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Context

In 2009, the city-province of Shanghai participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This marked the first time a Chinese province had taken part in the assessment, and Shanghai substantially outperformed every other nation and economy in reading, mathematics, and science. Shanghai repeated the feat in 2012. In 2015, three other provinces—Beijing, Jiangsu, and Guangdong—joined Shanghai, and while the four provinces did not lead the PISA league tables, they all scored near the top. In 2018, Zhejiang replaced Guangdong, and those four provinces substantially outperformed the rest of the world.  

The educational success of these Chinese provinces over the last four decades is remarkable. When Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, the largest country in the world had no functioning education system. Mao had mostly closed schools and universities and sent educated people of all descriptions to the countryside to be “re-educated.” After Deng assumed power and initiated a series of market-oriented reforms that led to explosive economic growth, China set out to reach parity with the West in education at every level—a truly daunting goal, given the very high rates of illiteracy in China, the widespread damage to its education infrastructure and teaching force, and the depth of poverty, particularly rural poverty, across the nation.

In 1986, China passed a law requiring nine years of compulsory education. Deng also set a goal of creating 100 research universities in China. By 2009, 99 percent of students were enrolled in primary and lower secondary education; 79 percent were enrolled at the upper secondary level; and 24 percent in higher education. Now, enrollment in primary school and lower secondary school is universal. Although upper secondary education is not compulsory, enrollment is over 95 percent.

Once the Chinese government began to achieve its quantitative goals in education, it turned to issues of quality. A system of “key schools” had developed before Mao came to power as a strategy to accelerate the creation of a highly educated tier of the workforce. These were schools in which the state invested considerably more than in the regular state schools and which were therefore able to attract excellent teachers and provide top-notch facilities. When Deng came to power, these schools were reintroduced as laboratories and models for other schools in China, creating a system for the development and spread of superior methods and curriculum.

Despite its rapid advances in educational quality and attainment, China still faces large performance gaps between urban centers and rural areas. Rural schools are often under-resourced, with fewer well-qualified teachers, and students from rural schools attend universities at much lower rates than students from large cities. In the 2000s, China adopted a policy of closing and consolidating rural schools, because declining enrollments made them too costly to operate. The policy ended up forcing students to travel long distances to urban centers and was discontinued in 2012. However, most of the closed schools have not reopened.

The situation is further complicated by China’s high rate of internal migration. By 2018, 288 million people from rural areas migrated to cities for work. The services they are entitled to within cities—including the education of their estimated 103 million children—are limited. This is due to a registration system, known as hukou, which was developed to try to slow down migration to cities, as cities were overwhelmed by the  millions of migrants.  Chinese citizens are required to “register” in their birthplace, and are entitled to either urban or rural services including education based on that registration. Under this system, students of migrant workers must either attend schools in their home region or face curtailed options in the cities. For example, in Shanghai, students with rural hukou can enroll in schools only through 9th grade, with only a few slots available to them in academic upper secondary schools. Further, children of migrant workers have strong incentives to return to their home region to take the university entrance examination; space in universities is limited, so residents of the province have priority which means out-of-province candidates need very high scores to earn admission. This system is slowly changing, as cities expand capacity in their schools and loosen regulations on university admission.

Since the late 1980s, China’s school system has been very focused on university admission. For many Chinese students, success in life depends on which university they attend. And university admission depends, almost solely, on performance on the entrance exams, which are heavily weighted towards mathematics. Although there are efforts underway to reduce these pressures, Chinese students put enormous effort into their studies and, in particular, into the study of mathematics.

Although China’s education system is highly centralized, the four provinces that took part in PISA 2018 have distinctive features. Below is an overview of each province and the notable features of each system:

Shanghai, with a population of over 24 million people, is one of the largest cities in the world. While Beijing is the political capital of China, Shanghai is its business capital and its most international city. Shanghai accounts for only 1.7 percent of China’s population and 0.6 percent of its land area, but it produces one-eighth of China’s income. Shanghai’s long-held special status in China has won it a measure of independence in setting education and other public policy, compared to other cities and provinces which must closely follow policies set in Beijing. As a result, Shanghai has become a national model in education. In 1985, Shanghai earned the right to set its own entrance exams for higher education institutions. In redesigning its exams, Shanghai also reformed its curriculum, moving from a heavy emphasis on memorization and rote learning to an emphasis on cross-disciplinary studies; on applying knowledge to real-world problems; and on the ability to solve unfamiliar problems by drawing on academic understanding.

Beijing, China’s capital and home to more than 20 million residents, has invested heavily in primary and secondary education. Benefitting from the greatest educational appropriation among all the provinces and municipalities, Beijing has a far lower student-teacher ratio than the national average. However, Beijing continues to grapple with unequal access to schools and uneven quality among schools. Like Shanghai, Beijing has instituted a number of reforms, including curricular reform (to make learning more integrated across subjects and more engaging) and reform of the university entrance exam. The government is also trying to cut down the competition for slots at the “best” lower secondary schools by creating nine-year schools, eliminating the need for entrance exams, and creating feeder patterns between primary and lower secondary schools.

Jiangsu is a province on the eastern coast of China, just north of Shanghai, with a population of nearly 75 million. Due to ongoing education reform begun in 1993, Jiangsu has achieved universal upper secondary school enrollment. The province has worked to equalize resources between its urban and rural counties and expanded extracurricular options in high schools. Jiangsu has also set up 686 “training bases” to provide instruction in practical skills for specific industries to secondary school students and adults.

Zhejiang is also on the east coast of China, south of Shanghai. It has a population of 58 million and its economy, once centered around tea, has grown rapidly to become the fourth largest in China. It is the home of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest e-commerce firms, as well as a number of other technology companies. The province was among the first in China to achieve universal basic education and recently attained near-universal secondary education. In 2010, Zhejiang embarked on a 10-year education reform and development program that has included a revamping of teacher education and a significant overhaul of vocational education, particularly at the postsecondary level. 

