With over 1.36 billion people, China is the world’s most populous country and has the world’s largest education system. Thanks to outstanding economic growth, it has leapt from being a poverty-stricken rural society to an advanced industrial society, although there are still vast rural areas mired in poverty.
When Deng Xiaoping took power in China in 1978, he inherited a country whose economy and education system had both been destroyed by Mao Zedong. Mao had closed the schools and universities and sent educated people of all descriptions to the countryside to be “re-educated.” For almost three decades, schooling was focused on a highly politicized curriculum and Communist indoctrination. After Deng took over in China and initiated a series of market-oriented reforms that led to explosive economic growth, the nation 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 extent of the prior destruction of its education infrastructure and teaching force, and the depth of poverty in this very rural nation.
But China achieved that goal in a remarkably short time. In 1986, China passed a law requiring nine years of compulsory education. At the higher education level, Deng set a goal of creating 100 research universities in China. By 2009, 99.4 percent of students were enrolled in primary education; 99 percent enrolled in junior secondary education; 79.2 percent at the senior secondary level; and 24 percent in higher education. Now, enrollment in primary school and lower secondary school is universal. Although senior secondary education is not compulsory, enrollment is over 95 percent.
Once the Chinese government was on its way toward achieving its quantitative goals in the education arena, it began to turn to issues of quality. A system of “key schools” had developed that became a source of strength for the system. 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 became laboratories and models for other schools in China, creating a system for the development and spread of superior methods and curriculum.
Despite the rapid advances in educational quality and attainment, China still wrestles with large gaps between its 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 the large cities. The situation is further complicated because of China’s large internal migration. As of 2014, some 260 million people from rural areas migrated to cities for work, and the services they are entitled to—including the education of their children—an estimated 60 million—are limited. Under the registration system, known as houku, students of migrant workers must either attend schools in their home region or face limited options in the cities; for example, in Shanghai, students with rural houku can enroll in schools only through 9th grade, with only a few slots available for migrants in academic upper secondary schools. Further, children of migrant workers must take the university entrance examination in their home region. This system is slowly changing, as cities expand capacity in their schools to accommodate the migrant children and loosen regulations on university admission.
In addition, China’s school system continues to be very focused on university admission. For many Chinese, one’s success in life depends on which university one gets into. And that depends, with very few exceptions, solely on one’s score on the entrance exams, which are heavily weighted towards mathematics. The result is that Chinese students put an enormous effort into studying and, in particular, into the study of mathematics.
When Shanghai participated for the first time in the PISA rankings it topped all of the other entrants in reading, math, and science in the 2009 PISA league tables—by a wide margin. The city’s 15-year-olds repeated that performance in 2012. While not representative of China overall, it was still impressive that the province came out on top on a test that requires students to apply their knowledge, not just answer factual questions. Notwithstanding this success, many in Shanghai still see its education system as too rigid and its students as not sufficiently independent and creative to meet the challenges ahead.
Shanghai, with a population of over 20 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 the most international city. Shanghai accounts for only 1 percent of China’s population and 0.6 percent of its land area, but it produces one-eighth of China’s income. It has long had a very special status in China, and has been given the right to take its own path in certain arenas of public policy when other cities and provinces have had to follow the policies set by the national government in Beijing. This has been true in education. In 1985, Shanghai won for itself the right to set its own exams for entrance into its 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 the ability to use what one has learned to solve real-world problems, on cross-disciplinary studies, and on the ability to solve problems of a kind that one has not seen before, drawing on a deep understanding of what one has studied.
In 2015, PISA participation in China expanded to include Beijing, Jiangsu, and Guangdong. Beijing, the capital, with more than 20 million residents, has invested heavily in primary and secondary education with the greatest educational appropriation than any other province or municipality. It has a far lower student-teacher ratio than the national average. Beijing does continue to grapple with inequalities in access and an uneven quality of schools. Like Shanghai, Beijing has instituted a number of reforms, including curriculum reform to make learning more engaging and integrated and reform of the university entrance exam. The government is also trying to improve the quality of all compulsory schools to cut down the competition for slots at the “best” schools.
Jiangsu is a province on the eastern coast of China, just north of Shanghai. Its population is nearly 75 million. Jiangsu began reforming its education system in 1993, and now has achieved universal upper secondary school enrollment. It has worked to equalize resources between its urban and rural counties and expanded extracurricular options in high schools. The province has also set up 686 “training bases” to provide instruction for secondary school students and adults in practical skills for specific industries.
Guangdong is a southern coastal province. The largest and wealthiest province in China, it is considered an economic powerhouse with a focus on advanced manufacturing. However, there are large gaps between urban and rural areas. In 2017, the World Bank launched the Guangdong Compulsory Education Project, financed with a $120 million loan, to improve school facilities and teacher training in rural areas of the province.
On the 2015 PISA, the results of the four provinces are reported as “B-S-J-G (China).” These regions are sampled as one entity; reports are not separated by province or municipality. The total population in the four provinces is 230 million (out of 1.357 billion in China overall) and by expanding beyond Shanghai, more rural students participated. Unlike in 2009 and 2012, when Shanghai led the world by a large margin, the performance of the four provinces was more modest. The B-S-J-G (China) provinces ranked 10th in science, 24th in reading, and sixth in mathematics.
This profile describes the education system in China, with a special focus on Shanghai. Areas where Shanghai’s system differs from the rest of China are described as well. The Chinese government often pilots changes to the education system in Shanghai before extending those changes to the rest of the country if they are successful. Therefore, Shanghai’s system often offers a glimpse of the future of the rest of the country.
PISA 2015 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science
Han Chinese 98.8%; other 1.2%
$379.5 billion; $15,679 per Capita
Services: 67.8%; Industry: 31.8%; Agriculture: 0.4%
Upper Secondary Graduation Rate: 88.3%