On the Real Problems of Curriculum Reform In China's Primary and Secondary Schools:
A Comparative Perspective On Conditions of Basic Education In China and the United States
Written by Zhao Heling (Harbin China) Translated by Xie Bangxiu (Wuhan China)
The Wall Street Journal issued a report, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, introducing a new book, Battle Hymn of Tiger Mom, written by Amy Chua, a Chinese professor at Harvard University. Later, “Tiger Mom” was issued on the cover of Times, which resulted in a fierce debate on educational ideas in the societies of China and the United States.
The arguments are from no more than two positions: personal versus social development. Those from the standpoint of personal development, like "Tiger Mom " Amy Chua, argue that in order for the children to become strong and survive in the future, it is absolutely necessary that they be strictly treated. While critics hold that the practice of “Tiger Mom” violates the children’s nature, losing the original meaning of education. From the viewpoint of the society, those who support “Tiger Mom’s” practice in the United States mention a test: in Dec. 2010, OECD announced the results of PISA in 2009, in which students from Shanghai (China) have won championships in three areas, while American students were only ranked in the twenty-sixth position. Some people even associate it with the time when the (former) Soviet Union successfully launched a satellite in 1957, which explains why Barak Obama, President of the United States, mentioned the satellite in his state-of-the-union address.
Some countries, such as China and India, begin to educate their children as young as possible, extend the length of their education time, and place more emphasis on mathematics and science. Some people even exaggerate this point, saying that the strategic challenge of China to the United States is not China's stealth aircrafts, but the determination of the Chinese public to improve the educational system, and their passion for learning from the outside world. Whereas critics disagree, deeming that the Chinese-style education is not successful, for there are no Bill Gates or Nobel Prize winners in China, etc.
We should say that “Tiger Mom’s” practice does manifest Chinese traditional ideas of education. She, as a winner through hard work, obviously expressed her deepest worry: “the rich cannot pass on over three generations.” She firmly believes Chinese traditional ideas, such as: “there exists perpetual spring in intellectuals’ families,” “one who suffers the bitterest can become superior to others.” In the United States, some successful individuals may also have such “worries”. For example, it is said that Rockefeller told his young nephew to jump off from the high windowsill, and promised he would take him so that he would not fall and get hurt if he jumped. But when the child did jump down, he chose not to catch him, but let him fall to the ground heavily. Then Rockefeller gave his nephew the advice: “Do not trust anyone.”
It appears a bit “cruel”, and they may feel a little frustrated, but their life experience will tell them that they should and must do so. “Tiger Mom” or Rockefeller, their educational ideas are authentic to some people, who share common experience of becoming members of the middle class by means of hard work.
Curricular Reform in China
But it seems that Americans do not know the curriculum reform in China in the recent ten years. Take the ten commandments “Tiger Mom” poses on her children: they are not allowed to stay out overnight; they are not allowed to attend interest groups at school; they are not allowed to participate in any performance of the school or complain about their not participating; they are not allowed to watch TV or play video games; they are not allowed to choose extra-curricular activities; they must get A in every subject at school; they must rank first in all subjects in class except in Physical Training and Drama courses; they are not allowed to play musical instruments other than the piano and the violin; they are not allowed not to play the piano and the violin.
The curriculum reform in China since the 21st century aims at criticizing and changing the practice of what “Tiger Mom” has conducted. Curriculum Reform of Basic Education (CRBE) issued by Ministry of Education of China in 2001 proposed the specific objectives of the curriculum reform, i.e. to change the six “overemphases.” These objectives are to move beyond:
· an overemphasis on knowledge transfer, · an overemphasis on subject knowledge transfer · an excessive leaning to the “complexity, hardness, oddity, and datedness” of the content of curricular, · an excessive leaning on receptive or passive learning and mechanical training, · an overemphasis on the selective function of evaluation, and · an overemphasis on centralized management.
According to advocates of CRBE in China, these reforms – the CRBE -- have been drawn up by learning from the advanced educational ideas and practice of foreign countries (e.g. the United States).
