Tough regime cranks out test win­ners

High school’s in­tense train­ing pro­gram yields many high-score stu­dents, but sti­fles cre­ativ­ity, re­port Hou Liqiang and Zhang Yu in Heng­shui, He­bei prov­ince

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA -

It’s make-or-break time for mil­lions of high school stu­dents in China. Satur­day morn­ing sig­nals the start of two days of gru­el­ing ac­tiv­ity, both men­tal and phys­i­cal, as stu­dents take the na­tional univer­sity en­trance exam known as gaokao. Be­cause suc­cess in the exam can open the door to a well-paid job and high so­cial stand­ing, the pres­sure on the stu­dents can be overwhelming.

How­ever, few stu­dents are as com­mit­ted, or pre­pared for gaokao suc­cess, as those at Heng­shui High School in He­bei prov­ince, which has gained fame — and some crit­i­cism — for its tough regime and im­pres­sive suc­cess rate.

For se­nior stu­dents, the day be­gins at 5:30 am and lasts un­til 10:10 pm, with ev­ery hour punc­tu­ated by the in­ces­sant ring­ing of bells that an­nounce classes, break times, self-study pe­ri­ods, ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties and dor­mi­tory time.

The stu­dents spend most of their time in cramped class­rooms. Al­though the des­ig­nated food breaks last 40 min­utes, many stu­dents rush to the can­teen and wolf down their food in less than five min­utes so they can snatch an ex­tra few min­utes for their stud­ies.

Sun Ya­jian, a fresh­man at Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Univer­sity, who grad­u­ated from Heng­shui High last year, said he even ran to the can­teen to save time. “I usu­ally spent three to five min­utes eat­ing din­ner. Once, I even fin­ished my meal in less than two min­utes,” the 20-year-old said. “I only ate to fill my stomach. I didn’t care what I ate, just as long as I was full.”

The regime is tough. In ad­di­tion to teach­ers and mem­bers of the stu­dents union who pa­trol the school to en­sure dis­ci­pline, cam­eras con­stantly scan the class­rooms search­ing for stu­dents ne­glect­ing their work. Cell phones are not al­lowed, and if you don’t con­sider the 20 min­utes al­lo­cated daily for watch­ing news broad­casts, or the weekly class meet­ings, which oc­ca­sion­ally fea­ture an in­spi­ra­tional video, as en­ter­tain­ment, then there’s no en­ter­tain­ment, ei­ther.

The stu­dents are usu­ally given one day off ev­ery four weeks, af­ter tak­ing a monthly test, but they are also tested ev­ery day and once a week. The re­sults are posted pub­licly to show the changes in each stu­dent’s rank­ing.

The school is also famed for its tight man­age­ment of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity. Ren Yuem­ing, a fresh­man at China Univer­sity of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence and Law in Bei­jing, grad­u­ated from Heng­shui High last year. She said stu­dents are not even al­lowed to see their par­ents pri­vately at the school gates, and with the ex­cep­tion of for­mal hol­i­days, they have to present the door­keeper with a per­mit from their teacher if they want to leave the cam­pus.

In class, any ac­tiv­ity un­re­lated to study can be con­sid­ered a breach of dis­ci­pline, in­clud­ing shuf­fling pa­pers and chat­ting, said Sun. “Stu­dents have to fol­low the teach­ers in class. You can’t do things based on your own plans,” he said.

The de­mand­ing sys­tem seems to pay div­i­dends, though: In 2013, the school sent 104 grad­u­ates to Ts­inghua Univer­sity and Pek­ing Univer­sity, China’s most-pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties. The fig­ure ac­counted for 80 per­cent of the two uni­ver­si­ties’ to­tal en­roll­ment from He­bei, and 20% of the univer­sity can­di­dates from He­bei who scored more than 600 points in the gaokao were grad­u­ates of Heng­shui High.

Last year was no flash in the pan, ei­ther. The school has been ranked He­bei’s num­ber one for univer­sity en­roll­ment for 14 con­sec­u­tive years.

How­ever, while no one doubts the school’s suc­cess, crit­ics ar­gue that the rou­tine sti­fles cre­ativ­ity and in­de­pen­dent thought, and some have even la­beled it an “aca­demic fac­tory”, fo­cused purely on gaokao suc­cess to the ex­clu­sion of other as­pects of the stu­dents’ per­son­al­i­ties.

“If I were of­fered the chance to choose again, I wouldn’t spend the three years at such a school, and I would never let my chil­dren at­tend such an in­sti­tu­tion,” said Li Jing­nan, a grad­u­ate stu­dent ma­jor­ing in ac­coun­tancy at Tian­jin Univer­sity of Fi­nance & Eco­nom­ics.

