The First National Conference on Secondary Education was held in Beijing in March 1951. Based on the conference, the Ministry of Education issued the "Temporary Rules for Middle Schools" in the next year. According to this directive, the task of middle schools was to educate a generation of young people for the new China, which meant to combine the theory of Marxism-Leninism with a concrete appreciation for Chinese society and to cultivate proletarian successors who loved the party, the people, and the country. In the early 1950s, a unified system of middle schools was set up in China. All private middle schools were eliminated, and all curriculum and textbooks were standardized.
General secondary schools include a 3-year junior secondary school and a 3-year senior secondary school. Some systems have a 4-year junior/3-year senior plan; a few others have a 2-year senior school structure. Secondary schools in China are divided into "key" and "ordinary" schools. Designated key schools are schools distinguished from ordinary schools by their academic reputation and are generally allocated more resources by the state. Their original purpose was to quicken the training of highly needed talent for China's modernization, but another purpose was to set up exemplary schools to improve teaching in all schools. This stratified structure has given key schools numerous privileges. They can select the best students through city-wide or region-wide examination and transfer the best teachers in the area to teach in their school. They receive much more funding from the government, and in getting funds for upgrading equipment or the purchase of expensive items such as computers, they always have priority. Because of these advantages, key schools often boast 90 to 99 percent admission rates to universities (Lin 1999).
In addition, key schools dominate the creation and distribution of secondary school education materials. Their best teachers are not only called upon to write and grade national examination test papers, but they are also publishing researchers who authoritatively resolve secondary school disputes through their domination of district education bureau publications. Some key schools are even affiliated with overseas alumni associations that are a source of prestige and hard currency. Such schools embody China's modernization goal of defining success in relationship to international standards. Admission into key schools often paves the way for entering elite colleges in China and abroad, perpetuating a syndrome of ever-increasing pressure on children to gain admission to the best secondary schools. Although the State Education Commission and local bureaus of education have attempted to reduce student work loads by banning excessive examinations, stipulating the number of hours secondary school pupils must sleep each night, restricting homework during semester breaks and holidays, and preventing merit pay for instructors who teach solely the top students, there is not much improvement.
Besides inequality between key and ordinary schools, there has been a huge discrepancy between urban areas and less-developed rural areas since the 1980s. Historically, the Chinese government's investment on education for peasants has always been meager. In rural areas 90 percent of secondary schools fail to meet national standards for such basic facilities as chairs, desks, and safe drinking water.
In 1998, among 13,948 regular senior secondary schools in China, only 20 percent (2,721) were in rural areas, serving 70 percent of Chinese population, not to mention the huge discrepancy in their equipment, government funding, and the quantity and quality of the teachers. In terms of student enrollment, rural pupils only constitute 14 percent (1,310,436) of senior secondary school students (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). Besides inadequate resources, the fact that many peasants believe that formal schooling is useless and irrelevant to their agrarian life is also responsible for the high illiteracy rate in rural areas. The poorest of China's counties are so behind in secondary school provision that the government implemented a prairie fire program to push rural educational efforts (Epstein 1991).
The academic year for junior secondary school consists of two 20-week terms, 11 to 12 holiday weeks, and one or two weeks for flexible use. Six classes are offered each day, Monday through Friday. Classroom instruction involves 28 to 30 hours each week. The core curriculum of secondary schools includes three fundamental subjects: Chinese, mathematics, and English. Each is taught for six years and together account for more than 50 percent of the total hours students spend in the classroom. Political study is required in each year of secondary school. It consists of political ideology and morality, the history of social development and dialectical materialism, political and legal knowledge, political philosophy, political economy, and review during the senior year. In addition, students study five years of physics, four years of chemistry and biology, three years of geography and history, and one year of computer science, which includes basic computer literacy and programming. Pupils also participate in physical education in each year of secondary school and two or three years of art and music. Many schools now teach typing in the second year of junior secondary school.
Besides the senior secondary schools that prepare students for going on to college, there are vocational and technical senior secondary schools (VTE) that train pupils in specialized fields and prepare them to enter the workforce immediately after graduation from secondary school. Full-time senior secondary school programs are commonly classified into specialized technical and teacher-training schools, technical and pre-service skilled worker schools, and, the largest sector, vocational and agricultural schools. The most prestigious VTE programs are offered by more than 4,109 specialized schools that train middle-level technical personnel and kindergarten and primary school teachers. These institutions, developed in the mid-1950s and directed by technical ministries as well as the State Education Commission, are managed directly by education, technical, and labor bureaus at the local, district, county, and provincial levels. Entering students are junior secondary school graduates who are selected through competitive state examinations administered by bureaus of higher education. The four-year study program includes nine broad specializations in technical fields (agriculture, art, economics, engineering, forestry, medicine, physical culture, politics and law, and a miscellaneous category that includes everything from the training of Buddhist monks and nuns to flight attendants) and one type in teacher training for secondary schools.
