Strategic choice

When I first knew Qiang, he was an 11th grader. He loved sports. Using a Chinese term, he was a sunshine boy who was considerate, positive, and showed respect to others. He left his contact information on the survey form that I distributed at the school and expressed his willingness to be interviewed. As a native resident, Qiang was born and grew up in Moon City. His father Mr. Song was a human resource manager in a foreign company located in the city. His mother Mrs. Liao was a co-foundcr of a studio for child and adolescent counseling. Both parents were actively involved in Qiang’s education. I interviewed his parents together.

Qiang was in the key public school system from preschool through middle school. He studied in a math experimental class in Sunny Middle School. However, he ranked behind the majority of his classmates in terms of standardized test scores. Like many parents of the students enrolled in Sunny High IAP, Qiang’s parents were more concerned about his physical and psychological health than his academic achievement. Not expecting him to be admitted by regular key high schools, Qiang’s parents had tried to persuade him to study abroad and choose to attend the Sunny High IAP Program because he was originally not interested in this option. Rather than imposing their ideas on the child, they utilized various ways to convince Qiang to study overseas. They encouraged him to listen to U.S. radio stations and popular songs to increase his motivation to learn English because they knew that Qiang was not good at English, which is one of the main reasons why he didn’t feel confident in and became uninterested in studying abroad. They also asked Qiang’s best friend, who had chosen to study in a high school in the United States, to convince him to come to the United States for college education. Not surprisingly, Qiang finally accepted his parents’ suggestion—and chose to attend the Sunny High IAP program—after receiving his zhongkao scores and knowing that he was not eligible to enter into a key high school. It turned out that Qiang’s parents had successfully prepared a “back-up” for him.

When I asked Qiang’s parents why they chose the Sunny High IAP international program for their son, they traced back to what influenced their decision to send Qiang to study abroad. As Mr. Song explained,

I have a friend who told me that he will send his child to study abroad. I knew his child didn’t study well at school. Of course, this friend has more financial capital than us. In our chat, he mentioned that a government officer whom we both knew also sent his child to study abroad. This officer is a very wise person. People like him know that there is no development and no hope in China, so they choose to send their children to study abroad. You know, such government officers have political and social power. They could send their children to good schools and even good colleges by delivering a leader’s memo or using their social network. But why didn’t they send their children to Chinese universities? Why didn’t they use their power? Instead, they choose to send their children abroad. Why? This thing impressed me and influenced me. It made me think... These people are smarter than us. Their choice could not be wrong. Then, I told my wife that we should also send our child to study abroad...

Mr. Song’s statement highlights the impact of social network/social capital on choice and decision-making. It also points out the educational preferences of different elite factions (political elites, economic elites, and cultural elites) and their influence on each other. These elite classes compete for the available positions in the field of elite education in an international context.

In addition, Mr. Song noted that the problems of test-driven teaching and learning in dominant Chinese schools were another important factor for influencing their decision making. As he noted,

There was also an incident that influenced our decision. When Qiang was in 9'h Grade, his elementary school classmate, who also studied in the same middle school as Qiang, committed suicide. She was a very poor girl! Her mom had sent her to many various kinds of extra-curricular classes—violin, drawing, English, Math, and so on—since she was a preschooler. I heard from other parents that as long as her mom heard of what after-school classes other kids attended, she immediately registered the classes for her daughter... Fortunately, this girl’s academic achievement was very high and she was able to attend an experimental class in the middle school. For a period of time, we doubted if we should learn from this parent. Qiang’s mom and I intentionally avoided sending him to many extracurricular classes. Our son’s congenital health conditions are not good. He needs more physical exercise and sleep... Anyway, this girl was a highly able student. She was a top student in the middle school. But she often slept in class because in addition to completing school assignments, she had several after-school tutoring classes every day. Parents commented that she had high test stress before zhongkao. Her test scores in a mock-exam was not satisfactory, which directly led to her suicide. This incident shocked us. It was horrible! It was a tragedy! We didn’t want our son to experience such stress. But if he studied in a regular high school, he might have to have such a stressful high school life.

