Education in the P.R.C.: A layer cake baked from the top down

no secret that the manner in which U.S. schools are organized, overseen, and
managed is an overlapping colossal mess—a “marble cake” of governance, with the
relationships among federal, state, and local policies (not to mention
building- and classroom-level decisions) oscillating between redundant and
contradictory. This not only makes public education exceptionally hard to
reform; it also lays open that system to innumerable adult interest groups—school
boards, district and school leaders, teacher unions, community and business groups,
parents, and so on—that manage to pursue their own ends while blaming and
scapegoating others for whatever doesn’t work.

Despite a proclaimed devolution of
power to local authorities in the 1980s, in this realm as in so many
others, China remains a tightly hierarchical society.


see this state of play as a consequence of our messy democracy. But, even if
our system were more efficient or more coherent under a centralized regime,
would it lead to higher student achievement? And what would be the trade-offs
of such a shift? During a recent sojourn to the land of Confucius (I was
traveling as a senior fellow with the Global
Education Policy Fellowship Program
), I sought to find out.

does education “federalism” looks like in communist China? What powers and/or
decision making does Beijing reserve for itself in this realm and what powers
are held by provinces, local governments, and schools? And are there any useful
lessons for us? (Mind you, this trip took place in the shadow of Shanghai
topping the world on the last round of PISA.)

It was hard to get
clear information. Our American study-group leaders warned us in advance that,
when the Chinese can’t or won’t answer your questions, they will simply
respond, “It’s complicated.” Most of my governance queries elicited such a

I managed to cobble together some findings and impressions from fragments of
conversations and other limited research. I’ve surely gotten some of it wrong.
So I invite you, knowledgeable readers, to tweak, correct, and augment what I
learned in my ten-day visit.

toppling quadruple-decker cake photo

This tiered cake may not be
so sturdy afterall.
Photo by Shelley Panzarella

line: Despite a proclaimed devolution of power to local authorities in the
1980s, in this realm as in so many others, China remains a tightly hierarchical
society—with power resting first with the national government (Chinese
Communist Party), then with the provincial government, municipality, county,
and so on down the list. A layer cake baked from the top down.

real power resides with the central Communist Party government, otherwise known
as the State. Beijing oversees compulsory education, and has required, since
1986, that children receive a minimum of nine years of schooling (starting at
age six or seven). To the astonishment of foreign observers, compulsory enrollment
reportedly reached over 90 percent in
. (Other sources report that this goal was met by the mid 1990s.) The
State develops and maintains a fairly detailed national curriculum on all core
and many non-core subjects (including technology, sports, and fine arts) which
all the schools we visited told us they implement. The majority of provinces
are also assigned the same textbooks (though one celebrated school we visited
in Xi’an had received special permission from the State to use U.S. textbooks—and
Shanghai as a whole tends to get preferential treatment).

important, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has devised a rigid tracking system
for secondary students—which shuffles them (within their given province, thanks
to China’s draconian residency requirements) into academic schools of various
quality (three types, informally known as key, regular key, and public-high
schools), or into vocational schools, based on achievement on
State-administered tests. Barring payoffs, favors, or false addresses, it is
nearly impossible to educate a child in a top-notch school outside his
provincial boundary (though I heard it was easier to move across boundaries if
one’s been guaranteed a job). Hence, parents exercise little choice in their
children’s education except for those who can afford private options (an
uber-regulated but furiously expanding sector); otherwise, the out-of-bounds
child will be placed in a “migrant” school of dubious quality (or stay at
home). The entrance exams, then, act as the key to better (or worse) education.
So, while children ordinarily attend their neighborhood schools at the
elementary level (again, provided they don’t pay to go elsewhere), the MOE sorts
adolescents into middle and high schools based on test scores (though I could
not make out whether Beijing assigns students to specific schools or simply to
one of the three tiers).

end result? Top scorers attend secondary schools that fare well in getting
graduates into prestigious universities. (This also means that schools instruct
children within somewhat narrow bands of achievement.) Students who don’t test
into the academically tracked high schools are left with three options for
their secondary education: They can apply to vocational schools, can simply
cease formal education, or—if they come from a privileged or wealthy family—can
buy their way in, surreptitiously and for a handsome price. The National College
Entrance Exam (NCEE) is also administered by the State. Given at the end of
high school, the assessment determines the fate of would-be college goers. (Note:
the national
teacher exam
, is also State-managed; more below).

there’s growing dissatisfaction with some of the State’s policies. So it is
loosening the reins—gingerly. For instance, at least half of the provinces have
been granted permission by Beijing to develop their own college-entrance exam.
Whether this exam supplements or replaces the NCEE is not clear (readers,
help!). What is clear is that residence
quotas reinforce provincial segregation and mean that provincial governments
have a say in the acceptance decisions of all their own universities—and can opt
to lower the entry bar for their residents. These new provincial
college-entrance exams have also resulted in a set of somewhat independent curricula and textbooks
for the schools in those regions.

also learned that the State is becoming more open to for-profit, community, and
university partnerships with schools, though school leaders gave us little to
go on here— perhaps because those efforts are nascent or nonexistent. One
Chinese scholar, Ka Ho Mok, believes the
impetus behind this move is financial:

The nature of the work of the State has changed from directly
coordinating, administering, and funding education to determining where the
work will be done and by whom… By making use not only of market forces but also
other forces such as individuals, families, local communities and the society,
the state is now saved from being overburdened with a continual increase in
educational financing. (Riding over
Socialism and Global Capitalism
, 2005)

curricula and student assignment handled by the Party (and with provinces
gaining more say regarding assessments and instructional materials), what’s
left for local governments? They decide cut scores for hiring based on the
State-designed national teacher exam. They are also in charge of hiring
teachers and principals and assigning them to new schools and/or those with
vacancies, with the input of current school principals if they choose to take
it. It’s unclear what—if anything—is left of consequence for school-level
leaders. That said, we were told more than once that elementary schools have
greater autonomy in general than middle or high schools since they are further
removed from the pressures of placement tests.

to make of this governance scheme? As pretty much everyone surmised, Beijing
still calls the shots when it comes to weeding and sorting students (and, to an
extent, teachers, through their teacher-assignment
); it also maintains control over curricular and assessment
except when it opts to turn these over to provinces. And it pays a
portion of the cost of educating the country’s young people but only
through ninth grade, the close of compulsory education. (Hard to believe
but that’s what I
heard in China. Readers, what say you?) Provinces kick in some funds and
execute the mandates from Beijing (though they are seeing more
especially around student-assignment decisions). Local governments serve
as the
HR department and contribute to the kitty. Schools work around the
edges; for
instance, doing the best they can to improve teaching via lesson
planning teams
and mentors (they cannot terminate government employees). And parents,
vocal advocates for their children, have little say in where their child
attends school, unless they flee to a private school or slip into
locality. They also take care of the remainder of the education tab.

a tiered governance cake and the layer that matters most is the one on top. There
are slight modifications to this hierarchy, but only when the State sees fit.
All of which makes me agree with Mun Tsang at Columbia University who summed up
Chinese education reform thusly: “Popular pressure for educational change has
some possibility of being accommodated as long as it is not a threat to
political stability and the party’s power.” Which means we aren’t likely to see
big shifts in China’s education-governance arrangement anytime in the near
future—no matter what sort of cracks some proclaim they see in the walls of Zhongnanhai.

This piece was originally
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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Click to listen to commentary on Amber's trip to China from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.