In hopes of reducing the stress placed on students and increasing enrollment rates in both the senior year of high school and higher education, the Ministry of Education in China has drafted an education reform plan. Included in drafts of the plan is a ban on all written homework and exams for students under the third grade. In place of homework, the plan suggests that schools offer after-school activities such as trips to museums, libraries and other cultural centers in order to foster different types of learning. Although homework would be allowed for students in grades four to twelve, only two tests in total per semester would be permitted.
Despite the positive intentions, the plan has been met with resistance by teachers and parents. Many believe that the no-homework and no-test policies will inhibit a child’s learning. Teachers say that assigning homework helps their students solidify what they have learned in class. Instead of completely removing homework, many teachers feel that repetitive assignments should be avoided. Primary school teacher Zhu Yonghong tells the China Daily that tests are “still the only effective way to examine a student’s academic level.” In an interview with the China Daily, Wang Ming, the director of the Elementary Education Department of the National Education Development Research Center, foresees, “If homework or academic assignments are stopped, schools and parents will worry about the possible decline in enrollment rates, which remains the main assessment of education quality.” Many parents currently—despite homework already assigned by schools—give their child additional homework and enroll them in courses outside of school. According to the Shanghai Daily, “Parents of one Shanghai second-grader said they have this year spent nearly 30,000 yuan (US$4,901) on extra classes such as English and mathematics.” In the same article in the Shanghai Daily, Lu Qian, the mother of a third-grader, asks, “If [my son] has no homework to do, how could he review the knowledge learned at school and how could he handle the pressure when he enters middle school and high school?”
Due to a highly competitive educational environment and pressure from parents, the bar is raised extremely high for many students. The one-child policy focuses parents’ high expectations on their only child. Currently, admission—even for elementary and middle school—is solely based upon a student’s results on a standardized exam. The Ministry hopes to eventually eradicate this system by first removing entrance exams for middle school. However, high school students seeking to gain admission into top universities still must have high scores on the “gaokao,” the national college entrance exam. The futures of those who don’t perform well on this exam appear to become compromised. Last June, the Xinhua news agency reported four instances of suicides related to bad scores on the gaokao. Qu Jiajie, a Shanghai Education Commission official, when interviewed by the Shanghai Daily, maintained, “It is easier and more effective to relieve children of stress through parents changing their views” than by changing entrance examination rules.
Many of the policies in the Chinese education reform plan model reforms already implemented in Finland. The Economist Intelligence Unit, a company that analyzes and assesses various aspects of the world, such as livability and education, ranks Finland as first in the world in educational success. According to the Seattle Times, Pasi Sahlberg, an official with the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, says that Finland does not “[judge] teachers and schools based on test scores.” Instead, focus is placed on the quality of the education and school environment for all students. In Finland, teachers are required to hold a master’s degree, ensuring that the curriculum and level of teaching will be at a higher standard. Although Finnish students have a shorter school day and do not receive large amounts of homework, they earn the highest scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. PISA evaluates education systems around the world.
While the Chinese education reform plan is still in the makings, drafts are available online for public viewing, allowing students, teachers and parents to comment and suggest revisions.
Ten Regulations to Lessen Academic Burden for Primary School Students
from the Xinhua News Agency
1. Transparent admissions. Admission to a school cannot take into account any achievement certificates or examination results. Schools must admit all students based on their residency without considering any other factors.
2. Balanced Grouping. Schools must place students into classes and assign teachers randomly. Schools are strictly forbidden to use any excuse to establish “fast-track” and “slow-track” classes.
3. “Zero-starting point” Teaching. All teaching should assume all first graders students begin at zero proficiency. Schools should not artificially impose higher academic expectations and expedite the pace of teaching.
4. No Homework. No written homework is allowed in primary schools. Schools can however assign appropriate experiential homework by working with parents and community resources to arrange field trips, library visits, and craft activities.
5. Reducing Testing. No standardized testing is allowed for grades 1 through 3; For 4th grade and up, standardized testing is only allowed once per semester for Chinese language, math, and foreign language. Other types of tests cannot be given more than twice per semester.
6. Categorical Evaluation. Schools can only assess students using the categories of “Exceptional, Excellent, Adequate, and Inadequate,” replacing the traditional 100-point system.
7. Minimizing Supplemental Materials. Schools can use at most one type of materials to supplement the textbook, with parental consent. Schools and teachers are forbidden to recommend, suggest, or promote any supplemental materials to students.
8. Strictly Forbidding Extra Class. Schools and teachers cannot organize or offer extra instruction after regular schools hours, during winter and summer breaks and other holidays. Public schools and their teachers cannot organize or participate in extra instructional activities.
9. Minimum of One Hour of Physical Exercise. Schools are to guarantee the offering of physical education classes in accordance with the national curriculum, physical activities and eye exercise during recess.
10. Strengthening Enforcement. Education authorities at all levels of government shall conduct regular inspection and monitoring of actions to lessen student academic burden and publish findings. Individuals responsible for academic burden reduction are held accountable by the government.