HONG KONG—For the second time, Shanghai has just topped the charts of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a benchmark standardized test covering reading, science and math skills for15 year-olds in dozens of countries every three years.
While China should be recognized for its achievements in Shanghai and in raising basic literacy across the country, these high scores obscure an important fact: that China’s education system is deeply unequal, and is failing students with disabilities.
For a start, Shanghai is atypical of China, where half of the people live in the countryside and children attend underfunded and struggling schools.
Even in Shanghai, hundreds of thousands of migrant children often have difficulties accessing public schools because of China’s outdated “hukou” system, requiring official permission to establish a new residency and access public services.
In addition, a large proportion of China’s students—those with disabilities—are denied the chance to even go to public schools because of discrimination and exclusion. Indeed, according to official estimates, one in four children with disabilities is not in school at all.
China has a two-track system, one for children with disabilities and one for those without, from primary school through university. Theoretically, children with disabilities can join mainstream education as long as they “are able to adapt” to life in these schools.
But in practice these schools only accept children with very mild disabilities. In higher education, the government mandates a physical examination as a requirement for university enrollment, during which disabilities are noted and reported to the universities, along with the candidates’ academic records.
Official guidelines even allow universities to deny enrollment in certain subjects if the applicants have certain disabilities.
In August, a Henan university denied an applicant who uses crutches to programs in medicine and psychology—even though he meets all the academic requirements—because “his physical disabilities do not match his chosen subjects.”
Students with disabilities have repeatedly tried to access mainstream education, but these efforts have largely ended in disappointment. They are turned away from mainstream schools because they “may affect other children” or they “can’t learn.” Even if they are initially admitted, some are later dismissed from the schools after a few months.
Blind students who have been educated in special education schools have fought the government for years for an accessible version of the gaokao—the all-important university entrance exam in the mainstream education system.
Their efforts have been denied, along with access to China’s mainstream universities.
Chinese laws do not clearly stipulate what constitutes discrimination, so there is little effective recourse for those who confront this kind of systematic exclusion.
The Chinese government has signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which requires states provide an inclusive education to accommodates diverse learning needs.
Despite this mandate, domestic regulations in China do not require that students with disabilities be provided with adequate support in mainstream schools.
Educators in these schools get little to no training, funding or support to effectively teach these students. Because of the lack of government assistance for teachers, schools often turn away students with disabilities. Some students with disabilities find mainstream schools so difficult that they have no choice but to eventually leave school.
Children with disabilities can attend special education schools, to which the Chinese government has dedicated resources into building and staffing. But these schools are difficult to access for many families for a number of reasons.
For example, the fact that these schools serve a specific disability, such as hearing or visual disability, means that those who do not fit under official categories are unable to attend.
What’s more, these schools segregate children with disabilities from other students in their communities, which in many cases is not what the children or their parents need or want.
They also often provide limited subject choices in higher education. For example, students in schools for the blind are often tracked to massage and music courses.
The Chinese government has begun to recognize some of these problems. It recently started amending the Regulations on the Education of People with Disabilities, but the revisions do not remove the main barriers to including children with disabilities in mainstream schools.
Inclusive education does not have to be costly. The government can give teachers basic training to modify teaching methods, such as by providing written notes and facing the class when they speak, so students with hearing impairments can keep up, or by providing large-type or Braille materials and tests to students with visual impairments. Inclusive education benefits not only children with disabilities.
It can improve the learning experience for everyone, as teachers become proficient in accommodating needs of all learners.
As the PISA test shows, the Chinese government has already invested in educational excellence, so there is no reason why it cannot invest in a more inclusive system.
The first step is to revise regulations to make a clear commitment to full inclusion at all levels of education. China should expand training in inclusive teaching methods for educators, and provide schools with adequate resources to implement them. And it needs to urgently abolish the official guidelines allowing discrimination on the basis of disability in higher education.
Unless these changes happen, the PISA scores will only reflect the success of some of China’s students.
Imagine if one day China’s mainstream schools open their doors to all students with disabilities? Then China’s educational achievements will truly be impressive.
Maya Wang is a researcher with the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. You can follow Maya at wang_maya on Twitter.