Freshman statue demonstrates growing gulf in Chinese education

By Liu Zhun Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-9 22:08:01

Statues commemorate great men and women all over the world. But it was a little strange to see one put up for a 20-year-old student whose only achievement was being the first in his school to get into the elite Tsinghua University.

The highest scorer in the imperial examinations in pre-modern China was conferred with the title of zhuangyuan, and set for life. Although the examinations were abolished a century ago, popular enthusiasm for examination champions has never receded, but shifted over to the gaokao, or national college entrance examination.

The enshrined Tsinghua freshman comes from Laifeng county, Hubei Province. As the first to make it into this top school, this innocent young man, as stated on the inscriptions under the statue, "opens a new leaf of Laifeng's education, and creates a miracle of mass education."

According to the statement of the high school which erected the statue, this was supposed to be a motivational strategy and set a model for its students.

Although the statue was demolished soon after a few media outlets started to cover the incident, public attention has focused on the obsession with scores that is still commonplace in China's exam-oriented education.

There is an old Chinese adage that well describes the examination process: hordes of mounted and foot soldiers crossing a single-log bridge. Years of educational development means that 30 percent of kids now go to university, but a sharply unbalanced allocation of educational resources still forces the unvalued schools to be more score-oriented.

Rather than condemn the ridiculous activity of this high school, it's better to introspect the ubiquity of educational injustice. A centralized system in which educational resources are rigidly pooled in urban areas, especially big cities in eastern China, is the crux of the problem.

While blaming the high school, most people are unaware of its status as a non-government-funded school. Unlike the popular Western private schools, most Chinese non-government-funded schools are struggling to survive in the cracks left between public schools. In China, the top urban public schools are filled with the children of the rich, while migrants and other disadvantaged groups are forced into private education.

Chinese non-government-funded schools have mushroomed in recent years, but the heavily skewed distribution of educational resources leaves little space for them to develop. Not only do they face restrictions imposed by the authorities, but they are much less competitive in recruiting more qualified teachers and above all, competitive students.

Therefore, erecting a statue for a high-scoring student is more than a strategy to inspire the students to be more studious. It is a publicity attempt to attract quality students with quality excellence.

Chinese education confirms the famous "Matthew effect" coined by sociologist Robert Merton, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," making the heavily supported and elite public schools increasingly better, while self-dependent schools are mired in troubles.

The educational monopoly is growing rapidly in China. As Chinese universities, especially top ones like Tsinghua, have become more autonomous, they are becoming more active in recruiting the most competitive students. This means students who come from the less developed regions, especially in terms of education, lose an invaluable opportunity to expand their horizons and explore their potential.

What's more, universities are inclining to develop win-win partnerships with top high schools that are well known for cultivating privileged students, who are usually given extra marks in the gaokao. It further diminishes the chances of many students who graduated from mediocre schools to go to better colleges.

It is critical that a transparent competitive mechanism be established to give equivalent status to public schools and non-government-funded schools.

A restructure of the educational resources should favor disadvantaged groups, such as the students from rural areas and non-government-funded schools.

A bigger and stronger group of top schools can never be the standard of the development of Chinese elementary education, and the least developed schools are what really matter.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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