Center on International Education Benchmarking

Shanghai-China: Learning Systems

Overview  | Learning Systems | Teacher and Principal Quality  |
Supporting Equity  |  Career and Technical Education  |  Governance and Accountability

System Structure

The Chinese education system consists of six years of primary school, three of lower secondary, and three of upper secondary. The first nine years of school are compulsory for all students. At the end of lower secondary school, around the age of 15, students 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 today, 95 percent of students choose to continue their studies after compulsory education ends. This represents a huge increase in enrollment from 2005 when only about 40 percent of lower secondary graduates went on to upper secondary schools. Of those who enroll in upper secondary school, approximately 55 percent choose academic secondary education and 45 percent enroll in vocational secondary education.

Standards and Curriculum

China has a national curriculum. Until 1988, China also used standardized syllabi and centrally-issued textbooks. In that year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) 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 was 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. This has begun to change in recent years, with educators, policymakers, and even parents coming to realize that the emphasis placed on high stakes tests may actually hinder development of many key skills and competencies needed for success beyond secondary school. China now considers curriculum reform to be an important priority.

Shanghai has been a leader in this area, 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. 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. In 1998, new reforms produced a curriculum that integrated the sciences with the humanities and introduced a greater emphasis on active inquiry in the learning process. These changes produced a curriculum balanced between a core curriculum that is the same for all students, an enriched curriculum that permits students to choose their own electives, and an inquiry-based curriculum, which is implemented mainly in extracurricular activities. Overall, the heart of the curriculum has moved from the acquisition of knowledge to the development of student capacity to acquire and effectively use knowledge over time.

The 1998 reforms organized the curriculum around eight “learning domains,” which were meant to encourage active inquiry and interdisciplinary understanding. These domains were language and literature, mathematics, natural science, social sciences, technology, arts, physical education, and a practicum, all with a core, enriched, and inquiry-based curriculum. With these domains and components in mind, schools were encouraged to adapt the government’s curriculum frameworks to meet their students’ needs. After piloting theses reforms in Shanghai, the government has since extended the curriculum nationwide.

As of 2017, the Shanghai government is embarking on a new round of curriculum reforms, focused on developing the skills of the future in students. This reform is grounded in the core competencies developed by United Nations Education Committee: social responsibility, civic pride, international awareness, culture and humanity, science and technology, aesthetics, innovation, and learning to learn. All course curricula have been structured around these domains in an effort to help students develop these skills. In five years, after Shanghai has had the opportunity to pilot this new curriculum, it may be modified and implemented in the rest of China.

Assessment and Qualifications

Chinese students participate in a variety of assessments throughout their education. These typically take the form of year-end or term-end tests as well as informal 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 their content differs across localities (they typically assess at least mathematics and Chinese language knowledge, and can include other subjects). 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.

Students who hope to go on to university must also sit for a rigorous university entrance examination (known as the gaokao) at the end of upper secondary school, the results of which have a major impact on their university acceptance prospects. In 1985, the MOE 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, including Beijing. 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. The 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. These reforms are expected to be implemented nationwide.

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 percent of Shanghai students go on to university or other types of postsecondary education, compared to 24 percent in the rest of China.

The Structure of Shanghai’s Education System