The Other Side of the Chinese Student Success Story: We Are the… of Communism

We Are the... of Communism (dir. Cui Zi'en)

By Ariella Tai

Earlier this month a study conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, showed Shanghai students placing first in the world, far outscoring the United States. The New York Times article reporting on these “surprising” test scores posits that a stronger “culture of education” is responsible for the stellar performance of Shanghai 15 year-olds, as well as raising anxieties that students in the United States are lagging academically. Collective investment in China’s reputation as reflected by the test scores, as well as an “amazingly strong” work ethic are also attributed to the high scores. Mark Schneider, commissioner of the Department of Education under the Bush Administration, suggests that the government may be allowing especially talented high school students to study in Shanghai instead of their home provinces in order to boost city performance on such exams.

In The Atlantic’s subsequent analysis of the test scores and related New York Times article, James Fallows makes the argument for examining the context of China’s educational environment rather than generally attributing high performance to cultural difference. He points to reaction of a scientist at a major US university who questions not only the efficacy of standardized tests such as the PISA, but also points out that a sample group of 5,000 students might not necessarily act as an accurate sample size for a population of half a million 15 year olds enrolled in secondary school.

In the 2007 documentary We are the…of Communism, director Cui Zi’en shines light on the darker side of the educational reforms taking place in China’s urban centers. He follows the struggles of students in The Yuanhai Migrants Children’s School in Beijing as they are forced to fight for their right to be educated. These students are workers of migrant workers who are not official residents of Beijing, and therefore are not eligible for public education in the city. Instead, they are enrolled in private institutions whose standing with the official education system and local authorities may be on shaky ground. This becomes the case one day when the students go to class one morning only to find that the government officials have shut down their school for unclear reasons. Cui Zi’en illuminates this heartrending case study as part of the larger problem of discrimination that the children of migrant workers face in China due to their marginal status. These students exist is a very different educational environment than those who are “officially” residents of these big cities, and their stories reveal an alternative side to the runaway success being reported in the news.

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