Nevertheless, it is confusing that, after ten years’ reform, people see, on the one hand, the goal of the reform can hardly be reached, and that things may go to the opposite extreme. The over-emphases may be intensified, not diminished. Many people suspect that, at most, only some debris or regrettable memories of the reform will remain after it has passed, like some past reforms.
On the other hand, people also recognize that the advanced educational ideas and practices of foreign countries, flaunted by the CRBE advocates, are taken out of context, and reflect the interests and concerns of Americans, but have not emerged organically from the Chinese situation.
What, then, are the real causes of the problems in China today? I think there are two causes.
First, the proposed reforms are not in touch with China's national conditions, that is, they are distant from the practical educational situations of most Chinese students. Second, the proposed reforms are not in touch with Chinese cultural and educational traditions: that is, they are distant from the understanding of education deep in the mind of most Chinese people.
Different Conditions in China: Rural and Urban
The urban-rural difference in development is the basic characteristic that differentiates China from the developed countries. According to official statistics, China's rural population, which once accounted for 90% of the total population, still accounts for 62% up till now, up to about 800 million people. In China, there are 200 million primary and secondary students, 150 million among whom are in rural areas, accounting for 75%.
What, then, is the developing situation of education in the rural areas? With help from surveys my colleagues and I have conducted in rural schools in recent years, we have come to understand the basic educational situations in rural areas (see Pictures 1-9): the schools are short of funds, with dilapidated school surroundings, rundown facilities, overcrowded classrooms, teachers lack of professional competence, and weak management. The reasons are as follows: first, the system of financial investment is not reasonable enough, so that it cannot guarantee to improve the quality of rural education; second, the government’s policy for rural teachers is not reasonable, and they receive poor treatment, so that they are not encouraged to update and rationalize their structure of knowledge; third, the teaching equipment is broken, so that it cannot guarantee the quality of teaching; fourth, the school leaders are not powerful enough, so that they cannot guarantee effective management. Under such basic teaching conditions, students’ minimum level of education cannot be guaranteed. So, all those popular remarks on education in China recently are, I fear, mere formal pratings: “elite education”, “quality education”, “harmonious education”, “free education”, “personality education”, “all education”, “life education”, “subject education”, and “lady-gentleman education”, etc. Even compulsory education is in the risk of becoming a mere formality.
If we have a look at the basic conditions in ordinary schools in the United States (see Pictures 10-16), we can see the gap. As we know, with the large number of China’s rural schools, totaling 400,000, it is extremely difficult to reach the average level of the basic teaching conditions of the primary and secondary schools in the United States. Even today, when Chinese Premier announced (in Nov. 2008) the investment of ¥4 trillion on infrastructure construction to tackle the financial crisis, the Obama Government declared (in Jul. 2009) to launch $ 4,350 million for its educational plan, “Race to the Top”, to reform the (American) elementary education to enhance the strength of national development. It is hard to imagine when the basic teaching conditions of the primary and secondary schools of China and the United States can be at the same level. The modernization of teaching conditions in rural China may be realized along with the urbanization of the rural areas in China, which will be a long process. We should also see that the phenomenon of “unfairness in education” still widely exists, and things in the rural primary and secondary schools are even worse.
Consider some statistic figures: 1/4 of the population in the urban areas has occupied 3/4 of the national investment in education, while 3/4 of the population in rural areas has used (only) 1/4 of the national investment in education; the average educational funds per student in cities and towns is 5.8 times as much as that of the students in rural areas; the population of graduates and postgraduates from colleges, universities and research institutes in urban areas of China is, respectively, 55.5 times, 281.55 times, and 323 times as much as that in rural areas; the average salary of teachers in rural areas is 70% that of teachers in urban areas.
Such unfairness largely accounts for why education in rural areas falls behind. Only last year the Chinese government sought to change the unfair phenomenon in education to achieve the so-called “balanced” development. In fact, the 2001 CRBE is only a vision based on the education in urban China, completely beyond the reality of education in China. The so-called collection of advanced educational ideas and curriculum reform program launched by China’s CRBE is but a wishful dream of the designers, which, for the large number of rural schools, is only like “the method of dragon butchering” in Zhuang Zhou’s parable in ancient China.
