Cramming to the top

Chinese students spend years cramming for the two-day college entrance exam that will determine their future. The gaokao “robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood,” concludes Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Peking University High School, in The Diplomat. But the killer exam is the fairest way to provide social mobility for bright and diligent students in a poor country that can’t afford to educate everyone.

China needs a system that can “resist the pull and power of the well-connected and wealthy,” Xuequin argues. That means it needs a national test.

If we were to test writing and thinking ability, then that would mean an automatic bias towards the children of well-educated parents who have from an early age discuss books, current affairs, and travel plans with their child over the dinner table. Moreover, to teach thinking and writing (or any soft skills such as creativity and collaboration) would require highly specialised and highly professional teachers who would naturally congregate in expensive private schools or prestigious public schools in Beijing and Shanghai. And if this were the case, China would just be like the United States, where education is monopolised by the self-perpetuating and self-interested educated elite, and social mobility through education becomes a distant dream for everyone else.

But China has 800 million peasants who depend on schooling as their child’s only chance out of the rice fields. Rural children don’t have access to the libraries, well-trained teachers, and intellectual spaces that wealthy cities can offer — all they have is their willingness to work hard to improve themselves. If Chinese believe in fairness and social mobility, then tests must be more about the student’s ability to memorise the textbooks he has access to, rather than about his ability to think critically, which is the result of making the most of a special set of resources available only to society’s elite.

What do you get? The gaokao. Chinese students will take the test June 7 and 8.

I don’t think social mobility through education is a “distant dream” in the U.S.  But it’s interesting to see the land of opportunity through other people’s eyes.