“Super high schools” have always been a polarizing issue. For parents, super high schools are a VIP path into top universities; for local government, the schools are a proud achievement of local officials.
These super high schools have attracted criticism because they are rooted in the soil of exam-oriented education. Their regional fame comes from consistently high [gaokao] test scores, and their biggest mark of distinction is as having top university feeder school modes of production. In today’s period of increasing diversification and personalization in education, super high schools appear a bit behind the times. But this is the unavoidable reality of China’s education, and from it we can catch a glimpse of the sluggishness within the veins of the education system’s reform.
— Editor’s note
A School Apart
Twenty years ago, it was a poor school. Today, it produces more than 80% of Hebei students who go to Peking University and Tsinghua.
Super high schools are nothing new, so what makes Hengshui High School stand out from the others?
The biggest difference is that Hengshui has no rivals. Other super high schools have competition, they’re not the only great school. In Beijing, the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China is outstanding, but Beijing #4 High School and Beijing Normal University Experimental High School, among other schools, can always compete. In Tianjin, Nankai High School is a strong reputation, but there’s also Yaohua High School and Xinhua High School that are equally matched. In Hebei, however, there is no competition. In 2012, Peking University and Tsinghua University admitted 96 students from the school, who occupied 86% of the spots from the province. There were over 2109 students with [gaokao] scores over 600 points, putting 87.8% of students over the undergraduate first-tier line. In 2013, Hengshui High School monopolized Hebei province top scores in both arts and sciences, with the top 10 scorers in the humanities, and 6 of the top 10 scores in the sciences. This year, the number of students over the first-tier line reached 86.9%.
“Addditionally, unlike other super high schools, Hengshui did not come from a famous university, and has no long history or deep resources,” said one teacher from the school. In general, other super high schools either are associated with famous universities, such as the associated high schools of teaching institutes, like those at Renmin University and Central China Normal University, or they are schools with long histories and strong resources, such as Nankai High School and Shanghai High School. What’s more, Hengshui High School was originally just a county-level high school. In the early 1990s, the school was still a weak one, and didn’t produce high gaokao scores at all.
In How did Hengshui High School Become a Nationally Famous School?, former Principal of Hengshui High School Li Jinchi gave a detailed introduction to how he promoted quality education, fair competition, and the building of a passionate spirit and other school administrative methods to create a “spirit special administrative region”, raising the graduation rate. Li Jinchi pointed the spearhead of reform at teachers: teachers are not allowed to moonlight, they are not allowed to take paid tutoring jobs with families, and they are not allowed to accept dinner invitations from families. Teachers must put all their efforts into working with students.
These methods saw quick results. It was in 1995 that Hengshui county rotated the leadership of all 11 main county high schools and the students started to shine. From 2000 on, dozens of students would test into Peking University and Tsinghua University. This number climbed to 96 students in 2012.
It was as if the “Matthew effect” grew stronger and stronger at Hengshui High School, with a cycle of increased student graduation rates and enrichment of resources. Some say the school’s strength is still growing.
Bring a tangerine to class and be punished. Live by the clock. Shorts and skirts must fall below the knee.
“Don’t fall behind, don’t get sick, don’t contract your elders, don’t get in a bad mood, don’t slow down, don’t laugh, don’t talk with classmates too much, don’t daydream, don’t chew your pencil, don’t go to the bathroom often, don’t, oh so many don’ts.” This is how one student who graduated from Hengshui remembers his life at the school.
They were only allowed to bring milk, cookies, apples, pears, oranges, and bananas to the school. Shorts and skirts were required to fall below the knee. They were not allowed to have strange hairstyles, and girls were not allowed to wear jewelry or have long hair. The rules at Hengshui High School have attracted much public criticism, but packs of parents hoping for the success of their children are still pushing their children through the school’s door.
Although Hengshui High School has repeatedly stressed that it is implementing high quality education, to outsiders, the school appears to rely on a closed system of semi-militarized management to produce long-term motivation among students and teachers and bring out a high degree of testing ability. As Li Jinchi said, “Teachers must put all their efforts into working with students.”