This profile describes the education system in China, with a special focus on Shanghai which has often been given flexibility to pilot reforms for the rest of the nation. Areas where Shanghai’s system differs from the rest of China are described. 

Quick Facts

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Population

Population: 1,397,898,000 

Population growth rate: 0.26%

Demographic makeup: Han Chinese 93%, 55 other minority ethnic groups 7%

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

GDP

GDP: $22,526,502

GDP per capita: $16,117 (2019 estimate in 2010 dollars)

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

Employment

Unemployment rate (DATE): 3.64%

Sources: CIA World Factbook 2019

Economy

Mixed service and manufacturing economy

Key service industries: financial services, real estate, retail, and hospitality

Key manufacturing industries: iron, steel, aluminum, textiles, cement, chemicals

Sources: CIA World Factbook 2021

Postsecondary Attainment

Ages 25-34: 18%

Sources: OECD Education at a Glance, 2020 (Data is from 2010)

Governance

Governance Structure

The Chinese government is highly centralized, with three tiers of administration designed to manage its large population: provinces/municipalities, counties, and townships. At the provincial level, there are 23 provinces and four municipalities, including Beijing and Shanghai, which have authority over higher education. Provinces and municipalities are divided into counties, of which there are approximately 2,800 throughout China. Counties manage primary and secondary education. Within counties there are roughly 30,000 townships, which have authority over local economic development and planning, among other services. Government at every tier of administration operates within the framework of national law and regulations.

Nationally, the Ministry of Education (MOE) oversees education at all levels, from early childhood through postsecondary. It is responsible for setting the national curriculum, establishing standard syllabi for 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.  In the past few decades, China has begun to shift more responsibility for education management from the MOE to the provinces and municipalities.

Provincial and municipal education departments are responsible for preparing the education development plans for their region, developing provincial curricula based on the national curriculum, choosing teaching materials from the nationally developed set of textbooks, administering school programs, and providing education subsidies to local governments. They have the power to customize the national examination for entry into upper secondary school (zhongkao) and to set additional standards for teacher training and continued employment.

County governments are responsible for implementing the curriculum and administering funding. County governments are the primary source of funding for primary and secondary schools, with the national government contributing about 17 percent of the total to address disparities. At the school level, teachers are encouraged to develop their own lesson plans, and schools have increasing freedom to adopt extracurricular subjects and teaching materials. Principals have some degree of control over staffing—they can choose from candidates selected by the county—and can set class sizes and teacher assignments.

Planning and Goals

China has a long history of developing short- and long-range plans for the economy and public administration, dating back to the Mao era. In the mid-1980s, with the passage of the law establishing compulsory education, the government began to develop plans for education as well. In 2010, the government issued a ten-year plan for education development calling for universal preschool, a reduction in performance gaps between urban and rural schools, and the expansion and improvement of vocational education, among other goals.  

In 2019, the government issued a plan for 2035, the first time it extended planning to 15 years, which calls for improving equal access to education, particularly for students with disabilities; strengthening vocational education and training; completing the goal of universal preschool; expanding child care for children under age 2; making upper secondary school universal; and ensuring sustained financial investment in education.

Every five years, provinces issue their own plans, often called Five-Year Guidelines, which indicate how they will implement the national plans. Once all of the provincial plans are released, the central government incorporates them into a national Five-Year Guideline. At the end of the five-year period, the government evaluates progress and uses the data to formulate its subsequent national plan. 

Education Finance

When China enacted its compulsory education law in 1986, it based its funding system on the principle that counties should pay for the schools that they operate.  County governments were responsible for raising funds for schools through local taxes, student fees (for example, for textbooks), and contributions from local citizens and organizations. However, this system resulted in wide inequities between the more affluent coastal provinces and the poorer rural provinces to the west. In 2005, the central government adopted reforms to try to equalize resources. The central government now provides funds to supplement county budgets. Nationwide, the central government provides on average 17 percent of the funds for schools. In some western provinces, however, that share is closer to 80 percent. The central government has also made textbooks free for low-income and rural students and eliminated other fees. 

The Chinese government has also sought to increase funding to improve education quality. In the 2010-2020 plan for the education sector, the government set a goal of allocating 4.0 percent of GDP for education, up from 2.8 percent in 2005, to help ensure adequate resources for a high-quality education for all students. China reached the 4.0 percent goal in 2012; in 2017, it allocated 5.2 percent of GDP to education.

In the past 15 to 20 years, China’s government has encouraged the establishment of private schools under the condition that they meet the same standards and follow the same regulations as public schools. Currently, about 35 percent of China’s schools, educating about 10 percent of students, are private. Private schools have their own school council or board of directors and can charge tuition, but they can also receive subsidies from the government. For-profit schools are prohibited in compulsory education. Because public schools are not mandated to educate children from other provinces, many private schools in China have traditionally serve the disadvantaged children of migrant workers.  There are also a set of more elite set of schools with high admission standards and tuition.  In 2019, the government began requiring private schools — including the elite ones — to admit students by lottery, with the aim of opening access to a wider range of students.  China’s support of private schools also has an aim of encouraging innovation that will can impact public schools as well.

Accountability

School Accountability

China’s main form of school accountability 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 primary and secondary schools.

The Bureau 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.

Although the inspection system does not mandate remedies for low-performing schools, provinces and municipalities have developed their own systems for assisting these schools. 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 usually lasts for two years.

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 skilled principals. The province has also eliminated tuition and supply fees for all students. Teachers who need assistance are assigned mentors for at least three years and receive peer and community support to improve their performance.

