SHANGHAI, China– Shanghai has placed first on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) standardized test, which measures reading, science and math skills. Every three years, 15-year-old students take the test in dozens of nations. This represents the second time Shanghai has placed first.
While China is well-known for its high quality education and rigorous academic standards, those educational opportunities are not available to everyone in a nation of 1.3 billion people. Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that entrenched inequality exists in China’s education system for students living in the countryside and for children with disabilities.
Half of the Chinese population lives in the countryside, where children go to poorly funded schools. Hundreds of thousands of children migrate to Shanghai and often find barriers to public education because of China’s “hukou” system, which requires students to get official permission to change their residency and receive public services. Furthermore, an estimated 25 % of disabled children in China do not attend school.
Globally, 10% of people have a physical or mental disability, with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calling people with disabilities “the world’s largest minority.” About 20% of the global poor are disabled, and China’s figures represent this disparity.
China reports that it has 85 million disabled people, 6.5% of the population. The reason for lower reported numbers is unknown. Chinese people with disabilities have a disposable income that is half the country’s average, and 40% of disabled Chinese people are illiterate.
China has an educational tracking system that separates children with disabilities from children who do not have disabilities, from primary school through university.
Children with disabilities are supposedly allowed to learn in China’s mainstream schools as long as they are “able to adapt” to the structure and lifestyle of these schools. HRW asserts, however, that in reality only children with very mild disabilities are able to attend China’s schools.
In a university setting, the Chinese government requires that students take a physical exam that takes note of disabilities, which are then reported to universities with the students’ academic records. Official rules allow universities to preclude students from taking particular subjects if the student has certain disabilities.
In August 2013, a university in Henan denied a student who uses crutches from participating in its medicine and psychology program, even though he qualified for the program academically. The university explained, “His physical disabilities do not match his chosen subjects.”
Other students have been rejected or dismissed from mainstream schools because they “can’t learn” or “may affect other children.”
Blind pupils from special education schools have lobbied the government for many years for a version of the university entrance exam, the gaokao, that would be accessible to them. Their efforts have thus far not persuaded the Chinese government, and their entrance to mainstream universities is repeatedly denied.
The Chinese legal code does not explicitly explain what counts as discrimination, so people with disabilities—and other underserved minorities—have little to point to in the law to make their case.
The Chinese government has, however, adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which requires that governments create accessible educational systems that are inclusive to those with a variety of learning needs.
However, teachers in Chinese mainstream schools are rarely trained to teach students with special needs. Schools, therefore, reject students who have disabilities or such students find life in a mainstream school too challenging and drop out. A special school might only serve students with a particular disability such as blindness or deafness, and therefore students who do not fit into this category are left without services.
HRW states that Chinese education can be more inclusive by taking even relatively simple steps.
The organization asserts that better training for teachers is imperative to creating a system that better serves students with disabilities. Steps such as teaching instructors to face the students so deaf pupils can lip-read, giving written notes, or giving Braille materials to students who have visual impairments have the potential to create a more accessible environment.
HRW states, “Unless these changes happen, the PISA scores will only reflect the success of some of China’s students. Imagine if one day China’s mainstream schools open their doors to all students with disabilities? Then China’s educational achievements will truly be impressive.”
– Kaylie Cordingley