Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Getting “Educated”

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Education
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I recently came across this documentary called “Education, Education” (released a year ago but new to me) exploring the hardship young Chinese are facing in leveraging their education for a decent job. It follows a college graduate struggling to find work, a poor rural girl deciding what she should do after failing the gaokao, and a recruiter touting a sham private college.

The film was advertised with the question, “Has higher education become a cause of poverty rather than a route out of it?” This, I think, is a depressingly relevant question to be asking in China today.

I’ve often said that what the country needs perhaps more than anything is education – the kind that opens minds and sparks a desperately needed innovative spirit. Unfortunately, what it more often provides is “education” – the kind that puts teachers at the front of classrooms but does little other than waste students’ time and embed them with a sense of entitlement.

The film’s depiction of the two students is compelling, but the sham agent is what really grabbed my attention. The man travelled from city-to-city giving talks to students who failed the gaokao, trying to convince them to attend the expensive “private college” he works for.

He gives inspiring speeches and rattles off quotes like “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” He’s actually preaching to the parents in the room, who’ve been taught their whole lives (and often seen firsthand) that a college degree can change a poor peasant’s fate.

Between speeches, the man explains to the filmmaker how he’s scamming them. He pulls up the PowerPoint presentation he uses to show pictures of the campus’s libraries, conference halls, labs and auditorium. “None of them exist,” he said. “Just images from the Internet. 90 percent of the tutors have no teaching qualifications or experience.”

He goes on to coldly describe how much the scam hurts its victims. “With the minimum monthly wage of 1,200 yuan and spending nothing, it would take five years for a student to pay back their debts. Look at me, I’m a qualified graphic designer but have to travel around selling a scam. What hope is there for the kids that I recruit?”

At first I couldn’t believe that he would admit these things on camera with his face shown, but it dawned on me that he was probably doing it out of guilt as a sort of atonement. “Nobody can do this for a long time, everyone wants to quit,” he said near the end of the film. “[The families] are so poor. Giving money to [our school]? What the hell? Where’s our conscience?”

Earlier this year I spoke to a group of young students from rural Henan who’d been lured into a nearly identical scam hundreds of miles from home. After they failed the gaokao, they were called by a recruiter to attend the inspirational pitch. They were incredibly poor, and thought some kind of education was the only way to change their family’s status. So they paid 10,000 yuan – nearly all the money their parents had saved – just for the first year at the “college.” They planned to borrow from other family and friends for the subsequent three years.

In villages like theirs, everyone knows one-another so few would dare try to swindle others. “People in the countryside are very honest,” one of the young men told me. “So we had no sense of law.”

The recruiter from the film acknowledged how he preyed on this naiveté. “The more simple they are, the more likely they are to be fooled by us,” he said. “The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”

Like the school from the film, the fake college that the Henan men attended eventually folded and the ringleader disappeared with all of their money. It stole a year of their lives and left them 10,000 yuan poorer with nothing to show for it but a keen sense of disillusionment. “The only thing I learned at that school was not to trust anybody,” one of them said. “I got hurt badly. My first contact with society was full of lies.”

It had happened three years prior to when I spoke to them, but they’d all been too ashamed to ever tell their parents.

Most stayed in the city, some toiling at low-end labor jobs as they kept studying for the gaokao hoping they’d eventually pass and skirt having to tell their families anything (one man had already failed three times).

Education scams like these have become ubiquitous in China. Earlier this year it was revealed that there were at least 70 of them operating just in Beijing. They prey on the sense that any “education” is better than nothing and can provide some social mobility. They prey on the desperation of those who can least afford it.

I had to wonder though, would the young men really have been any better off had they scored a few points higher on the gaokao and been admitted to a low-tier college? About one-fourth of those who graduate now are still jobless a year later.

A few months later I met a man who’d graduated from a second-tier provincial university with a degree in Chinese in 2009. He’d spent the following three years hopping across the country working in factories and grocery stores as he struggled to find white collar work. It wasn’t until after he cut his losses and paid 10,000 yuan for a four-month computer programming course that he found a decent-paying job in an office.

I suggested to one of the Henan men that perhaps he’d be better off cutting his losses and attending a shorter term technical school, since that’s where the most demand in China is. However, that just didn’t have the same appeal. “I thought about going to technical school when my college went bust,” he replied. “But my classmates criticized me. They said, ‘your parents saved for you to go to college. How could you use their money for technical school?’”

The Gaokao Highway to Hell

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Education
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China’s Gaokao college entrance exam, which heavily tests rote memorization and decides the fate of China’s youth, is objectively awful. Students know this, teachers know this, the government knows this, my aunt Agatha knows this. Recently though I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how horrific it is.

For the past week I’ve been in my girlfriend’s Shandong hometown staying with her aunt, uncle and 17-year-old cousin Emily.

