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PHYSICS BY AGE 13: Su Ke began studying english and alegbra at age 4. by 10 she was mastering geometry. last year, Su Ke averaged six hours of homework on weekdays and all day during weekends.

Su Ke, 17
Secondary school
Beijing, China

Family: Like most of her classmates, she is an only child. Her father is a manager, and her mother is a teacher. They live near Beijing's city center.

School: A 3,000-student public school for junior- and senior-level students, ages 12 to 18, 15 miles from her home. Most junior students are professors' kids; senior students are the same or, like Su Ke, tested well enough to enter. Each class has 50 students. She lived in a school dormitory during the week. School started each day at 7:45 a.m. and ended after a daily test that began at 4:40 p.m. School runs from September to June.

Courses: Chinese, math (algebra, geometry, trig), English, physics, chemistry and biology to prepare for the national university entrance exam, the Gaokao, in early June. During her three-year senior level, she also has taken geography, politics, P.E., music, history, computer science and painting.

A major strength of the Chinese system is the esteem placed on education. Inequality is a problem, however: The nation's best schools are mostly in big cities.


Su "Nancy" Ke, a student at a Beijing high school, began studying English -- one of her favorite subjects -- at 4. That's not the only area in which Chinese students get an early start. She took up the serious study of geometry at 10, trig at 12 and physics at 13. In her early years, homework took up to two hours per night. In her last year of secondary school just completed, it took up to six hours each day and the entire weekend. Plus, like about four out of 10 classmates, she had a tutor.

She says it's even tougher outside Beijing. In Shandong province, between classes and required study and reviewing in the evenings, "you are locked at school and mainly sitting in your seats in the classroom" from 5:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. Her experience hints at some of the main themes in Chinese education: Students are worked hard. The superior schools and educational opportunities lie in the major cities such as Beijing in the country's east. English instruction is mandatory by age 8.

All cultures say they value education, but in commitment of family resources (families pay fees and for books) and dedication of leisure time, China means it. The esteem given education in China is its system's major strength.

It has other issues. The top one: Inequality. The nation has "a tremendous amount of inequality" in education, says Gerard Postiglione, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong. Schools in the western part of the nation and rural areas are of lesser quality than those in the eastern cities.

In rural areas, where 800 million Chinese live, schools can be far from student homes, and school expenses can absorb 12% to 25% of a rural family's income. There's a brain drain from disadvantaged areas as bright youth devote themselves to getting into a major university and don't come back. And in many remote places children don't attend school at all or only for a couple of years.

In typical urban districts, students begin primary school at age 6. At age 12, they move into the Chinese equivalent of middle school and high school for six years. In the senior secondary years, students begin to fall into either the vocational track or the higher education track, leading to community college, technical college or a university. In rural areas, the government aims for half the kids to take each track.

Nationwide, the percentage of students going on to higher education is just under 20%. In major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, upward of 70% go on to higher education, a higher rate than in the United States as a whole. University admittance depends entirely on a student's score on a national entrance exam.

The central government's universities, such as Beijing, Tsinghua and Fudan universities, have the most prestige, followed by the less well-thought-of but more numerous provincial universities. China's higher education system, already the largest in the world, is under pressure to expand as more students, following the advent in the 1980s of a compulsory nine years of education, advance into and through secondary education, Postiglione says.

China spends less in percentage of GNP than many countries: Just under 3%, compared to 5% in the U.S. and its own immediate goal of 4%. (Florida spends 3.8% of its GSP on education.) China is searching for ways to encourage, against the cultural tide, the formation of productive, creative, assumption-challenging thinkers.

"The central leadership are very aware of global trends," Postiglione says. "They know what's good, but actually implementing it ... the context is so different. It takes awhile."

The central government has been pushing joint programs and exchanges of faculty and students between Chinese universities and foreign schools and has a goal of 10 world-class universities.

Su Ke hopes, if she does well enough on the national entrance exam, to attend one of the nation's top universities, Beijing Foreign Study University. Ever since she was small, her family and society have stressed that only a university education would mean having a "good life and earn a lot of salary." She says she and her peers envy American students because the U.S. has so many more good universities and many fewer people. She envies too that America teaches students the whys of things and encourages them "to realize their own ideas" rather than the raw accumulation of facts.

Competition is strong to enter the university she wants. She said after the exam that she just did "so-so." She would like to be a translator.

FAST TRACK: Xu Pu was targeted for the gifted track at age 11. the 13-year-old, whose course load includes physics and chemistry, hopes to enter a university at age 14.

Xu Pu, 13
11th Gifted Class, No. 8 Middle School
Beijing, China

Family: The only child of an Army member and his midwife spouse.

School: Xu Pu rides her bicycle 20 to 30 minutes to reach the subway for a 12-minute ride to school. Beijing is a city of more than 15 million.

Courses: Mathematics, physics, chemistry, history, geography, politics, Chinese and English (in which her English name assigned by her teacher is Anna).


Xu Pu (pronounced Shoo Po) was plucked from the usual educational track in Beijing when she was but 11 years old. A teacher recommended she sit for a long assessment test, and she wound up in the 11th Gifted Class at No. 8 Middle School in Beijing. The 13-year-old, conversant in English, attends school from 7:20 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. each day and typically has two hours of homework. What does the young teen do for fun? "We don't have too much money to play now. We have to work hard." She hopes to enter a university at 14. Most go at 18.

Xu Pu, like many of her 31 classmates, has her eye on Beijing University but says she also would like to go to Oxford or Harvard. She doesn't know what she wants to study but enjoys biology and law. She loves sports, especially swimming, and singing, dancing and drawing. In P.E. on Fridays, the students climb mountains, swim or enjoy other activities. She goes to school from September to June but has a winter holiday from mid-January to mid-February.

In June, after exams ended, she and her family planned a vacation and also prepared to move. Their four-room apartment is to be demolished to make way for construction for the 2008 Olympics.