The China Education Debate: Equity versus Excellence

Access and Inclusion July 22, 2015

Education-wise, Beijing has always been an embarrassment of riches. Beijing is China’s political, intellectual, cultural, and education center, and as such its schools command national attention as well as resources. Beijing also has the luxury of drawing talent from all over China, as well as building bridges to the best schools all around the world. China’s two best universities – Peking University and Tsinghua University – are in Beijing. Beijing’s High School Affiliated to Renmin University is considered the best high school in China, and Beijing’s National Day School is now the standard-bearer for education reform throughout China.  

But here’s the paradox. Having worked in Chinese education since 2008 and having traveled to many Chinese cities, I’ve discovered that Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Nanjing, and Shenzhen – all wealthy cities, but possessing far less education resources – offer a better overall education to their students than Beijing. Among Chinese education officials, it’s widely accepted that Beijing lags the provincials in terms of student learning, teacher quality, equity, and innovation. How is that a city with the best schools can fail to have the best education system? 

The answer is counter-intuitive: It’s precisely because Beijing has the best schools.
Consider the High School Affiliated to Renm University (rendafuzhong), which at the peak of its prestige in the mid-aughties, sent two hundred students to Peking University and Tsinghua University per year (only 400 Beijing students get into Peking and Tsinghua per year). The school became so famous throughout China that students at Renmin University (in the other words, the mothership) joked, “We are proud of students of the Renmin University affiliated to the High School Affiliated to Renmin University.” Meanwhile, students at rendafuzhong had a joke that made even less sense and was even less funny:  “The President of Renmin University told (his employee) our Headmistress that he’ll give her a million dollars if she sent him her best students – our Headmistress replied that she’ll give him one million dollars to leave her alone.” Today, getting into rendafuzhong is considered more prestigious than getting into Peking and Tsinghua, and rendafuzhong students proudly wear their red and white school tracksuit at restaurants and in cinemas. 

Rendafuzhong is one of a handful of high schools in Beijing that are considered so good that getting in translates into guaranteed admission into one of China’s top ten universities. This high-stakes system puts tremendous pressure on Beijing’s elementary schools to get their students into a top high school, and that’s why they’re so much more stressful places to teach and to learn than those in every other wealthy Chinese city. This high-stakes system puts pressure on Beijing’s parents to leverage their political power, wealth, and guanxi to negotiate a golden ticket into these schools, and that has in turn permitted Beijing’s top schools to accumulate a lot of political power, wealth, and guanxi. Principals at top Beijing high schools spend so much of their working time, emotional energy, and intellectual focus managing this power, wealth, and guanxi that they have very little time for anything else. In effect, they run their own education fiefdoms, and they’re so powerful they can ignore the efforts of China’s top education officials to rein them in, or at least get them to retire. When Liu Yandong, China’s Vice-Premier in charge of education, travels overseas, her frequent traveling companion isn’t China’s Minister of Education – it’s rendafuzhong’s Headmistress, who this year is seventy-three years of age. 

Beijing’s top schools are truly excellent, and their students are brilliant. But so what? Their students were brilliant to begin with, and all these schools did was put them together in classroom to cram for tests. What does this pursuit of excellence get you exactly, and is it worth the costs?    

Consider Chengdu, a southwestern interior city that China’s Ministry of Education promotes as having the most equitable school system in China. For years, the local education bureau made a determined effort to shift resources from the best schools to mediocre ones, and its major accomplishment has been to rein in the power of the city’s most powerful schools. It has done so by cutting funding to them, increasing oversight over them, and incentivizing their most talented administrators to go to needy neighborhoods. And for the most recalcitrant schools – namely, the most famous and powerful – Chengdu officials adopted a clever scheme of giving them too much power. The most ambitious headmasters at the most powerful schools are now CEOs of education conglomerates, and their energies are so dissipated by opening new schools in poor communities that they no longer have the time to leverage their network of powerful parents, and “game” the system.   

And what does Chengdu’s focus on equity mean for its schools?  

Consider Caotang Primary School West Campus, a typical Chengdu elementary school headed by Fu Jin, a perky woman in her mid-thirties with permed fuchsia hair.  When I visited her in mid-May, Principal Fu showed me a film that the teachers and students had put together last summer. It was based on a true story about a hyper-sensitive, emotional first-grader at the school who hid from her classmates, ran away from school, and threw hissy fits at teachers. “We made the film to show the whole school community that every student here matters, and that we ought to respect and care for everyone,” Principal Fu told me. “For me, the priority is to create a democratic school culture.” She believes in this ideal so much that every month a teacher will rotate in to act as principal. This brings in new ideas, Principal Fu told me, and it also builds trust and transparency. Her school is one of the most creative and dynamic I’ve seen in China – on every floor sixth graders manage their own reading salon for the lower grades. 

Power has its perks. I know one Beijing principal who took his staff out for a seafood dinner on China’s aircraft carrier, and I know another who went on a karaoke date with Sarah Brightman. But they’re also two of the most stressed-out and overworked individuals I know in China. Fu Jin may not be able to commandeer a warship for an evening, but she loves her job, and has fun doing it. She’s a foodie and a fashionista, and she’s always seeking new ideas for her school in restaurants and shopping malls – she convinced the owner of her favorite restaurant to renovate the students’ reading salons for free, and she likes to design dresses for her teachers. Unlike Beijing principals who are trying to be the next Sun Tzu, Fu Jin and other Chengdu principals I met are just focused on being educators. 

A focus on equity in education is smart social policy. But as I saw in Chengdu, a focus on equity also translates into creativity and innovation at the school level. And it also translates into happier parents, students, and teachers.  

This isn’t just true in Chengdu. It’s also very much true in Finland, considered the world’s most equitable and most creative school system.  

Fortunately, Beijing is finally beginning to take equity seriously, and is now mandating Beijing’s top schools to take over failing ones. As expected, Beijing’s top schools are up in arms, and they are now rallying their network of powerful parents. Normally, the odds would be in their favor, but this time they face a Chinese President – Xi Jinping – who has already proven himself determined to impose his vision on the country.

Jiang Xueqin is a China-based writer and educator. He tweets at @xueqinjiang
Jiang Xueqin was a speaker at WISE 2014. Watch his session: Empowering Teachers for Creativity

Read the other articles in the series: Are Creativity and Innovation Possible in Chinese SchoolsHow Chengdu Schools Do InnovationThe Pioneer Way: Emotional Scaffolding; The Xingwei ExperimentThe Secret to School Transformation: Emotional Plumbing