Choosing a High School Puts Pressure on Parents in China

Moving on from high school to college isn’t the only high-pressure decision forced on Chinese parents when it comes their children’s academic careers. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, writing for The New York Times, reports that as students are on the verge of completing 5th grade, their families are confronted with what can be considered a preview of the agonizing college-related dilemmas to come: selecting an appropriate high school.

Because the Chinese education system is complex and competitive, choosing the right school requires answering a number of questions including a decision about the right academic approach. Should the high school use Western teaching methods or Chinese ones? Or some of each?

“I have a friend who couldn’t sleep at night because of this. She nearly went mad,” said Ms. Ma, the mother of a fifth grader at the state-run Fangcaodi Elementary School in Beijing, which my son also attends. “Don’t become like that!” she advised me.

Ms. Ma is perplexed by the challenge of choosing a high school for her 11-year-old. “I’m really worried about his future studies,” she said. She took her son to the United States in May to tour schools, but that didn’t produce a decision.
“He feels American, but his friends are here. He wants to stay here. I feel that China’s basic education is very good, but, for later, I want him to have the space to explore and create, not just learn from books,” said Ms. Ma, who only offered her surname.

For parents who split their lives between the United States and China, the question of the right school become even more acute. Which school would give their children the best opportunity to succeed in either country once they graduate?

One mother who left for the US when she was 15 and is now back with her two sons tried both English and International schools before finally deciding that her kids would do best in a Chinese high school. She thought that learning Chinese at a younger age would be easier than trying to pick it up along the way. English, on the other hand, is much easier and can be mastered later in life.

It is, perhaps, no wonder that some parents are losing sleep over their choice. They want the critical thinking and creativity of Western education but not the very high fees and expatriate “bubble” of international schools; the cultural immersion, language and math skills of Chinese schools but not the very long hours and competitiveness that can cause burnout. They want their kids to be moral and truly global, to be both Chinese and Western. No school seems to offer all that. And with much at stake amid this conflicting mix of values, the choice feels truly difficult for many.

Of course, once the choice is made another big one is only a few years away. Once the high school studies are complete, there’s the hugely competitive college entrance exam which will determine if the students get a spot at one of the China’s selective universities.

The end-of-school gaokao is a Chinese national obsession and no step is a step too far in helping children excel on it. Just last week, a group of Chinese parents rioted because they felt that proctors had been too strict in their enforcement of the no-cheating policy. As one father who had been arrested for punching a proctor put it:

I hoped my son would do well in the exams. This supervisor affected his performance, so I was angry,” the man, named Zhao, explained to the police later. Hundreds of police eventually cordoned off the school and the local government conceded that “exam supervision had been too strict and some students did not take it well”.