Exam-Oriented Education

Piles of homework, tutoring and the mighty gaokao all terrorize young Chinese from pre-school until high school ends. The question is, what’s it all worth?

WTDW_Dec 2017

A couple months ago, triggered by an article entitled, “Goodness, What Have I Done Wrong to Have to Do Homework With My Kids,” Chinese parents flocked to social media to complain about their kids’ lack of concentration, low efficiency and stupidity about doing homework. Homework is the bane of existence for students and it seems Chinese parents suffer no less.

“I helped my son with his homework until fifth grade, and then one day, I had a heart attack and was sent to a hospital,” one father wrote, “after contemplation, I realized that life is more important, and homework—just let it be, take it as it comes.”

Posts like these inspired waves of sympathy. I happened to have my own experience, too, though I’m not a parent. I was asked by my sister-in-law, who run a daycare center for a primary school students in Nancheng, to tutor a first-grade student in her center each night. Apparently, after having gone to school for barely two months, her grades were already “falling behind,” so she needed extra tutoring.

I was later helping at the center again as a homework tutor one Friday evening and was shocked by the math homework for a third grader. They’ve gone through 4-digit adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing and some of the questions are so advanced that I have to apply equations to solve them. I can totally understand parents’ frustration.

I’ve also looked through my first grade niece’s textbooks. For the Chinese subject, she needs to recite 50 lessons (a large part of them are ancient poems, of which she never knows the meanings) by the end of this term. One lesson teaches her some typical pairs of antithetical phrases such as snow verses wind, bird verses worm, willow-green verses peach-pink and so on. I was embarrassed that I didn’t even know them.

I can’t help asking myself what are we turning these kids into? One inevitable consequence of the exam-oriented education is that students believe all questions have a single correct answer. They never ask anything or try to find out answers on their own.

What I didn’t understand until now is that nothing has changed. Results are still worshipped, and possibly getting more intense. Sadly, my niece is repeating exactly what I once loathed decades ago.

Eventually, I could no longer accept the tutoring job and also pointed out that it was too early for kids to study so hard. My sister-in-law disagreed.

“Do you think we parents have another choice? It’s the teachers who give us all the pressure. When our kids don’t do well in exam, guess what the teacher says? ‘I’ve never seen such a stupid student.’ No one wants to be the one that drags the class behind. No one wants to spend this money if we have other choices!” she explained emotively.

The teachers indeed put a lot of pressure on parents’ shoulders. They have to sign and check their child’s homework every night and will be scolded if their kids don’t meet the standard.

Looking further, this is not only Dongguan; it’s the entire country and Chinese community at-large. The New York Times Magazine recently reported that test-prep centers have saturated New York’s Chinese community, supposedly giving the parents exactly what they want: results.

But if we really can’t blame parents and teachers, who should be responsible? The one-test-rules-all gaokao (university entrance exam) has been running for decades, imagined to be the most effective way to select university students.

China still lags behind in regards to higher education in the global community, with only the “key” students receiving better facilities, resources and most importantly, reputation. China does not lack jobs, but numbers of good students are limited and a degree from a ranking universities still weighs a lot, at least for government and state-owned positions.

“Never lose at the starting line” is many Chinese parents’ motto for bringing up children. Training centers start from early-childhood education, where parents attend classes with their wriggling kids to supposedly stimulate brain development. They believe that going a bit earlier will earn them a bigger advantage later.

Always being a “three good” student (good morality, good grades and good health), I only later realized how much I lost in 10 years of formal education, as one of the numerous “victims” in China. What I didn’t understand until now is that nothing has changed. Results are still worshipped, and possibly getting more intense. Sadly, my niece is repeating exactly what I once loathed decades ago.