Updated December 3, 2010, 01:45 PM From New York Times
Yong Zhao is the University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University. The author of “Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization,” he often blogs about education issues.
There’s a frustrating paradox in Chinese education. On the one hand, millions of college graduates cannot find a job — at least a desirable job that pays substantially more than what a migrant worker makes. On the other hand, businesses that want to pay a lot more can’t seem to find qualified employees.
A McKinsey study found that fewer than 10 percent of Chinese graduates are considered suitable to work at multinational companies based in China.
Multinational companies in China are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates for their positions. According to a recent survey of U.S.-owned enterprises conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, 37 percent of the companies that responded said that finding talent was their biggest operational problem. A separate study by McKinsey Quarterly found that 44 percent of the executives in Chinese companies reported that insufficient talent was the biggest barrier to their global ambitions.
The explanation: a test-oriented educational environment.
China invented the keju system, which used tests to select government officials. It was a great invention because it enabled talents from across the society to join the ruling class regardless of their family backgrounds. Hence, a great meritocracy could be created. But it evolved into a nightmare for China as the system gradually changed into one that tested memorization of Confucian classics.
Keju is dead now but its spirit is very alive in China today, in the form of gaokao, or the College Entrance Exam. It’s the only exam that matters since it determines whether students can attend college and what kind of colleges they can attend. Because of its life-determining nature, gaokao has become the “baton” that conducts the whole education orchestra. Students, parents, teachers, school leaders and even local government officials all work together to get good scores. From a very young age, children are relieved of any other burden or deprived of opportunity to do anything else so they can focus on getting good scores.
The result is that Chinese college graduates often have high scores but low ability. Those who are good at taking tests go to college, which also emphasizes book knowledge. But when they graduate, they find out that employers actually want much more than test scores. That is why another study by McKinsey found that fewer than 10 percent of Chinese college graduates would be suitable for work in foreign companies.
Chinese educators are well aware of the problems with the gaokao system and have been trying to move away from the excessive focus on testing. But seeking other valid indicators of strong academic records will take time, especially in a country of 1.3 billion people.
16 Readers’ Comments
I hate to be elitist, but I share a college degree with people who can’t even write a complete sentence, or master rudimentary Excel. How am I supposed to indicate to an employer that I can do these things if they’ll crumple up GRE and SAT scores indicating math and language competence, and colleges will continue to discount them in their application process?
Here in Wuhan, a city of 8 million residents in Hubei Province, a program operated by Central China Normal University allows parents of top “public school” students to pay a premium for an all-English US university preparatory program modeled after a private US secondary school, beginning in senior grade one and running the full course of the students’ high school career. These students and their parents have chosen, while in middle school, to “opt out” of gaokao, the Chinese national university admissions test that has been the underpinning of the Chinese education system’s reputation for rigorous academic performance.
As programs like these proliferate in response to the pressures exerted by China’s nouveau riche and concern that their children escape the trap of “high scores” and “low ability,” a perfect storm seems to be in the making back in the US. While change comes hard and slow in the Chinese university system, anxious Chinese parents are marshaling their resources to prepare students for what looks like a tsunami of applications in the coming years for ever more precious seats in good US universities. Today’s US students, whose parents’ jobs may have been lost to globalization, may very well face the prospects of losing their seats in a top US university to students whose parents gained from those lost American jobs.
The teach to test system has also had a very big effect on innovation. If all you think about is learning it the way you are told, you don’t think outside the box and that is where innovation comes from. I think it explains why China is great at copying but not so great at invention (at least in the last century.)