China’s Entrance Exam System: Time for a Change?

In addressing the need for more American economic competitiveness, President Obama called on the nation to set the goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” It is an ambitious plan to make the U.S. competitive in the 21st century, considering that the Center on Education and the Workforce predicted that at current graduation rates, America would fall short of the needed 22 million graduates in 2018 by 3 million. Adding to the problem, ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer reported that this year China will graduate four times the number of college graduates than the U.S.

Clearly, Americans need to worry about themselves, as suggested in one of my previous posts. However, as progressive as China is made to sound, its dominance is not inevitable.

For one, China’s education system, though widely lauded for its rigorous culture, is also struggling to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.

The deeply ingrained Asian Confucian ideal of hard work, dedication, and “following the master’s way” has created a culture of education that has consistently placed China, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong among other Asian nations to the top of international lists in math, science, and even reading achievement (according to the latest international PISA results). The U.S. can learn from such dedication and high standards. But China’s emphasis on the all-important gaokao (college entrance exams) unintentionally creates three roadblocks toward premier status:  1) it sustains an anachronistic culture of rote learning in a modern era; and 2) it creates a social and economic divide; and 3) it sustains a thriving industry of fraud that jeopardizes China’s legitimate power.

The rigid culture of lecture and rote memorization has produced a thriving manufacturing economy, but for China to compete, it must be able to innovate and create new products and services. These fiercely competitive gaokao exams, where 9.5 million high school students compete for 6.5 million university positions, is also not conducive to producing revolutionary innovators on the level of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, according to the ABC World News report. China has, however, recognized this problem and is working towards a more open curriculum that fosters creativity.

Secondly, this meritocratic exam, though it theoretically allows even the poor to equitably advance to a better life, has also inadvertently created a social divide. The students who pass then go on to college in economically developed urban areas as Shanghai and Beijing, but the ones who cannot pass essentially go back to their rural areas. Most likely the unfortunate ones end up as itinerant manufacturing laborers migrating from rural hometowns to urban areas; the result: a classic economic gap. As the well-educated prosper, education itself has become more expensive as these parents pay for enrichment materials, supplemental classes, nursery schools in early preparation for the all-consuming gaokao exams.

Perhaps the most deleterious effect of this exam is corruption and fraud. Not that exams create this problem per se, but its long-standing, all-important tradition nourishes an environment ripe for fraud that begins early on. There has been rising media exposure (both inside and outside China) documenting rampant academic and government fraud in China and calling for Chinese action. With an emphasis on quotas and quantity over quality, academicians are more susceptible to plagiarizing papers, fudging data, or simply fabricating qualifications. The Economist recently wrote about this phenomenon, citing one case in particular:

The most notable recent case centres on Tang Jun, a celebrity executive, a self-made man and author of a popular book, ‘My Success Can Be Replicated.’ He was recently accused of falsely claiming that he had a doctorate from the prestigious California Institute of Technology. He responded that his publisher had erred and in fact his degree is from another, much less swanky, California school.

With senior academicians and scientists rarely punished, a dangerous precedent is set for generations to come (the aforementioned “following the master’s way”). How the Chinese government reacts to this trend will speak volumes about being seen as a collaborative world partner. To compete as a credible power in the global economy, they will need to create legitimate peer-review structures and consistently enforce them. However, as recent as this week, The New York Times reported that six men in Xinjiang, China were detained by police for an attack that left a journalist brain dead. The crusader, Song Hongjie, a correspondent for the Northern Xinjiang Morning Post, had a reputation for exposing corruption and wrongdoing. Other recent beatings included two Chinese science reporters who were known to expose academic fraud.

This is not a post affirming or condemning Chinese politics; rather, it is about understanding how the millenia-old culture and its emphasis on the practical and traditional must go through a constant meta-analytical process to maintain Confucius’ original vision (aptly captured in his maxim: Study without reflection is a waste. Reflection without study is a danger). Otherwise, bastardized by-products such as piracy, corruption, and fraud become the unintended norm and prevent China from moving forward. They can start by rethinking how to better evaluate student knowledge and skills.

Addendum: Nick Kristof wrote a spot-on article (China’s Winning Schools) about their education system soon after this post, asserting that their Confucian reverence for education is the best thing we can learn. However, many Chinese teachers are highly critical of its own system, pointing to the lack of self-reliance and creative development in students, as I alluded to above.

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