Teacher Accountability

Teacher evaluations factor in a number of elements: observation, demonstration lessons (in the case of new teachers), submission of classroom work, and publications. A teacher’s course load and additional responsibilities (acting as head teacher, class advisor, etc.) also count in evaluation, as do peer and self-evaluation. There are national teaching awards and most provinces have merit based awards as well.  In Shanghai, the evaluation process is determined by each school, and the allocation of merit awards also varies from school to school. 

For teachers interested in leadership roles, there are numerous paths to administrative work. Teachers can be promoted to administrative positions within schools or within the education bureaucracy. Nearly all government education officials started as teachers. Teachers must have a distinguished teaching record in order to enter leadership. 

In addition to this formal process, social expectations hold educators and schools accountable to their peers and to the public. Throughout China, teachers are expected to constantly be improving their practice. 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.

Foundation of Support

Supports for Young Children and Their Families

With its shift to a more market-based economy beginning in the 1980s, China moved many of the social safety net programs that had been in place under the Communist regime to the private sector. Among these programs was health care. By the end of the 1990s, however, lack of access to health care emerged as a serious concern in China. According to one study, in 2003 only 55 percent of urban residents and 21 percent of rural residents had health insurance. And those who were insured faced rising out-of-pocket expenses. In response to these concerns, the Chinese government adopted a major health reform plan in 2009 which established a three-part system of health insurance: urban and rural resident programs, both funded by the government, and an employer-based system, funded by employers and employees and supplemented by government subsidies. By 2015, health insurance coverage reached 97 percent.

In addition to increasing coverage, the 2009 law defined which services insurance would cover. Maternal health care, including prenatal care, delivery, and postpartum care, was included as an essential health service for all Chinese mothers. Pre- and post-natal doctor’s visits are generally free of charge in China, and insurance pays for part of hospital deliveries. 

In 2012, China also increased the amount of paid maternity leave from 90 days to 98 days, meeting guidelines established by the International Labor Organization. Provinces can provide additional leave if they choose; in Beijing and Shanghai, mothers are entitled to 128 days. During this period, new mothers receive home visits from doctors, nurses, or midwives. The 2012 law also established 14 days of paid paternity leave.

Childcare for children ages 0 to 2 only emerged as a priority in China very recently. Traditionally infants and toddlers have been cared for at home, often by grandparents. Beginning in the 1970s, women’s federations and other organizations established non-governmental childcare services, called nurseries, but these facilities still serve less than 10 percent of Chinese children under age 3. This is due in part to a shortage of facilities and in part to the high cost of care. China’s 2035 Plan includes a goal to increase childcare by 150 percent and to make childcare more affordable for families. 

Supports for School Aged Children

Following the lead of a program developed in Shanghai, China passed a law in 1997 requiring all urban governments to establish financial supports for low-income individuals and families. China extended the requirement to rural governments in 2007.

Under the program, known as Dibao, the provincial government provides financial assistance to families living below the local poverty line. The assistance is designed to help cover basic needs including food, clothing, housing, and transportation, but the government also provides financial assistance for educational expenses, such as tuition and fees, and aid to children with disabilities and children left behind in rural areas while their parents work as migrants. In 2011, China began to provide free lunch for children in poor rural areas of the country.

Some of the provinces make efforts to supplement Dibao funding for low-income students. Shanghai, for example, distributes supplemental funds directly to students. Low-income students in compulsory school receive an annual living allowance. Students in academic and vocational upper secondary schools are eligible for grants if their family is low-income or has special financial difficulties. The grants cover costs such as tuition, living expenses, transportation, textbooks, and school fees. All low-income students in the province are provided lunch. Most schools in Shanghai have a common class lunch, which provides an opportunity to teach about nutrition and health and build the class community.

One of China’s biggest educational challenges is providing an equitable education to migrant students. The national migrant worker population in China numbers an estimated 288 million people, approximately 20 percent of the total population. Migrant workers typically move from rural regions in western China to eastern and southern cities where jobs are more plentiful. This movement obviously impacts families with children. Twenty-eight percent of children six- to 11-years-old and 13 percent of children 12- to 14-years-old are migrants. As families move from rural areas into urban areas, they are constrained by China’s hukou system, which designates residents as entitled to either rural or urban public services based on their birthplace. As a result, migrants coming from rural areas cannot register their children in urban public upper secondary schools. The only options for migrant families in urban areas are enrollment in private schools (which often charge exorbitantly high tuition for a lower-quality educational experience), or enrollment in public school back in the home province (which separates children from parents who must remain in the cities to work). As an added difficulty, even if students remain in the cities for upper secondary school, they must take the university entrance exam in their home province.  

There have been efforts at reform, however. In 2014 the central government adopted a policy allowing migrants to receive urban hukou in small and medium-sized cities, where migration is desired. In large cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, migrants can qualify for urban hukou through a point system based on their educational attainment and employment status. In addition, some provinces have begun to allow children of migrant workers to sit for the college entrance examination in the cities where their parents work. 

Improving the quality of education in rural areas is a major objective for the MOE, both in terms of teaching resources and physical facilities. The government uses school inspections to promote equitable development and close the gap between urban and rural schools. In 2011, MOE signed an agreement, the Compulsory Education Development Memorandum, that provided a roadmap for ensuring high quality compulsory education in all schools by the end of 2020. The agreement established a special inspection program to evaluate the equitable delivery of compulsory education in every province.

Students in China feel pressure to succeed academically. The best upper secondary schools and universities take only those students who get top scores on the grueling entrance exams (the zhongkao and gaokao). As a result, many families feel they must pay for after-school tutoring at “cram schools” to ensure their child the best chance of gaining admission. In February 2019, China’s national government announced new regulations for tutoring companies, including limiting what content is covered, banning homework, and requiring centers to end classes by 8:30 pm. The goal was to lighten students’ heavy academic burden, as well as reduce inequities in a system where not all students can afford tutoring.

