A day in the life of Chinese students

Yao Zhang

When bemoaning the United States’ comparatively low test scores on international assessments, some are quick to point to one factor that sets Chinese students apart from their American peers: the length of the school day. Unlike in America, where the length of the school day general stays constant from first grade through high school (if not shortening in the final year or two of school), the Chinese public school year grows as students get older. And the competition also increases, said Yao Zhang, a Chinese native who co-founded Minds Abroad, a company that coordinates study-abroad opportunities in rural China. Zhang is completing her Ph.D. in Economics and Education at Columbia University. She recently walked The Hechinger Report through a day in the life of Chinese students at public elementary, middle and high schools.

Elementary school starts at age seven for students in China. In the country’s mega-cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, where transportation is a large factor, students will go to school from 8 am to 3 pm with only a short break for lunch. But in most areas around the country, there’s a break from school for lunch and, often, a lunch-time nap at home. In primary school, students learn Chinese, math, geography and the basics of the natural sciences. English starts in third grade. There are also music, painting and physical-education classes, and one class that translates to “education of thoughts and morality,” Zhang said. This class covers a bit of political science and history, with stories about Chinese heroes.

By middle school, the competitive pressure to get into any high school—not just the top ones—is palpable. Admission is determined almost exclusively by performance on a single test, and only about 70 percent of students who finish middle school go on to high school. Even in primary school, parents start investing money in math Olympiads or musical-instrument training for children whose test-scores might make them borderline candidates for acceptance; extraordinary talent in math or music could be just enough to make the difference. Moving to different neighborhoods to get into better schools is a common strategy, as are hiring private tutors and making $1,000 “donations” to magnet-like middle schools.

And the workload ratchets up in middle school, too. Students spend from 7 am to 8 am at school reading, either in English or Chinese, and reciting to teachers. School ends at 5 pm, but the dinner break is shortened for an hour of “play time”—or physical fitness—beginning at 6 pm. After that, students stay at school for “evening sessions,” which function like study halls or tutoring periods. Students do homework and study, while teachers assist them. Physics, chemistry, biology and political science are tacked on to the elementary school course-load, as well as electives like calligraphy and computer science.

With under 30 percent of high-school graduates getting into college—based entirely on how students do on a “one-shot,  one-kill test,” as Zhang put it—most students spend almost all waking hours studying. The subject areas of high-school courses don’t differ much from those in middle school, though phys-ed typically ends after 10th grade. Evening sessions at the high-school level conclude at 11 pm. And, for the many students who attend public boarding schools far from their hometowns, most of their lunch and dinner breaks are spent hitting the books. “Lack of sleep is very common for Chinese high-school students,” Zhang said.

POSTED BY ON May 12, 2011

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[...] students’ days begin early in the morning and stretch until late at night. (Hechinger) Filed under: Newsroom  Print [...]

David Truss

I’m currently working in China and across from a Kindergarten to Grade 9 Chinese School. Interestingly, they start at 8am and end at 4:30, but when I take out their 2 half-hour recesses and their 1.5 hour long lunch, and their 5-minute breaks between each class, they actually have less class time than our school that goes from 8:30 to 3:30. That said, the rigor and testing is considerable with a minimum of 1 test weekly in every subject and daily testing in others. Also, all extra curricular activities that we have planned now exclude their Grade 9′s who spend almost 2 months with a schedule much like you describe above as they prepare for the state tests that decide which High School they will attend.

I comment now to note that first of all hours at school don’t necessarily mean hours studying and also to note that the gradual pressure and high stakes nature may show up far more in the mega cities of Beijing and Shanghai and may be less pronounced elsewhere.

As a final comment, they are taking steps to Westernize and the school across from us now puts younger kids in table groups and do specific cooperative activities in their classes. It’s a challenge to balance with the testing they do, but I’d me more concerned about their ability to implement best practice in a sweeping way across millions of schools than I would be concerned with the amount of time spent in classes… Finland puts teachers in front of kids far less than both the US and China and can still be at the top of the global standings.

Juan-Carlos C.

As middle school teacher in an urban school district, I believe that factors as cultural bonding (respect for family values), discipline and the effort the effort that students need for continuing their further education is the real difference with our educational system. I wonder if in Chinese educational system students who barely attend to school during a school year are automatic promoted to the next level just for “lowering” school drop out rate (accountable for school). Education is free in America (I guess in China too), students and parents are aware about their civil rights but very often forget about their civil duties. If parents and students were accountable for promotion standards we probably could have better performance on international assessments. Finally, it is understandable to know why China invests sending engineers abroad while we invest sending military personnel.

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