SEATTLE — The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal sets the standard for education in China: equitable quality education for all by 2030.
Education in China is rigorous, touting explosive test scores and superior global skills in math and science. Teacher training is a national priority, and all teachers are educated to deliver basic skills across all levels.
According to UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 250 million primary school-aged children across the globe are not learning basic skills even though 91 percent are attending school. Fifty-seven million remain out of school, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
China has mastered basic skills attainment among primary school-aged children and maintained a youth literacy rate of 99.64 percent. Additionally, the city of Shanghai is the top performing school system in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) table for math achievement.
In sub-Saharan Africa, students are attending school in record numbers. However, the quality of education, consistency of skills and accessibility is severely lacking. Education in China presents lessons for developing countries in the areas of basic skills attainment, teacher training, accessibility and management.
Modern education in China took root under Mao Zedong but flourished under Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s goals were to modernize Chinese education to compete with other developing countries.
Mao’s education policies were intended for all, with emphasis on the peasants, but his version of education reform was centered around indoctrination with Communist propaganda, which stunted the progress of his initiatives. Under his leadership, education and economic prosperity suffered.
Deng Xiaoping, influenced by Mao’s goal of making education accessible for all, became the leader of China in 1977. It was Deng who realized effective education is the cornerstone of economic development and Chinese advancement.
In the 80s, Deng saw the need for universal primary and secondary education which led to a policy of nine-year compulsory education by 1985. Deng was on a path to revive Chinese society through modernizing education.
China’s education system is state run by the Ministry of Education. All children are guaranteed nine years of free education which includes six years of primary education and three years of secondary. China claims that 99.7 percent of the population area of the country has completed the nine-year compulsory education.
Education is divided into three levels. Basic Education includes preschool, primary and secondary school. Higher Education includes vocational training, university (two and four-year degrees) and certificates. Adult Education includes specialized schools aimed to boost literacy rates and skills among rural populations.
School days are very long, running up to seven or eight hours for primary students and 12-14 hours for secondary students. Even when the school day over, many children spend hours of additional time studying at home and many attend school on Saturdays. If Saturday school is not available, parents often hire tutors.
The long hours and rigorous testing belie a competitive system where expectations are high and students are under a great deal of pressure to perform well. Chinese children routinely surpass other children in developed nations on standardized tests. For example, students in the United States in the 90th percentile are scoring the same as below average Chinese students.
Success and Criticism
Chinese students are unparalleled in standardized test taking because their education system excels in teaching skills through rote memorization. These students also face a great deal of pressure to succeed and are discouraged from questioning authority.
China’s counterparts in the developed world lack the same prowess in math, science and test-taking skills. However, these countries tend to outperform Chinese students in critical thinking, independent thinking, analytical writing and communication, which are vital skills for the workforce.
While analytical and critical thinking skills are important, they are secondary for students who have not mastered basic academic skills.
Lessons for Developing Countries
Other school systems, particularly those in developing countries, can learn from China’s methods even as its system presents challenges. For example, countries in sub-Saharan Africa could benefit from the methodical approach to teaching to achieve mastery of basic skills among students, as well as a universal standard of teaching and assessment.
China has recognized the opportunity to provide lessons to developing countries. In 2012, the Chinese government pledged $8 million to fund UNESCO-China-Funds-In-Trust (CFIT) Information and Communication Technology in teacher training project. By April 2016, China provided teacher training to 10 African countries through this program.
The Director General for Education, Qian Tang, said that 70 workshops have been completed benefiting 3,000 teachers. This project received additional funding of $4 million for 2017-2018 and is extended to 2 additional countries on the African continent.
These are steps in the right direction to achieving universal quality education for all by 2030, as outlined in the United Nations sustainable development goals. China has achieved these goals incrementally over several decades and can offer a valuable model for developing countries in making education a national priority.
– Mandy Otis