Consider the situation I mentioned earlier: “OECD announced the results of PISA in 2009, in which students from Shanghai (China) have won championships in three areas.” This cannot reflect the actual level of teaching in China, nor can it reflect the real level of teaching in the majority of Chinese urban schools. Therefore, to a large extent, Americans are talking about the educational level of most Chinese students without knowing the real situation in China. Likewise, for a considerable number of people in China, “Tiger Mom’s” style of education is impossible, not in that it is not wanted, but in that the conditions for obtaining it are impossible to achieve.
Traditional Chinese Ideas on Education
As I discussed earlier, there are many folk ideas in China: like “there exists perpetual spring in intellectuals’ families”, “one who suffers the bitterest can enjoy the happiest life”, meaning that only through hard work at learning and reading can people change their social status and pass it on from generation to generation, never ending.
“Tiger Mom” is among those who strongly believe such ideas. The formation of such ideas has a social history of over two thousand years. Confucius (551 – 479 A.D.) said: “farming may entail times of shortage, while learning may incidentally lead to high pay”.
There is another widespread story known to almost all households in China, (learning hard by) “tying the hair to the beam above, and pricking the thigh with an awl”, which tells the story of a person in the Warring States Period (475 – 221A.D.) named Su Qin (337 – 284 A.D.), who was born in a very poor family. In order to change his living situation and social status, he was determined to study hard, often staying up late, reading. To prevent from falling asleep while reading late at night, he tied his hair to the beam above him, or pricked his thigh with an awl. He became so successful that he managed to be the prime minister simultaneously of six states in the seven (i.e., Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, Qin) during the Warring States Period.
Based on the history of social life, Chinese society went into an era of “farming-reading society” since the Qin Dynasty, that is to say, farming and reading became a basic style of living and surviving. Such social life was institutionalized with the completion of the imperial examination system in the Sui and Tang Dynasties. The farming-reading life had lasted for over two thousand years, and did not come to an end until the end of the Qing Dynasty when the imperial examination system was abolished (in 1905). People may interpret the historical role and significance of the farming-reading social life in various ways. However, it is commonly believed that reading is the only way to achieve social equality through competition, which is the unique historical tradition of the Chinese society.
Such social reality has been going on till today, though with diverse patterns of social life and more opportunities and channels to compete for equality nowadays. But for the large number of ordinary people, especially for rural people, it is still a fundamental means to change their fate by reading. And this is the root reason for which contemporary China has criticized the so-called “examination-oriented education” for several decades, but cannot succeed (in changing the situation). As long as there exists social inequality and competition, such traditional ideas of the Chinese people will not disappear, and “Tiger Mom” is a typical case in point. Even “Tiger Mom”, who lives in the United States, holds such ideas, not to mention the Chinese people, who, when compared with the situation in the United States, are in far worse conditions in social equality and welfare, and have far less opportunities and approaches (for young people) to becoming successful.
Who does not admit and yearn for free, harmonious education for everyone? But perhaps only in Confucius’ society with “Great Harmony (大同)”, Plato’s “The Republic”, and Marx’s “communist society” might such kind of education really occur. In any case, society today is different from that of the ancient times, people have more opportunities and alternative lifestyles to choose. Perhaps “Tiger Mom’s” style of education is one among many options. But for the huge number of rural young people, there are not so many opportunities for them to choose, among which survival education might be the most realistic choice. The Chinese government should firstly consider bettering the basic conditions of school learning and living, improving the quality of school education, and enabling students to have equal opportunities in social competition.Only in particular social contexts does it make sense to talk about personality development, or it would merely be meaningless talk.
In China today, the evidence cited most often to criticize traditional Chinese education destroys a person’s creativity is that no Nobel Prize winners have been produced (out of it). Such argument is questionable. It is well-known that creativity is an issue hard to interpret clearly.
