Many hold China’s education system up as a symbol of excellence around the world. In fact, Shanghai high schoolers recently participated in a study of students from 65 countries, representing 80% of the world’s economy. The result? Shanghai students scored best in the world for math, reading, and science. In fact, East Asia had 7 of the top 10 scores. The United States, by comparison, scored 36th place. While education in China is a tremendous benefit for some, there’s more to the story.

A gaping chasm exists in the school system. China once pioneered a merit-based system of education through standardized test scores. Now a system that was once an equalizer perpetuates inequality.

For instance, the Shanghai students who scored #1 in the world were part of 170,000 students enrolled in the city. 570,000 more students were not allowed to attend those schools because the were part of migrant worker families. They were not born in Shanghai and therefore don’t have access to any schools there.

The education gap is largely defined on rural vs. urban status, and there are significant gaps at all levels of schooling.

Primary School in China

China requires nine years of school of all students and provides the education through a government-run school system. Six years of primary or elementary school are provided along with three years of junior secondary (middle school). As soon as elementary school, facilities and quality of teachers start to create a gap between rural students and their urban counterparts.

In urban classrooms, students use state-of-the-art technology. They learn English, reading, math and science from well-qualified educators. By contrast, many rural schools include cramped dormitories where students eat and sleep because they’ve traveled from their homes in the mountains. Teachers are under-resourced and lack incentives.

Chinese Secondary School

Secondary (high school) education is typically three more years and is the financial responsibility of the student’s family. As high school nears, a financial barrier starts to widen the gap between rural and urban students. Only about 40% of rural students even attend high school because of the cost. Many decide to drop out in middle school. They pursue a trade to start earning income for their struggling families.

Higher Education in China

By the time students are ready to take college entrance exams, 95% of rural students have dropped out of the system. The remaining 5% of rural students reach a Chinese university through an unfair and discriminatory system. Since college entrance is based on test scores, all students are required to take the entrance exam. The exams are expected to be completed in a student’s hometown, recording a rural or urban status. This status is a key factor in discrimination.

Major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are given higher quotas for student admittance to colleges in hopes of yielding better test scores. As an example, research showed an application from Beijing is 41 times more likely to be admitted to Peking University than a comparable student from a rural province.

Urban Migration’s Effect on Rural Education

As over 250M people migrate from rural to urban areas in search of higher paying work, over 60M students are left behind. These children are typically raised by their grandparents. Not only are their family relationships fractured, they often have to take on more responsibilities because their aging guardians are unable. This means dropping out of school as soon as they can plow fields and tend crops.

The children that follow their parents to the cities face education challenges as well. The internal passport system of Hukou limits access to urban schools for these kids. Without urban registration, parents often hire private tutors and create makeshift private schools. This solution is expensive and fails to compare in quality of education to the government-run urban schools. Complicated and corrupt urban registration systems further compound the issue for rural families. Many parents are left with no choice but to send their children back to rural hometowns for inferior schooling.

Stories of the Education Gap

Two stories from Helen Gao in the NY Times illustrate the divide perfectly:

“Chang Qing, a friend and mother of a 16-year-old girl, has been preparing her daughter, Xiaoshuang, for America since the girl was a toddler. She played her tapes of English lessons made from Disney movies and later hosted a steady stream of exchange students from America to hone her child’s accent. Now, her daughter speaks impeccable English and attends a private academy in Beijing where annual tuition is around $24,000. Ms. Chang believes that nothing short of an Ivy League education will suffice.

On a trip to the countryside in Hunan Province (the home of Mao Zedong), I met Jiang Heng, a skinny 11-year-old whose parents work in a handbag factory in neighboring Guangdong. The boy attends a local elementary school that takes him an hour and a half to walk to and, together with his younger brother, is looked after by his grandparents. I asked him what he wanted to do after high school. He looked confused as if the answer was too obvious. ‘I want to be a migrant worker,’ he told me, without blinking.”

The gap between rural and urban education is one factor contributing to the poverty crisis in China. Read about the other factors here.

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