In an international survey released just over two years ago, high school students from Shanghai scored at the top in math, science, and reading. Some Americans saw this as a Sputnik moment—a wake-up call for the rest of the world to better educate its young or risk falling behind the Chinese. In March, China’s leadership announced that education spending totaled 7.79 trillion yuan ($1.26 trillion) over the last five years, reaching a target of 4 percent of gross domestic product. “The quality and level of education in China was comprehensively raised,” said outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao on March 5.
The reality is China’s students receive educations of greatly varying quality. Their parents often pay a lot for it, depending on where they live and how ambitious their choice of school—even though China is committed to a system “implemented uniformly by the State,” with “no tuition or miscellaneous fee,” according to the 1986 Compulsory Education Law. Yet some rural families struggle to pay school costs as high as one-half their meager incomes, while up to 130 students crowd country classrooms, according to Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology and the dean of the 21st Century Education Research Institute. Yang adds that urban parents pay introduction fees of as much as $10,000 to middlemen to win entry into the better schools.