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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 liberal values of creativity and self-cultivation 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 testing measurement?

The discourse of 'population quality' (renkou suzhi 人口素质) in contemporary China seeks both to make residents more adaptive to the modern reality, encouraging one's own socioeconomic development, and synchronized with the national sentiments concerning China's modernization course. 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 eastern cities, 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 preventing children from quitting school in early age, in order to engage in their household peasant work.

Two motives lead the communist government to promote such direction: Wanting China's new generation to be self-cultivating, ambitious and educated about the dynamics of modern society, while, on the other hand, allowing such children to absorb nationalist ideas and commitment to the future prosperity of China, which are taught by the education system. After this is achieved, 'quality education', more 'advanced' principles of child creativity, reducing exam stress and more, can be promoted as well (on the contrary, education for the purpose of passing exams only is named 'yingshi jiaoyu 应试教育'). Rural parents are indeed acknowledging importance of education more than they did in the past. Investing more resources in child education, instead of enjoying the assistance of their child's labor in their fields or farms, leads also to an economic outcome of smaller households of one child (is such regions more than one child is legally permitted).

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 recognize prodigy. 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: Wanting to import 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. After all, a small percentage of children will be able to realize their high aspirations, so parents wish to know if to continue investing, or perhaps give up and bring the child back to the frustrating, yet warm, peasant nest.

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, a teacher's suzhi is also tested, evaluating one's effective and inspiring guidance. How is the teacher quality tested? Yet again - Student exam. 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, self cultivation 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 to be expressed as early as 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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