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Home  /  Inside China  /  The Dilemma of Quality Education in China
The Dilemma of Quality Education in China print version
Allowing kids to enjoy so-called liberal values of creativity or measuring one's abilities through stressful exams? China's education system is choosing to shift towards the first option, but when a child's 'quality' is called in question, aren't exams the only valid measurement?

The discourse of 'population quality' (renkou suzhi 人口素质) in contemporary China seeks to make residents more adaptive to the modern reality, encouraging one's own socioeconomic development and macro social progress. A concept coupled with 'population quality' is 'quality education' (suzhi jiaoyu 素质教育). Quality education, which is being discussed by the education system and parents throughout China, carries different implications in regions of different economic development. (Here I should mention that the term 'quality education' is misleading, because 'suzhi' doesn't describe 'education' but the quality such education leads to, hence 'suzhi jiaoyu' can be also translated to 'education that creates quality' or 'education the produces quality students/people'. For the sake of convenience, I continue to use 'quality education' as the main term throughout this article).

While in big cities in east China, such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, education reforms seem to stress the psychology of the child, his/her rest and play time, as well as other values that are associated with liberal Western conceptions, in rural areas, 'population quality' and 'quality education' mainly stress the importance of obtaining education, encouraging parents to invest more resources in child education and prioritizing education over household (or agriculture) choirs.
Two motives lead the communist government to promote such direction: Wanting China's new generation to be self-reliant and ambitious in the market economy, while, on the other hand, allowing such children to commit to patriotic ideas about the future prosperity of China. 
Education reforms emphasize the need to move away from tests and exam, cultivating high 'suzhi' and modern values in growing children, but on the other hand, how is such personal 'quality' assessed? It seems that throughout China, and particularly in rural schools, exams remain an important tool to identify prodigies. High grades are the most effective key to realize 'quality' aspirations, great expectations, and to mobilize oneself from rural to urban, from remote education to good universities, or from poor to wealthy. Two conflicting tendencies and needs are evident: An import of new liberal values (and reduce fierce competition in early age), while wanting to measure children abilities, understand where one is positioned and what is one's prospect.
Teachers also face a similar dilemma. While they are the agents of new reforms and 'quality education', when wishing to constantly improve the education system, teachers' suzhi is also tested, evaluating their guidance. How is the teacher quality tested? Yet again - Student exams. This system paradoxically doesn't allow teachers to disregard student grades and exam preparation, as such results affect their own career directly.

Such conflicting tendencies are evident in various levels of intensity throughout China. In urban middle-class locations, where a child is less expected to leap away from a low class to a higher one, both teachers and parents can truly adopt values of child creativity and Western theories of child psychology. It's not easy to avoid stress, but acknowledging stress as a mental barrier and not necessarily as a motivation fuel is more widespread within the middle class, compared to locations where education is by no means taken for granted. This, by the way, is not only a question of 'class'. Studies show that parents who didn't enjoy education in their childhood, because of growing up in the years of the cultural revolution (1966-1976) induce study-stress among their own children, while younger parents, who grew up in an age where education was more accessible and study stress was deeply experienced, allow their children to exercise a more relaxed lifestyle.

Although values attributed to 'quality education' continue to be incorporated in the education systems and in new parenting value systems, the competitive reality of Chinese society (狼多肉少 langduo roushao - 'many wolves, little meat'), will continue early in a child's school years, affected by the market economy, recent history and more rooted traditional values.

Assisting source: Murphy R. 2004. "Turning Peasants into Modern Chinese Citizens." The China Quarterly. 177(1): 1-20.

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