Learning System

Preschool

Kindergarten is offered at both public and private institutions and serves students ages 3 to 6. In 2018, 88 percent of children ages 3 to 5 were enrolled in kindergarten, with urban students having greater access than their rural counterparts.

In the early 1990s, over 90 percent of kindergartens in China were publicly run and either fully or partially funded by the government. Parents paid a nominal tuition fee. However, under a mid-1990s policy of “government retreats and private sector advances,” the government withdrew funding for early childhood education, forcing many public kindergartens to close between 1994 and 2009. Private kindergartens responded by expanding. As a result, by 2011 public kindergartens provided only 30 percent of total slots throughout China, with private kindergartens providing the remaining 70 percent. Because private kindergartens receive no funding support from the government and charge higher tuition fees, affordability was a key challenge for many families. Private kindergartens were also more likely to be understaffed and to underpay their teachers, compromising the quality of education offered.

Since 2010, China has increased government support for kindergartens with the goal of improving both affordability and quality. The national 10-year plan for 2020 set clear goals, aiming to enroll 95 percent of children ages 3 to 6 in at least one year of kindergarten, 80 percent in a two-year program, and 70 percent in a three-year program. Enrollments have fallen short of that goal, so the plan for 2035 calls for making kindergarten universal. Although kindergarten remains non-compulsory in China, the government has committed to establishing more public kindergartens and training more teachers to staff them, particularly in rural middle and western China where there are fewer kindergarten options. 

Local governments are responsible for funding and monitoring kindergartens, although the central government also provides funding to support kindergartens in poorer rural provinces and to subsidize kindergartens for low-income children in cities. The 2010-2020 plan urged provinces to dedicate a portion of their budgets to early childhood education. Not all provinces have done so, but Shanghai is an example of a province that has prioritized development of an early childhood education system. In 2009, government funding for kindergarten accounted for almost 8 percent of Shanghai’s annual education budget, more than twice the national average. In Shanghai, 72 percent of kindergartens are public, and 98 percent of young children are enrolled, one of the highest rates of any province. 

There is no mandatory national kindergarten curriculum in China; county governments are responsible for directing and monitoring the programs. Shanghai has developed a curriculum that all public kindergartens in the province must follow, however. Traditionally, many kindergartens were academic in nature, reflecting the emphasis in Chinese education on knowledge diffusion and test preparation. However, in 1989, the Ministry of Education called for giving children more opportunities for play and child-initiated activities. Although this guidance reflected global trends toward play-based early childhood education, it was not universally adopted, so in 2001 the Ministry issued a separate document, The Guidance for Kindergarten Education, that provided more practical advice to help teachers navigate potentially conflicting goals.

Primary and Secondary Education

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 provincially administered entrance exam (zhongkao) 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. Students also receive a compulsory education certificate. In academic upper secondary schools, students take three years of core and elective subjects in either a humanities or science track, 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. Graduates of vocational secondary schools can go on to university by taking the gaokao university entrance exam, although few do. 

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’s national curriculum for the nine years of compulsory school and the three years of upper secondary school spells out what subjects should be taught at each grade level, how much time should be devoted to each subject, and performance standards for each subject. 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, and schools can now choose their textbooks from a ministry-approved list. Provinces and schools also have more leeway to modify the national curriculum than they once did. The revised curriculum released in 2001 more than doubled the proportion of material allocated to “local discretion,” from 7 percent to 16 percent.

The 2001 curriculum also represented a major shift in emphasis for Chinese education. Since at least the second century CE, with the advent of the Imperial Education system, Chinese education focused on examination preparation and the transfer of knowledge from teachers to students, and that practice had continued into the 20th century. The 2001 curriculum embraced a more student-centered approach, emphasizing active learning and learning how to learn. The curriculum document makes these objectives explicit, endorsing students’ active participation.

The curriculum also sought to integrate subjects more than the previous curricula. In the primary grades, for example, the previous curricula prescribed 10 subject areas; the 2001 curriculum prescribes only four: Chinese, mathematics, art and music, and a subject called “morality and life.” 

In keeping with its usual practice, the MOE piloted the 2001 curriculum, along with experimental textbooks, in 38 areas, including Shanghai. In 2002, the MOE expanded the pilot to 530 counties and cities and, in 2005, implemented it nationwide.  In 2018, China added the subject of artificial intelligence to the high school curriculum.

Shanghai has moved aggressively to reform its curriculum within the limits of the national framework. Beginning in 2017, the Shanghai government embarked on a new round of reforms grounded in the core competencies developed by the United Nations Education Committee: social responsibility, civic pride, international awareness, culture and humanity, science and technology, aesthetics, innovation, and learning to learn. Shanghai is piloting new course curricula structured around these domains. Following modifications, the central government expects to implement these curricula in the rest of China by 2022.  

Assessments 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, developed by schools, as well as informal assessments from teachers. Students are also required to take graduation examinations at the end of primary and lower secondary school. These tests are formulated by the county or provincial education departments and their content differs across localities. (They typically assess at least mathematics and Chinese language knowledge, and can include other subjects, although the tests in other subjects are considered “check-ups” and the scores are not considered for graduation. At the lower secondary school level, the provincial education department decides which tests are used for graduation.) At the end of lower secondary school, students take the zhongkao, an entrance exam for upper secondary school.  At the end of high school students also take a national graduation exam.

In addition to the tests for graduation and placement, China also has a national assessment that tests a sample of students in grades 4 and 8 in six subjects—mathematics, Chinese, science, physical education, the arts, and moral education. The tests are administered on a rotating schedule, with two subjects tested each year, and include both paper-and-pencil questions and performance assessments. The results are reported at the national and provincial level, although the provincial results are not published. The purpose is to inform national and provincial policy.