Less prestigious than specialized schools, technical schools are run by education bureaus and industrial units. They train technicians in steel, textile, petroleum, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and botanical enterprises, as well as middle-level workers in law, finance, health, art, and physical culture. These primarily three-year institutions recruit junior middle school graduates who are assigned to them by labor and personnel bureaus on the basis of entrance examination results and preferred choice of specialty. They are more successful than specialized schools in forging close and flexible ties with specific enterprises because their enrollment and curriculum are not controlled by national ministries. Like specialized schools, they have the advantage of high demand since students receive employment upon graduation.
Key and non-key vocational and agricultural schools, normally managed at the district and county level, have offered the least prestigious VTE programs because their graduates have not enjoyed secure employment opportunities and because graduates from these three-year programs are classified as skilled workers rather than technicians. Therefore, they provide the last chance for students hoping to pursue senior secondary schooling and have the highest level of dropouts. However, vocational and agricultural schools in relatively developed regions of China have managed to compensate for the lack of formal employment mechanisms by powerful local contacts with surrounding enterprises and capitalizing on economic demand for skilled labor. Job security, in turn, has raised the confidence of the public in such schools, which are attracting increasingly qualified junior high school graduates.
There are two kinds of examinations conducted in secondary schools. One kind is the graduation test. Every student is required to pass examinations for the following ten subjects in order to graduate from secondary school: Chinese, mathematics, foreign language, physics, chemistry, political study, history, geography, computer science, and biology. The examination for each subject is conducted in different years of secondary school. Each examination is graded on a 100-point scale and students receive grades curved from "A" to "E." All students take each test at the same time, and results become a matter of public record. Students who pass all classes receive a graduation certificate and are eligible for applying to take the college entrance examinations.
The second kind of test is college entrance examinations. All students who wish to enter college are also required to take a unified national examination in their last year of high school. The score on this examination is the main criteria for college, and almost the entirety of the last year of high school is devoted to preparation for this examination. It takes place from July 7 to July 9 annually and covers seven different subjects. During senior year all high school students need to declare whether they are on the humanities track or the science track, in accordance with the two specialties tested by the college entrance examination. This early specialization has been blamed for a premature narrowing of intellectual pursuit. In the college entrance examination, humanities students are tested in history and political study. Science students are tested in physics and chemistry. All students are also required to take examinations in Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language regardless of their future majors. Nationally, only about 25 percent of high school graduates are able to pursue higher education directly through public support because of the extremely competitive nature of the college entrance examination. Those students whose examination scores are not high enough or who lack the resources to pursue higher education privately go straight into the workforce without further education.
While the establishment of schools for the physically disabled dates to the late nineteenth century, institutional expansion proceeded moderately until the Cultural Revolution and has increased substantially since the 1980s. In general, however, education for the disabled in China remains in its infancy, and serious improvement remains to be done to promote the social integration of disabled Chinese youth.
The first Chinese school for the blind and deaf was established in 1927 in Nanjing. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Chinese government reaffirmed its commitments to educate the disabled in a 1951 document published by the Ministry of Education. By 1998, there were 1,062 schools for the blind, hearing impaired, and mute, with a total student enrollment of 97,649. There were 21,415 full-time teachers out of a total staff of 30,868. Schools for retarded children date from as late as 1979 and numbered 90 by 1987. The best estimates indicate that 504 schools employ 14,400 special education teachers and staff, who served 52,800 children at the beginning of the 1990. But only six percent of China's 6,000,000 children and youth who suffer from disability are enrolled in any type of educational programs.
Basically, Chinese special schools only offer a primary-school level education, which emphasizes mastery of survival skills along with those manual skills traditionally performed by adults with specific disabilities. The curriculum follows a work-study structure. The goal of the work experience in these schools is to teach socialization and survival skills. The textbooks used in these schools are the ones used in primary schools with the translations of Braille. Recently, some colleges started to admit disabled students and even established special education majors and teacher training programs devoted to teaching disabled students.
China established reformatories and work-study schools since the late 1950s and early 1960s when urban and rural theft, fighting, and poor school discipline became noticeable problems. They are under the supervision of the public security apparatus. Based on early Chinese Communist practice in Yanan, reformatories were conceived as production units, and inmate labor would be used to make them self-sufficient and to make them contribute to the socialist economy. Work-study schools for delinquents, on the other hand, were founded for those guilty of less serious delinquent activity. They also emphasized the importance of offenders participating in productive labor. During the Cultural Revolution, the work of both reformatories and work-study schools was disrupted, as reformatories were viewed as overly coercive, and work-study schools were dismissed as ineffective and were shut down completely. During the 1980s when reformatories resumed, the Chinese government still emphasized the use of productive labor as a character-reforming device. Furthermore, the removal of youth from normal family environments, the use of drill and militaristic ritual within the institutional settings, and the display of offenders completing production tasks in public view reinforced the strong negative social labeling that is associated with reformatories and work-study schools. The quality of education provided at both reformatories and work-study schools is often substandard. In addition, they have no systematic counseling system; offenders are put together regardless of their specific offence and few preparations are made to facilitate their readjustment after their release.
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