A first year student at Hengshui said, “I wake up at 5:30 every morning and am required to be out of the dorm by 5:45. I grab my books and go to gather at the track. After jogging ends, all classes are required to run up the stairs to their morning study sessions. At 6:38, the more than 80 students in my class all vacate the classroom in a matter of seconds (of course there are a seven or eight who don’t go to eat), just so they can get breakfast, since we have to be back in class before 7 to begin independent study. If we leave the classroom later than this, with being stuck in the crowded hall for 5 minutes, standing in line for 5 minutes, and 7 minutes to get there and back, we have at most 3 minutes for breakfast. I’ve been living at Hengshui for three months, and now I understand what human purgatory is.
A teacher from a high school in Jiangxi once visited Hengshui High School and saw posted on a school announcement board posted, “A second-year student who brought a tangerine into the classroom has been disciplined and send home for self-reflection.”
The way many people see it, Hengshui’s method of education, “obliterates the natural qualities and strangles the creative abilities of students,” but in the eyes of most Hengshui students, these methods of discipline are very common. There are those who think back on every moment of their time at school, and feel that although it was very difficult, they felt a sense of joy, a kind of happiness from hard work.
Meng Sui, a student who graduated from Hengshui, put it this way, writing, “In an economically underdeveloped place like Hengshui, the school is the place of hope for students and parents, a battlefield where the lowest level of people can change their fate. You have to work hard to be successful. For the lowest level of people to be successful, they must work even harder, with a crazed cruelty. Ideally, young people should have a free and easy, indulgent and frivolous life. But this ideal can only lead to failure on the gaokao, thus ruining an entire life. So some necessary sacrifices are made in education. This is determined by the connection between sacrifice and achievement.”
A high school teacher from Xingtai thinks the strict disciplinary methods at Hengshui are well suited to the current gaokao system. As long as the gaokao doesn’t change, the model will continue to exist. Under the current gaokao system, “If you don’t learn from Hengshui’s example, you’ll be knocked out of competition.”
The black hole effect
The concentration of graduates from super high schools has caused other schools to empty out. Experts say super high schools hinder educational quality.
A Hengshui student surname Sun who just finished taking the gaokao this year said, “There are 110 students in our class. About 70 of those students were from outside the Hengshui area.” She herself is from another area, Cangzhou.
A teacher from the Cangzhou area said, “The top students who should be at our schools have all been stolen away. Before the year 2000, we still had students getting into PKU and Tsinghua, but after that we had none. The serious lack of good students has caused an existential crisis for the school.”
The school’s crisis mentality has struck local Hungshui families as well, though they are worried about a different type of inequality. “The school is admitting students from other areas, and they’re taking up the space at this area’s school, especially those for students from the main urban area,” explained a parent from the area.
The black hole effect at Hengshui High School has become the local government’s “precious business card”.
A news report on a webpage of the local government makes their support of Hengshui High School clear. In expanding facilities, all “departments and work units associated [with Hengshui High School] must closely, diligently and responsibly cooperate. With shared effort from all parts of the city, we must raise Hengshui to a new level, and make the school a bright window for others to see into Hengshui.”
Kang Jian, professor at Peking University’s Institute of Education thinks Henghsui isn’t a good example at all. The rise of super high schools is a confluence of government policy and private interests, and are not beneficial to education, security, or humanity. He feels the future of education should move toward being, “local, distributed, and small scale.” The existence of different educational methods definitely has advantages, and it’s not a point of pride for a government to have a concentration of student talent. “The government should [focus on] giving help where needed rather than gilding the lily.”
The Vice-Chancellor of the 21st Century Education Research Institute Xiong Bingqi wrote that gathering efforts to start a super high school violates educational equality, and that serious regional inequalities exist in China, including urban-rural disparities as well as inter-school disparities. The source is the lack of respect and protection for the right to education. Those receiving education have no mechanism that can give them a chance gain the upper hand in interacting with schools and main educational administrative offices. To further educational reform and increase educational equality, we urgently need to implement such a mechanism.
Original publication date: 7/19/2103