Students who hope to go on to university must also sit for a rigorous national university entrance examination known as the gaokao at the end of upper secondary school. The gaokao has a major impact on university acceptance prospects. In 2014, the MOE selected Shanghai and Zhejiang to pilot two versions of a revised gaokao. This pilot has expanded to a number of regions since then, including Beijing. The Shanghai pilot examination is based on the principle of testing students on what they understand, 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. The Zhejiang pilot allows students two attempts for each test, in case they do not pass the first time. Based on the positive results of the pilots, the MOE plans to pilot the revised gaokao in additional provinces.

Universities are also taking steps to reduce the pressure around examinations. In Shanghai, for example, some universities are basing more of their admissions process on overall academic performance. The combination of Shanghai’s rigorous education system and expanded options for applying to university has opened the door for 80 percent of Shanghai students to go on to university or other types of postsecondary education, compared to 24 percent in the rest of China.

Learning Supports

Struggling Students

Chinese schools are structured to provide opportunities for teachers to work individually with struggling students. Primary teachers teach 16 to 22 hours a week, and lower secondary teachers teach 12 to 16 hours a week; during the rest of the day, teachers can meet with students for tutoring, as well as collaborate with their peers.

In addition, each class of students is assigned a teacher, called a banzhuren, who serves as an academic adviser to the students. The banzhuren keeps track of their academic progress, provides counseling, and visits students’ homes on weekends and holidays. The banzhuren also stays with the class for multiple grades, and as a result gets to know the students and their families well. 

The Communist Youth League Central Committee and the China Youth Development Foundation have also created special schools for struggling students at risk of dropping out. Soon after China introduced compulsory education in 1986, the organizations launched an initiative called Project Hope, which established a pilot school in Jinzhai, Anhui Province. The Jinzhai school initially enrolled 300 struggling students from nearby primary schools, but soon expanded. Project Hope currently operates 19,388 schools across China and has educated 5.5 million students. 

Special Education

Since the creation of a compulsory education system in 1986, Chinese schools have had a legal mandate to educate all students with physical and cognitive disabilities. However, the provision of services for these students remains inconsistent across the country. Many provinces created separate schools for students with disabilities, but beginning in the 1990s a movement known as Learning in the Regular Classroom began to promote the integration of students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms. Supporting more students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms has been an official goal of China’s since 2010; by 2019 over 50 percent of these students were served in mainstream classrooms, which represented a 70 percent increase over 5 years.  The government gives schools additional funding for each disabled student to cover costs related to accessibility and hiring of specialist teachers.  In 2016, China also guaranteed 12 years of free education to all disabled students, which is three more than for other students.

Some provinces have provided additional resources for students with disabilities. In Shanghai, for example, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission (SMEC) is working to develop formal special education pathways in mainstream and special schools, including the development of separate curricula and teaching materials for students with special needs. They have also formulated formal certificates of special education teacher training and exempted special education students from paying education fees or purchasing textbooks. In 2014, SMEC announced plans to offer personalized education to children with disabilities who receive medical care. In this program, teachers and doctors work together to design a unique curriculum for each child based on their needs. Schools in this program are also assigned a community doctor who pays regular visits and offers help to the teachers and children. Children in this program also receive subsidized hospital checkups, which are more comprehensive than those usually done in schools.

Digital Platforms and Resources

The Chinese government began promoting e-learning in the 1980s as a strategy to expand access to education in rural and remote areas. In 2000, China set a goal of internet access for all schools, along with web portals to enable teachers to share materials.  While the nation has not yet reached this goal, more than a third of classrooms are estimated to use digital tools as part of daily instruction.  Since 2012, MOE has funded efforts to develop high quality digital resources for teachers and has developed a national platform for student data. China has invested significant funds in building capacity for disadvantaged and remote students in western provinces. The use of technology in classrooms has accelerated in recent years, with new efforts to integrate Artificial Intelligence and smart technology into classrooms. During the pandemic, China created a new platform for home-based online learning linked to the national curriculum, using curated resources from existing platforms and some newly developed resources.

Career and Technical Education

Development of System

China runs the largest Vocational Education and Training (VET) system in the world, with more than 15,000 vocational institutions at the secondary and postsecondary levels combined. The VET system has developed rapidly in a relatively short period of time and China has made significant investments to modernize its offerings. However, challenges remain, including the need to broaden the scope of VET curriculum, strengthen connections to industry, and create pathways into further education. The education plan for 2035 calls for a range of efforts to increase enrollment in VET and strengthen quality.

In China, vocational education is provided through separate secondary schools and postsecondary institutions. In 2020, about 40 percent of students in upper secondary education opted for vocational schools rather than academic schools.

Governance and System Structure

China developed its VET system through a set of government initiatives from the late 1970s through the late 1990s, all of which sought to standardize and promote vocational learning as a support to the nation’s economy. The government continues to provide subsidies to students in both national and provincial vocational schools and ensures teachers remain up-to-date in their respective industries by requiring them to spend one month at an industry workplace each year. The national government also promotes the hiring of part-time vocational teachers who also work in industry.  

In recent years, the Chinese government has substantially increased funding for VET: investment in improvements rose 40 percent from 2014 to 2018. Overall investment in secondary VET has also risen steadily, including an increase of 6.6 percent from 2018 to 2019.  

Oversight of vocational education and training is complex in China. The two primary administrators are the Ministry of Education, which focuses on occupational and technical education, and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, which focuses on skills training for youth and adults. However, other government entities are involved as well. Within the Ministry of Education, VET is divided between the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Vocational and Adult Education. The Central Institute for Vocational and Technical Education, attached to the Ministry of Education, provides policy advice to the Ministry. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security’s Department of Occupational Capacity Building is responsible for administration of VET programs in technical colleges and skilled worker schools, which provide training leading to certification in skilled trades. The Department of Occupational Capacity Building is also responsible for developing occupational skills standards, assessing skill qualifications, and issuing occupational licenses. In recent years, the State Council and Ministry of Education have made coordinated investments to encourage enrollments in vocational education to ensure young people from poor areas secure the technical skills they need to succeed in the job market.  

