October 3, 2022

Education: Competing Against the World


A major strength of the Chinese system is the esteem placed on education. Inequality is a problem, however.

Mike Vogel | 8/1/2006

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.

Tags: North Central, Education

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