Emily is a puny 90 pounds with the horrible eyesight common among Chinese youth.  If given the chance, she’ll talk to you for hours about soap operas and schoolyard gossip.

Two-and-a-half years ago she and her family came to visit us in Nanjing. It was a kind of celebration for passing the end of middle school test and getting into the town’s best high school. Since that trip, Emily’s life has been hell.

This summer she’ll take the Gaokao. So each day she goes to school from 7:30 AM to 10:00 PM with a two hour lunch. She gets Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings off…usually.

Every night at 10:15, her mom waits anxiously at the front door. When Emily arrives on her electric bike, she leans on the horn in annoyance. Her mom bolts out the door to open the courtyard gate. No matter how fast she makes it out, Emily is irritated. She’s running on fumes already and vents at the routine setback of having to wait ten seconds to get in the house.

When she gets in the front door, her mom hustles her over to a warm footbath she’s prepared. Any precious second that’s wasted is a second Emily will lose from study or sleep. But once she sits down to her footbath, she has a few minutes to unwind. It’s the one window where I can talk to her. The topic, of course, is how miserable her day was.

After we chat for about five minutes, her mom hands her a textbook and I take my cue to head off to bed. This is just the beginning of Emily’s night.

The time that she goes to bed varies. On a rare good night, it’ll be a little after midnight. I once woke up to use the bathroom at 2:30 and found her passed out on a book. “I’m just taking a little rest,” she looked up and uttered pathetically, as if she needed to justify the catnap to me.

If she managed to get all her homework done, her mom will rouse her at 6:30 AM – at which point they’ll bargain over whether Emily can have a few more minutes of sleep. Emily never wins this negotiation. Once she’s up, she’ll do a little morning studying, make quick work of her breakfast and be out the door (This is what I’m told anyways. I’ve never actually been awake to see it myself).

Normally, the entire family treats me like a prince. They’ll bend over backwards to make sure I don’t lift a finger while I’m there. Meals are placed before me and trips are made across town to get any little thing they think I might want, no matter how strongly I object (I like to think this is just because I’m a guest, but realistically, I know my foreignness plays a role). All this princely treatment ends abruptly though when it conflicts with the schedule of the Queen.

After subtracting the commute, Emily has an hour-and-a-half at home for lunch. I’ve been told ever so politely (but in no uncertain terms) that I’m to be out of the house during this period. Emily doesn’t have time to be distracted by me. She’ll scarf down lunch in a matter of minutes and then go straight to bed for some precious afternoon Zs…unless of course she still has unfinished homework.

After several more hours of drilling and practice tests, she’ll come home and repeat. As I head to bed I tell her, “Don’t work too hard.” I’m the only one doling out such advice.

My girlfriend has persuaded Emily’s parents that the brain needs time to relax, and now they’re relatively easy on her. During her free Saturday afternoon, she’s allowed to watch soap operas and talk with me for a little while before being directed back to her study desk. Many of her classmates though have their faces stuffed in their books at every waking moment or have an outside tutor arranged during this time.

Teachers and parents are perfectly aware of how much stress this puts on the kids. They try to occasionally organize activities to relieve the pressure and allow some semblance of socializing. But these occasions are too little and too contrived. Recently they had a class dinner to celebrate the New Year, but it was more like being let out of the dungeon to have a nice dinner with the other captives. Yes, the students were happy to have it, but there wasn’t exactly a festive atmosphere. Everyone spent the evening complaining to one another.

Two years ago during the Spring Festival, after Emily’s first semester of high school, she was already feeling the heat. One night while everyone else was visiting a neighbor, she broke down and started sobbing on my shoulder. “There’s so much pressure,” she said. “Everyone wants so much from me. I don’t know if I can pass. If I don’t they’ll be so disappointed in me.”

Considering how high the suicide rate is for Emily’s demographic, I was glad to be the foreigner disconnected from her world that allowed her to uncork what she’d been bottling up.

When I think back to my high school life – the parties, proms, sports, pointless time-killing shenanigans – it kills me that Emily won’t have any of it. She’ll just have memories of soul-crushing routine.

But the lost memories, the stress, the bodily harm – it might be worth it if there were something worthwhile at the end of the tunnel; something truly enriching that sprouted from all that time and sacrifice.

Yesterday, while studying, Emily asked me when you should say “It’s my pleasure” and when you should simply say “My pleasure” in English conversation. It seemed like a pretty pointless question. There may be a very subtle situational difference, depending on who you ask, but in what scenario could that very narrow distinction possibly matter? Sure enough though, there was a “correct” answer to the multiple choice question.