In general, Chinese students can choose to pursue vocational education at the end of lower secondary school, around age 15, though some rural schools offer vocational programs at the lower secondary level. Students enter the program after taking the upper secondary school entrance exam (zhongkao); in general, candidates for vocational upper secondary schools score lower on the exam than candidates for academic schools. Upper secondary program options include: 1) specialized vocational and technical schools that offer three- or four-year certificate programs in a wide variety of fields, including education; 2) skilled worker schools, which offer two-year programs of training for beginning and intermediate-level technicians; and 3) vocational secondary schools, which provide training for the services sector. The specialized schools are the most popular option for students. Most of the graduates of the upper secondary programs go directly into the workforce. It remains difficult for students to move from a vocational to an academic pathway; graduates from vocational secondary schools represent only about 10 percent of entrants to universities. Graduates also have the option of continuing their education at regional polytechnics, colleges and professional schools. Regional colleges are legally required to give admissions priority to graduates of vocational and technical schools. Their programs provide on-the-job training as well as classroom-based learning and typically culminate in an associate’s degree. In 2019, China announced a major initiative to create applied sciences degree programs across the country; it is piloting 50 applied degree programs from 2020 to 2022, with the goal of expanding them further after that point.  The programs will award students both a degree and a vocational diploma.  

However, exam scores remain a barrier for many upper secondary vocational graduates who want to attend vocational or technical postsecondary institutions.  Shanghai has been piloting initiatives to ease this transition. Its postsecondary vocational schools have developed their own vocational skills entrance examination, dispensing with the highly academic gaokao. In 2014, the Chinese government adopted this policy nationwide, and as of 2019, half of students entering postsecondary vocational schools have bypassed the gaokao.

Chinese students flocked to vocational education following the introduction of compulsory primary and lower secondary education. Between 1980 and 2010, the proportion of vocational students in upper secondary schools increased from 19 percent to 48 percent. However, as access to university education improved, interest in vocational education declined, and by 2020 only about 40 percent of upper secondary students were in vocational schools. However, vocational education remains a strong option in China: in 2017, the Ministry of Education reported that 97 percent of graduates from vocational schools were able to find jobs. Recent reports on the glut of university graduates, by contrast, put employment numbers between 70 and 94 percent.

China has promoted a number of adult education initiatives in recent years, part of an overall strategy to shake off its agrarian past and move forward as a science and technology leader. These initiatives are geared for adults who are unemployed or interested in changing jobs. Adults who never attended school, struggled in school, or left school early receive “pre-employment” training as well as basic education, including basic literacy, in special secondary schools designed for adults. Between 1949 and 2015, the adult illiteracy rate decreased from 80 percent to just under 4 percent. The government’s plan for 2035 calls for integrating adult education with secondary and postsecondary vocational education to make the programs more seamless.

CTE Programs

Occupational standards in China, known as the National Vocational Qualifications Framework (NVQ) are set by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MoHRSS). The NVQ defines five levels of qualification (primary worker certificate, intermediate worker certificate, advanced worker certificate, technician certificate, and senior technician certificate) in more than 2,000 occupations. The standards were updated most recently in 2018. The MoHRSS contracts with an organization known as the Occupational Skills Test Authority to develop assessments and award occupational certificates. However, in 2019, Premier Li Keqiang proposed phasing out the government-based skills assessment and having firms administer their own assessments, in the belief that such a system would more closely tie qualifications to market needs. As of January 2020, the firm-based system had been piloted in 18 state-owned enterprises and 900 firms in almost all provinces, issuing more than 40,000 qualification certifications.  

There is no national curriculum for vocational schools in China. Generally, the curriculum is school-based and has three stages: theory courses; basic specialized courses, which teach about a broad occupational area; and specialized courses, which teach about a specific industry, usually developed based on local contexts. In 2020, the government for the first time issued a set of curriculum standards for secondary vocational schools that were intended to highlight the connection between academic content and occupational needs. In general, schools drive the curriculum and teaching, rather than relying on industry cooperation to ensure that lessons are rigorous and relevant. However, China’s education plan for 2035, released in 2019, calls for a substantial upgrade in the quality of VET programs, including closer links between schools and industry. The plan encourages schools to learn from models such as Germany and Switzerland, where industry takes a strong role in the development of curricula and provides work-based learning opportunities for students. As part of this effort, they are piloting a 1+x program, which allows a students to earn a university degree alongside vocational qualifications. 

Qualification assessments are developed by the MoHRSS based on the NVQ and are administered by the Ministry of Education. The assessments include a knowledge section and a practical assessment. Candidates who pass the assessment receive a vocational certificate from the MoHRSS and an educational certificate from the Ministry of Education. As noted above, the Chinese government is phasing out the government-led assessment and qualification system and having firms issue their own assessments and qualification certificates.

Teachers and Principals

Teacher Recruitment 

Teaching is a well-respected profession in China. Although Chinese teachers’ salaries are not high, they are stable, particularly in big cities, and opportunities to supplement income through tutoring make the profession more attractive. Furthermore, because universities give priority admission to teacher candidates, top students often make teaching programs their first choice.

There is no standardized system of teacher recruitment in China. As is common in many jurisdictions, teachers compete for positions in cities while rural areas suffer from a shortage of candidates. As a result, rural schools often rely on “supply teachers,” or teachers who are primarily substitutes.