The incident that Mr. Song described was reported in media. Similar tragedies have been periodically recorded in many of China’s cities. However, for Mr. Song and Mrs. Liao, this was not something written in text. It happened in their real lives. This incident made them worried about their child’s future and reinforced their educational preferences. In fact, similar concerns are also expressed by Weiwei’s mother. When Mr. Song and Mrs. Liao heard of international high-school programs, they were attracted by the program advertisements’ emphasis that such programs helped students pursue a personalized study plan. “It sounded like students enrolled in the programs had a relaxing school life and also could easily go to U.S. colleges,” Mr. Song said with a smile. More importantly, in 2011, the year when Qiang graduated from middle school, the first class of students from Sunny High IAP graduated. The school reported that all graduates got admitted by top 50 U.S. universities. This news excited Qiang’s parents. They knew that these students were not high academic achievers. The students entered the Sunny High IAP Program with much lower test scores in 2008. “If such students went to top 50 U.S. universities, our child could easily do so, too,” Mr. Song emphasized. As he further stated,

Unlike some parents who think that Ivy universities are the best for their children, we think that the top 100 U.S. universities are fine for us. Students attending the top 100 [U.S.] universities are not worse than those in Qinghua [Tsinghua University] and Bcida [Peking University]. In addition, the former have more advantage in language (English) and certain other skills. With this said, if Qiang attends a top 100 university, it means that he has already attended Chinese Qinghua and Beida. That’s fine for us. In addition, we care more about his long-term development. We hope him to continue to study in the U.S. for Master and PhD degrees.

Mr. Song and his wife also expressed a wish for Qiang to work and live in the United States. For Qiang’s parents, school habitus and performance, college destination, and university ranking became important criteria when they chose an appropriate high school for their child. These criteria reflect what Bernstein (1977, 2000) calls instrumental order and the personalized identities that the order leads to.

Further, both Mr. Song and Mrs. Liao emphasized that the curriculum in Sunny High IAP Program was most appealing to them. As Mrs. Liao illuminated,

The school advertisement highlighted that students would study the Chinese high school curriculum, an American curriculum GAC, an elective curriculum, and AP in the Sunny High IAP Program. The curriculum is the most attractive thing to us. Although the students will not attend the gaokao, they still learn the whole Chinese high school curriculum, which I think is good... After all, our parents were school principals and university professors. I used to be a college teacher. We were all people in education. We think that Chinese elementary and secondary curriculum is relatively good. But we don’t really like Chinese college education. Because of my job, I am able to see the abnormal educational phenomenon: Chinese preschoolers learn elementary school curriculum in advance; elementary school students learn secondary school curriculum ahead of time... College students study for exams. Some don’t even study for exams. They just waste their time in college. I think that college education is a splendid time in a person’s life. High school is a golden time for a person to form his/her views on life and values. We hope that our child studies the Chinese secondary school curriculum. We hope that he stays with us before he turns 18 years old. We don’t want to send him abroad before 18. During his high school years, we could help him reinforce his views on life and values.

Mrs. Liao’s perceptions of how they chose the Sunny High IAP Curriculum Program reflect her preferences for the expressive order that the Chinese curriculum could transmit. She also had a relatively ambivalent attitude toward Chinese school curriculum. Linking Mrs. Liao’s and Mr. Song’s inclination toward the Chinese high-school curriculum in the integrated school curriculum to their desire for the instrumental function of Sunny High IAP Program enables us to recognize the interests and identities of these new kinds of social groups or classes. Furthermore, Mrs. Liao’s sense-making of the choice of the curriculum program implies that such an emerging international high-school curriculum program not only work as “a form of social production,” but also open “new identity trajectories” (Doherty, Mu, & Shield, 2009, p. 759). How the curriculum program, particularly the tensions between the instrumental order and expressive order, shapes the students’ identities will be discussed in detail in Chapters 6 and 7. Here, I focus on using Bourdieu’s notions of field, capital, and habitus in his theory of practice as analytical tools to interpret the data surrounding the reproduction of advantage.

