The Ministry of Education (MOE) oversees education at all levels from early childhood through tertiary throughout the country. Policies or strategies designed by the MOE are implemented by local departments of education. The MOE sets 10-year plans for education. The most recent includes goals for 2020 including: universalizing preschool education; improving nine-year compulsory education; raising senior high school gross enrollment rate to 90 percent (which has already been exceeded); and increasing the higher education gross enrollment rate to 40 percent. Provinces generally create their own five- or ten-year plans to implement the Ministry directive.
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 level to the provincial and municipal levels. The MOE 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 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. Local governments are primarily responsible for education funding with national funds (about 17 percent of the total) used to help equalize disparities. 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.
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. 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.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
China’s main formal accountability system is an inspection system, run by the Bureau of Education Inspections (formerly known as the Office of National Education Inspectorate). The inspectors monitor the implementation of national laws and policies and provide feedback to local agencies. The inspectors also evaluate the quality of educational institutions.
The Bureau also designates special subjects for inspection, based on national priorities. Currently, there are four special subjects: improving basic school facilities in low-income areas; reducing performance gaps between urban and rural areas; improving nutrition; and improving school bus safety.
China has revised its inspection system in recent years. Currently, each school is assigned an inspector, who performs regular inspections once a month. Inspectors are rotated every three years. In the past, most inspectors were retired educators, but more recently, provinces and municipalities have been hiring active teachers and administrators, who bring a greater knowledge of contemporary issues.
In addition to the formal process, educators and schools also hold themselves accountable to their peers and the public through social expectations. 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. 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.
Schools also provide access to examination results to hold themselves accountable to parents and members of the public. 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.
Support for Low-Performing Schools
Although the inspection system does not mandate remedies for low-performing schools, provinces and municipalities have developed their own systems for assisting schools that need improvement. Shanghai has been a leader in this regard. Under the Empowered Management Program, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission pairs low-performing schools with high-performing schools; both partners must apply to participate. Teachers and administrators from the high-performing school spend several days a week in the low-performing school and provide coaching and technical support. Teachers from the low-performing school also visit the high-performing school to observe classes and instruction. The arrangement is usually for a two-year period.
Shanghai also has addressed the needs of low-performing schools by pouring in capital to fix buildings and purchase resources, strengthen teaching staff and appoint competent principals, and by eliminating tuition and supply fees for all students. Teachers who are thought to need assistance are assigned mentors for at least three years, often more, and receive support from peers and others to improve their performance.