Chinese students can look really quick-mind, but indeed they just recite what others have done or said. Chinese children can play the piano skilfully, but merely a rather tiny proportion of them are piano lovers. Chinese students can write good prose and novels, but most of their good sentences are just recited from others’ good masterpieces.All intensive training on exam skills for Chinese students make it difficult to find the student who is extraordinary.

In China, parents can often hear stories like the following: A student was never praised by educators and the whole class could win prizes except him. However, when his parents sent him to the USA, he was regarded as a talent and contributed much to American society. Such stories might be why Chinese experts complained to the media that China’s system couldn’t select him out.

Another type of story often in the media is: A student was the winner of many prizes and entered a top university. After many years passed, he is a below-average student, in common company, without any achievement. The comparison of these two types of stories indicates that Chinese educators have lost the basic ability to understand students.

Chinese educators, actually, are biased towards students who are skilful but without creativity. In educators eyes, these type of students are “clever and innovated.” As Chinese educators themselves have been taught with Chinese education, they can’t manage to realise what a creative and gifted student looks like.Though the test form is changed to look more flexible, the ones who teach and test students are still those Chinese educators. Change of form can’t change anything.

Chinese education is always focusing on the change of form, including the form of exam, time of exam, process of exam and process of admission. As for the decisive factors, such as knowledge, content and educator quality, Chinese education experts have little awareness to be able to consider them. If the reform is always on the framework, all education reforms in China will fail. This reality has never changed in China’s history.

Tony Simon

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