Part 1: Comparing 2 Chinese public schools

In 2006, an LSU doctoral student named Shujie Liu wrote: School Effectiveness Research in China.

Her original research including observations at several pairs of schools – one perceived as good, one as bad.   I really enjoyed reading it.

Today I’ll present her description of a “Pair of More and Less Effective schools—Xiangyang and Guangming.”

First, 2 definitions.

A Banzhuren is a teacher who is in charge of a class’ management. As a director of a class, a Banzhuren is responsible for the students’ studies, behaviors, ethics education, health and safety. He/she is also responsible for contacting parents and coordinating with other teachers who teach the class. Most often, a Benzhuren teaches the class one or two subjects.


Zaozixi is a kind of academic warm-up in the morning. It is usually organized by one teacher who teaches math or Chinese language for more exercises on that subject. The teacher might lead the students to review the old lesson or preview the new lesson. Sometimes a teacher makes a Zaozixi an extra formal class.


Okay, onward to “Xiangyang Elementary School: The More Effective School


Xiangyang Elementary was located in a residential area. The residential houses were densely situated around the campus, and all of them were one-story buildings. Few cars passed by the campus, which made the campus quiet. There were two entrances to the campus: the main entrance in the south and the other small entrance in the north. During daytime when students had classes, both the entrances were closed so that no one could come in without permission.

As visitors entered the campus, they could see a brick sidewalk which ran from north to south of the campus. There were four rows of buildings on the both sides of the sidewalk and at the end of the sidewalk was the playground. The first building was for the library, the science lab, and offices; the second building was for the display room and the computer lab; and the third and the fourth buildings were for classrooms.

The researchers observed that the library was locked. Later they learned the librarian also taught the 3rd grade science. The library, with approximately 8000 old books such as teaching references, history books, novels, and children’s book, was only open to teachers, who occasionally came and borrowed books when the librarian was not busy with other things. Students had never visited the library so that one student listed “there was no library” as one of the worst things at their school.

I found this very common, and equally depressing, in Kenya.  By contrast, my kids in Boston get tons of books from a mix of their school library, the local public library, as gifts on holidays, and when we visit bookstores.

The door to the science lab was also locked. Through its window, the researchers noticed that some experiment materials were neatly put in the two rows of shelves. It seemed that the experiment materials had not been used for a long time. A teacher told the researchers that the students had never done an experiment, but the science teacher demonstrated an experiment in the classroom so that the experiment did not hurt the students.

In the USA, few elementary schools have science labs.  That is typically common in secondary schools, with chemistry teachers constantly nagging the kids to put their safety goggles back on.

There were five teachers’ offices: three teacher offices for teachers teaching Chinese and Math, one teacher office for the teachers teaching music, art, and P.E., and one teacher office for the teachers teaching other subjects. In the display room, there were many students’ clay sculptures, pictures, and newsletters written by students. In the computer lab, there were twenty old computers, which could not access the internet. Every class from 3rd to 6th grade had two computer classes once a week, taught by a teacher who received special training in technology.

As the researchers observed, exhibits related to science knowledge and health knowledge were displayed around the school. The number of students present for each class, the names of teachers to be on duty, the curriculum schedule for the school, and a notice bulletin were displayed on the bulletin boards in hallways. Awards, posters and artwork of students were displayed on the walls of the hallways. The displays had specific themes, and they changed every two months. A teacher who was in charge of students’ discipline and an art teacher were responsible for the displays on the walls and the bulletin boards. The hallways, offices, and classrooms were fairly clean. The walls, windows, bathroom facilities, and approximately 30 percent of the students’ and teachers’ desks and chairs were in need of repair.

The student body at Xiangyang Elementary consisted of 755 students.

There were a total of 52 teachers, including three P.E. teachers, two music teachers, and two art teachers. One of the P.E. teachers was an athlete from the Provincial Physical School, while the others weren’t trained to be P.E. teachers. The two music teachers weren’t trained for teaching music. The art teachers were from the art profession.

Principals. There was one principal and two vice principals. One of the vice principal was in charge of teaching, and the other was in charge of non-teaching matters. The principal, who was in his fifties, had been principal here for 20 years. The teachers described him as someone who was dedicated to his job, was easy going, and paid attention to students’ academic achievement. The researchers observed that he had a very good relationship with teachers, and some senior teachers sometimes joked with him. He was also cautious. For instance, he did not allow having lights in a classroom although there was power there because he was afraid the classroom electricity would bring about fire in bad weather, as it did in another school.

