The Chinese education system consists of six years of primary school, three of lower secondary, and three of upper secondary. Children are required to attend the nine years of primary and lower secondary school; around the age of 15, they have the option of leaving school or entering an upper secondary program. All students attend an academic lower secondary school, at the end of which they take a locally administered entrance exam for upper secondary school. Depending on the results of this exam, they may enter an academic or a vocational upper secondary school, or they may choose to end their formal education. In academic upper secondary schools, students take classes in core and elective subjects over three years in preparation for university entrance exams; vocational schools offer coursework for two to four years in a number of occupational areas, including skills for managerial and technical personnel as well as in more traditional vocations such as agriculture. Across China, 52.5% of students attend academic upper secondary school; in Shanghai, this figure rises to 97%.
China has a national curriculum. Until 1988, China also used standardized syllabi and centrally-issued textbooks. In the late 1980s, however, the Chinese Ministry of Education began to approve the use of multiple texts and resources. Schools can now choose their materials from a ministry-approved list.
Much of China’s educational system is built around examination preparation. Because examination results can essentially chart the course of a student’s academic and work life, parents, teachers and students often focus on exams to the exclusion of all else. Many schools used to promote this focus, removing all “extraneous” subjects, such as art, music and physical education from the schedule, leaving more hours for students to focus on the exam subjects. However, in recent years this has begun to change, with educators, policymakers and even parents coming to realize that the emphasis placed on high stakes tests may actually hinder performance. China now considers curriculum reform to be an important priority.
Shanghai has been working hard on curriculum reform, often piloting new curriculum before it is rolled out to the rest of the country. The thrust of curriculum reform since the late 1980s has been the de-emphasis on exams and the promotion of educational equity. There has also been a shift towards a focus on conceptual and experiential learning. In 1988, Shanghai established a three-block curriculum, which enabled students to participate in required and elective courses as well as extracurricular activities as part of their schooling, which was a major change from the previous curriculum focused solely on core subjects. Textbooks were redesigned to align with the new curriculum. Ten years later, new reforms produced a curriculum that integrated many subjects and was centered on student engagement. This focus on non-core subjects means that Shanghai students are required to do one hour of physical activity each day, and often participate in “service” or “social” learning, which involves community-service oriented field trips to learn more about their society.
The curriculum is organized around eight “learning domains,” which are meant to encourage active inquiry and interdisciplinary understanding. These domains are language and literature, mathematics, natural science, social sciences, technology, arts, physical education and a practicum. The curriculum is also organized into three separate components: the basic curriculum (core subjects); the enriched curriculum (elective courses); and the inquiry-based curriculum (extra-curricular activities). With these domains and components in mind, schools are encouraged to adapt the government’s curriculum frameworks to meet their students’ needs. Teachers are encouraged to remember to “return class time to students” and “to every question there should be more than a single answer.”
Chinese class sizes are typically about 50 students, though this varies depending on the location of the school. In urban areas, where teachers are plentiful and population is strictly regulated, classes can be much smaller; in rural areas, where schools struggle to attract qualified professionals, classes may be 100 students or more. Teachers rely on extremely detailed study schemes and tend to teach only one type of class (for example, Senior Secondary 2 Physics) 12 to 15 times a week. They formulate these plans in consultation with other teachers in their subject area. Students are expected to learn both in and outside of the classroom; in order to ensure that students stay engaged with subject material after school hours, teachers assign daily homework, on which students often spend many hours a day.
In Shanghai, student engagement in the classroom is prized. Students are expected to be full participants in the lessons, which often include problem solving individually or in groups. This emphasis on student engagement is common in Chinese schools, but Shanghai schools have been leaders in focusing on understanding and application rather than memorization and have even instituted a limit on the number of hours of homework a student may be assigned per day. The top Shanghai schools have also ended the practice of holding classes on evenings or weekends, and all Shanghai schools have recently become more interested in developing a well-rounded student. Students take part in extracurricular activities to promote organization and leadership, and are required to do an hour of physical activity a day in addition to their coursework. This is a clear departure from the traditional Chinese exclusive emphasis on core subjects and on rote learning.
Outside of school, however, students continue to receive a great deal of instruction in the core subjects, working with private tutors or enrolling in cram schools. These schools are more focused on drilling students in concepts and strategies. Even the top students typically participate in cram schools and tutoring, as examination results are still critical despite growing dissatisfaction with the emphasis on these tests.
Chinese students receive formative assessments throughout their education. These typically take the form of year-end or term-end tests as well as casual assessment from teachers. They are also required to take graduation examinations at the end of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary school, in addition to the entrance examinations for the next level of schooling. These tests are formulated by the local education departments, and typically examine at least mathematics and Chinese language knowledge, though they can include other subjects. Students who hope to go on to university must also sit for a rigorous university entrance examination at the end of upper secondary school, the results of which have a major impact on their university acceptance prospects.
The Structure of Shanghai’s Education System
There are two major gateways for Chinese students in their pre-tertiary education: the examinations at the end of lower and upper secondary school. Although it is possible for students who are not able to attend an elite lower secondary school to perform well on upper secondary entrance examinations, this is not likely, and therefore a child’s ultimate educational success may be determined quite early on in his or her academic career. The examinations at the end of lower secondary school are locally administered, and their content differs across localities.
In 1985, the Ministry of Education granted Shanghai the right to create its own higher education entrance examination. This privilege has been granted to an increasing number of regions since then. Since 2001, the Shanghai examination has been based on the principle of testing what students can do, rather than what they can memorize, and includes “integrated papers” – essay questions in which students must demonstrate knowledge from multiple disciplines in order to respond. The university entrance test generally involves knowledge of the Chinese language, the English language and mathematics, as well as another subject, which is determined by the institution to which the student is applying. The fourth subject examination can be non-traditional, ranging from oral to written or even practical. As a response to the examination pressure on students, some Shanghai universities are de-emphasizing examination results, and basing more of their admissions process on other criteria such as overall student performance. The combination of Shanghai’s rigorous education system and expanded options for applying to university mean that 80% of Shanghai students go on to university, compared to 24% in the rest of China.