SZ8X80205//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: Beached Babes in Toyland

Once you have a house on the beach, what do you do there? You play. And where were the toys once made? In factories built along the old new coastline. Continue reading

blue star blues

Yesterday, Ministry of Tofu translated a Southern Daily article about a Shenzhen elementary school teacher who marked students faces with blue stamps for misbehavior. They also published samples of weibo responses to this practice. No unexpectedly, there was general outrage over using humiliation as a means to correct student behavior. The article also mentioned that students received stamps for good behavior. Netizens were noticeably silent on this topic, no doubt because as long as I have been in Shenzhen, rewarding student behavior with stars and stickers has been standard practice in elementary schools.

In fact, public recognition and shaming are the most important motivators in the Shenzhen education system, where schools give and receive public recognition for “results (成绩)”. What’s more there is no question that we are speaking of test results, especially gaokao test results. At the high school level, municipal and district governments reward schools for the number of students sent on to first tier universities, in turn, the schools reward teachers for their students results, and teachers reward their students. In middle schools, public rewards are based on zhongkao, or high school entrance exam results with a similar system of bonuses for teachers who can produce results (出成绩) and students who get into top scores.

Given the importance of test scores their reputation and livelihood, Shenzhen teachers constantly seek ways to help students to improve their test scores. High school teachers run mandatory study sessions, while middle school teachers use classroom time to teach test taking skills. Moreover, most parents not only accept the primacy of test taking to education, but also arrange for their children to attend cram schools at night and over the weekend. In fact, many high school students often ask to attend cram schools in order to compete with their classmates.

Importantly, the system only works – Chinese schools infamously produce test-taking machines – to the extent that teachers and students accept test scores as their raison d’être. Consequently, elementary school schools and teachers have an awkward place in this system because it is their job to transition students from home life to the test life. At the same time and to a greater degree than their middle and high school colleagues, elementary teachers are expected to care for the total student, including their emotional and physical wellbeing. And there’s the rub: most young children and especially boys cannot sit still for long periods of time.

The restlessness of young bodies places elementary school teachers in a difficult position because in order to take tests, students must sit at desks for at least 40 minutes with an eye to eventually taking 2 to 2.5 hour tests that make up the gaokao. The 2012 Shenzhen gaokao, for example, took place on June 7 and 8. In the morning, candidates sat for 2.5 hours (Chinese on the 7th and humanities/science on the 8th) and in the afternoon they sat for 2 hours (humanities/science on the 7th and English on the 8th). The zhongkao was held on the 9th, with two 1.5 hour test periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, more often than not, restless elementary students receive low test scores, their teachers are accused of ineffective pedagogy, and the schools are criticized for not doing their jobs.

In order to transform the restless body into a test-taking machine, elementary school teachers often use public recognition to encourage students. In fact, stickers and stamps are just two elements of a repertoire that also includes publicizing grades, issuing certificates and holding award ceremonies. During weekly flag raising ceremonies, top students receive public commendation and at the end of the year, the best students receive merit scholarships and their photos are hung in prominent places.

Obviously, this system creates pressure for the majority of students who cannot (by definition) earn the top scores. For these students, the desire to alleviate feelings of envy and shame sometimes become motivations to study. Or as often the case, middling students learn to live with second-rate status and find pleasure in non-academic activities. At the same time, teachers will attempt to use envy and shame to motivate students to overtake top students or to redeem themselves in the public eye.

Nor are teachers alone in celebrating top scores and denigrating poor results. Parental bragging about good students is rampant, while parental complaints about poor results are never simply good manners, but also strategies to motivate children to do better in school. Parents often negatively compare a child to another, even as some of the most brutal set downs entail parental complaints about lives wasted to support a student who has failed academically.

Point du jour: The blue star of shame on third grade faces are symptoms of a much larger problem that cannot be ameliorated by ridiculing the teacher herself or calling for different pedagogy. Rather, the system of Chinese education constitutes a problem so vast and entrenched that it is hard to know where to begin deconstructing it. Do we begin with the gaokao? Or with a more equitable system of job opportunities? Or allow for private schools that are certified even when they do not teach the national curriculum?

