Nothing stirs passions quite like the debate over the Chinese school system. Critics say it is a test-obsessed bureaucracy that produces students who excel at reciting facts but not much else. Others argue that it is equipping children with exceptionally strong skills, particularly in math and science. Scott Rozelle, a Stanford University economist who runs a rural education program in China, is an author of a new study that challenges popular conceptions of Chinese schools. In a recent conversation, he discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese education system, as well as the advice he would offer the country’s leaders.
Your study finds that Chinese students begin college with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world, far outpacing their peers in the United States and Russia. But they lose that advantage after two years. What is going on?
It’s a good news, bad news story. The good news: Whatever the heck they do in high school, whether you like it or not, they are teaching massive numbers of kids math, physics and some type of critical thinking skills. What drives me crazy is they’re not learning anything in college. There are no incentives for the kids to work hard. Everyone graduates.
Why are high schools doing a better job than colleges?
In high school, parents provide oversight. If they don’t think their kid’s being pushed hard, they’re the first ones on the phone, the first ones standing at the teacher’s desk. From the teacher’s view, they have a huge incentive to get their students through the curriculum and get through the tests.
Say you are appointed to lead a university in China. What is the first thing you change?
In the United States, we get rewarded for good teaching. Your promotions and salary raises depend on you getting good evaluations from students, on performing well in the classroom and winning awards. That’s every bit as important as publishing research. In China, that’s not happening. The professors we work with say, “Why should we push the kids if they’re going to graduate anyway?”
A lot of criticism inside and outside of China focuses on the gaokao, the national exam that Chinese students spend years cramming for because it is the main criterion for getting into college. Some people say it is killing creativity. Is it time for change?
We plan to study creativity in our next round of exams, and it will be very interesting to see how the Chinese and the other East Asian students perform. A lot of people would say the gaokao is a fair system. Some reforms are needed for the one-test-score-does-all model. We need to reduce the pressure somewhat and to focus teaching on producing better-rounded children.
If you were in a room with China’s top leaders, what advice would you give them about the education system?
I’d ask: “Why isn’t everybody going to high school? How do we get everybody to go to high school?” It’s a rural problem. Then you ask yourself, “Why aren’t these rural kids going to high school?” Well, it’s because 10, 15, 20 percent of them drop out of junior high school. They aren’t even finishing junior high.
What is happening in middle school?
This isn’t India, where half the teachers are absent, or Africa, where they haven’t been able to improve the quality of teaching. In China, you’ve got good facilities and good teachers. The curriculum in rural areas is the same as the best that’s taught to the city kids. So what is it?
What our work shows very clearly is that it’s really the matter of the individual kids in rural areas. They’re sick. They’ve got uncorrected myopia, malnutrition, anemia and intestinal worms. Forty percent of children in our sample in Guizhou have worms in their stomach. How do you study in elementary school if you’ve got worms in your stomach?
At the same time, prosperity is rising and China has become more urban.
This is the irony. They have the fastest-growing economy in terms of wealth in Asia. But the kids are a victim of China’s own success. China really grew so fast, and they’ve invested in resources and teachers. But they’ve left behind the human element.