Gaokao or SAT?

This week I’m guest-blogging about schools in China.

  1. What is the Gaokao?

From a CNBC story in June:

Nearly 10 million Chinese students have been preparing for this Thursday and Friday since kindergarten.

Gaokao, China’s university entrance exam, directly determines which universities students can go to. To some extent, it determines whether they will become blue-collar or white-collar workers later in their lives. 

Many countries have a similar approach for college admissions.  No GPA.  No essay or recs or interview.  No list of extra curricular activities.

Just the test.

In the USA, we use the expression high-stakes tests, but compared to other places, our “stakes” are perhaps in the 3 out of 10 range, versus 10 out of 10.

So most Chinese parents spend a ton on after-school tutoring centers, way more than Americans spend on the likes of Kumon.

More recently: coding at some of these centers, per the excellent Sixth Tome.

  1. Chinese to America

A growing number of Chinese families hope to bypass Chinese universities altogether, and send their kids to American universities.

It’s estimated to be about 330,000 students now.  So a large number in absolute terms, though low compared to Gaokao takers.

Four thoughts/trends:

a. First, partly because of this aspiration to American colleges, brand new private K-12 schools are cropping up all over China.

School is taught either partially or totally in English.  Overview here.  AP courses, SAT prep, etc.  Lots of Harkness tables.

For Eduwonk readers, of interest is perhaps that BASIS is operating schools in China, as well as Chris Whittle.

I was impressed with the excellent HD schools; their campus in Ningbo just had its first graduating class.  School is taught half in Mandarin, half in English.

Many parents I met in China want Western style teaching.  I’m not sure whether the cause of that is “Western teaching helps you prepare for Western universities” or simply “We’d rather our kids in classrooms with more discussions and less cramming/lecture.”

No charter schools, though.  No Catholic or other lower-cost private schools, either, that I saw (though it’s a big country…so I’m probably wrong about that).

I’ll write more tomorrow about teachers in these new private schools.

b. Second, bumpy Trump/Xi relations will affect things.

Propaganda/spy concerns here and here.  New visa limits for science grad students, with implications here.  The trade war.

c. Third, anxiety/depression/isolation.See NY Times here.

And for Chinese kids attending American private boarding schools, that issue is even worse…according to my decidedly unscientific survey of conversations with prep school teachers and headmasters back here in USA.

In some ways, this reminds me of minority Americans who are first in their families to go to college, where the likes of KIPP and Posse Foundation do great things to support them.

– Everyone wants to celebrate upon admission to the prep school or university, but the sizable risk of failure is swept under the rug.

– The “Do I belong here?” question never quite goes away.

– If you fail, it’s not just a personal setback: you feel like you let your whole family down.

d. Finally, in part because of the bamboo ceiling, more sea turtles are returning to China after graduation from American colleges.

– Guestblogger Mike Goldstein, cross-posted at