Reflection on Comprehensive School and Credit System

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This research is to identify the systematic factors in Canada and America’s secondary education contributing to the declination in recent years. From a perspective of comparison, the research is partially based on the author’s personal experience as a teacher and an educator in two systems of China and Canada..

At the senior secondary level, the monorail system with comprehensive schools functioning as both regular and technical/vocational schools, can hardly achieve diversified objectives, to meet the needs from both academic-oriented and career-oriented students. The comprehensive schools have not been successful in providing proper education to either type of students. It is suggested that Canada and the U.S. adopt the dual-track system.

Providing room and freedom for students to develop their own potential, credit system has been one of the keys for elitists’ growth, and the endless creation and innovations in the West. But due to lacking of fixed student classes, particularly at junior stage, loose student administration has caused the unsatisfied academic outcome and social problems. It is believed that for Canadian and American secondary education, adopting class system at junior level would be advantageous.



The decline of elementary and secondary education in Canada and the U. S. has brought about deep concerns and discussions in recent years. This research is to identify the systematic factors in secondary education contributing to the declination. The author has been studying and teaching in China and in Canada for many years, and thus is acquainted with two different educational systems. Besides evidence and data from international assessments and contests, such as PISA, the research from a perspective of comparison, is mainly based on her personal experience as a teacher and an educator.

The following are some data affirming the declination:

In 2012 PISA, the Program of International Student Assessment, Shanghai China again won the first place in all the three domains: math, reading and science; Canada ranked the 13th, and America the 36th.  The math score of Shanghai was 95 points higher than that of Canada and 132 higher than U.S. Other higher performers, Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and South Korea, were all from countries or regions in East Asia, which is usually considered the Chinese cultural circle. [1]

The American College Testing, ACT, tests four subjects: English, mathematics, reading and science with a benchmark for each, representing the level required for students to pass the corresponding college course. 2015 ACT report indicates, the percentage of examinee  meeting three or four benchmarks is 40%, and 31% not meeting any of them. [2]

In the international context, according to the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) reports, that Canada ranks at the OECD average in literacy but shows a larger proportion of its population at both the highest and lowest levels. As for numeracy, Canada ranks below the OECD average, and the proportion of Canadians at the lower level is greater than the OECD average. [3]

It is quite a surprise that the educational performance of America and Canada has fallen behind.

To improve, reflections and efforts have been made in terms of teachers’ qualifications, course depth, parents’ attitude and students’ diligence, etc. But these factors aren’t enough to have caused score differences as high as one hundred points.  More rigidly and definitively, the educational system and structure, the course setting and their curricula, have brought about the results.

The author has published some papers discussing science courses and math curriculum. [6][20][21]. According to the author’s investigation and observation, the following factors in the overall educational system have contributed to the decline in students’ performance and have had far-reaching consequences on educational outcomes:

  • the monorail system at the senior secondary level with the overwhelming dominance of comprehensive schools, where students with differing abilities study under the same roof; and
  • The credit system at the junior level for course taking and assessment, and lack of natural classes where students can regard as their daily habitats, and can be strictly disciplined.


Could Comprehensive Schools Carry Out Dual Functions?

Comprehensive schools were first developed in America, and have been adopted all over North America, and the U.K. since 1960’s. They currently dominate the structure of secondary education. Before that the dual-track system was widely used, where regular and vocational/technical educations were carried out by regular schools and vocational/technical schools, separately. [8]

Let’s examine the dual-track system in mainland China first. Since the Republic Period (1911-1949) till the cultural revolution, elementary graduates could enter secondary schools, or technical schools, or join the labor force. Junior high school graduates could enroll in senior high schools, or technical schools, or normal secondary schools; or they could join labor force too.

Regular / technical / normal schools at the senior secondary level are called a tripartite structure. These schools brought up not only a large number of regular students, but also skilled workers, technicians and elementary school teachers; and had met the needs of the economic and social development at that time.

Vocational/technical education was destroyed during the cultural revolution, and has been partly recovered afterward. Currently, skill training at the junior secondary level is no longer needed, thus the vocational/technical education runs parallel to senior high school.

Since the students are split-streamed under the dual-track system, those entering regular senior high schools are more academic-oriented, aiming towards post-secondary education. Thus more and deeper academic courses can be offered; and basic knowledge and skills can be strengthened, and analytical thinking can be cultivated.

Among other jurisdictions with the dual-track system, Taiwan’s technological and vocational education has been studied by many researchers [7]; Germany’s as well has been an inspiration to other countries on the world [11].

Next let’s examine the structure of secondary education in North America. Canada and the U.S have a monorail system for secondary education, with comprehensive schools functioning as both regular and vocational schools. Almost all technical/vocational schools are post secondary institutes, not at the secondary level. Community colleges, even specialties of culinary arts or hairdressing, admit high school graduates only. Therefore nominally, the students must finish high school before taking technical/vocational education, or joining the labor force. [18]

In the United Kingdom, secondary education is in favor of comprehensive schools too, with a percentage of 80%. [10]

Even in China, some people have advocated comprehensive schools, and suggested abandoning the dual-track system.

