Saturday, December 14, 2019

Chinese high schools the best in the world. Or maybe not?

They've fallen for it again. A couple of weeks ago the world's media pounced upon the results of the latest PISA evaluation, churning out headlines along the lines of "Chinese schools now the best in the world". You can see some examples from Bloomberg (China's schoolchildren are now the smartest in the world), CNN (Teens from China's wealthiest regions rank top of the class in global education survey) and Singapore's SME (China's students best in the world). The Chinese press also didn't hesitate to chime in, with the notorious nationalist tabloid the Global Times coming out with "China's education is fuelling its unstoppable rise", and the more serious 观察者 publishing an article entitled "Who are the world's best 15 year old students? China comes first in the world again" (in Chinese).

If you get past these articles' headlines and read carefully, most of them do actually mention the crucial fact that, while all the other countries in the survey were assessed in their entirety, the results for China were based solely on four areas of the country: Beijing, Shanghai, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, in other words China's two richest municipalities and its two most prosperous and developed provinces. But the headlines talk simply about "China" and "Chinese students", and that is credibly what will stay with most readers.

The influential PISA report compares the educational achievements of dozens of different countries, testing 15 year-olds in the three areas of reading ability, maths and science. It is organized by the OECD, and the tests include all of the OECD countries and a number of others. The report is released every three years.

In 2009 and 2012, the first years that PISA carried out its assessments in Mainland China, the final reports only included results for Shanghai. While assessments were conducted in various other provinces, the Chinese authorities did not allow the results to be released, so that only Shanghai made the final ranking. And guess what? China's richest metropolis came above all the countries surveyed. This led to a flurry of headlines like "China: the World's Cleverest Country?" from the BBC, and "China Beats out Finland for Top Marks in Education" in Time magazine. The point that comparing a fancy metropolis to entire countries is not very fair was only timidly hinted in most of these reports.

In 2015, the PISA report included assessments for Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong. While the results were respectable, they were hardly incredible: the Chinese students came 27th, sixth and tenth in reading, maths and science out of the 78 countries surveyed. Then in the 2018 assessment, the one that's just been published, they suddenly leaped into first place in all three categories. 

Some Chinese educational experts have suggested that the leap to the top spot is due to the replacement of Guangdong with Zhejiang province. This makes sense: while Guangdong is known as an industrial powerhouse, it has a huge population of 113 million and great inequalities, with lots of poor migrants and areas in the North that are not very prosperous. Zhejiang is a smaller, more compact province with higher standards of living and less inequality. 

The difference it made to replace one province with another only confirms the general point that proclaiming Chinese schools to be the best in the world based on a ranking of nations where China is only represented by its most advanced regions makes very little sense. It makes little sense not only because those regions are not typical, but also because of the country's deep-rooted educational inequality. China's hukou system means that, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the children of the migrant workers who do the menial jobs are locked out of the local educational system by the time they are 15, the age when the PISA test is administered.

Many of them are forced to go back to their home province so they can go to high school and take the gaokao, the highly competitive examination that will determine their chances of getting into university. This means they not only have to leave their families behind and live in boarding schools or with their grandparents, but they also need much higher grades to get into a good university in a city like Beijing than they would if they could just take the test in Beijing.

PISA's reports have been criticized in the past for holding up Shanghai's educational system as a model, while seeming to outright deny the problem of lack of access to education for the children of the migrants who make up the city's working class. There is also a lack of transparency about how the Chinese provinces are picked, and why.

Essentially, the PISA report has turned into a regular occasion for China's educational system to bask in some mostly undeserved glory. It would appear that PISA and the OECD, like many other international institutions have done, are bending over backwards to get access to China, acquiescing to conditions which most other countries would not be able to get away with.