When it comes to the production of Nobel Prize winners, I am afraid it is more directly related with the political and economic backgrounds of the society, at least it does not depend on education itself altogether. What I want to emphasize here is that the assertion that “traditional Chinese education destroys a person’s creativity” is not convincing. Maybe we do not have to mention the so-called “four great inventions” made in the context of ancient Chinese education, let’s only talk about the eight Chinese Nobel Prize winners*in Natural Science, among whom only Zhu Diwen and QianYongjian were born in the United States and completely received American school education (except for their family education). The other six received thoroughgoing traditional Chinese education (including family and school education) before they graduated from their senior high schools. It was this kind of education that had laid solid knowledge foundation for them to study further overseas when they grew up. Some of them, such as Yang Zhenning, Gao Kun and Ding Zhaozhong, even received strict Chinese elite education. If we cannot tell for sure that they were products of traditional Chinese education, it would be even more ridiculous to say that traditional Chinese education had destroyed their creativity.
Generally speaking, each kind of educational idea has its own reasons to exist, and owns its receivers and holders, towards which simply holding a positive or negative attitude might fall in rashness. The so-called free education might mean that people can be allowed to choose the education suited to their own aspirations.
Let’s bear in mind Bill Gates’ advice:
Life is unfair, you have to adapt to it.
The world will not take your self-esteem, but expect you to succeed before you feel self-satisfied.
If you think school teachers are too harsh, think back when you have a boss. ———————--
*The eight Chinese Nobel Prize winners in Natural Science are Li Zhengdao (Tsung-Dao Lee), Yang Zhenning (Chen-Ning Franklin Yang), Ding Zhaozhong (Samuel C.C. Ting), Li Yuanzhe (Yuan Tseh Lee), Zhu Diwen (Steven Chu), Cui Qi (Daniel CheeTsui), Qian Yongjian (Roger YonchienTsien), and Gao Kun (Charles Kuen Kao).
The eight Chinese Nobel Prize winners in Natural Science
杨振宁（Chen-Ning Franklin Yang）
丁肇中（Samuel C. C. Ting）
李远哲（Yuan Tseh Lee）
崔琦（Daniel Chee Tsui）
钱永健（Roger Yonchien Tsien）
高锟(Charles Kuen Kao)
Pictures and Interpretations (Chinese and English):
1. The present situation of a village primary school in which I worked 40 years ago, shabby and deserted.
2. The present situation of the rural middle school where I worked 40 years ago, crowded, dilapidated, without any modern teaching and living facilities.
3. A classroom I saw during our survey, crowded, dilapidated, nearly with no modern teaching facilities.
4. All the teaching equipment I saw in a rural primary school during our survey. In fact, apart from blackboards and chalks, there isn’t a piece of teaching equipment that can be used in actual teaching activities.
5. There are even more difficult schools in China (a user photo).
7. In 2008, there was a severe earthquake in Sichuan, China, in which nearly 90,000 people lost their lives. The students, most of whom lost their parents or relatives, were working hard preparing for the College Entrance Examinations in tents, in spite of frequent aftershocks and the high temperature, up to 400C.
8. The Spring Festival is approaching, the Guangzhou Railway Station is crowded with rural migrant workers going back home for family reunion, who failed to change their fate by reading.
9. Wen Jiabao, the head of the Chinese Government, may well know the hard (educational) reality of China.
10. 笔者到过的美国克莱蒙市一所名为EL ROBLE INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL 的学校。
10. El Roble Intermediate School, a school I visited in Clermont, the United States.
11. It must be an ordinary school, which, judging from the outside appearance, compared with Chinese schools in big cities, is not at all like a school, but rather like a warehouse of goods or auto warehouse.
12. This is the principal's office. It is most probable that principals of Chinese city schools might use such rooms as cleaner’s rooms.
13. When watched more closely, modern teaching and living facilities are available in the classrooms of such a school.
15. A teacher is giving a class of the Vocational and Technical Education course, in which students are not learning symbolically (by watching), but really learning techniques of living (by doing). I am afraid in not one course in all the primary and secondary schools in China can such good learning conditions be found.
16. These are sets of tools of only one type. This may exemplify: why students in the United States have stronger practical abilities than Chinese students, while Chinese students are more competent in solving mathematics problems.
赵鹤龄 （中国 哈尔滨）
美国《华尔街日报》刊登了一篇《为何中国母亲更胜一筹》(Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior)报道，介绍了哈佛大学华裔女教授蔡美儿（Amy Chua）新书《虎妈战歌》(Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)，随后“虎妈”上了《时代》封面，引发了中美社会关于教育观念的激烈争论。