It needs to be clarified that it is almost impossible for comprehensive schools to prepare students to be proficient with both technical/vocational skills, and the academic foundation for post-secondary education. Comprehensive schools have thus two competing objectives: to prepare some students for university, and others for careers. Therefore comprehension has only moved the dual-track system between schools of different types into one school, and to postpone the differentiating between the students until after graduation.

Now that comprehensive schools have dual objectives, courses offered are characterized as follows in consideration of both academic-oriented and career-oriented student groups:

  • In order to meet the needs of different groups of students, in addition to compulsory courses; electives, such as drawing, typing, carpentry, etc. are offered. Further, one subject is divided to courses at different levels: university preparation, application, and foundation, etc.
  • A compulsory course “Planning”(Career preparation and personal planning) is offered at the senior level.
  • The depth and degree of difficulty of Mathematics is sacrificed thus much lower than that in China.
  • At the junior level, Physics, Chemistry and Biology are not taught separately; but combined into one course called “Science”.


But what has caused the transformation from dual-track system to monorail system in the U.S. and Canada? What advantages did people expect comprehensive schools to have?

The comprehension of high schools was a social movement during the democratization of education in 1960’s, with educational equality as its goal. It was thought unfair to stream students in different types of schools, particularly under the situation that teacher quality and other resources in technical/vocational schools were much weaker. [8]

Secondly, it was hoped, combining the resources of two kinds of schools could provide more  opportunities for students to explore his or her own interest and potential, and accomplish better career preparation and personal planning.

Unfortunately, having been implemented for half a century, the declining reality of education reveals that comprehensive schools are not ideal for secondary education, particularly at the senior level. It is hard to carry out double functions and achieve differing objectives. When different groups of students are forced to stay in one school, it is hard to meet the needs of all groups.[9]

First of all, comprehensive schools have not met the needs of the academic-oriented students, although various programs have been offered, such as electives, mini-class for gifted students, International Baccalaureate Program, and Advanced Placement Program, etc. But to build a sound academic foundation, many more in-depth courses should be in place starting from junior secondary level. The reality is due to the attempted balancing of many differing groups, the growth of academic-oriented students has been compromised.

On the other hand, senior secondary level should be the time for career-oriented students of age 16-18 to learn some solid skills, to prepare themselves for employment in the job market. But comprehensive schools do not have the resources required for real technical/vocational training. While the academic oriented students are preparing for universities or colleges, these students hardly have anything to work with.

In China, university admission rates indicate quality of a high school, which as an incentive, makes high school courses deeper and more challenging, and teachers and students work harder. However, in the U.S. and Canada, the graduation rate functions as the primary indicator to assess a secondary school. In order for most students to receive high school diploma, course standards are actually lowered, and students’ performance is dragged to an unacceptable level. Therefore low standards and quality are inevitable for comprehensive schools.

But despite lowered standards to increase graduation rates, one out of five students dropped out schools or failed to graduate, and the rate was even lower before. Clearly, for some students, the education provided by comprehensive schools is not what they want, or interested in. Moreover, they might not have the basic knowledge and skills to learn more advanced materials. They are simply forced to stay in the school.

To summarize, diversified needs from different groups of students have not been met in comprehensive schools. The schools have not been successful in providing good education to either type of students.

The above facts have affirmed that the monorail system is unrealistic at senior secondary level. From elementary and secondary schools, to university or work place, people grow and differentiate gradually; and eventually getting into various social sectors and careers. The high school stage is where students differentiate.

It is the responsibility of secondary education, while helping the students to acquire knowledge, to provide them with opportunities to understand the world and themselves; and to meet their needs, developing their potential; and thus preparing them for post secondary education or career.

Children’ s differentiation has its own timetable and follows certain rules of development. School system and structure should be planned in accordance with the timetable and the rules, not the other way around. Usually junior high school students are preparing to differentiate; but senior students are differentiating; therefore different groups can’t be put together and do the same things. When the comprehensive schools postpone the differentiation until after high school graduation, the rules of youth growth are violated.

The technical and vocational education in Germany with its majority running parallel to senior high school, provides a valuable example and reference for other countries. Among 16 ~ 19 year old young people, 60-70% are under technical/vocational education. This percentage reveals that comprehensive schools in North America, and regular high schools in China as well, actually bind up too many young people, and make them sacrifice.

Since people are different, educational equality should not mean providing different social groups with the same types or levels of education, which is totally unrealistic. The real meaning of equality should be that each individual is provided with educational opportunities suitable to him or her, allowing him or her to grow and develop, to achieve success.

Ironically, the comprehension movement seeking equality of education, since not being able to provide solid and differentiated education, has blocked the path for lower classes who rely on public education to rise. The higher and lower social classes have become more polarized, making the society more unequal.

It can therefore be seen that the dual-track system at the senior secondary level is more reasonable. The monorail system could not satisfy the multiple requirements and develop potentials for different student groups.

The author suggests that Canada and the U.S. adopt a dual-track system as many other countries do; technical/vocational schools at the senior secondary level be built besides the post secondary ones; and community colleges everywhere in Canada be allowed to admit high school students, not solely high school graduates. And finally, all the technical/vocational education at the secondary level be supported by the government.

