Episode 2: Shuning Liu — New ‘Elite’ Schooling in China

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NRCEM: Can you briefly introduce yourself?

Shuning Liu: Thank you, Cora, for inviting me to this podcast program and to discuss my newly published book—Neoliberalism, Globalization, and “Elite” Education in China: Becoming International. I am Shuning Liu, an Assistant Professor in Curriculum Studies at Teachers College, Ball State University. My primary research interests are in the areas of critical theory, curriculum studies, education reform, educational policy, globalization and education, comparative and international education, and qualitative inquiry.

  • NRCEM: Can you tell us what your new book ‘Neoliberalism, Globalization, and “Elite” Education in China’ is about and how it can inform our network members working on Chinese Ed Mobilities?

Shuning Liu: As shown in the title of my book, I study the complex relations between neoliberalism, globalization, internationalization, and new forms of “elite” education in China. I study these issues by examining the practices, effects, and implications of the emerging international curriculum programs created by Chinese elite public high schools. For readers and audiences who are not very familiar with these new education programs, I can say a little more about the international programs. These international curriculum programs established by Chinese elite public high schools are commonly called international classes (guoji ban, 国际班) or international divisions ( guoji bu, 国际部). Some features of these international programs merit special attention. For instance, these programs integrated Chinese national high-school curriculum with different types of imported foreign curricula, such as the A-Level (the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level, a UK curriculum), AP (Advanced Placement, a U.S. curriculum), and Global Assessment Certificate (GAC) to prepare Chinese students for the international college application process. These international programs are ostensibly public, but students who are able to choose these international programs need to pay high tuition. The tuition usually ranges from about ¥60,000 to ¥120,000 each year (roughly about £11,000 or $14,000), which is far more expensive than that of any Chinese state high school (as yearly tuition for these institutions is approximately ¥800 to ¥2,000). It is about 100 times higher. It is clear that only those Chinese families affluent enough to pay for such expensive tuition can send their children to these fee-charging quasi-public international programs.

The guiding questions discussed in my book include:

  1. Why did these “public” international high-school curriculum programs emerge at a particular time in China? How were they constructed?
  2. Why and how do Chinese students choose to attend these internationally focused Chinese high schools?
  3. What are Chinese students’ educational experiences at their chosen international programs in China? How do the students understand their educational experiences with these international programs?
  4. What are the effects and implications of these newly-established international high-school programs?

In brief, my book examines two interconnected issues, that is, the complexities of Chinese students’ choice to attend newly established international high-school curriculum programs and their concomitant schooling experiences with the programs. This study pays a particular attention to the motivations, experiences, and perspectives of Chinese students who choose to attend the public international high school programs in China and who hope to study at U.S. universities!!!

  • NRCEM: What motivated you to write this book and conduct this research on elite education in China?

Shuning Liu: This is a thoughtful question. As I just shared, I connect my research on elite education in China with the issues of neoliberalism, globalization, and internationalization. Elite education has different meanings in different national contexts. I study new forms of elite education in China by exploring the interconnections between curriculum reforms, educational policies, and international education in a changing globalized context. I have discussed my motivations of doing such research in my book Chapter 1 and Epilogue regarding Reflection on positionality and research design. The particular way that I conduct the research project on elite education in China is related to my long-term research interests in curriculum reforms, teacher education, educational policies, international education, and comparative education.   

To Make the long story short, I will share some of my own educational and teaching experiences with you and audience. This book is based on my dissertation research. Before I pursued my PhD study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was a secondary school teacher in China and the United States for 8 years. I attended BNU for my college education, majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. After graduation, I became a full-time classroom teacher in 1999 in an academically elite public high school in China—commonly called key high school. The year of 1999 was unique because that year, China’s New Curriculum Reform was launched. In my six-year teaching experience in China, I gained first-hand teaching experience with the implementation of New Curriculum Reform. I was very excited about many progressive ideas brought by such curriculum reforms; in the meanwhile, I observed and noticed many problems associated with Chinese educational reforms. I had a lot of questions about the practices and actual effects of China’s New Curriculum Reforms, which motivated me to study abroad to seek answers for the questions.

After I received a master’s degree in secondary education with an emphasis on improvement of instruction, I got a teaching license in the U.S. and taught as a full-time classroom teacher in U.S. public secondary schools. My two-year teaching experience in U.S. public middle and high schools allowed me to gain first-hand experiences with the American education system and its problems. I realized that my imagined American education is not ideal. I was motivated to seek better curriculum and pedagogical practices. This motivation brought me to the Departments of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at UW-Madison, where there are many highly-influential, and world-class scholars in curriculum studies, multicultural education, and educational policy studies. I was engaged into my PhD study of curriculum and instruction, educational policy, and quality inquiry—particularly sociology of education, anthropology of education, and comparative and international education studies.

Meanwhile, I always pay attention to curriculum and educational reforms in China. I observed the emergence of international high-school curriculum programs created by Chinese elite public high schools and also a concomitant educational and social phenomenon, which is the rapidly increasing number of urban Chinese high-school students apply to U.S. universities and many of them choose to attend these newly established international programs.

These educational and teaching experience along with my PhD study at UW-Madison have shaped the particular way that I study on elite education in China. These experiences motivated me and enabled me to integrate curriculum studies, educational policy studies, and comparative and international education studies in this book project.  

  • NRCEM: While writing your book and conducting this research, were there any interesting anecdotes that you can share?

Shuning Liu: I used ethnographic research methods to do this research project. I conducted my field work in a public international high school curriculum program in China. It was very interesting to observe how I was often treated as an insider and also an outsider by my research participants. There were a lot of moments I was reminded that I was a “professional stranger.” As a graduate student at a prestigious U.S. university, I had grown accustomed to carrying a backpack and brought my backpack to the field. One day a school administrator expressed curiosity about this lifestyle. After I explained that graduate students in the United States often carry backpacks, the administrator commented that “American people value a simple life and they put everything in a backpack.” At that moment, I came to realize that in the eyes of my Chinese participants, my lifestyle had been Americanized. In subsequent interviews with student participants, several of them mentioned that they had noticed me before ever meeting me because I wore a backpack, which made me different from others. Reflecting on how I was perceived by my participants, I decided to stop using my backpack in the field so that I could make myself more like my participants.

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