On December 4, 2013, a New York Times headline shouted: “Shanghai Students Again Top Global Test”, and once again, America’s vocal critics of the U.S. Public Schools called for more reform.
Not so fast. In fact, maybe not at all.
In China, the first nine years of education is compulsory starting before age 7. Primary school takes the first six of those nine years; then there’s middle school for grades 7, 8, and 9.
Fifteen is the age of students who take the international PISA test—and in China [so-called] compulsory education ends at the age of fifteen and students who decide to stay in school have a choice between a vocational or academic senior high school track. That’s where the choice ends because in China the senior high schools pick students based on merit.
To explain how this works, the CCP has acknowledged a “9-6-3 rule”. This means that nine of ten children began primary school between the ages of 6 and 7; six complete the first five years and three graduate from sixth grade with good performance.
By the time a student reaches senior high school—grades 10, 11, and 12—most enrollment is in the cities and not in rural China. Most rural Chinese don’t value education as much as urban Chinese do. And many of the migrant urban workers from rural China still have some family back in the village where they often leave their younger children. And many migrant workers, when they retire from factory work, return to the village and the family home.
The United States, by comparison, keeps most kids in school until the end of high school at age 17/18. About 75% graduate on time and another 15% earn their high school diploma or equivalent GED by age 24—all on an academic track because there is no vocational public schools k to 12 in the U.S.
In addition, in China there is the Zhongkao, the Senior High School Entrance Examination, held annually to distinguish the top students who then are admitted to the highest performing senior high schools. This means that if the highest rated high school in Shanghai has 1,000 openings for 10th graders, the students who earn the top 1,000 scores on the Zhongkao get in and then the second highest rated high school takes the next batch of kids until the lowest rated senior high school in Shanghai gets the kids with the bottom scores on the Zhongkao.
Maybe actual numbers will help clarify what this means:
In 2010, 121 million children attended China’s primary schools with 78.4 million in junior and senior secondary schools. The total is 199.4 million kids.
According to World Education News & Reviews: “In 2010, senior high schools [in China] accommodated 46.8 million students (23.4% of the 199.5 million). But about 52 percent or only 40.8 million were enrolled in general senior high school, and 48 percent of those students were attending vocational senior high schools.”
That leaves 21.2 million enrolled in the senior high school academic track designed to prep kids for college—that’s 10.6% of the total. Then consider that Shanghai’s public schools are considered the best in China. This means that the fifteen-year-old students who take the international PISA in China are the elite of the elite attending China’s best public schools.
For a fair comparison—not what we’ll hear from the critics of public education in the United States—the Economic Policy Institute reports: “The U.S. administration of the most recent international (PISA) test resulted in students from the most disadvantaged schools being over-represented in the overall U.S. test-taker sample. This error further depressed the reported average U.S. test score. … But U.S. students from advantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the top-scoring countries [Canada, Finland, South Korea, France, Germany and the U.K.]” and “U.S. students from disadvantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the three similar post-industrial countries.”
In fact, “U.S. students from advantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the top-scoring countries of Finland and Canada. … and—on average—for almost every social class group, U.S. students do relatively better in reading than in math, compared to students in both the top-scoring and the similar post-industrial countries.”
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.
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