I am not posting this response to absolve the teacher from her responsibility in damaging her students’ self esteem. I am, however, posting this response to highlight the desperate hypocrisy of netizen complaints about blue stars. On the one hand, in a system that motivates through public recognition, shame is effective. Thus, issuing blue star demerits should be understood as a natural extension of extent pedagogy. On the other hand, until the system changes, parents and teachers find themselves in the desperate position of trying to force children to become test-taking machines in the gentlest manner possible. All recognize that the goal itself is violent, but hope getting there doesn’t have to hurt.

the zhongkao cometh: assessing thirty years of reform and opening

In the West, the gaokao gets the most press of any aspect of the Chinese education system. However, the zhongkao or high school entrance exam, which is administered locally may be even more life altering than the gaokao because although high school is non-compulsory in China, it is absolutely necessary preparation for the gaokao.

Indeed, one of Shenzhen’s stickier political problems is dealing with might be called zhongkao refugees: (1) neidi students who have the test scores but not the finances to attend high school and thus have to leave the city; (2) students with Shenzhen hukou who have the economic resources but not the test scores to attend high school (because there aren’t enough public schools for all Shenzhen students); and (3) students with Shenzhen hukou, middling resources, and middling grades who end up in high schools from which testing into a top college is probably not going to happen. After all, only the top four high schools in Shenzhen – Shenzhen Foreign Languages (深圳外国语学校), Shenzhen Middle School (深圳中学, Shenzhen Experimental (深圳实验学校, and Shenzhen Senior High School (深圳高级中学) – guarantee that most graduates will go to college, but even they cannot guarantee a place at Beida, Qinghua, or Fudan.

As with the gaokao, the zhongkao tests, evaluates, and ranks students’ political correctness. In fact preparing for the zhongkao is the entire content of a ninth grade education at top Shenzhen middle schools; this is the quotidian brutality of what is conventionally known as “teaching for the test (应试教育)”. To give a sense of how Shenzhen’s history is being institutionalized to serve the Party, I have translated a portion of a study guide for one of the political essay topics for Shenzhen’s 2011 zhongkao: “Reflect on Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, the invincible might manifest by Reform and Opening (回眸深圳三十周年 改革开放显神威).”

Background Material:
(1) August 26, 2010, China’s first Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen will celebrate its thirtieth birthday. The epitome of thirty years of Reform and Opening, this city was once the concrete explanation of how Chinese People understood the abstract nouns of development, wealth, and progress. For an individual, thirty is the year when s/he becomes independent [in thought and deed], and thrives; for a city, thirty years is also a pivotal year. These thirty years, from Shenzhen’s issuing the first share of stock to lowering the gavel during the first land auction; from Zhuhai’s first offering of a million yuan prize for anyone who made a national contribution to science and technology to the establishment of the first Chinese-Foreign joint enterprise; from Shantou first deciding our Country’s first private property law to the first time reforming the national system of allocating housing…each time a Special Zone stepped forward, daring to pioneer and experiment, it was a deep revolution. According to statistics, these past thirty years, Shenzhen alone created over 300 “National Firsts”. Shenzhen is the lead scout of all the Special Zones.

(2) On September 6, 2010, the Celebration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was held. Party Secretary, National Chairman, and Military Commission Chair, Hu Jintao attended and gave an import talk, emphatically affirming the successful development and construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Hu Jintao affirmed that these past thirty years, by keenly reforming, daring to pioneer, daring to experiment, and daring to forge ahead and create new ideas, Shenzhen’s perseverance has created a global industrial, urban, modern construction miracle, contributing greatly to the national project of Reform and Opening. Hu Jintao expressed that we must be unwavering both in supporting Socialism with Chinese characteristics and supporting the theoretical system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, bravely reforming, bravely inventing, never becoming rigid. Hu Jintao emphasized that not only was it necessary to continue the Special Economic Zone, but also to do it better. The Central Government will continue to support the Special Economic Zone’s functions of courageous investigation and first attempt and experiment.

(3) Thirty years have passed in a flash and for independent Shenzhen it is a time of ending and new beginnings. Facing new opportunities, Shenzhen has already made strides toward becoming a wise city (智慧城市).

A science and technology wise city is a new road of development, and the first goal in this direction is becoming an “intelligent city”. Shenzhen Municipality’s “Some Opinions about how to Transition from Industrial Economic Development” clearly states that we must take advantage of the new generation of technological revolution and information property wave, fully exploit Shenzhen’s advantages, and construct an urban development wise environment.

