The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s 10 new and surprising school reform rules

Placeholder while article actions load

Earlier this year China began a major education reform initiative designed to increase student engagement and end student boredom and anxiety. Curbing standardized testing was one aim. Scholar Yong Zhao wrote about it first in this post, and, now, below, gives us the latest developments.  Yong Zhao is the presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. This is an updated version of a piece that appeared on his blog.

By Yong Zhao

Reduced standardized tests and homework and no tracking. These are some of the new actions China is taking to lessen student academic burden. The Chinese Ministry of Education recently released Ten Regulations to Lessen Academic Burden for Primary School Students for public commentary. The Ten Regulations are introduced as one more significant measure to reform China’s education, in addition to further reduction of academic content, lowering the academic rigor of textbooks, expanding criteria for education quality, and improving teacher capacity.

The regulations included in the published draft are:

  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.

The Ministry of Education received nearly 6,000 comments from the public in August. Based on the comments, the Ministry revised the Ten Measures and solicited public comments on the revised draft between September 6th and 18th. There are two noticeable and significant changes.

First, the Ministry backed off a bit on homework, from “no homework” to “decrease the amount of homework.” The revised version still calls for no homework for grades 1 to 3 and allows homework for grade 4, but the amount must be no more than one hour a day. This change was made mostly in response to parents’ concerns about the impracticality of no homework and teachers may find ways to assign homework to parents anyway.

Second, the revised draft went further on limiting testing by eliminating English language from the subjects allowed for standardized testing for 4th grade and up. The Ministry added: “student test scores and rankings shall not be published as part of school quality evaluation.”

This effort of the Ministry of Education received tremendous attention from the media and the public. The reactions have been generally supportive but equally doubtful of its actual impact. After all, many similar policies had been issued before with very little effect because ultimately students still have to compete for college admissions with test scores in the Gaokao or college admissions test. More importantly, test scores have been so deeply rooted as the measure of educational quality and have been used to make significant decisions in education that it is almost impossible for parents, teachers, schools, and government officials to accept other measures.

(Correction: An earlier version gave incorrect information about what Yong Zhao does at the University of Oregon.)