I flipped through the textbook and found pages full of similar hair-splitting drivel that would in no way actually improve someone’s ability to communicate in English. I asked Emily what exactly they teach her in school all day. “We write many passages,” she said. “And then they tell us how we should write it better [for the essay portion of the Gaokao].”

“You know, it’s not like Mo Yan,” she continued. “He tells very interesting stories, but we can’t write anything like that. If I write what I want, I’ll fail.”

One of the major factors re-enforcing China’s wealth gap is the disparity in education between children of the rich and the poor. This piece in Time from a few days ago underlines how the educational failure in rural areas could seriously damper China’s growth in the near future. Since the 1990’s, the proportion of rural students in China’s universities has been dropping steadily. The percentage at Peking University has fallen from 30% to 10%. And at Tsinghua, rural students make up only 17% of the student body in spite of accounting for 62% of the entrance exam takers.

Last summer I interviewed analyst Pablo Zoido with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)– which is affiliated with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He has conducted studies specifically on how disadvantaged students can overcome their socio-economic background and perform on par with their affluent peers. Obviously adequate funding and getting good teachers to these poor schools is very important, but there are many relatively cheap measures that can be taken which produce big results. Zoido shared some interesting (and somewhat counter-intuitive) findings regarding the role of standardized testing, confidence and how some Chinese cities are actually leading the world in fostering educational equality.

Question: What have your studies shown is the most important factor in closing the gap between rural and urban students’ performance?

Zoido: The first thing is opportunity to learn. Across many different countries disadvantaged students tend to spend less time at school and that obviously has an impact on their performance. Having an extra hour of class time also seems to benefit disadvantaged kids more than advantaged. It could be the fact that it keeps disadvantaged kids from doing something else that wouldn’t be particularly beneficial for their performance; whereas advantaged kids not being in school might just mean that they’re learning something else or getting support at home where they tend to have more educated parents and more educational resources.

Q: Your report also indicates self-confidence is a major factor in performance.

Zoido: Kids being more debated, more engaged, interested, and self-confident in their abilities is related to performance. Motivation is important for all kinds of kids regardless of their background and it could be key to improving their performance. Incidentally there’s a lot of evidence in our studies that educational aspirations play a big role in bridging this gap. But this works across all kinds of students. So any sort of policy should be targeted to disadvantaged kids to overcome support that advantaged kids get at home.

Q: How can you foster this motivation?

Zoido: In terms of educational expectations, kids can be given clear information about the types of opportunities they’ll have in the future. Also role models in the kinds of professions they might want to aspire to later on.  Encouraging disadvantaged kids to participate in, or even organize, extracurricular activities like science or math clubs can also help.

Q: Does having a single standardized test like the Gaokao have any bearing on the urban-rural gap?

Zoido: There’s no sort of evidence for that. Memorization of course is something we always find doesn’t help performance and is sometimes negatively related. But in our studies, we don’t test kids on the knowledge they acquire at school but whether they can use that knowledge in novel situations in a somewhat creative way. Chinese students perform very well on these sorts of tests. So we think that this suggests the myth that Chinese or Asian education just focuses on rote-memorization isn’t completely right.

Q: One of your studies found that Hong Kong and Shanghai top the world in the percentage of disadvantaged students who overcome their background and perform on par with their advantaged peers. This seems counter-intuitive.

Zoido: What’s really surprising and extraordinary in the performance of Shanghai and Hong Kong is that, in spite of having populations very diverse in terms of socio-economic background, kids do well across the board. So there’s a very weak relationship between socio-economic background and performance there.

There was a case study of Shanghai and it found one of the main driving forces for the good performance was collaboration across schools. Whenever there’s a weak school, stronger schools will send their management teams and teachers to these weaker schools to turn them around and make them a success. It also happens that this becomes a particularly good career promotion for the people involved in turning the school around. So there seems to be a whole system in place to ensure that, rather than having a huge school that does very well, all schools do well more-or-less at the same level. That’s our best guess but we don’t have a lot of evidence on exactly what’s driving that.

Q: Could internet education in the countryside help close the performance gap?

Zoido: We have a report looking at this and I think the main message was how hard it is to take advantage of internet education technologies. We think the key there isn’t only providing more access and more opportunity for kids but also training teachers in how to use it effectively and how to integrate it into the overall pedagogy of the curriculum. It’s a tricky issue.

Q: Do you think affirmative action initiatives like extra points on the Gaokao for rural students are good ways to bridge the divide?

Zoido: What other countries show is that, when you’re at the university level, it’s probably already too late. What seems to be happening in countries that do very well across the board like Finland and Canada is that there are sort of early warning mechanisms for schools to identify kids who are, perhaps not already doing very poorly, but are at risk of doing poorly. Once these kids have been identified they spend extra time in school or are taken into smaller groups and given support for the particular subject where they’re falling behind. Not waiting until it’s too late with rural students is important.