In recent years, the Chinese government has initiated programs to address teacher shortages and attract young people to work in rural and disadvantaged regions. For example, in 2006 the Special Teaching Post Plan for Rural Schools funded the recruitment of university graduates to work in rural schools in central or western China, mainly in remote regions with minority populations and educationally disadvantaged counties. After three years, teachers take a qualification exam. If they pass the exam and are willing to stay, they can keep their teaching positions. In 2015, about 90 percent of the teachers who finished the three-year teaching period stayed in their rural posts. In addition, teachers in large and medium cities are required to work short periods in rural schools at regular intervals.

Part of the challenge of bringing high quality teachers to rural areas is that teacher compensation varies widely across China. Typically, teacher pay in large cities is on par with other professions while teachers in rural community schools earn far less. In 2015, the Chinese government announced a plan to raise rural teachers’ salaries to the level of their counterparts in urban areas by the end of 2020.  This goal was not reached across China. As of 2020 provinces are required to ensure that teachers in rural areas are paid at least as much as other public officials in those areas.  

Teacher Preparation

Primary and Secondary Teachers

The Ministry of Education (MOE) licenses teacher education programs, approves training content, and certifies teachers. Teachers in China are educated in one of three types of schools: specialized vocational upper secondary schools, which qualify teachers for preschool and primary positions with the equivalent of a high school diploma; normal colleges, which typically train lower secondary teachers for two years following upper secondary school; and normal universities, again specifically for teachers, which train upper secondary teachers in a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Across programs, including for primary schools, subject knowledge is emphasized more than pedagogical knowledge, as nearly all teachers teach a single subject. In addition to subject knowledge, the curriculum includes general education, pedagogy, and teaching practice. In 2010, the government implemented the National Teacher Training Program for Teachers in Kindergarten, Primary, and Secondary Schools to raise the quality of teacher preparation, particularly in rural areas. 

In Shanghai, there are only two teacher training institutions: Shanghai Normal University and East China Normal University. In 2001, Shanghai instituted its Teacher Qualification System, which established slightly higher minimum requirements for beginning teachers than those used in the rest of China. Primary school teacher preparation begins after lower secondary school, takes three to four years, and culminates in a post-secondary diploma, rather than a bachelor’s degree.  These programs include courses in specific subjects, methodology, and pedagogy. Candidates must also undergo practical training. Secondary school teachers in Shanghai must hold bachelor’s degrees along with a professional certificate, and many of these teachers also hold master’s degrees. Prospective secondary school teachers complete similar coursework and practical training as primary school teachers, but they may only enter teacher education programs after graduating from upper secondary school. For candidates who want to teach upper secondary school, the program is typically four years; for those who want to teach lower secondary school, the program may be as short as two to three years.

After earning their diploma, teachers in China must be certified, which requires two additional steps. First, they must pass the National Mandarin Language Test; next, they must take four examinations in the areas of pedagogy, psychology, teaching methods, and teaching ability. Candidates are required to demonstrate teaching abilities such as classroom management as part of this examination. In the past, teachers who trained at universities were exempted from the four examinations. However, as of 2014, all teachers must pass the examinations.

Kindergarten and Vocational Teachers

The 1993 Law on Teachers set certification requirements for kindergarten and primary teachers. At the time, all preparation for kindergarten teachers took place in upper secondary schools, and most teachers had only a high school diploma. In the 2000s, teacher training began to shift into colleges and universities, and although it is not required for certification a majority of kindergarten teachers today have an associate’s degree or higher. To promote quality, in 2011 the MOE issued Curriculum Standards for Teacher Education, among other regulations, which prescribed the curriculum for the estimated 300 colleges and universities that offer early childhood education programs. In 2012, the MOE issued Kindergarten Teacher Professional Standards, which provided guidelines for teacher performance throughout their careers and professional development.

In 2015, the MOE overhauled qualification requirements for kindergarten teachers. Previously, graduates of early childhood education programs in normal universities (teacher training institutions) and graduates of upper secondary schools with a concentration in early childhood education could earn a certification by submitting an application to the Ministry. They were not required to take a certification exam, which was reserved for individuals who had majored in a subject other than early childhood education or who had come from other occupations. In 2015, after a pilot program in Zhejiang and other provinces, the MOE began requiring all prospective kindergarten teachers to take the certification test, which includes an interview as well as a knowledge and skills section. Teachers must renew their certificates every five years. 

There are two levels of certification for teachers in vocational schools in China. Teachers in lower secondary schools can earn certificates by graduating from two- or three-year programs in specialized vocational upper secondary schools or normal colleges, which are the equivalent of junior colleges for teachers. Teachers in upper secondary schools can earn certificates by graduating from a four-year normal school or college. In both cases, teachers must take a written examination and complete an interview.

In part due to the rapid expansion of the vocational sector, China has experienced teacher shortages. Many vocational schools have had to hire teachers straight from universities, before they can gain vital industry experience. In response to these concerns, the government has mandated 240 hours of classroom training every five years for all vocational teachers, as well as two months’ work experience in a relevant industry every two years. In addition, many schools have hired individuals with industry experience to teach part-time; part-timers now make up an estimated 14 percent of all vocational teachers. As part of the vocational education reforms announced in 2019, China has now set a goal of dramatically increasing the number of teachers with both practical and pedagogical training to half of all professional teachers.  As part of this effort, as of 2020 vocational schools are no longer allowed to hire teachers directly from university, with no practical experience.

Teacher Induction

Once hired, new teachers in China must finish at least 120 hours of training before starting their jobs. Regulations adopted in 2004 state that training should include “ideological and political education and ethics training; updating and expanding the teachers’ expertise; modern educational theory and practice; educational research; teaching skills and modern educational technology; modern science and humanities knowledge.” In Shanghai, in addition to this training, all new teachers are assigned a mentor for about three years. The mentoring process involves all aspects of teaching, including lesson observation and critique, teaching methods and materials, and development and marking of exams. Both new teacher and mentor are held accountable by the school leader for the new teacher’s progress.  

