China’s cram school


Foreign Policy

Each year, more than 9 million Chinese students endure the gaokao, as the exam is known. A grueling two or three days’ experience – it varies by region – the test covers Chinese, mathematics, a foreign language, chemistry, physics, geography, and history, among other subjects. The test results, which range from the 200s to the 600s (scores of over 700 sometimes make headlines), comprise almost the entirety of a student’s college application portfolio. While some of the multiple-choice questions would be familiar to U.S. teenagers sweating over Advanced Placement exams, gaokao essay prompts are sometimes so bizarre that even Chinese state media challenged its mostly adult readers to answer some of the more notorious essay prompts, such as this one: “It flies upward, and a voice asks if it is tired. It says, ‘No.’ “

Because Chinese parents often expect their children to become family breadwinners, the pressure to perform is intense. Faced with the gaokao’s high stakes and frustrating unpredictability, tens of thousands of test takers choose to sit through the ordeal again, when their scores fall short of their – or their parents’ – expectations. Having already graduated from high school, some of these re-takers hunker down at home for a year to study. Others attend cram schools like Maotanchang High School, which lies tucked away in a small town in the mountains of central China’s Anhui province and specializes in the dark art of military-style test prep. With an annual enrollment of more than 10,000 students, the school, known as Maozhong, has earned the dubious honor of being called “China’s Largest Gaokao Factory” in Chinese state media.

A Sept 18 article in China Youth Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, offered an inside look at the topsy-turvy economic and social life of this exam-obsessed town. The piece, which incited a debate on the benefits and drawbacks of the gaokao system, immediately became popular on Chinese social media: One thread discussing the article on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, has gathered more than 20,000 re-tweets and more than 5,800 comments.

The China Youth Daily article claims that Maotanchang, a speck of a town with only 5,000 registered residents, becomes home to more than 50,000 people when school is in session; classes are so crowded that teachers must use loudspeakers to address the hordes of students. The article describes schedules that run from 6:10 a.m. to 10:50 p.m., with students’ waking hours consumed by endless lectures and repetitive practice exams that abate only for two 30-minute meal breaks and one hour of downtime. (Some teachers have suggested a scheduled bathroom time for “easier management.”) According to the article, one year in Maozhong’s cram program can reportedly cost up to $8,000, roughly three times the average annual disposable income in Anhui.

The article depicts a local economy so tightly bound to the cram school that townspeople have refrained from opening up the karaoke parlors and Internet cafes otherwise ubiquitous in China. Instead, enterprising locals rent out their rooms or dwellings for about $1,300 to $3,300 annually – exorbitant for a Chinese town of that size – to parents who accompany their children for the academic year.

After the report became a trending topic, people claiming to be alumni of the school took to the web to share personal accounts of this “gaokao holy land.” FORTHECITY tweeted on Sina Weibo, “I remember a classmate of ours sneaking online instead of studying; he was sent back to his hometown in a police car with sirens blazing.” (His comment couldn’t be confirmed, though investigations by Chinese media tell similar stories of local governments putting their towns’ resources — including the police force — behind Maozhong’s brand of paramilitary cramming.)

One user wrote, “You only see the high passage rate, but you don’t see how much we have given up to go to university. You scratch the surface, but you don’t see how much scolding and physical punishment there is from teachers, or how many students commit suicide under pressure.” Another user, however, had warmer memories: “Before going there, many thought they’d go crazy. But after leaving, many start to miss the place.”

The gaokao is not just difficult and sometimes arbitrary, but also administered in a way that deliberately stacks the odds against students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The score cutoff for admission to elite universities is lower for test-takers from rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where those same elite universities are located. Favorable quotas aid these students, who already have a leg up.

Millions of Chinese citizens have lived and worked for decades in large cities, yet remain unable to obtain the elusive hukou, or household registration, that would allow their children to take full advantage of the superior education afforded urban locals. Mere discussions of plans to open up the system to the “provincials” were met with fierce resistance from Beijing and Shanghai locals, many of whom see such privileges as their children’s birthright.

Nonetheless, in a society with so many deeply entrenched disparities, the gaokao still provides students with an opportunity for upward mobility. Weibo user CCDCG, who claims to be a Ph.D. student from a rural area, wrote, “The gaokao is the fairest competitive exam, relatively speaking. With an 80 percent passage rate, Maozhong is really quite impressive. Getting a higher education is the only way up for many, especially kids from rural areas. Nowadays, education resources are highly concentrated (in cities), and I hope more underdogs can succeed in the system.” Another user agreed: “These ‘gaokao factories’ are likely to emerge in poor areas. People from these places want to change their fate, but they have no other path.”

Getting into university is only the first rung on China’s slippery social-mobility ladder. As China’s GDP growth slows from an annual rate of over 9 percent over the last decade to about 7.5 percent a year, recent college graduates, especially those without the right connections or parental support, find themselves in a brutal job market. In China’s hyper-competitive society, even a sterling gaokao performance – hard as that is to achieve – no longer seems to be enough. As eltonzhg wrote, “These poor ‘raw materials’ undergo hellish molding and rigorous selection, but they don’t even know that goods like them are overstocked on the market.”

Lu is a co-founder of FP’s Tea Leaf Nation.

© 2013, Foreign Policy

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Ten truths about day jobs

    1. Never look down on somebody who holds a job and rides the bus to the end of the line. These are the people who labor their whole lives but are never rewarded with tangible success. Not every dog has its day; some simply work their tails off. My father was one of those guys: never missed a day, never missed a beat and barely made a dime. But he taught my brother and me how to get a job done. Old Italians would grab their kids and say, “The more you have in there,” pointing to our heads, “the less you have to put on there,” pointing to our backs. My brother and I benefited from my father’s integrity, his stamina and his gratitude for having a job.

  • The Beatles’ cry of freedom: ‘Money,’ 50 years later

    In early 1964, a friend called me up and asked if I wanted to hear the new Beatles album, With the Beatles. It had come out in Britain a couple of months before, but no one I knew had heard it, or for that matter heard of it. My friend’s father, an airplane pilot, had brought it back. It was just days after the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

  • It helps to have a hospital room with a view

    Hospitals are, by their nature, scary and depressing places. But they don’t have to be ugly as well — and there’s ample evidence that aesthetics matter to patient health.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category