The Education System That Pulled China Up May Now Be Holding It Back

Judy Hartnett's picture
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

China wants inventors and entrepreneurs, but its schools, built around the notorious gaokao exam, are still designed to produce cookie-cutter engineers and accountants.

On the morning of June 7 every year, Beijing's normally chaotic streets fall silent. Police patrol the main roads on motorcycles, as construction workers put down their hammers and power down their cranes, and rowdy taxi drivers finally take their hands off the horn. It is the first day of gaokao, the annual, nationwide college entrance exam, which will decide the college matriculation of the nine million or so students who take it. Sitting for nine hours over two days, students are tested on everything from Chinese and math to geography and government. The intense, memorization-heavy, and notoriously difficult gaokao can make the SAT look like a game of Scrabble. How they do on the test will play a big role in determining not just where they go to college but, because Chinese colleges often feed directly into certain industries and fields, what they do for the rest of their life. It's an enormously important moment in any Chinese student's life, which is part of why high schools here dedicate months or even years to preparing for the test.

In many ways, the gaokao is symbolic of China's rise, with millions of Chinese striving and competing to pull up themselves and their nation. But it's also symptomatic of how far China still has to go, as the country tries to shift its economy from exports to domestic consumption, from assembling products to designing them. China's gaokao-style education system has been great at imparting math and engineering, as well as the rigorous work ethic that has been so integral to China's rise so far. But if the country wants to keep growing, its state economists know they need to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, neither of which is tested for on this life-determining exam.

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