Li said the aca­demic day was even longer when he stud­ied at Heng­shui High 10 years ago. The 28-year-old said he was un­happy with the mode of teach­ing em­ployed, claim­ing that it “tightly con­trols stu­dents”, mak­ing them men­tally “rigid”, some­thing that left him un­pre­pared for life in the out­side world. “I found my­self at a loss when I en­tered univer­sity, not know­ing what I wanted or what to do. I had lost my sense of di­rec­tion af­ter three years at the school where ev­ery­thing was rig­or­ously con­trolled,” he said.

“Stu­dents from the big cities study ac­cord­ing to their own in­ter­ests, and have flex­i­ble minds and a wide knowl­edge base. Our minds were rigid be­cause we were tightly con­trolled at high school.”

While many par­ents are ob­vi­ously happy with the sys­tem, the teach­ing model has dis­suaded some from send­ing their chil­dren to the school.

“I think the stu­dents there are fools and book­worms,” one Heng­shui city res­i­dent said. “Af­ter they grad­u­ate, they only work for other people and do not dare to start their own businesses. Their thoughts have been im­pris­oned,” said the 35-year-old mother of two, who only gave her sur­name as Liu.

“I have thought it through and be­lieve that other schools are more likely to guar­an­tee a pros­per­ous fu­ture for my chil­dren, she said. ‘It’s fab­u­lous’

Not ev­ery­one is crit­i­cal of the Heng­shui High sys­tem, though. One fresh­man, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, was ef­fu­sive in his praise. “Af­ter en­ter­ing the school I dis­cov­ered that it’s fab­u­lous,” said the boy, who hails from Baod­ing, 160 kilo­me­ters from Heng­shui.

“It’s not at all how out­siders de­scribe it. It’s not a de­mon school. Not hell, not pur­ga­tory,” the 15-year-old said. “There is no rote learn­ing. In fact, stu­dents at other schools do that. Some par­ents say many of the stu­dents are just book­worms, but it’s not true. Even if you’re a book­worm when you ar­rive, you’ll soon change. Choos­ing to study here was ab­so­lutely the right de­ci­sion,” he said, adding that the school of­fers a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties and clubs — he has joined three — and stu­dents are also given the op­por­tu­nity to take part in na­tional and in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, such as UN-style de­bates, bas­ket­ball, ta­ble ten­nis and other sports.

The school au­thor­i­ties de­clined a re­quest for an in­ter­view, stat­ing that the gaokao is a “sen­si­tive time”, and, “Any re­port, no mat­ter whether it’s pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, will bring the school into new con­tro­versy”.

De­spite this, one teacher agreed to talk, but he de­clined to be named. “There’s been a lot of crit­i­cism that we im­prison the stu­dents, but that’s not true — we cer­tainly don’t im­prison their minds. The teach­ers only give lessons in half of the classes, and the rest of the time is for the stu­dents so they have time to think for them­selves and im­prove them­selves,” he said.

“Al­though it’s a board­ing school, we guar­an­tee ac­cess to out­side in­for­ma­tion. Ev­ery year, we spend 400,000 yuan ($64,000) on the lat­est books. Ev­ery evening, the stu­dents can watch news broad­casts for 20 min­utes, even dur­ing the gaokao pe­riod.”

He said dis­ci­pline is strict and the timetable reg­i­mented for good rea­son: “We have more than 5,000 stu­dents on cam­pus. If ev­ery stu­dent fol­lowed their own in­cli­na­tion, what would hap­pen to the school?”

Al­though the school de­clined our in­ter­view re­quest, we were al­lowed to visit the cam­pus. As he showed us around an ex­hi­bi­tion about sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy No­bel lau­re­ates, the teacher ex­plained that the school is at­tempt­ing to “plant a seed of in­ter­est in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in the stu­dents’ hearts”.

He said the room, which con­tained 75 desk­top com­put­ers, is open to stu­dents through­out the day. “They can come and search for any in­for­ma­tion they need at any time dur­ing class breaks or meal times,” he said. “If our stu­dents are in­ter­ested in a topic that’s not cov­ered by the text­books, we of­fer them the op­por­tu­nity to study it,” he said, as we walked around a sta­dium where groups of stu­dents were play­ing ta­ble ten­nis and bas­ket­ball.

“Six of our stu­dents were ad­mit­ted by uni­ver­si­ties in Sin­ga­pore — that’s 25 per­cent of their in­take from He­bei. So, if the school is an ‘exam fac­tory’, does it fol­low that Sin­ga­pore is also an exam fac­tory?” he asked.