A humanitarian wise city. Shenzhen announced that although it was important to commemorate Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, it was more important to pay attention to people’s livelihoods, to secure democracy, to improve work conditions, to move forward in planning that concretely helps the people, to earnestly research and propose projects that benefit the people, in order that the laobaixing can truly enjoy the fruits of the Special Zone’s thirty years.

An ecological wise city. Shenzhen has prosed to become China’s first “low carbon city”, through enthusiastic investigation of planning construction, low carbon industries, public transportation, green architecture, and resource management, the city will be the first to implement and first to try, striving to set new standards for the entire country and province.

Prediction about this essay topic being assigned:

As a successful prototype of Reform and Opening, Shenzhen has received the critical attention of the entire country, also becoming the best exemplar of the successes of Reform and Opening. Therefore this year, the examiners may combine testing knowledge about Shenzhen’s thirty years with knowledge about Reform and Opening, and with attention to the Country’s fate. It’s possible that the type of questions will be analysis or multiple choice because an essay on the thirtieth anniversary of Reform and Opening was already assigned, so this year it is unlikely to be a major question.

The guide then continues with thirteen detailed questions and answers about the meaning of Shenzhen, Reform and Opening, and the necessity of continuing this path even though we are clearly in a different era from when Reform and Opening began. Of note is the rigidity of language use and proper interpretation. These questions leave no room for alternative explanations. Indeed, students are memorizing precise reiterations of Party history. For example, question number one:



What do Shenzhen’s past thirty years prove?

Reform and Opening is the road to becoming a strong country. It is the vital source of our Party and our Country’s developmental progress. Reform and Opening was a crucial choice determining the fate of contemporary China. It is the necessary road to develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and to realize the renaissance of the Chinese people. Persevering in the basic policy of Opening is correct. Reform is the force, development is the hard truth, stability overpowers everything. Taking economic construction as the center [of society] is necessary to prospering the country. It is the first realization of the superiority of the socialist system. Reform and Opening demonstrates the incomparable superiority of the socialist system. The Chinese Communist Party is the core strength of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Other questions are more factual, such as, “What are China’s five Special Economic Zones? [Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen, and Hainan]”, but the gist of the study guide is to remind students that memorizing the party line is a condition of getting into high school. At gaokao level, the questions and answers are more detailed, but as rigidly constructed. Indeed, the question and answer section of the study guide reproduces the political study guides on which functionary promotions are still based.

And yet.

Even high school students know that they are not learning knowledge, but rather learning to perform what is expected of them in order to get what they want: parental approval, the respect of their peers, the promise of a beautiful future. And this fundamental cynicism beats at the heart of the political essays, which, if asked in good faith would be the basis of a robust socialism.

news briefs

shenzhen gears up for the high school entrance exam (中考). the competition is fierce. according department of education statistics, 50,699 students will test for only 34,017 places in 709 homerooms. of this, there are only 24,358 places in public schools. this means that less than half of shenzhen’s middle school graduates can go to public school in the city. the rest will go to private high schools and vocational schools. many will leave the city to go to school in neidi hometowns.

while reading up on the middle school exam, i discovered that shenzhen had redistricted. the seventh district, guangming new district consists of guangming (光明) and gongming (公明) streets (街道), formerly of baoan district. the redistricting resembles the establishment of yantian district in 1998, when the government intended to use the new administrative district to stimulate the local economy, but didn’t actually advertise the action. or maybe they did, and i just didn’t notice. sigh. at any rate, today, i will ask around to see how many people know about the new district or if i was the only one who hadn’t noticed.

the major difference between the two new districts is location: yantian has been built up and around the largest section of the port of shenzhen, while guangming is still relatively underdeveloped. during the recent storms, guangming new district’s 325,000 people suffered economic losses of 286 million rmb, story and pictures here.

also: american cities grew through annexing the surrounding area. shenzhen’s sister city, houston is an interesting case in point. however, shenzhen’s administrative growth has been a result of internal density. at certain thresholds the city redistricts, creating more levels of administration to handle the social complexity that comes with a kind of population implosion. i’m not yet sure how to think this.

