Students leave Maotanchang High at the end of a 16 1/2-hour day. (Photo: Sim Chi Yin/VII, New York Times)
Rural Chinese parents pay for their children to attend high-pressure test-prep schools like Maotanchang High, reports the New York Times Magazine. Students must pass the gaokao test — the sole criterion for university admission — or face a life of manual labor, like their parents.
Yang Wei starts his first class at 6:20 am and finishes his last class at 10:50 pm, writes Brook Larmer. After taking the Sunday morning practice test, he gets three hours of freedom. He shares a tiny room with his mother, who quit her garment-factory job to support him in his final years.
. . . the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. Even at the liberal bilingual kindergarten my sons attended in Beijing, Chinese parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables and proper Chinese and English syntax, lest their children fall behind their peers in first grade. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”
Unemployment and underemployment is rising among new college graduates in China. Yet, “the competition is fiercer than ever,” says Jiang Xueqin, an assistant vice principal at Tsinghua University High School. “And rural students are getting left behind.”
Perhaps nobody on campus is more motivated — and exhausted — than Maotanchang’s 500 teachers, whose jobs hinge on their students’ success. Base salaries for teachers are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-school wages, and bonuses can easily double their incomes. For each student who gets into a first-tier university, the six-member teacher teams (a head teacher and five subject teachers) share a $500 reward.
. . . The head teachers’ schedules are so grueling — 17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students — that the school has decreed that only young, single men can fill the job. The competition to hang onto these spots is intense. Charts posted on the walls of the faculty room rank classes by cumulative test scores from week to week. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired.
On campus, decorative rocks bear the school’s motto: “We don’t compete with intelligence but with hard work!”
Yang was “ecstatic” to qualify for a second-tier regional university. His childhood friend, Cao, failed the gaokao. Days later, Cao “left their home village to search for migrant work in China’s glittering coastal cities,” writes Larmer. “He would end up on a construction site, just like his father.”