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.
Population: 1.4 billion
Population growth rate: 0.26%
Demographic makeup: Han Chinese 93%, 55 other minority ethnic groups 7%
Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021
GDP: $23,009 billion
GDP per capita: $16,400 (2020 estimate in 2017 dollars)
Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021
Unemployment rate: 3.64%
Sources: CIA World Factbook 2019
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
Ages 25-34: 18%
Source: OECD Education at a Glance, 2020 (Data is from 2010)