Teacher Career Progression

A five-tier hierarchy indicates professional status for teachers in China: Third-level, or novice teachers; Second-level, or intermediate teachers; First-level, or advanced teachers; Senior teachers; and Professor Senior teachers. Teachers are promoted from novice to intermediate level after two years of teaching and a school-based evaluation. Promotion to the advanced level requires another four years of service (or two years for teachers holding a master’s or doctoral degree) in addition to internal and district evaluations. For promotion to the Senior teacher level, teachers must have five years of experience at the advanced level (or two with a doctoral degree) and one year of experience teaching in a rural area. There is also a special title, Special-Grade teacher, which is an honorary title for teachers who are deemed outstanding by a distinguished panel of their peers. The Professor Senior teacher designation is a recent addition to the career ladder, and grants teachers equal status with university professors. Shanghai developed the teacher career hierarchy in the 1980s and the central government then expanded it throughout China.

Promotion past the third level usually requires publications in research journals and awards from teaching competitions; however, in 2015, the government waived these requirements for teachers from rural schools.

There are a limited number of spots at the higher levels, and promotion can be competitive. Upper level teachers are responsible for leading the lesson development process, demonstrating effective lessons, and supporting unskilled or inexperienced teachers. Professor Senior teachers are outstanding professionals who have distinguished themselves through years of teaching. This extraordinary honor is only bestowed on 0.1 percent of China’s teachers after careful consideration by district leaders.

Salaries rise incrementally within each professional tier. Novice teachers move through two levels of pay, while intermediate and advanced teachers move through three. Teachers are paid for performance. On top of their base pay, teachers who do well on performance assessments can earn up to 40 percent additional in bonus pay. In addition, pay varies based on subject, with teachers of Chinese, English, and mathematics earning the highest salaries.

Teacher Development

Teacher professional learning takes many forms in China. Teachers must undertake at least 360 professional development hours every five years in order to renew their qualification certificate; a failure to renew means the loss of their teaching position. Teachers also have many job-embedded opportunities for professional development. Due to China’s emphasis on teacher evaluation, teachers are constantly working to improve their practice and receive significant time during the school day to collaborate with other teachers. In Shanghai, teachers only devote about 12 hours per week to instruction, allowing ample time for collaboration. Indeed, Shanghai’s teachers report one of the highest levels of participation in professional development among high-performing education systems on PISA.

Informally, teachers often observe one another’s lessons in order either to learn from a more experienced or more effective teacher, or to serve in a mentorship capacity for a new or struggling teacher. Teachers also frequently meet in regularly scheduled (often weekly) groups based on subject and level to discuss best practices, share advice, and create common lesson plans for the upcoming week. Occasionally, teachers will give demonstration lessons, either to model best practices or to receive feedback and critique. Groups of teachers from different schools sometimes meet to plan programs, share ideas, or conduct professional learning. In Shanghai, a web platform was established in 2008 so teachers may access and share curriculum ideas, research papers, and various other resources.

 

Principal Recruitment, Preparation and Development

Since the early 1990s, China has been focused on the issue of high-quality school leadership. All principals come from the teaching ranks and many of them maintain teaching duties after moving into principal positions. In 1991, the Ministry of Education (MOE) articulated National School Principal Qualifications and Job Requirements that guide the selection, annual assessment, and training of primary and secondary school principals.

Recruitment and Preparation

In an effort to professionalize the principalship, MOE has introduced processes for promotion, compensation, and appraisal as a means of driving school improvement. In 2013 the MOE launched the national Professional Standards for Compulsory Education Principals, benchmarked against examples from around the world. (The Professional Standards for Upper Secondary Principals quickly followed in 2015.) In 2014, the MOE implemented the National Training Program for Primary and Secondary School Principals, based on the 2013 standards. The program aims to develop a cadre of leaders to promote reforms and improve basic education in rural areas and poverty-stricken communities. All aspiring principals, including those in the national program, are required to complete 300 hours of training, including classwork and practicum, within their first six months on the job. Training is conducted at two national centers, East China Normal University in Shanghai (for secondary principals) and Beijing Normal University, as well as at provincial, municipal, and county facilities. 

Development and Career Advancement

Principals, like teachers, are required to complete 360 hours of professional development every five years to renew their certificates. The training consists of coursework at institutes at the national, provincial, and county levels, taught by faculty from universities and colleges of education. Principals rated exemplary under the career ladder (see below) can also apply for research training, which includes advanced topics of study and potentially study abroad.

China has a career ladder for principals. The ladder differs from province to province because the pay system for principals is set at the provincial level. In Shanghai, the principal career ladder has five levels, and ends with the Master Principal role. As with the teacher career ladder, principals apply to move up the ladder after a specified number of years. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission recommends  promotion based on its evaluation, which considers the candidate’s personal character and professionalism as well as school outcomes.

Most principals in China are accomplished teachers with more than 10 years of teaching experience. Shanghai pioneered a training requirement for principals (including initial and ongoing training) designed to help them create strong teaching cultures and professional groups devoted to teacher development. This training is now required across China. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission (SMEC) accredits training programs, most of which are offered by teacher colleges. Shanghai’s principal career ladder incorporates professional development into its structure, since principals receive different responsibilities and training as they advance up the rungs.

Shanghai has also promoted advanced training for principals, which has become highly sought-after in the municipality. The SMEC honors 200 highly rated, early- and mid-career principals per year with the opportunity for research training. And every five years, the SMEC selects 100 principals to be trained as “model principals” for the jurisdiction. These principals mentor their peers and coordinate their professional development, and are eligible to participate in international study groups. Of these model principals, the SMEC selects 10 to be “nation-wide principals” who serve as exemplars of good practice to the whole country, regularly modeling practices and speaking. China is expanding Shanghai’s pilot training for outstanding principals to other provinces in the country.