It’s no secret that the manner in which U.S. schools are organized, overseen, and managed is an overlapping colossal mess—a “marble cake” of governance, with the relationships among federal, state, and local policies (not to mention building- and classroom-level decisions) oscillating between redundant and contradictory. This not only makes public education exceptionally hard to reform; it also lays open that system to innumerable adult interest groups—school boards, district and school leaders, teacher unions, community and business groups, parents, and so on—that manage to pursue their own ends while blaming and scapegoating others for whatever doesn’t work.

Despite a proclaimed devolution of power to local authorities in the 1980s, in this realm as in so many others, China remains a tightly hierarchical society.


Many see this state of play as a consequence of our messy democracy. But, even if our system were more efficient or more coherent under a centralized regime, would it lead to higher student achievement? And what would be the trade-offs of such a shift? During a recent sojourn to the land of Confucius (I was traveling as a senior fellow with the Global Education Policy Fellowship Program), I sought to find out.

What does education “federalism” looks like in communist China? What powers and/or decision making does Beijing reserve for itself in this realm and what powers are held by provinces, local governments, and schools? And are there any useful lessons for us? (Mind you, this trip took place in the shadow of Shanghai topping the world on the last round of PISA.)

It was hard to get clear information. Our American study-group leaders warned us in advance that, when the Chinese can’t or won’t answer your questions, they will simply respond, “It’s complicated.” Most of my governance queries elicited such a response.

Still, I managed to cobble together some findings and impressions from fragments of conversations and other limited research. I’ve surely gotten some of it wrong. So I invite you, knowledgeable readers, to tweak, correct, and augment what I learned in my ten-day visit.

toppling quadruple-decker cake photo

This tiered cake may not be
so sturdy afterall.
Photo by Shelley Panzarella

Bottom line: Despite a proclaimed devolution of power to local authorities in the 1980s, in this realm as in so many others, China remains a tightly hierarchical society—with power resting first with the national government (Chinese Communist Party), then with the provincial government, municipality, county, and so on down the list. A layer cake baked from the top down.

Most real power resides with the central Communist Party government, otherwise known as the State. Beijing oversees compulsory education, and has required, since 1986, that children receive a minimum of nine years of schooling (starting at age six or seven). To the astonishment of foreign observers, compulsory enrollment rates reportedly reached over 90 percent in 2002. (Other sources report that this goal was met by the mid 1990s.) The State develops and maintains a fairly detailed national curriculum on all core and many non-core subjects (including technology, sports, and fine arts) which all the schools we visited told us they implement. The majority of provinces are also assigned the same textbooks (though one celebrated school we visited in Xi’an had received special permission from the State to use U.S. textbooks—and Shanghai as a whole tends to get preferential treatment).

Equally important, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has devised a rigid tracking system for secondary students—which shuffles them (within their given province, thanks to China’s draconian residency requirements) into academic schools of various quality (three types, informally known as key, regular key, and public-high schools), or into vocational schools, based on achievement on State-administered tests. Barring payoffs, favors, or false addresses, it is nearly impossible to educate a child in a top-notch school outside his provincial boundary (though I heard it was easier to move across boundaries if one’s been guaranteed a job). Hence, parents exercise little choice in their children’s education except for those who can afford private options (an uber-regulated but furiously expanding sector); otherwise, the out-of-bounds child will be placed in a “migrant” school of dubious quality (or stay at home). The entrance exams, then, act as the key to better (or worse) education. So, while children ordinarily attend their neighborhood schools at the elementary level (again, provided they don’t pay to go elsewhere), the MOE sorts adolescents into middle and high schools based on test scores (though I could not make out whether Beijing assigns students to specific schools or simply to one of the three tiers).

The end result? Top scorers attend secondary schools that fare well in getting graduates into prestigious universities. (This also means that schools instruct children within somewhat narrow bands of achievement.) Students who don’t test into the academically tracked high schools are left with three options for their secondary education: They can apply to vocational schools, can simply cease formal education, or—if they come from a privileged or wealthy family—can buy their way in, surreptitiously and for a handsome price. The National College Entrance Exam (NCEE) is also administered by the State. Given at the end of high school, the assessment determines the fate of would-be college goers. (Note: the national teacher exam, is also State-managed; more below).

But there’s growing dissatisfaction with some of the State’s policies. So it is loosening the reins—gingerly. For instance, at least half of the provinces have been granted permission by Beijing to develop their own college-entrance exam. Whether this exam supplements or replaces the NCEE is not clear (readers, help!). What is clear is that residence quotas reinforce provincial segregation and mean that provincial governments have a say in the acceptance decisions of all their own universities—and can opt to lower the entry bar for their residents. These new provincial college-entrance exams have also resulted in a set of somewhat independent curricula and textbooks for the schools in those regions.

We also learned that the State is becoming more open to for-profit, community, and university partnerships with schools, though school leaders gave us little to go on here— perhaps because those efforts are nascent or nonexistent. One Chinese scholar, Ka Ho Mok, believes the impetus behind this move is financial:

The nature of the work of the State has changed from directly coordinating, administering, and funding education to determining where the work will be done and by whom… By making use not only of market forces but also other forces such as individuals, families, local communities and the society, the state is now saved from being overburdened with a continual increase in educational financing. (Riding over Socialism and Global Capitalism, 2005)

With curricula and student assignment handled by the Party (and with provinces gaining more say regarding assessments and instructional materials), what’s left for local governments? They decide cut scores for hiring based on the State-designed national teacher exam. They are also in charge of hiring teachers and principals and assigning them to new schools and/or those with vacancies, with the input of current school principals if they choose to take it. It’s unclear what—if anything—is left of consequence for school-level leaders. That said, we were told more than once that elementary schools have greater autonomy in general than middle or high schools since they are further removed from the pressures of placement tests.

What to make of this governance scheme? As pretty much everyone surmised, Beijing still calls the shots when it comes to weeding and sorting students (and, to an extent, teachers, through their teacher-assignment policies); it also maintains control over curricular and assessment matters except when it opts to turn these over to provinces. And it pays a modest portion of the cost of educating the country’s young people but only through ninth grade, the close of compulsory education. (Hard to believe but that’s what I heard in China. Readers, what say you?) Provinces kick in some funds and execute the mandates from Beijing (though they are seeing more independence, especially around student-assignment decisions). Local governments serve as the HR department and contribute to the kitty. Schools work around the edges; for instance, doing the best they can to improve teaching via lesson planning teams and mentors (they cannot terminate government employees). And parents, although vocal advocates for their children, have little say in where their child attends school, unless they flee to a private school or slip into another locality. They also take care of the remainder of the education tab.

It’s a tiered governance cake and the layer that matters most is the one on top. There are slight modifications to this hierarchy, but only when the State sees fit. All of which makes me agree with Mun Tsang at Columbia University who summed up Chinese education reform thusly: “Popular pressure for educational change has some possibility of being accommodated as long as it is not a threat to political stability and the party’s power.” Which means we aren’t likely to see big shifts in China’s education-governance arrangement anytime in the near future—no matter what sort of cracks some proclaim they see in the walls of Zhongnanhai.

This piece was originally published (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

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