Around sixty students sit in a classroom while Teacher Li, the class science teacher, gives his daily lecture. Teacher Sun, the head teacher or banzhuren (班主任), quietly watches from the doorway until Teacher Li has ended his lecture. One student runs up to the blackboard and wipes off the chalk from the previous lesson while the other students stay seated at their two-person desks. Teacher Sun walks to the front of the classroom, makes several announcements, then begins her lecture on literature while students take their textbooks out from storage space in their desks.

Those of us who spent time in the American public education system may read the previous paragraph and picture an elementary school, but this is actually a scenario commonly found in Chinese high schools. Throw away your images of students migrating between rooms between classes, lockers slamming shut, and school getting out shortly after 3pm. None of these things happen at high schools in China.

A Cohort that Moves Together

In China, the 3-year period that constitutes high school is capped at both ends by two rigorous exams – the Zhongkao (High School Entrance Exam) and the infamous Gaokao (National College Entrance Exam). Schools normally spend the majority of senior year preparing students for the Gaokao rather than teaching new material, and for many schools the year leading up to the Zhongkao is similarly spent in reviewing material that might be on the exam.

Both the three-year period of middle school and high school are generally spent with the same cohort of 50-70 student (different cohorts in middle and high schools). Each class is assigned a head teacher, and a set of subject teachers who progress with them from year 1 to year 3. Teacher Li, in our example, will teach chemistry the first year, then the second year, and in the third year, prepare students for Gaokao-related chemistry.

Teachers & Students

This system reinforces the unity of a single cohort of students and their teachers, often creating life-long and family-like bonds between fellow students and teachers. Like the homeroom teacher, the head teacher is in charge of overseeing a student’s general academic performance and personal development, and is sometimes likened by students to their mothers and fathers away from home.

At the same time, teachers also have strong personal motivations to take care of students. Teachers are rewarded, promoted, and given bonuses based on student performance on the Gaokao, as well as on interscholastic academic competitions. Whether they’re looking for these professional benefits or because they form close bonds with their students, most teachers must closely monitor the progress of each student, day to day and year to year. When a single cohort of students graduate at the end of three years, they return to teaching year 1 level materials with a new cohort of 50-70 students.

Teachers distinguish themselves through long-term student performance, and students distinguish themselves through the opportunities provided by teachers. Several student from each class are identified by the head teacher at the beginning of the school year and appointed the class monitor or to other roles of responsibility. These students occupy the only kind of leadership positions available in a Chinese school and help with tasks like collecting homework and maintaining the cleanliness of the classroom. Since teacher recognition can eventually lead to opportunities in the Communist Youth League and in other prestigious clubs and organizations, many students are eager to take on these role and to help strengthen the performance of the class as a whole.

Years to Prepare

But the most important marker of success by far remains the student’s achievement on the Gaokao. A significant shift in academic focus happens during the last year of high school, from study of subject content to study of probable test content. For both teachers and students (not to mention their family), so much rides on the Gaokao that nearly all other activities are suspended during senior year.

Consider the average senior high schooler in the US: by December or January he has taken the SAT or ACT and submitted his college applications. He has finished a semester of study and is getting ready for another in which he may or may not take an AP course on which he’ll be tested when the school year ends.

A palpable sense of forward-looking excitement permeates any graduating class in the United States. Students discuss the schools they are headed to, make plans to spend time with those who will be at the same schools and at schools near them, and look forward to the carefree summer that follows graduation. To some degree, senioritis has set in: only AP scores will really affect a student’s college life by mid-year. By March, when most college decisions are sent out – what student puts into school at that point is only what they want to get out of it.

In comparison, the Gaokao preparation cycle is a super-marathon, a year-long review session in which books pile high on the student’s desk at school and desk at home. The following four years of a student’s life rides on a single, far-away exam slated usually for the month of June, and every moment is spent studying until then.

The Gaokao Ends, but Stress Continues

Senioritis and a carefree final high school semester would sound quite alien to Chinese students, just as our initial description of a Chinese high school classroom sounds completely foreign to American readers. Students and families do mark the end of Gaokao and the end of high school with celebratory vacations, meals, and evenings at karaoke venues, but this is by no means the end of the anxiety. Students may wait until as late as July to learn their Gaokao scores, and consequently, what schools they will be attending in the fall.

For Chinese students, this pressure and anxiety are par for the course. The exam-oriented system does not provide a nurturing transition from middle school to high school, and no one expects it to provide a human path from high school to university. The only consolation is that university education in China a “hard entry, easy exit” experience. Unlike their American counterparts, who see university as their greatest intellectual and academic challenge yet, many Chinese students believe they can – and often do – essentially coast through the several years of higher education that follow.

[Cross-posted from the Arbor Bridge Blog]

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