A new direction for education reform in China

by Yan Wang, Ph.D
National Institute for Education Sciences, Beijing

China has worked hard to expand access and improve the quality of education by trying many alternative approaches to educate more people, both by drawing on the experiences of other countries or retrieving historical practices. The progress to date has been tremendous, with nine-year basic education universalised, mass higher education attained, and youth and adult illiteracy eradicated. The recent 3rd plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee announced a number of strategies to address social and economic challenges faced by China. These strategies will, among other things, frame the future direction of Chinese education. The purpose of the new reforms is not only to pursue further development, but also address the problems arising from the rapid changes made over the last two decades.

Historically, 3rd plenary sessions have been milestones of major political, economic and social reforms since China embarked on the reforms that opened up the economy in 1978. The aim then was to inject vigor into a system that had almost come to a halt after the devastating Cultural Revolution.  But the reform strategies adopted by the 2013 plenary are quite different from the 1978 reforms, as they mark two developmental stages with different challenges. The new policies have called for rebuilding the education system and encouraging bold experimentation in education to boost economic growth in three main areas:

Equity: As in other sectors, the rapid development of education over the past three decades has led in many cases to severe inequities both within provinces and across provinces. The equity reform involves several strategies for dealing with this problem, among which are the following: 1) support hard-to-reach or disadvantaged students with more financial support, 2)  standardise public schools (including abolishing so-called key schools or key classes by removing their resource privileges) and 3) facilitate mobility of teachers and principals among different types of schools as well as sharing of resources among different areas and schools by means of information technology.

Gaokao (college entrance examination): which has long been regarded as a bottleneck of education reforms aimed at quality in China. When Gaokao was resumed 30 years ago, it was designed as a unified examination to screen and select the most talented students for admission into higher education.  Because it was the same examination for all, and was objectively scored, it was seen as fair and equitable by everyone. But the exams, though rigorous and fair, do not measure the kinds of skills required by a modern economy. The reforms essentially comprise three elements: 1) replace once-and-for-all the college entrance examination system with a more comprehensive learning assessment that incorporates: a) a colleague entrance examination with fewer subjects and more choice of examinations at different times of the year, b) competency-based student learning performance assessment and c) tests organised by the universities and colleges.  (one hopes that this could be done in the near future); 2) separate university admissions from college entrance examinations, to give more autonomy to universities and colleges to identify students of different capabilities and 3) create more learning pathways among regular tertiary institutions, vocational institutions and adult tertiary schools.

Reduce the bureaucratic control of education by government: The reform will disentangle the responsibilities of administration, sponsorship (school management) and evaluation. It is intended to delegate more power to provincial government, give more autonomy to educational institutions and give more control over education evaluation and monitoring to professional organisations. Another strategy that merits a mention is to promote public-private partnerships such as those that would encourage involvement of the private sector in education sponsorship.

While earlier education reforms have put the focus on the development of schools and teachers, these reforms focus on traditional cultural values, like ethics and personal health and fitness, on the one hand, and the need to produce students who are more creative and innovative on the other.  This does not appear to be in any way a rejection of the past priorities, but rather a recognition that they are well on the say to being achieved and it is time to move on to new frontiers.

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Related blog posts by Andreas Schleicher:
Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?
Learning in rural China: The challenges for teachers
Learning in rural China: The challenges for students

Photo credit: Chinese students @ Shutterstock

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