A New Form of “Elite” Schooling: Preparation for U.S. College Application

In the recent decade, the number of urban Chinese high-school students applying to U.S. universities has rapidly grown. Concomitantly, a growing number of key public high schools (zhongdian gaozhong, 重点高中)—academically elite schools—in Chinese cities have established their international high-school curriculum programs (IHSCPs), which are exclusively designed to prepare privileged urban Chinese students for international college applications. Many students who want to apply to overseas universities, particularly top universities in the United States, have chosen to attend these newly established international programs.

The emerging international curriculum programs created by Chinese elite public high schools are commonly called gaozhong guoji kecheng ban (高中国际课程班), guoji ban (国际班), or guoji bu (国际部). These programs integrated Chinese national high-school curriculum with various imported foreign curricula, such as the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (A-Level), Advanced Placement (AP), and Global Assessment Certificate (GAC) to prepare students for the international college application process. The international programs are ostensibly public, but students who are able to choose these IHSCPs need to pay high tuition. The tuition usually ranges from about ¥60,000 to ¥120,000 each year, which is far more expensive than that of any state high school as yearly tuition for these institutions is approximately ¥800 to ¥2,000. It is clear that only those Chinese families affluent enough to afford such expensive tuition can send their children to these fee-charging quasi-public international programs.

In contrast to their “local” choosing Chinese counterparts, seniors enrolled in the “public” IHSCPs have released their burdens from the gaokao (China’s National College Entrance Examination), held in June 7 and 8 annually. Rather than waiting for college admission based on gaokao test scores which are announced in late June, these “global” choosing students have received college admissions from prestigious universities overseas in March, April, or even earlier than this. Compared with their counterparts who compete for top universities in China, students enrolled in such emerging international high-school programs gain access to leading universities in the U.S. and look forward to their study abroad experiences.

The pathway from an international program created by elite public high schools in China to prestigious universities in the U.S. not only differentiates socially elite students whose families are able to pay high tuition fees and academically elite students. It also reflects a new development of Chinese elite public high schools and implies a new form of “elite” schooling, leading to prestigious universities in the U.S. However, the “public” IHSCPs are not uncontested. They have important implications for equality of educational opportunity for students to access elite universities and their associated life rewards in changing local, national, and global contexts.

Drawing on critical theory, my research applies sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of the educational practices of such curriculum programs, the burgeoning Chinese upper-middle and upper classes, and socially elite Chinese students, as well as educational policy (nationally and globally). Through analyzing a wide variety of data sources, my research integrates critical curriculum studies with educational policy studies to explore the complexity of socially elite Chinese students’ choices of and subsequent educational experiences with “public” international high-school programs in China. My study points out that the complexity is derived from the involvement and interaction of multiple social actors, as well as internal and external contradictions between and among multiple fields surrounding privileged Chinese students’ choice of and preparation for U.S. college application.

My research highlights that the public IHSCPs were framed as an educational experiment to improve Chinese High School New Curriculum Reform. They were also legitimated as CFCRS (the Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools policy) high-school programs. The unique institutional structure of the CFCRS policy brings private education companies into the development of the international programs. My research points out that the interventions of private institutions into Chinese public education reforms are tacit business practices. In addition, the discourses—such as internationalizing Chinese education and cultivating international talent for Chinese economic development and international competitiveness—underscored in the National Guidelines for Medium- and Long-term Educational Reform and Development (2010–2020) further provide Chinese elite public high schools with relative autonomy to create U.S. college-going curriculum and pedagogy for meeting the needs of socially elite Chinese students.

The insertion of international curricula into the Chinese national education system creates an international track in local elite public schools that set privileged students on paths leading to prestigious universities in the U.S. In the curriculum integration process at IHSCPs, it becomes apparent that the acquisition of English language skills and the knowledge of math, the sciences, and American society and literature are valued because these skills and knowledge are measured by the U.S. tests. By contrast, Chinese subjects, particularly Chinese language arts and other humanities, are downgraded to the rhetorical study of Chinese culture. To a large extent, U.S. college entrance tests, such as the TOEFL, the ACT/SAT, and AP exams, replace China’s gaokao, shape the organization of school curriculum, and mold school pedagogic practices. My research reveals the changing power over what counts as official knowledge.

To better prepare Chinese students for the U.S. college application process, IHSCPs have also tended to develop a college counseling and guidance system that focuses on helping students and teachers understand U.S. college admissions criteria. Besides those college entrance test scores, Chinese teachers and students came to understand that U.S. colleges and universities have the scope to consider grade point average (GPA), students’ extracurricular activities, personal statement, and recommendation letters. They realized that U.S. colleges’ autonomous enrollment and multiple admissions criteria are distinctively different from Chinese college admissions that largely depend on a sole criterion—scores on the gaokao. This distinction has led to a U.S. college-going school culture which has had a profound influence on teaching and learning at the emerging public international high-school programs.

To deal with the intricacies of the U.S. college application process, socially elite Chinese students have intensively engaged in extracurricular and after-school educational activities. Their informal schooling often involves taking international trips and experiencing overseas life, attending U.S. university summer schools, traveling to take tests, participating in internships and contests for the accumulation of distinctive extracurricular experiences, taking English test cram classes (such as for the TOEFL and the ACT/SAT), and working with study-abroad consulting companies. My research highlights that the privileged Chinese high-school students overwhelmingly use their families’ capital, particularly economic capital, to buy educational services from English training and study-abroad consulting companies for U.S. college admissions.

My study reveals that under the support of market-based educational reforms in both local and international contexts, upper-middle and upper-class Chinese families utilize various education markets, such as global higher education market, the Chinese education market, and the study-abroad educational consulting market, to mobilize their various types of capital for producing a social advantage that can better position their children in the prestigious universities in the U.S. As my research demonstrates, IHSCPs provide privileged urban Chinese students with fast international tracks in Chinese elite public schools to top universities in the U.S. This reproduction of social advantage through education denotes a new form of elite education that articulates local and global forces for power and privilege.  

Author Bio

Dr Shuning Liu is an Assistant Professor in Curriculum Studies at Teachers College, Ball State University, USA. Her primary research interests are in the areas of critical theory, curriculum theory, critical curriculum studies, curriculum reform, educational policy, globalization and education, comparative and international education, and qualitative inquiry. Her current research projects involve the role of international education in the formation of social elites. She is the author of the book Neoliberalism, Globalization, and “Elite” Education in China: Becoming International (Routledge, 2020).

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