[Viewpoint] How China does education

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[Viewpoint] How China does education

As a parent, I cannot but gasp at pace of education reforms liberal superintendents are rushing to implement for our students. Without any debate or trials, the dramatic changes - free lunch, no dress code, no punishments, no tests - will likely take place at once.

It’s often forgotten that China’s Deng Xiaoping, remembered for his economic reforms, was also a heady reformer in education.

Once Deng was rehabilitated in 1977, he took charge of education, science and technology. Believing that education was the key to the development of science and technology and the modernization of China, he debated with education experts night and day for five days to announce the revival of the national exam, Gaokao, for admission to universities for the first time in 12 years.

During the decade-long Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, schools were commanded to produce revolutionaries, so universities accepted students on party recommendations. Workers, farmers and soldiers went to colleges, not the types of people who were expected to devote themselves to learning. Deng took immediate steps to shift universities’ focus to academic learning from political indoctrination.

By late 1977, as many as 5.7 million candidates from all over the country turned up for the first test. The ratio of applicants to university places in 1977 was 24 to 1.

The students who took the examination in 1977 are, in fact, the first generation in modern Chinese history with the qualifications for and devotion to higher education. They grew up to be China’s contemporary leaders. Among them are renowned film director Zhang Yimou, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and literary critic Liu Xiaobo who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Li had to perform rural labor for three years during the Cultural Revolution before being admitted into Peking University. Zhang was forced to work farms until he returned to the Beijing Film Academy when it reopened in 1978.

China’s education remains highly competitive. Admission tests start from middle school. Competition to get into elite schools is cutthroat. Classrooms are strictly performance-based. All students must study until 11 at night. Boys have their hair cropped close, and girls choose short styles too, even though there is no set regulation. There are no uniforms, but Chinese students attend school all year round in PE outfits.

Teachers are strictly evaluated every term by the principal, students and parents, after which they are assigned to common, high-level, and top-level classes. They can be kicked out of their classes in the middle of the term if they receive poor ratings. Their pay depends on the Gaokao scores and university admissions of their students.

And they must improve themselves in order to get promoted. When they attain top-level status, they have their retirement age extended by five years and enjoy social status equal to university professors. They, however, must be able to write and publish more than three theses in acknowledged academic journals every year.

China’s rigorous pursuit of education has finally paid off. In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, a worldwide scholastic evaluation coordinated by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, ranked students in Shanghai at the top in all three categories: reading, math and science.

Liberal education superintendents often cite Finland’s education system as a benchmark. But Finnish students are ranked lower than their Korean counterparts. Ethnic Chinese from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan are our real competition. Our education superintendents look to the Finnish system for its closeness to their ideological beliefs and turn a blind eye to the rapid rise of the Chinese.

Education is the yardstick that can gauge a nation’s potential in the next generation. Our children’s competitors aren’t only within their classrooms, but they are everywhere around the globe. Korea accomplished a rags-to-riches miracle solely with human resources. Its people have been and will always be its salvation.

Parents won’t mind what hairstyles and clothes their children wear to school as long as they perform well academically. The staggering rise of the Chinese is the fruit of Deng’s farsightedness. Before rushing through new experiments, superintendents must be aware that their rashness may risk the country’s future.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Cheol-ho
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