Every summer when Huang Xiaoyan, a Chinese teacher at a middle school in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, sees her students taking the university entrance exam, she cannot help thinking about her own experience when she took the exam in 1992.
"I cannot see any difference between students nowadays and those in the early 1990s," the 30-year-old said. "My students are facing the same anxieties that I went through a decade ago."
Huang has worked in the middle school for seven years since graduating from Guangzhou Normal College. And she had been seeking a way out of traditional teaching methods that focus entirely on exams which have been in practice in schools for decades.
"It's really difficult, mainly because both teaching and learning are evaluated by exam results," Huang said.
She has tried to find a good balance -- to improve traditional teaching methods and help students pass the exam.
"Endless exams and homework were the biggest nightmare in my teens," she said. "It's frustrating to see my students suffering the same nightmare."
A new and fashionable concept has come to dominate the Chinese debate on educational reform since the late 1980s. "Quality education" or "competence education" has been officially promoted throughout the country, which aims to encourage both IQ and EQ of students.
China is in the process of rethinking education and reforming its educational system and experts and educators have voiced their complaints as well as suggestions to resolve the problems of Chinese education.
New Thinking on Education Reform: To Make the Failure Rate Zero, published by Beijing-based People's Education Publishing House in March, offers a good review of Chinese education reform over the past two decades.
Author Tao Xiping, 68, now vice-president of Chinese Education Association, has been engaged in China's basic education since the 1950s. In the mid-1980s, he held the position of director of the Beijing Education Bureau, promoting educational reform in the capital.
The book includes more than 60 articles that Tao has published since the 1980s. His penetrating writing is not simply a straightforward account of the condition of China's education. Tao has thought deeply about questions in education reform.
Tao stressed in the book that offering a quality education is key to the progress of the society.
One of the most inspiring arguments Tao expressed in the book regards the "failure rate."
"When we evaluate the achievement of education, we often talk about the number of students who excel in school and the percentage of students who are able to pass the exam... But I think we should be more concerned about the failure rate," Tao wrote.
The failure rate of the education system, Tao argued, refers to the portion of students who do not have the opportunity to develop their potential in school and remain ill-equipped for adulthood and working life after classes end.
The Chinese education has been aimed at cultivating "elites" for society for a long time and has ignored the needs of ordinary children. "But the system today must ensure each student enjoy equal opportunity to fulfill their educational hopes and dreams, and education should be tailored to individual needs and abilities," Tao wrote.
The author pointed out the traditional patterns of education, particularly exam-oriented teaching and learning that focuses on centralized textbooks and exams, have greatly restrained the creativity and potential of students.
Tao's complaints echo those of many experts.
Exam-oriented education has made most students lose out and that is the largest problem of the system, said Sun Yunxiao, deputy directory of the China Youth and Children Research Center, which has been engaged in the research of children's education for years.
Obstacles to reform
Chinese experts agree it is easy to identify challenges in education reform, but more difficult to overcome them.
"Whether it is the vaunted concept of quality education or the reform of the exam-oriented system, I would say education reform is the most unsuccessful of all reforms in China since the 1980s," said Xu Haoyuan, a psychologist who started an online training program to help teachers solve their psychological problems last year.
Xu returned to China in 1998 after spending 17 years in the United States and was worried the education system has imposed great pressure on students, parents and teachers.
Xu hoped her training program would ease the stress on teachers and ultimately have a positive influence on student development.
"The quest for education reform never stops, but few really know how this reform should be carried out. Probably because education is one of the most confusing fields," Xu said.
Tao also admitted that Chinese education reform has confronted great challenges over the past two decades and it would take a long time before it is achieved.
"We have to decisively display the will and commitment to achieve educational excellence for all students," Tao wrote.
Chinese experts have sought to deviate from the pattern of exam-oriented teaching and learning to develop creativity, problem-solving skills and lifelong learning attitudes in students and to turn tedious study into a pleasant experience.
Experimental programs of "quality education" have been carried out in many cities, particularly the efforts to decrease the academic pressure on students in schools.
Because reform conflicts with China's traditional school system and the unchanged university entrance exam, experts including Xu remain doubtful on whether the efforts will be successful.
Many teachers such as Huang argue the quality of education largely rests on reform of the examination system.
"As we all know, exams still guide how we teach and learn in school. I think we should reform our examination system to improve the quality of education," Huang said.
Scores were previously considered as indispensable to the assessment of a student's academic performance.
To gain the highest score possible, most students are expected to do homework for several hours each day.
They also have to attend extra courses during holidays to pass the mock exams.
Young people are therefore often overloaded with homework and have no time to develop their own interests and potential talent.
Tao concluded in the book the reform of "exam-oriented education" involves not only the entire education system but also the whole society. For example, parents also need to change their mindsets of valuing academic achievements the most important for their children at school.
(China Daily June 16, 2003)