CHINA: Alarming School Dropout Rate Blamed on Teaching Methods

  • by MItch Moxley (beijing)
  • Inter Press Service

Students must memorise vast amounts of information to pass major tests, and their futures can depend on the results. The biggest determining factor in who attends elite universities and who does not is the ‘gaokao’, the gruelling entrance exam.

This focus on exam-based education is the biggest contributor to China’s dropout rate, education experts say. According to a report published in May, the dropout rate in some rural areas was as high as 40 percent (although official Ministry of Education estimates are 5 percent in urban areas and 11 percent in rural areas).

The report was based on a study conducted by the Institute of Rural Education at Northeast Normal University, which surveyed 17 junior high schools in 14 counties in six provinces and found that even in relatively prosperous areas, the dropout rate could sometimes hit 40 percent. The report attributed the findings to 'school weariness' — fatigue and disinterest caused by rote learning and cramming.

'Examination-oriented education imposes too much pressure on students,' said Tao Hongkai, a sociology professor at Central China Normal University. Tao, who has decades of experience in high school education in the United States, directs the university's quality education research center. 'Students feel some courses are difficult to learn, and the knowledge they grasp isn’t useful in real life. They lose interest, which leads to dropouts.'

A 2009 survey found that 50.4 percent of high school students suffered from school weariness in China, which education experts blamed on existing education methods, notably the cramming method of teaching and the intense focus on exam scores.

In 2008, Guo Zaoyang, a teacher at Huangchuan Middle School in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, started a popular blog in which he criticised teaching methods in China using his real name — a rarity in China’s blogosphere. (Guo, however, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

In an April posting on his blog, Guo speculated that school weariness, caused by exam-based schooling, is the leading cause of the high dropout rate among junior school students.

'Examination-oriented education … opens the doors to hell,' he wrote. 'The teaching methods teachers use are the cramming method, spoon feeding method.'

He added: 'Students memorise and examination scores are closely related to how much time has been spent on the course.… China’s schools teach their students nothing, what these schools are best at is making students lose interest and hate their studies.'

With an emphasis on test scores, students are sometimes discouraged from writing exams entirely, lest they bring down a class’ average score. In one case, Xiao Zhen, a sixth grade student in Shaanxi province in north-west China, was banned by his teachers from taking exams for an entire year because of his poor study skills, according to ‘China Business View’ magazine.

Education reform has become a top priority for the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). Since the mid-1990s, China’s higher education system has been overhauled, with large-scale upgrades of colleges and universities and expanded enrollment.

In June, the Politburo, the CPC’s top decision making body, released the National Outline for Medium- and Long-term Educational Reform and Development. President Hu Jintao stressed that education was the key to social development and promised to improve quality and accessibility in the coming decade.

The document, which highlights China’s strategic goal for education before 2020, promises to reform the annual ‘gaokao’ and force high schools, colleges and universities to adopt more flexible enrollment policies.

The plan pledges to guarantee equal access to education while improving quality and balancing the development of compulsory education in urban and rural areas.

In 2009, the central government approved an education fund of about 198 billion yuan (around 21.19 billion U.S. dollars). About 28.7 million children from poor families received financial aid for their schooling. The government plans to increase the ratio of education expenditure to gross domestic product to 4 percent by 2012 from 3.48 percent in 2008.

'By pledging to increase public expenditures on education and promote fair distribution of education resources, [the plan] has laid a solid foundation for China to develop into a powerhouse of human capital,' argued state-owned Xinhua News Agency. 'China will no longer be able to rely on ample supply of cheap labour for economic growth.'

Yang Dongping, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said the government’s development plan will help establish a new education philosophy in China. He said that experiential education methods are already being tested in China, including one case in eastern Shandong province, where teachers leave students to learn primarily on their own, offering help only if a student requests it.

But Tao said true education reform will be difficult in China. Education officials are being charged to reform the same system from which they graduated, and surrounding the education industry are well-entrenched and profitable businesses.

'China claims to have quality education,' Tao said, 'but I don’t think there’s any quality education here. I think China’s teachers don’t even know what quality education is.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service