Will China be the Next Education Superpower?

Editor’s note: This post first appeared in the online publication EdReach.

From A Nation at Risk to US Education Reform and National Security, education and economic competitiveness have long been part of America’s geopolitical calculus.  But with an emergent China gradually moving toward deeper innovation and a smarter workforce, the stakes have suddenly become higher.

In a recent New York Review of Books article, educator Diane Ravitch reassures us that China’s educational system is actually the worst of all and that US testing reform efforts that try to adopt China’s model to raise competitiveness are misguided. She makes two essential points. First, that China’s (and, by extension, East Asia’s) Confucian-influenced exam-centric system stifles creativity and innovation.  Second, that until the obsession with standardized testing is abolished the US cannot hope to escape from its current education malaise. Unfortunately, she is wrong on both counts.   

Her main argument is deceptively simple. Reformulating arguments in her review from Yong Zhao’s  book  Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World , she argues:

“China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores and the worst system because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism. The imposition of standardized tests by central authorities, he argues, is a victory for authoritarianism. His book is a timely warning that we should not seek to emulate Shanghai, whose scores reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old.  Indeed, the highest-scoring nations on the PISA examinations of fifteen-year-olds are all Asian national or cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Korea, Macao (China), and Japan.”

This constant theme, the idea that Asian rote learning is terrific for exam scores but squelches innovative thinking (not to mention leading to a depressed childhood) has long been a bugaboo in Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Yet each of these countries has continued to thrive, with higher value-added economies, larger numbers of college and post-graduates, and richer populations. China, which only entered the ranks when it (or more specifically, Shanghai) agreed to submit PISA exam scores in science and math and then quickly emerged at No. 1 in the world, is now the most high profile “worst” educational system.  

I have worked at ground level across China and Asia and know that their schools are imperfect, in constant need of reform, and parents can suffer from the immense pressure that the exam system creates.  However given the rapid, sustained and largely equitable growth in East Asia over the past three decades it is hard to see how their educational systems are “the worst” and that they discourage “creativity and innovation” assuming, of course, that these oft-used but vague terms can be measured.  So when Ravitch dismisses the entire East Asian post-war economic boom and its educational underpinnings in countries such as Korea and Singapore as a system of rote “not to be emulated,” and then suggests that Americans can live with low PISA scores because they always have (PISA was established in 1997), we have truly entered a world of American complacency and low expectations.

China’s educational system reflects economic priorities

It is worth noting that the 1990s and 2000s decades reflected China’s need for massification in the form of wider educational access, college-level achievement and the development of practical vocational skills. During this period, national educational priorities were specifically not focused on creativity and innovation but rather with harnessing a surging 18-year old population that would drive China’s manufacturing exports, help build domestic infrastructure, and provide a foundational set of capabilities in the areas of engineering, logistics, and then management and finance.  High test scores were simply a natural consequence of this hyper-competitive national exam system starting with the zhongkao (middle school exam), ending with the gaokao (higher education entrance exam), and with an array of other mock tests along the way. With respect China’s specific stage of development, the system worked. Parents and students across China have a razor focus on gaining more job-ready skills and higher standards of living; their children work hard for it. The results of the last 15 years alone, a time when China’s higher education system increased from less than 2 million to over 26 million students currently, speak for themselves.  

Did China’s ability to triple its GDP per capita from less than $1,750 in 2004 to over $3,580 by 2014, with over 767 million people employed in the workforce in 2013, represent the world’s worst educational system?  Skeptics such as Professor Yong Zhao may suggest that education had little or nothing to do with China’s economic prowess and that exposure to foreign education and technology was the trick.  Certainly education alone cannot explain China’s dramatic growth patterns. Yet a significant amount of foreign capital and technology would never have come to China without an increasingly skilled (and semi-skilled) workforce and the technical capabilities to sustain and deepen this investment were predominantly provided from the local K12 and higher education system.  

As China’s national priorities change, the educational system will “re-balance”

Future years may or may not provide the same result. Today there is a near universal recognition that China needs to re-balance its economy, shifting from investment to consumer led growth centered higher value-added services. The education system must re-balance as well.  To date, official policies from China’s 12th Fifth Year Plan (2010-2015) have already shifted investment and emphasis toward vocational education (by reclassifying over 600 Universities into vocational colleges); gaokao reform (including the introduction of oral English and wider choice of academic disciplines); increasing multi-disciplinary degrees with foreign Universities in China (recent approvals of dual and joint degrees with foreign Universities); and permitting, in selected local Universities, non-exam factors in student admission.   

Following the path of other East Asian countries, China has not thrown out standardized testing and fundamental skills development in search of some holy grail for innovation and creativity.  As with countries such as Korea, Singapore and Japan, China is working within the testing system and improving incrementally.  In this sense, the “test or innovate” choice that Ravitch poses is not binary but syncretic.  Both systems, East and West, if properly combined to reflect the cognitive and creative needs of students, can succeed at scale. That is a lesson for both China and the US.

Investment reflects need to reach ChinaEd 2.0 and Innovation

Investment in new education ventures is critical in both countries. In China the private sector, taking its usual cue from Beijing, has ramped up investment across the range of tutoring and workforce training platforms, early education, language portals, private international schools, international student services, online student systems, and a wide spectrum of adaptive learning and related technology.

In the first five months of 2014, China’s private equity investment in education is at the highest level by value in over six years, with approximately $325 million targeting a range of educational products and schools specifically designed for the Chinese student. In a further sign of interest in more innovative curricula and approaches, the publicly traded Chinese after school tutoring company TAL Education Group led the first close of what should total $70 million of investment into US higher education start-up Minerva. Even including such cross-border interest, Chinese EdTech investment still runs far shy of US levels, but we are early in the investment cycle and China’s most innovative companies only starting to take notice. In 2014 e-commerce giant Alibaba invested $100m in Tutor Group, a mobile operator Xiaomi created a separate education company to disrupt the system. Internet leaders Ten Cent and Baidu have established education divisions as well.  

Are we are on the cusp of a dramatic turn in China’s educational ecosystem with new education concepts and investment capital taking a more central role? The elements are well aligned: deep economic and educational system reform, rising household income, global competitive pressures and the creation of high-value services industries such as healthcare, renewable energy and entertainment.  Hence the coming years will likely deepen education investments in early and middle school tutoring, online higher education, international pathways, private schools, vocational-to-employment platforms, and edtech ventures that address China’s most pressing needs: geographic accessibility, cost, and performance (including innovation and creative capabilities).  

Make no mistake: the Chinese educational system remains luan, or chaotic. But chaos provides needed opportunities for experimentation and risk capital. Given the ongoing reforms at the central versus provincial levels–namely, issues around the gaokao, improved vocational student tracking (with elements from the German “Dual System” and Singapore Vocational Schools), and rural educational achievement–the implementation process will be anything but smooth.  

China’s reforms are intended to provide more flexibility within the system but without getting rid of the core exam system that has brought it this far.  In the years ahead, we will begin to see more choice in specialized study, a sharper focus on marketable skills, and, in China’s most advanced regions such as the Yangtze River Delta area and Guangdong, a deeper focus on spoken English language and liberal arts.  Meanwhile, the “shadow” system of tutoring and test preparation will continue to act as an escalator for more of China’s 200 million K12 students, who will be working hard, gaining fundamental skills in science and math, and to ready to compete with their counterparts in America.

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