He told the researchers that he was happy to have been principal at this school and he usually looked forward to coming to work at the school. He thought as a principal, he could have a substantial effect on the teachers’ ability to deliver effective classroom instruction as well as on students’ academic achievement. He expected 30% to 49% of the students in the school to attend a college. The researchers learned that the principal did not have the power to hire new teachers, who usually were assigned by the district office, but no new teachers had come to the school for the past three years since it was fully staffed.

That is remarkably low teacher turnover, even in well-regarded American public schools.

The school administration, mostly the principal, made policy decisions. Regarding the faculty’s role in the school’s decision making, one teacher said, “We vote for some decisions, but it is a kind of facade. So, in fact there is no democracy, and we do not have opportunities to participate.” All the other interviewed teachers concurred that they just obeyed the decisions without discussion. The principal made the staff development plans as well as the school’s plan for the academic year. Based on that, the same-grade teachers made theirs, which guided individual students’ plans.

The principal or the vice principal in charge of teaching frequently visited classrooms. They were required to visit a fixed number of classes each semester, since each semester the district educational department came to the school to see the records of their classroom observations. Most of the time they did not inform the teacher, and sometimes they informed the teacher ten minuets before the class began so that the teacher demonstrated normal teaching practices since they did not have enough time to do special preparations. After classroom observations, they discussed the teachers’ strengths and weaknesses with them and gave suggestions for improvement. For those who would have a demonstration lesson, the principals gave more guidance. As one teacher said, “I prepared a demonstration lesson for all school representative teachers in my neighborhood. The principal observed my classes several times before the demonstration lesson and gave suggestions for improvement.”

Teachers. With an ideal teacher at the school described as someone who was knowledgeable, had excellent teaching strategies, and cared about students, all of the teachers worked hard.

As the researchers observed, every morning about half of the Banzhurens arrived at school one hour earlier than the designated time while the other teachers arrived half an hour earlier. Especially in winter, a Banzhuren had to come earlier to light the stove. In Xiangyang, a Banzhuren taught both Chinese and math to his/her class in addition to the class management.

American public schools hire assistant teachers, often called paraprofessionals.  But they don’t take the role of the Banzhuren.  Instead, they are often assigned to focus on 1 or 2 students with special needs or behavioral challenges.


Students’ test scores, especially the ones from the district-level examination that was done once or twice per semester, were extremely important for their teachers, constituting a main part of the teacher evaluation. As a result, almost all the teachers taught to the test. As one teacher said, “I completely teach to the test. It’s unreasonable not to teach to the test with a teacher evaluation system with test scores as a priority.”

In order to improve students’ test scores and make their students rank at the top, most teachers came to school at least 30 minutes prior to the designated time every morning to tutor their students. Some teachers even provided students with free tutoring on weekends.

There are two versions of teaching to the test.  One is literally asking students nothing but the type of questions which appeared on previous tests.  That is the most common, to my eye, around the world.  There is a more sophisticated version, which involves using the diagnostic information from practice tests to identify the most struggling students and reteach lots of what they missed in previous years.

For example, a 9th grade algebra teacher in the USA who “teaches the test” would typically drill kids on questions from previous tests; a more sophisticated teacher would identify students with gaps in understanding pre-algebra, topics like adding fractions or multiplying negative numbers, and build a curriculum that tried to “fix” those things even as she moves forward with the new content.

Extra tutoring by teachers is not that common in American public schools.  Often it is scheduled into the school day, delivered by special education teachers.  In suburban schools like where my kids go, teachers offer additional 1-1 tutoring for about $70 per hour, at our home.

Accordingly, for most teachers their teaching focus was knowledge mastery because “Knowledge delivery is faster than cultivating abilities for improving students’ test scores,” said a teacher. Sometimes teachers gave students optional homework, which was usually done by high-performing students who want to prepare for the school Chinese or math competitions.

The staff development programs included several components.

(1) At the beginning of the semester, the school organized a professional knowledge examination, including Chinese, math, science, and social studies, to see how well teachers mastered the knowledge of the elementary school level. The scores were not publicized, and were only known by the school administration. Each individual teacher only knew his/her own score. This process was designed to stimulate those who failed the exam to improve their professional knowledge.

(2) The school sent teachers to the key schools in Changchun to observe “model” lessons.

(3) At school, teachers watched videos of some national master teachers’ lessons. They also observed and evaluated each others’ classes.

(4) Teachers had to take two exams to be qualified for promotion. The first one was for teacher continuing education and organized by the county Teaching Research Center. The second was a foreign language project organized by the Changchun Educational Department. People from different age groups took different levels of the examination. Young teachers took the advanced test while senior teachers did the preliminary one.

