Chinese students who are children of migrants take part in classes at an unofficial school on Dec. 18 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

news report tells of a Beijing father who recently set himself on fire in front of a government office because his child was not allowed to enroll in school. Why? The report says the father — now in a hospital — was behind in paying a fee to the local government and his children were not eligible to attend, because they were not part of the “hukou” system, which establishes household registration records of individuals and/or families. After this incident, several other parents of children who were not allowed to enroll in a school in their district in Beijing asked local officials to “lower the payment” required to enroll students in school.

These events speak to a large problem in China, where access to education is restricted for millions of children. This post explains why this matters here in the United States. It was written by James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable. Harvey’s Seattle University dissertation was the basis of “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect,” which is available free on the Web pages of both the Horace Mann League, an organization that works to strengthen public schools, and the National Superintendents Roundtable.

By James Harvey

During a 10-day study mission in 2008 to examine schools in China, my colleague Gerald Kohn and I reached two conclusions that seemed self-evident. Kohn, since retired, was superintendent of schools in Harrisburg, Pa., the state capital. Our first conclusion was that China had taken incredible strides in moving toward universal education. The Chinese government had made massive investments to provide primary education to all through Grade 6. It had set a goal of universal education through Grade 9. Some 250 million Chinese children were learning English. It was truly impressive.

Second, it was clear that access to education was severely out of kilter. Children in low-income rural areas were not enrolling in junior and senior high schools at anywhere near the rates of children in wealthier urban areas. Even in urban areas, students gained admission to high school based on entrance examinations and often the ability to pay. Taking these factors into account, Kohn and I estimated that 50 percent of the students in China never got beyond junior high school. We were wrong.

While precise figures are elusive, recent estimates from the Wall Street Journal suggest that, because more than half of all school-age children in China live in rural areas, about 70 percent of Chinese school-age children never see the inside of what Americans would consider a 10th-grade classroom. If the Wall Street Journal figures are accurate, quick, back-of the-envelope calculations suggest that fewer than 30 percent of all children of school age in China complete 12th grade.


These numbers feed directly into American policy thinking but not in the way one might expect. After all, high school enrollment in the United States is essentially universal, and some 90 percent of young American adults hold a high school diploma. Why would we follow the Chinese model?

But that’s precisely the advice Americans have been receiving since 2010, when the Organization for Economic Collaboration and Development released the Shanghai results of its testing program for 15-year-olds, the Program on International Student Assessment. Backed up by the OECD’s well-funded public-affairs efforts, Shanghai’s PISA performance was hailed as something that “stunned” education experts. Shanghai quickly became a synonym for China. The OECD has been busy since that time conflating Shanghai’s remarkable PISA performance into a claim that it is representative of China, justifying the claim in part on PISA data from elsewhere in China that the OECD has never published.

But it is clear from the latest data produced by the Wall Street Journal that Shanghai, a city of about 24 million, including 10 million migrant workers, is not representative of the rest of China. Indeed, the Shanghai PISA results are not even representative of Shanghai.

Thanks to the work of University of Washington geographer Kam Wing Chan, a native of China and an expert on China’s household registration system known as the “hukou,” we know Shanghai, Beijing and other urban areas in China discriminate against the children of low-income migrant workers in public education. This is true at both the primary and secondary levels, and the prejudice is on a scale that can only be termed epic.

A Chinese news anchor recently acknowledged that 500,000 migrant children of school age in Shanghai are underserved in the schools. The discrimination becomes acute at the high school level (where most 15-year-olds sitting for the PISA are to be found). The system drives 15-year-old migrants back to their provinces if they wish to go to high school. Pei-chia Lan of the National Taiwan University, a sociology professor who did fieldwork on schools in Shanghai, has described urban schools in China as “apartheid school models.”

What is lost in all the hype about Shanghai’s fabulous PISA results (and the conflation of those results with the entire Middle Kingdom) are the huge social costs accompanying that tested performance. Widespread bribery and corruption throughout the Communist Party leadership have been reported widely in recent years. Not surprisingly, these problems extend into schools, often led by party officials. In a 2012 report, Dan Levin of the New York Times noted that education in China comes at a price in urban areas. On two separate trips to Beijing, I was dazzled by the students from the high school associated with Renmin University. According to Levin, the going cost of a bribe to gain admission to that school ranged from $80,000 to $120,000.

Apart from corruption in the system, the Economist reports that the hukou registration system forces rural parents seeking work in cities such as Shanghai to “leave behind” some 61 million children. Increasingly, troubling reports of abandonment, depression, suicide and physical and sexual abuse of these children have become commonplace.

OECD officials turn a blind eye on all of this, casually dismissing these issues, when they are raised, with smooth evasions and bland denials. It’s hard to understand why the OECD believes there’s any value in comparing the performance of the most talented third in Shanghai with the entire enrollment of students in the United States.

Even more of a mystery is the following: In light of the staggering social costs required to produce the Shanghai PISA results — they amount to “one of the greatest human rights calamities of our time,” according to Brookings Institution analyst Tom Loveless — why has the OECD gone out of its way to hold up the Shanghai school system as a model of equity and excellence that the rest of the world should emulate?