China is striving to develop its technical/vocational secondary education, and to provide other avenues to success for a large number of young people. Obviously, comprehensive schools are not the right direction to choose.

Credit System: not suitable for lower grades

Credit system and class system (or academic year system) are two different ways to administer students’ course work. In Canada and the U.S., credit system has been used for close to one century, to measure the amount of course work taken by a student. A student can graduate when he or she has received enough credits. China and other Asian countries or regions use class system. Students in the same grade are divided into several fixed classes, taking the same courses, and graduate upon finishing the specified academic years.

In the class system, for example in China’s secondary schools, all courses are specified by the school authority. Each class is assigned a homeroom teacher, and the students are carefully taken care of and strictly disciplined.

For students’ academic well-being and moral ethics, this class system functions as a safeguard.  It can be attributed to class system that, generally speaking, Chinese students are more diligent, and can achieve a higher academic standard.

It should be recognized that, the group life of a class is beneficial to children and their  development. Teamwork, role models and friendship, etc. are valuable experiences to them. Teenagers need a close group and intimate relationship with their classmates. Even years after stepping out of their schools, adults often miss their high school friends the most.

But the class system in China lacks flexibility. Gifted students’ free development is restricted, and the disadvantaged student group, although kept constantly on the run, could hardly acquire the knowledge. Schooling is more or less formalized, and character development is generally overlooked.

Let’s examine the credit system in Canada and America. Many courses are offered, some mandatory, and others optional. The educational authority stipulates the total number of credits, and the students are allowed to choose the ones that interest them. The ways to take courses are flexible too. Classroom learning, online learning, or adult night schools are all options. Students could even teach themselves and then take test to get the credit.

Providing freedom and room for students to develop their own potential and specialty, credit system has been one of the keys for elitists’ growth, and the endless creation and innovations in the West. The credit system is actually one of the most important characteristics of Western education differing from the East. [14]

But credit system is not versatile. It has brought about success but also declining or even failure. In fact, the high school credit system, particularly the one used in junior stage, for many years, has caused loose administration of students; so that a large percentage of students’ academic achievements are under satisfaction; and social problems occurred.

For some people, this might be a surprising comment. While actually in the implementation of course selection and credit system, fixed classes disappeared. The students have no group to stay together with, no teacher in charge, and no classrooms being their habitats in school. The teachers have the classrooms, and the students, carrying their school bags, must constantly move around to take courses. One or two counselors are assigned for each grade, for the students and their parents to consult regarding course selection, and other affairs.

This student administration system might work for higher grades, but to junior students, it is disastrous. Let’s put our feet into the students’ shoes and see.

Compared with elementary schools in China which are more academic-oriented, the classes in the West are more humanized and family-like. The teacher takes care of the kids in almost every aspect: health, living independence, emotion management, manners and people skills, etc. The setting of classrooms is more like home too.

But upon walking into a high school, all of these disappear! For a 13 years old, what he or she would feel is loneliness and helplessness. From now on, the class system is removed, and the students are not strictly administered or carefully taken care of by the teachers. For immature children, it is really harmful. How can people expect them to suddenly grow mature in a day and learn and adapt to high school rules and life? And for those with an introverted personality, it’s even harder to build his or her circle of friends.

The credit system has greater negative impact on younger children. The situation described above is not exaggerating, but the personal experiences of the author’s own children and students.

Of course, graduates from credit system are diversified. Top students benefit the most. They can finish high school courses earlier and start learning university materials, being prepared to get into top universities or colleges. Taking advantage of the freedom of credit system, they can develop their own interest and potential, and achieve success.

But for other students, the picture is totally different. Since teenagers’ self-control is not yet strong, with such an open and loose administration, plus the limited time that they stay in school, many students are not well disciplined. Among students lacking motivation and diligence, the unsatisfied academic outcomes, the anti-intellectual atmosphere, and even smoking, drugs, and campus bullying are not rare phenomena. The credit system is to a large degree blamed for this widespread failure or under-performance.

Therefore it can be concluded that, under credit system, the growth and emerge of outstanding young people has been at the cost of sacrifice of other youth’s development.

Coming from the educational system of China and Chinese culture, the author and some other Chinese scholars obtained a unique perspective. The credit system has been used in America for over a century. It is felt that its open and loose student administration in high school without strict discipline, has caused long-term invisible but negative influence on their citizen’s knowledge level and literacy skills; as well as the social stability and public safety.

The credit system is suitable for post secondary education. For secondary schools, authorities of education must be extremely cautious. The author believes that it would be advantageous for Canadian and American secondary schools to adopt class system at junior level, supplemented with some selective courses. For senior high schools, students’ administration and discipline has to be strengthened. Strictness and higher standards are critical for most students’ success.


Dr. Qianruo Shen, Aug. 2016

Chairperson, the Educational Quest Society of Canada

Ph.D. in Mathematics, Simon Fraser University, Canada

  1. Eng. Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, China

Undergraduate study, Physics Department, Peking University, China

Nearly 30 year experience as a teacher and educator


English proof reading & correcting: Honglian Qiang



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