Some may con­sider the school’s meth­ods con­tro­ver­sial, but it has played host to more than 170,000 vis­i­tors, mostly teach­ers and ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als, in the past 10 years.

Xu Nan, a math teacher at Xing­tan High School in Guang­dong prov­ince, vis­ited late last year. “We vis­ited hop­ing to learn some­thing that would help im­prove the qual­ity of teach­ing in our school,” Xu wrote in an e-mail ex­change with China Daily. Al­though the au­thor­i­ties at Xu’s school have at­tempted to put what they learned into prac­tice, so far there has been no marked im­prove­ment in re­sults. ‘Su­per high schools’

The phrase “su­per high schools” has been coined to de­scribe es­tab­lish­ments such as Heng­shui High. There are sim­i­lar schools in prov­inces such as Jiangxi, An­hui, and Hubei, and they not only at­tract thou­sands of stu­dents who are des­per­ate to at­tend China’s most-pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties, but are also feted by teach­ers such as Xu who are keen to im­prove their “teach­ing qual­ity”, fac­tors that usu­ally re­sult in high univer­sity en­trance rates.

How­ever, some ex­perts be­lieve that the schools’ suc­cess is a case of cause and ef­fect. “These ‘ supreme schools’ are a di­rect re­sult of China’s col­lege en­trance sys­tem, which is heav­ily exam-ori­ented,” said Xiong Bingqi, deputy-pres­i­dent of the 21st Century Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute.

Xiong said that un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, there are three kinds of high school in China: those ori­ented to­ward qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion; those ori­ented to­ward ex­ams re­sults; and oth­ers that are nom­i­nally qual­i­ty­ori­ented, but are in re­al­ity ex­am­or­i­ented.

Schools such as Heng­shui High are in the third cat­e­gory, ac­cord­ing to Xiong, who said very few schools in China would fall into the first cat­e­gory.

“How­ever, crit­i­cism yields noth­ing. It’s not the schools that should be blamed, but the sys­tem. If the sys­tem doesn’t change, these ‘supreme’ high schools will re­main un­changed. If Heng­shui High didn’t fol­low this model, other schools would,” he said.

Un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, schools care more about com­ments from cur­rent stu­dents and their par­ents, who at­tach great im­por­tance to the uni­ver­si­ties their chil­dren at­tend, but of­ten over­look the life and per­son­al­ity train­ing that’s im­por­tant for the stu­dents’ fu­tures.

“The lack of ‘per­son­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion’ — a prob­lem in schools all over China — will re­sult in huge prob­lems in the fu­ture,” ac­cord­ing to Xiong, who said few of those who score top marks in the gaokao are suc­cess­ful once they grad­u­ate from pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties, and that very few of those who per­form well in the exam can be con­sid­ered “great masters” in the Chi­nese tra­di­tion.

“If the cur­rent sys­tem doesn’t change, there will be no talent to con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety in the fu­ture, ” he said.

Chu Zhao­hui, a se­nior re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion Sci­ences, echoed Xiong’s as­sess­ment, say­ing the gaokao is the rea­son be­hind the ex­is­tence of “su­per high schools”.

“The model em­ployed by high schools such as Heng­shui High is an in­evitable choice for those dis­ad­van­taged by the cur­rent col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion sys­tem,” he said, adding that al­though many stu­dents from less-de­mand­ing schools en­ter pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties, few of them come from poorer fam­i­lies.

“Most stu­dents at ‘ run of the mill’ schools are from fam­i­lies on the bot­tom rung of so­ci­ety, and the gaokao is seen as an op­por­tu­nity for them to change their des­tinies. In the short term, the model may help those stu­dents, but in the long term, it doesn’t work,” Chu said.

“Chil­dren need pres­sure to grow up, but that pres­sure shouldn’t be overwhelming. Chil­dren re­quire guid­ance, but should also de­pend on them­selves. Three years is a com­par­a­tively short part of a life­time, and if stu­dents can break free of the re­stric­tions im­posed by schools such as Heng­shui High and start think­ing in­de­pen­dently again, they can still play a use­ful role in so­ci­ety.”

How­ever, Chu added, “I’m con­cerned that a large num­ber of them may end up mak­ing lit­tle real con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety and the coun­try, be­cause it’s hard to change af­ter three years of be­ing brain­washed.” Con­tact the writ­ers at houliqiang@chi­


Fam­ily mem­bers wave to stu­dents head­ing to take the gaokao in the city of Liu’an in An­hui prov­ince on Thurs­day.

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