p.s. in an admittedly unscientific survey of 15 people, only 3 could name all seven districts. of the three, two were involved in academic administration, i.e. they regularly attend citywide meetings, and one was a real estate developer. of the 12 who didn’t know, responses ranged from laughter to “you know even more than we chinese…” not really. the point is that the city re-organized itself and we didn’t notice. so maybe its not the case, as many claim, that shenzhen doesn’t have history, but rather that no one notices that we’re making history as we go along. thus, whatever remains at the end of a decade, or given commemorative timeframe (return of hong kong; 30th anniversary) is “history”. and if nothing remains, which given the level of razing and reconstruction currently under way is highly possible, there’ll be no history, just a perpetual present that figures an unreachable future…

the high school entrance exam: shenzhen

now that i understand the complexities of the high school entrance exam, i can share them with those of you who have been wondering: why is the shenzhen high school entrance exam (中考) considered more difficult and and more important than the college entrance exam (高考), which is itself notorious for the anxiety it generates in parental hearts?

more important because most of the shenzhen graduates who head to good colleges do so from one of 3 or 4 high schools. more difficult because the ratio of students to number of seats in the good high schools is higher than that of good students to college seats.

students are admitted to high school based on test scores. there are a total of 490 points on the exam. each high school has a minimum score, below which it will not accept students. for example, shenzhen high school (深中) does not accept students who get less than 444 points, shenzhen foreign languange school (外国语) requires 440, and the shenzhen experimental school sets the bar at 439 (实验); there are no exeptions, not bonus points for extracuricular activities. inded, one of the most common tragedies of the season is missing a school by one point.

here’s where it gets complex:

students do not simply take the test and get ranked. instead, they apply for admission to schools before they take the exam. moreover, they do so not knowing what the minimum score for a given school is. instead they have to take tests from those schools to get a sense of where they rank against a given population. this is important because students rank the schools they want to be admitted to and are considered for admission to the school in rounds of three schools.

for example, a student wants to go to the experimental school. in the first round of admissions, she puts down (in order of estimated ranking): first choice–sz experimental school; second choice–sz gaoji (423 points); third choice–honglin (roughly 390, but i’ll have to check). this means, she has to receive at least a 390 to have her application forwarded to one of the schools she listed. if she scored 389, for example, her application will not be forwarded to any school during the first round of admissions.

the first round is important for two reasons. first, it’s when students have the best chance of being accepted because seats have not yet been filled. once a school has filled all its seats, it stops accepting applications. not unexpectedly, the top schools usually fill their seats during the first round. this is why many good students will not risk putting down three top schools during the first round. instead, their first round, second choice school is often 30 to 40 points lower than their first round, first choice. this guarranties that they will get into a shenzhen high school.

second, during the first round, the rate of acceptance is 1 to 1.2. this means, 1.2 applications are sent for every seat. usually a top school will accept all students with scores over 450. however, those students who scored in the 440s range must compete for the remaining seats. in the few days before admissions lists are published, parents go through backdoor relationships in order to get their children into a top school. in this way, during the first round, a student scoring 441 may get in to the experimental school, while a 445 does not.

importantly, it is only in this borderline cases that extracurricular activities might make a difference on a student’s application. this is why many parents and students put off extracurricular activities until college.

here lies the difference between education for the person (素质教育) and education for the test (应试教育). for many parents and students, the arts and sports are beside the point. many parents and students have clear priorities: get into a good high school and college and then “indulge” in their interests. those students who do pursue total education do so knowing the risks. what’s more, they tend to be either well-off, carry foreign passports, or prodigiously talented.

the process repeats itself again, during the second round. this time first, second, and third choices are for much lower ranked schools. also, the the acceptance rate is 1 to 1.1, leaving even less space for manouevering at the lower score range. finally, during round three, schools have to accept every student who is sent to them.

the system also explains why success breed academic success. the top schools admit the best test takers (and admittedly some of the brightest kids) in the city, while the rest of the students are distributed according to test scores throughout other schools. a completely different level of education.
makes it very difficult for schools to turn around their reputations. more often than not, rankings become self-fulfilling profecies.

on june 17, 2007, 45,000 shenzhen middle 3 students finished the high school entrance exam.

results were announced on july 5, 2007.

art and sport high schools will announce special admissions on july 12-3, 2007. normal high schools announce first round admissions on july 14-15. second round admissions take place on july 17-18. the third round (part one for some of the provincial and professional schools) takes place on july 21-28. third round (part two for normal and vocational schools) finishes up on au 1, 2007.