Nov. 16, 2010 -- In China, the gaokao or high exam, is both a blessing and a curse for students. Doing well on the test means going to college, but just passing the test doesn't guarantee anything, despite a young lifetime of preparation.
This year, around 9.5 million high school students took the grueling, multi-day college entrance exam, competing for 6.5 million university positions. The test, a rite of passage, turns its highest scorers into instant celebrities. The interesting revelation: most of those high scorers rarely end up making history by becoming the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
China Daily, an English language newspaper, surveyed more than a thousand top scorers from 1977 to 2008 and found that "none of them stood out in the field of academics, business or politics."
Experts say the survey is proof that China has an innovation problem.
Creating Innovators In China
Yong Zhao, a professor at Michigan State University and an expert on China's education system, just returned from his home country of China after moderating a panel attended by both Chinese and western educators.
"It [gaokao] seems to be the only way to enable people with very limited means or power to have some sort of social mobility ... The test itself is also a curse for which as China moves to an innovation-based economy, they are looking for more creative, diverse talent and that testing has constrained schools systems to produce them. Can China truly free itself from such a long, time-honored device?"
Zhao said that Chinese educators spend their careers "dancing within the shackles of the exam," knowing that students must excel at the test to get to college, but to play a pivotal role in China's growing economy, students need much more than the test.
"Emerging countries like China have a lot of their economy geared not by education labor but by cheap manufacturing labor. Now, China must turn its population nation into a nation of human assets," Zhao said.
The economic move to become "human assets" or innovators has prompted the Chinese government to relinquish some of its control over the centralized education system. The move towards decentralization is a far cry from the tightly controlled education Zhao experienced as a student in the 1970s, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Centralized Education System In China
"There was no music, no art, no sports," Zhao said of his schooling.
When Zhao attended school in the rural countryside of the Sichuan Province, there was one standard curriculum, one textbook and the gaokao as a means to getting to college.
"In my time, because of the Cultural Revolution, which wiped out hierarchy, poor kids like me could genuinely take a test, pass a test and be guaranteed a job and now that's not the case. There's no social mobility," Zhao said.
The growing social hierarchy in China, due in part to increased globalization and the growing economic clout of the country, has created a deeper divide between the quality of education given to students in rural areas versus urban areas. The best colleges are in the bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Education overall has become more expensive, Zhao said.
"Today, the competition is becoming more fierce than at the time I went to school," he said.
Education Mandatory Through Junior High
In China, kindergarten is not compulsory, although the Ministry of Education is working to make it much more accessible. Education is mandatory through only junior high equating to roughly 9 years of schooling.
Margot Landman, the director of a teacher exchange program for the National Committee on United States - China Relations, said that the mandatory schooling doesn't reach all of China's children.
"Theoretically, there is a nine-year compulsory education system, but that's not the practice in inland, rural, mountainous China, the poor parts in the country. Even in urban areas, children of migrant workers don't have educational opportunities," Landman said. "We tend to forget when we look at booming Shanghai that there is still a huge amount of poverty in China."
For the students who do make it to school, there is still one standard curriculum, although schools and provinces have some autonomy in which textbooks to use. School is no longer officially six days a week, it's five.
Chinese Students Spend More Time In School Than U.S. Children
Landman described Chinese children as "extremely disciplined students...extraordinarily motivated to learn in ways that our kids aren't."
Landman, who was one of the first American teachers to teach in China after it gained diplomatic recognition in the late 70s, said that even though classes have been reduced to five days a week, students are constantly studying.
Compared with U.S. students, Chinese students spend at least 41 more days a year in the classroom. They average 30 percent more hours of instruction every year than American students do.
American students also spend far more time watching television and playing games. One study showed that American kids spend 7.5 hours on entertainment, television and games, far more than Chinese kids are allowed.
At one school that ABC News visited, its evident that children know education is everything. Third grade children stopped twice a day to use ancient acupressure techniques to relax their eyes and muscles.
One major subject students must master: English. The number of people learning English in China is greater than the population of the United States. It's mandatory that students start learning English by third grade.
In some nursery schools, three-year-old children may start learning a few songs in English.
Parents Pay For Nursery School, Supplemental Classes
Education has grown more expensive in China because parents often pay for supplemental classes on Saturdays or during summer breaks. Even though most schools are public, parents often pay for uniforms, materials, lunch and books, Landman said.
For students on a college track, parents are expected to shell out thousands of yuan to send their kids to senior high school and college since those are not part of the mandated curriculum.
When students reach pre-college classes, preparation for the gaokao becomes all consuming.
"Nothing else is considered in the college application process, so if you have a bad day or happen to be a person who doesn't test well, tough luck. That's a huge amount of pressure and it means that much of secondary education is geared to that exam," Landman said. "The Chinese will say over and over that their education system doesn't allow creativity."
Landman said that the traditional teaching style in China also hampers creativity.
"It's very rigid, the teacher speaks, the student regurgitates," she said.
The emphasis on lecturing and memorization is rooted less in Communism and more in China's link to Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher.
"It goes back to Confucius and the definition of an educated gentlemen as being able to recite the classics, being able to write a poem based on the standard structure of a poem....copying the master's way," she said.
Landman said that classrooms are evolving and that some circles of teachers encourage students to ask questions and have classroom discussion, a key to fostering students' creativity.
What might hinder young, Chinese educated professionals from making big waves for their country's economic progress could be self confidence, Landman argued.
"It's really deeply ingrained in Chinese culture to fit in, to not be the nail that sticks up and gets hammered down and there's also a very deeply ingrained sense of shame and being afraid to make mistakes and I don't think you make discoveries...without lots of failures," Landman said. "That's changing, but it's a gradual process."
Fierce Competition in Chinese School System
ABC News spoke with a Chinese student attending a top liberal arts school in the United States. He felt uncomfortable giving his name, but said that his parents could afford a top notch private high school in a major city.
He said that "students come out [of China's education system] having the mentality that they are constantly competing with their peers."
China has scarce resources for education opportunities, meaning not every kid can go to school, he aded.
Indeed, Landman said that there is a shortage of English teachers and that the classroom size is often 50 to 60 students per teacher.
The Chinese student ABC News spoke to stressed how much Chinese families are committed to their children's educations. For three decades, the Chinese government has imposed a one child rule on the population and that one child becomes the family's full hope and treasure.
"Parents are willing to send kids to college even if that means they can't live in their house," he said. "If I have to choose where to send my kids to precollege education, I'd send them back to China."
Boom of Chinese Studying At U.S. Colleges
The male student is part of a growing boom of Chinese students studying in U.S. universities. A new study by the Institute of International Education found that nearly 128,000 Chinese students studied in America last year, a 30 percent increase over the previous academic year.
Chinese students now comprise the highest percentage of international students in the United States at 19 percent.
Chinese mom Jane Feng sent her 16-year-old son to live in California because he was an average student in China and needed a jump start on getting into an American college. She says among American students, her average son was a math superstar.
"American universities have better education...I thought, if I'm going to send my child to the US for education, I should send him over earlier so he could have a chance to get used to life in the US," Feng said.
Landman from the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations said that what's different now about Chinese students studying abroad is that many want to go back to China after a few years.
"They feel they have more of a future there. There is a strong sense of patriotism and wanting to build China. They want to do something," she said.
At least 6.3 million Chinese students are expected to graduate from college this year. Some predict that China may soon hold the greatest number of PhD degrees.
A student from one Chinese high school visited by ABC News said that "chinese students often have clear short time goals such as a specific university in China or America, but for American students they don't have so much pressure."