My analysis of privileged parents’ choice of high school demonstrates how their educational practices were shaped by struggles for elite positions through access to elite education. When they encounter the constraints of the elite education system in China, such as high-stakes testing and the restriction of the household registration system, Chinese middle-upper and upper classes struggle to maintain and enhance their positions in the social order through access to

Chinese elite higher education institutions. Thanks to neoliberal globalization, world-class universities in the West open opportunities for these social groups to access the field of international elite education. The newly established international high-school programs in China provide these Chinese elite classes with a new educational pathway to elite education in an international context. The emerging international programs become an intersection of the field of elite education (in both Chinese and international contexts) and the field of social classes, which constitutes a new field of power relations and also a field of struggle. Thus, these social actors “unwittingly reproduce or change those class distinctions simply by pursuing their own strategies within the sets of constraints and opportunities available to them” (Swartz, 1997, p. 134). Clearly then, these Chinese middle-upper and upper classes’ field-specific practices are related to class strategies and the field of power.

The choice practices of these growing Chinese middle-upper and upper classes in the high-school international education market were interest driven. Their aspirations for either Chinese or international elite higher education institutions represented their struggle over important forms of cultural capital—including educational capital, which is often translated into elite educational credentials, an institutionalized form of cultural capital (Waters, 2006). For active choosers with a cosmopolitan sensibility such as Baixue and her parents, studying in high-ranked U.S. universities led to the cultivation of critical thinking skills and international mindedness, an embodied form of cultural capital. Whether for “reluctant choosers” or “active choosers,” accumulating more valuable forms of cultural capital was a taken-for-granted strategy to secure a dominant position in the field of power.

The parents of these privileged students were highly strategic in their decisions to engage with an international education market. Capital conversion was used to transfer strategic advantage from these privileged parents to their children. My study reveals how the new Chinese elite families utilize various type of capital—economic, cultural, and social capital—in the process of choice and decision-making. Particular attention should be given to the use of economic capital because it acted as a precondition for the educational choice of the Chinese middle-upper and upper classes. Some of the parent participants have tabulated the cost of attending an international high-school program and a U.S. university—It was about ¥2,000,000 (approximately equal to $300,000). The “volume” of economic capital (material resources) needed for this educational choice excludes the families who do not have the ability to pay the educational cost.

The taste for this new elite education is not cheap (Ball, 2015). Only wealthy Chinese families are able to buy access to international educational resources and opportunities for their own children and convert their economic capital into cultural capital and social capital that could be further converted into financial capital. As a male parent who was a director of a China’s national science laboratory highlighted, “The classmates and schoolmates whom you study with matter a lot because you study in this school for preparation for the U.S. college application and also for building a social network for the future use.” The social capital accumulated through the construction of social connections made at this internationally focused high school has the potential to be converted into economic capital through access to valued information and resources. Class strategics used by these Chinese middle-upper- and upper-class families lead to social production.

In summary, this section examines the complexities of students’ choice to attend international high-school curriculum programs. It demonstrates the practices of market-based parent-initiated school choice in China. I argue that the rising Chinese middle-upper and upper classes mobilize various types of capital and power in an international education market to pursue their class interests. Their educational practices, whether their deployment of class strategies or their unconscious acceptance of the rules of the game in which they play, constitute the production of the fields of international high-school curriculum programs and international elite education, which overlap with multiple other fields, such as social class. Through the realization of social advantages in education, the practices of parent-initiated choice of internationally focused Chinese public high schools enhance the marketization and privatization of education, which exacerbates existing educational and social inequality. In this process, fields and field-specific practices also shape the identity formation of these social classes.

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