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lost in shanghai


What price a good education?

From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) April 29th 2009 Print Edition

To read the essay in Chinese click HERE

By Mina Tenison

I’m a mother of two children in primary school in Shanghai. Whenever I get together with my friends with children, the topic always inevitably turns to education: What are you doing for your kids? Where will you send them for middle school? How will you prepare them for the college entrance examinations?

The city of Shanghai offers a truly amazing range of educational choices, ranging from “local” public schools that are free (or almost free) to British or U.S. international schools with a steep price tag. Some of these international school prices are so awesome that even my foreign friends shudder when they hear it.

Of course, we are the lucky ones, because all this non-stop talk about education means that we have choices, probably too many choices.

But what people forget is that this concept of educational "choice" is relatively a new thing. For hundreds and thousands of years, most people didn’t have the opportunity to choose their education. Education was for the select elite, and furthermore, good education was almost impossible to attain for the average person. Much of this has changed in the 20th century, with most nations providing compulsory education for all. But even this is different cross cultures: In the U.S., compulsory education ends at 12th grade; In China, it ends at 9th grade.

In my five years in Shanghai, I’ve met many migrant laborers who have received only a few years of primary school education. This includes my housekeeper who was sent away at the age of ten, after receiving a third-grade education, to work as a nanny for 80RMB a month some twenty years ago. Although she’s smart and diligent, she cannot easily add skill-sets to take her up to the level of work. She cannot write good pinyin, cannot speak a word of English, or use the computer.

These conversations with the migrant workers have humbled me: I see what it means for someone not to have the educational opportunity that my own children, and many of my friends’ children, take for granted.

Yet, the status-jockeying and price-comparisons are endless amongst the privileged lot: I have friends who have found it embarrassing to pull their children out an international school because their company will no longer pay the US $25,000 school fee since the Global Financial Crisis. I also have Chinese friends who feel that they must get their child into a prestigious bilingual school or to an international section (guojiban) of a local school, where the tuition ranges from 60,000 RMB to 120,000 RMB a year.

Then I have friends who rely on the simple, excellent alternative that is provided by the local Shanghai government: public school free of charge.

Still, it hasn't escaped my notice that the price tag on these educational institutes have become a big marker of status: that a Dulwitch uniform means a lot more than a uniform from a moderately priced bilingual school in Hong Qiao. I’ve also seen the children themselves compare notes. My own children have started asking me how much certain schools cost; I can see that they’re not immune to noticing that a certain school has children arriving in Porsches, Audis and Lexuses.

Yet for the economically disadvantaged, it’s often a very small amount of money that will keep them in school. A friend who works with a charity to support the education of children of migrant workers recently told me that many of the workers cannot afford the 1,500 RMB (US $215) a year their children need to stay in school. Although tuition is free in China, this 1,500 RMB pays for the children’s school supplies, school lunches, and the twice-a-year spring and autumn outing. It’s a small sum for many of us, yet a sum that determines whether some children stay in school or drop out.

On the other hand, I have noticed that to many people, a Yale, Harvard, or Oxford degree has become the ultimate destination for luxury education that can be purchased, just like a designer bag or a fancy car. I wonder, do these people know exactly what kind of education $45,000 a year buys? And must there be a price tag always for good education?

Some of the most prestigious schools in Shanghai are free “local” schools, which are known for their academic rigor and selective admission. And amongst ladies who lunch, it’s clear which schools are over-priced and offer poor-quality education for the fee they charge.

Still, every day I wonder whether I am doing enough for my children: am I giving them the best opportunity that I can afford? Am I educating them properly?

Of course, there is no one right answer. Best education is not necessarily the priciest, and even the most prestigious educational institutions can never completely prepare a child for our complex and fast-changing world.

As a parent, I can only hope that the educational choices I’ve made for my children will give them the tools to acquire more knowledge when they need it. Yet for many people in the world, this is the true luxury that they still cannot afford.

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE