Rote memorization, a grueling 9-hour college admission exam known as the gaokao, cramming schools every evening and every weekend; is this really a healthy way to educate young people?
Healthy or not, it is the Chinese education way. And it does produce impressive results, if you believe test scores are the main goal of education.
In the fall of 2012, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) tested 510,000 students between ages 15 and 16 in 65 economies, including 34 OECD countries—a sample they say represents 28 million students. The test was given in reading, math and science, and among those 34 countries, the U.S. performed slightly below average while Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Korea and Japan came out on top.
The tests are known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and are given every three years.
But Are Cramming and Drilling Really the Way to Go?
Even some Chinese parents are having their doubts.
From The Guardian
Chinese parents and educators see their own system as corrupt, dehumanizing, pressurized, and unfair. In fact, many are looking to the West for answers.
As long as China’s education system remains vast but resource-constrained, Lao (Kaisheng, a professor in the education department of Beijing Normal University) added, its schools will default to testing as a reliable indicator of competence. “The education system here puts a heavy emphasis on rote memorization, which is great for students’ test-taking ability, but not for their problem-solving and leadership abilities, or their interpersonal skills,” he said. “Chinese schools just ignore these things.”
This is interesting in light of the adoption of Common Core State Standards in the U.S. Embraced now by 45 of the U.S states, (although some states, including Indiana, New York and California are having second thoughts or at least postponing their implementation), the thrust of these standards and their associated tests is precisely to promote creative, original thinking and problem-solving, rather than just the “fill-in-the-blanks” tests that were emblematic of the No Child Left Behind era.
Not so in China, where drilling-and-killing is the order of the day.
China’s Education System Is Killing its Students
Occasionally, reminders of the system’s ruthlessness cause soul-searching. In 2012, pictures of a classroom of Chinese high-school students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips while studying for the gaokao went viral on social media. Last May, two teenagers in Jiangsu killed themselves after “failing to complete homework,” according to state media. The Guardian reports that in 2012, a student emerged from the exam to learn that his mother had died in a car crash 12 days prior; the school and his relatives conspired not to tell him so as to not distract him.
Suicide is the top cause of death among Chinese youth, according to China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, it’s become such a problem that some Chinese universities are now forcing incoming students to sign waivers absolving the university of responsibility for a student’s suicide.
No, the Chinese education system is not a healthy one.
Are Those Amazing Shanghai Scores Just Too Amazing?
In addition, it turns out that those outstanding scores from Shanghai might actually be rigged.
For one thing, although Shanghai’s 23 million people make up less than 2 percent of China’s population, its per capita GDP is more than double the national average; its college enrollment rate is four times as high. In other words, it is hardly representative of the whole of China.
And here’s more reason to question these numbers: nearly half of Shanghai’s school-age children belong to migrant families and were effectively barred from taking the test. China has a residence registration system, which means that these students are forced to attend high school and take tests in their home provinces. Here, schools are woefully understaffed, and test scores are much lower. The scores from other parts of China were not released.
Shanghai may be number one in the PISA rankings, but it comes dead last in terms of raising healthy, well-rounded children who are inspired to discover things on their own.