Over the past 30 years, the funding of Chinese schools has moved from a highly centralized, national funding system to one that is much more decentralized. This was largely due to an overhaul of all public funding in China in which a multi-level funding system was created. Now, local governments are primarily responsible for the provision, administration and funding of primary through upper secondary schools. This has resulted in a system that is highly inequitable across China, as rural areas have been unable to produce and allocate the same revenue as urban business centers, and consequently are sometimes unable even to pay their teachers. However, it has also meant that local governments can allocate funds in innovative ways; for example, Shanghai abolished the “Key School” system in which a handful of elite schools were privileged over all others for funding and resources, and has made the school funding system more equitable, producing better outcomes for a wider array of students. In addition to government funding, schools can also receive funding from private enterprises in the form of donations, or through school fees, without being classified as private schools.
In the past 15 to 20 years, the government has encouraged the establishment of private schools under the proviso that they will meet the same standards as public schools. Private schools had traditionally been attended primarily by the children of migrant workers because the jurisdictions to which they migrated were not obligated to provide them with any government services, so private schools catered to an underprivileged population. The government now hopes that by allowing private schools of a different sort – namely, elite schools with high admissions standards and presumably high tuition – they will encourage innovation in the fields of science, technology and education.
In 2008, China spent 3.3% of its GDP on education as compared to the OECD average of 5.9%. Per student, China spent $1593, as compared to the OECD average of $8,831.
School Management and Organization
The central Chinese government provides policy directives, curriculum guidelines and materials to all schools, but in the past few decades the government has begun to shift some responsibility from the national to the provincial and municipal levels. The Ministry of Education is responsible for setting the national curriculum, establishing standard syllabi for the curriculum’s required subjects, evaluating and approving textbooks and teaching materials, supervising provincial education departments and providing special funding for underdeveloped school systems and teacher education programs.
The Education Departments (sometimes called Education Committees) for provinces and major cities are responsible for preparing the education development plans for their region, developing provincial curricula based on the national curriculum, choosing the teaching materials to be used in the province, administering school programs and providing education subsidies to local governments. They have the power to reform gateway examinations and set additional standards for teacher training and continued employment.
Local governments are responsible for implementing the curriculum and administering funding. At the school level, teachers are encouraged to develop their own lesson plans, and schools also have increasing freedom in adopting extracurricular subjects and teaching materials. Principals have some degree of control over staffing, and can set class sizes and teacher assignments.
Shanghai schools have taken advantage of the opportunity they now have to take part in choosing materials. Schools can adopt materials provided to them by the ministry or they can now identify other teaching materials they would like to use, although these still require ministry approval before classroom implementation. Greater local control over school funding, too, has made a big difference in this region. Shanghai has grouped schools into clusters and partnerships to more easily share resources and administration, and has poured capital into improving the facilities of the majority of their schools, as well as working to distribute funding more equitably than in other parts of China.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
Accountability in China is managed through social expectations as well as limited systematic procedures and indicators. Teachers are expected to constantly be improving their practice through preparation and continuing development. They work closely with and are monitored frequently by their peers as well as school and government administrators, and these evaluations impact their career paths and salaries.
For members of the public who want specific performance indicators, they have access to school examination results. Because so much of Chinese educational success is based on these results, it is extremely easy for the public to determine which schools are successful and which are not; all are accountable in this way. Schools at all levels are informally ranked, and parents often choose which school their children attend. Prior to the 1990s, these school rankings were based on formative and summative student assessments and also affected teachers’ incomes. However, the Ministry of Education has moved away from these measures, and has placed new emphasis on rating, rather than ranking, schools. The Shanghai Education Commission is also responsible for inspecting schools every three years based on both common measures and on the school’s stated individual goals, taking into account research data and parent and teacher feedback.
In Shanghai, teachers and principals are also held accountable by school administrators and their fellow teachers. Top performing educators are lauded and held up as examples to other educators, who are fully expected to draw lessons from their peers’ success. Similarly, top performing educators are expected to aid in the development of their less successful peers. This process is facilitated through school partnerships and clusters as well as the practice of having successful school administrative teams temporarily take over the administration of lower performing schools, aiding both the students and the staff.
Parent and Community Participation
Educational success is completely bound up in familial and social expectations in China. Researchers consider familial interest and pressure to be the main motivating factors for a student; this, combined with high-stakes examinations at various points in the educational system means that students frequently spend the majority of their waking hours focused on their schoolwork and on self-improvement. Parents will often devote hours of family time in the evening to helping their children with their homework.
This familial pressure has led to a culture of “cram schools” and external tutoring in China. Students will often attend these schools or meet with private tutors after their official classes have ended for the day in order to improve their classroom performance and, more importantly, increase their odds for success on any important gateway exams, whether for upper secondary school or for university. It is estimated that 80% of Chinese students meet with exam tutors, and even parents who are opposed to the cram school culture will often engage tutors ahead of important assessments.