Brookings Researcher Exposes Human Rights Violation Under Shanghai PISA Scores

For two weeks now when the conversation lags at dinner, my husband has been asking, “Has anyone shown yet why the sponsors of the PISA test let China report the scores of particular schools and children in Shanghai as though they represent all the schools and children of Shanghai?”  Every night I point out that international test scores aren’t that important.  What really matters is if our society has the moral will to invest in the futures of all of its children.  And every night he answers, “But still, I can’t believe the people at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are so shoddy in the procedures by which they supposedly guarantee that the PISA scores from nation to nation are comparable.”  After this morning we can’t any longer fall back on that particular conversation.

In a new post on her blog, Tom Loveless on Shanghai: The Scores Are Rigged, and OECD Doesn’t Care, Diane Ravitch quotes extensively from an article posted yesterday on the website of the Brookings Institution, by Tom Loveless, Attention OECD-PISA: Your Silence on China Is Wrong.

Loveless points not only to problems with the international PISA comparisons but also to a major human rights catastrophe in China.  I will (as Diane Ravitch does also) quote directly from Tom Loveless, because his words are profound:

Shanghai has a school system that excludes most migrant students, the children of families that have moved to the city from rural areas of China.  And now for three years running, the OECD and PISA continue to promote a distorted picture of Shanghai’s school system by remaining silent on the plight of Chinese migrant children and what is one of the greatest human rights calamities of our time.

The numbers are staggering.  There are an estimated 230 million migrants in China.[1]  Approximately 5-6 million people have moved from rural areas to Shanghai since 2000.  Imagine a population the size of Los Angeles and Houston combined relocating to a city that was already larger than New York City—and in only thirteen years!  Shanghai’s population today is estimated at about 24 million people, with 13 million native residents and 11 million migrants.  For the most part, the migrants are poor laborers who fill the factories driving China’s export-driven economic boom.

The exclusionary school enrollment practices are rooted in China’s hukou (pronounced “who-cow”) system.  Although hukou dates back centuries, the current system was created by Mao Zedong’s regime in 1958 to control internal mobility in China.  Every family in China was issued a rural hukou by its home village or urban hukou by its home city, a document best understood as part domestic passport and part municipal license. 

The hukou controls access to municipal services.  Migrants in China with rural hukous are barred from a host city’s services, in particular, social welfare programs, healthcare providers, and much of the school system.  Hukous are transferred from generation to generation.  The children of migrants, even if born in Shanghai, receive their parents’ rural hukou, which their children, too, will someday inherit no matter where they are born.  As Kam Wing Chan, a Chinese migration and hukou expert at the University of Washington, puts it, “Under this system, some 700-800 million people are in effect treated as second class citizens, deprived of the opportunity to settle legally in cities and of access to most of the basic welfare and state-provided services enjoyed by regular urban residents.”

“The barriers to migrants attending Shanghai’s high schools remain almost insurmountable.   High schools in Shanghai charge fees. Sometimes the fees are legal, but often in China, they are no more than bribes, as the Washington Post has reported.  Students must take the national exam for college (gaokao) in the province that issued their hukou.  An annual mass exodus of adolescents from city to countryside takes place, back to impoverished rural schools.  At least there, migrant kids might have a shot at college admission.  This phenomenon is unheard of anywhere else in the world; it’s as if a sorcerer snaps his fingers, and millions of urban teens suddenly disappear.

The toll on children and parents is staggering.  Families are torn apart.  Some migrant parents leave their children with relatives in villages when they initially move to cities in search of work.  The All China Women’s Federation estimates 61 million children are “left behinds,” as they are known in the country.  These children’s lives are marked by loneliness and despair.  A recent book, Diaries of China’s Left Behind Children, poignantly describes their plight.  The book caused a huge sensation in China.”

I guess when we are desperate for a dinner-time topic, we are still left with mine: what about a society’s moral obligation to invest in the education of all of its children?  And there is another question as well.  Why are we worrying so much about a sports-like competition among countries to see whose adolescents can score higher when we know that high test scores really reflect wealth and privilege and low test scores demonstrate poverty, inequality, and the kind of segregation—whether it be in China or the ghettos of our big cities—that crushes opportunity.  Will we ever decide to do something about that?

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One thought on “Brookings Researcher Exposes Human Rights Violation Under Shanghai PISA Scores

  1. Jan, you so hit the proverbial nail on the head in your last paragraph: “Why are we worrying so much about a sports-like competition among countries to see whose adolescents can score higher when we know that high test scores really reflect wealth and privilege and low test scores demonstrate poverty, inequality, and the kind of segregation that crushes opportunity.” That is also profound! Thank you for your wise words.

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