China tries to ease students' burdens

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Concerned that excessive pressure on students is harming the image of China's government and education system, officials here announced new rules this month to address some worrying trends: first-graders cramming for midterm and final exams; middle-school students still doing homework long after their parents have dozed off; growing young bodies burdened with 20-pound book bags.

In recent years, Chinese officials and parents have expressed hopes that the nation's schools can train more creative thinkers and ethical citizens, not number-crunching drones.

Yet many Chinese fear that the new rules may hinder their children's advancement. "Any school you apply to now requires high scores. If we don't push our kids, how are they going to succeed?" one parent complained to the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper. "If the school assigns too little homework, we'll have to assign some more."

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The Education Ministry's new rules suggest how heavy the burden on students has become. They call for:

*No mandatory classes during evenings, weekends, or vacations.

*No written homework for first- and second-graders. For other primary-school students, no more than one hour of homework a day.

*No assigning extra homework as a form of punishment.

*No tests for primary-school students other than in Chinese and math; no entrance exams for middle school.

*No percentile grades for primary school students. Instead they will receive broad assessments: excellent, good, pass, or fail.

Critics point to a slew of surveys and statistics that indicate the education system is grinding Chinese kids down, not building them up. A poll of urban youths by the China Youth and Children's Research Center found that 82 percent of respondents ages 10 through 15 said they had "no ambition to achieve personal success." The survey attributed the lack of motivation to excessive pressure for good grades.

"I think this way of educating people is wrong," said Li Min, a high-school freshman in suburban Beijing. "We have to go to school for 14 hours a day." Min gets up before 6 a.m. each weekday, and starts the first of his nine classes at 7:40 a.m. After his evening meal at school, he has three periods of self-study. He leaves school at 9:20 p.m., finishes his homework by 11, and goes to bed at 11:30.

"Higher education in China is still a scarce resource," explains Chinese Academy of Social Sciences historian Lei Yi. "Whether people are willing to accept it or not, unless this situation changes, excessive pressure will naturally continue to filter down...."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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