While observing the classrooms in this school, the researchers found that (1) the Chinese thinking was uniform. In a first grade Chinese language class, when students wanted to answer questions, they were required to raise their right hands. When a little girl did not know which one was the right hand, the teacher told her that it was the one that you used for writing;

(2) some teachers would like to have high-performing students to answer questions. In a fifth grade math class, the teacher asked two students to answer questions more than five times each. In another class, the teacher frequently asked only the ten or so out of 51 students to answer questions. The researchers called this “talent education,” which meant that the teacher only focused on the few gifted students when he/she could not call on each student in a large size class;

and (3) the teaching conditions were poor. In at least two classrooms, the researchers found that one leg of a wooden desk was broken so that the desk was not even.

I’m surprised that this detail is enough to validate the claim that conditions  are poor.

During the winter session, students could not go home for lunch. They sat at their seats in the classroom eating something that they brought from home or bought from the school’s grocery. The students were allowed to talk during lunch. Teachers were not required to eat lunch with their students. In the other seasons, the school had a one and a half hour lunch break so that most teachers and students went home for lunch.


Table 7.1 Schedule of the Xiangyang School




The first period of class


The second period of class


Break, including eye massages


The third period of class


Break, including exercise


The fourth period of class


Lunch break


The fifth period of class


The sixth period of class


The seventh period of class

There was a clearly stated discipline policy at this school, and most students obeyed the rules so that there had been no big discipline problems. If there were any discipline problems, they were reported to the Banzhuren, where most problems could be solved. If the problems were serious, the Banzhuren contacted parents. If the problems still could not be solved, they were reported to the principal. Whoever dealt with the problem did not strictly implement the discipline rules. Solutions were made to educate the students.

The school rewarded the students who had good academic achievement. Basically, the high performing students cared more about test scores than low-performing students. Some teachers said that some low-performing students gave up academic pursuit. Also, girls paid more attention to test scores than boys. Upon getting a bad score, some girls would cry. As for parents, they paid more attention to their children’s education now than before, according to the report given by the researchers. Some teachers told the researchers that parents often communicated with teachers about their children’s study at school. However, only a few felt responsible for their children’ achievement. Most of them thought that the students’ test scores were completely determined by the teaching quality. They did not realize the parents’ role of supervision and encouragement.

Generally, the teachers at this school were satisfied with their jobs in this school and proud to be a member of the school. As one teacher said, “Last year our school teachers’ scores for the district-level professional knowledge examination organized by the county educational department were very high. Also, the principal would like to spend money sending teachers for professional workshops.”

However, the Bauzhuren felt very tired and under a lot of pressure because both the principal and students’ parents, who hoped that the Banzhuren could do more to make the students attain maximum achievement. “I hope the school does not evaluate teachers using students’ test scores. We are too pressured,” said a Banzhuren. Other teachers expected improvement of teaching facilities as well as teachers’ welfare. “I teach science. I hope I have the instruments for experiments,” said a science teacher. A senior teacher told the researchers, “Our monthly salary is 600.00-700.00 yuan20 ($72.29 to 84.34), but it’s said that some urban teachers make 3,000 to 4,000 yuan ($361.40 to 481.93). Although we are used to it, I hope our salary will be increased.”

When asked to list the three best things at their school, the students had a consensus: teachers had a high level of knowledge and excellent teaching skills. The students also listed the three worst things at their school, which could be summarized as follows: (1) There was not much sports equipment. (2) Too many desks and tables were in poor condition. (3) The classroom was too cold in winter. (4) The evaluation of students based on test scores made them feel excessive pressure.

Parents concurred. They also listed the three worst things at the school: (1) The playground and the bicycle house were small. (2) The school should offer more computer classes. (3) The library should be open to students. (4) Too many examinations and competitions burdened students. (5) The class size was large. (6) Extracurricular activities were few.

The three best things they listed about the school included (1) the school administration and teachers focused on students’ academic performance and there were many frequent examinations as well as Chinese language and math competitions so that the students’ scores were comparatively high; (2) parents did not worry about students’ safety at school; and (3) the school had a clear payment policy. It seemed that on the one hand parents were happy that there were examinations and competitions, but meanwhile they were afraid that this would burden their children.

Next Up: the bad school.

One thought on “Part 1: Comparing 2 Chinese public schools

  1. Pingback: Housekeeping 2 – New School In China

Comments are closed.