The village had such a large, congested school because, in surrounding villages, the schools had been closed. For two decades, the number of children in the countryside had been dropping because of the one-child policy and urban migration, so the government had shuttered empty schools and created overstuffed campuses like the one at Shao Jie. Kids travelled a long way, and lived at home only on the weekends.
Throughout China, the scene on a Friday afternoon is much the same: country roads are speckled with small children walking home, usually met by aunts or grandparents since their parents have left the countryside in search of work. For most of the children in the courtyard that evening, Shao Jie would be the only school they had ever attended and would ever know. Some doubtless succumbed to financial pressures and went to work before ninth grade. Those who remained face another obstacle: the zhongkao, a high-stakes test that determines if you are part of the lucky group that continues on to what the U.S. would call high school (the Chinese word for it translates as “upper-middle school”). Growing up in rural China, a child has just a 5% chance of going to college.
There is, of course, another side of China’s education system. The most celebrated, privileged and cutting-edge schools are in Beijing, Shanghai and other booming coastal cities. A few months after my visit to Shao Jie, Shanghai schools stunned the world in 2010 when they topped the charts on a global exam known as PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. PISA rankings compare the performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries in math, reading and science. In the United States, the news of Shanghai’s success was reported with a tone of anxiety – the sense that a rising generation of Chinese youth would be better equipped than their American counterparts to navigate the shoals of the global economy. In a speech about education, President Obama called the rising performance of students in other countries “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” To Americans, Shanghai suddenly sounded forbiddingly impressive: every news story seemed accompanied by a photo of diligent students, seated in neat rows, wearing crisp uniforms. Occasionally, when I returned to the US, and told people that I worked on improving education in China, they asked why I was helping America’s rival “beat us.”