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Students inNanjing city, in east China’s Jiangsu province, will soon experience a fashionable way of study. They can leave heavy school bags at home, and take iPads into the classroom instead, as necessities such as books and papers will be replaced by the high-tech gadget.

On March 24, teachers at Jinling High School told senior high students who plan to study in the United States that all newly admitted senior three students will be required to use iPads in class once the new term begins in September. The policy, which has been discussed extensively online since the announcement, will possibly be extended to all the school’s students.

Xin Qihua, vice director of the international department of Jinling High School, said using iPads can set students free from the burden of school bags and it can also improve interaction between them and teachers, who can raise questions through the devices and review all answers from the students immediately.

Xin added that iPads can also give students access to many new foreign educational resources, which will contribute to their preparation for the SAT, TOFEL and AP exams, and it can help them spend up to 90 percent less on teaching materials.

The measure was hailed by many young people. Micro-blogger “secret cannot be told” posted on popular micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, “I am so jealous. I have an iPad too, but I am not even allowed to take it to the classroom.”

However, many people expressed doubt in the efficacy of the reform and some worried that it may have side effects on the students.

“Buzhiyubu” wrote, “Although it is worth trying, children who lack self-discipline may waste time in playing games.”

Meng Qun, a teacher involved in the program, said, “The teacher has technical control over all the iPads, and students will be prevented from installing any games.”

In an attempt to lighten the load on students in China’s primary and high schools, several local governments have recently been trying to expand the use of “electronic school bags,” a term which refers to mobile devices such as tablets and laptops.

However, Yin Fei, professor with Nanjing Normal University, said, “It is a fallacy to reduce students’ burdens by introducing electronic devices.The excessive burden on students’ shoulders is not from the weight of school bags, but the flawed educational system itself.”

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To the surprise of many, three-year-old Xuanxuan chose a book rather than an iPad when she was offered the two.

It’s admirable as many parents see it. They are upset by their babies’ obsession with iPad and TV.

Xuanxuan’s mother, Lu Xiaoling, fromNanjing, shared her experience online of turning her iPad baby to a book kind of girl.

She said she has bought her daughter more than 600 books at home.

“Unlike other children, Xuanxuan loves to read from the bottom of her heart and she asks me to read books for her every day,” said Lu. “The number of books may be huge for a child but most of the 600 books are what she likes and no one of them is forced by us adults for her to read.”

She also told the reporter that many of her friends’ children are iPad fans. When the adults meet, the children always “forget to eat or sleep” but playing with iPads all the time. She said it’s a result of parents’ guidance. As she thought TV is not good for the eyesight of children, her family would not watch TV at home after her daughter was born and iPad is also a no for her daughter.

All kinds of colorful picture books opened a new world for Xuanxuan. Her love for books has led Xuanxuan to quickly adapt to the life in kindergarten – she never cried. A kindergarten teacher appraised her as “giving, communicable and with her own thoughts”.

Xuanxuan’s story has won many yes’s from parents who are “enlightened” and say will make great efforts in fostering the reading habit for their children by reading books to them from then on.

 

I saw it coming out of the corner of my eye. Maybe it was the fake Uggs or the velour sweat pants that had “YUMMY” embroidered across the backside.

She was out of place in the small gathering, which was enough to get her the “look” – the human equivalent of an MRI scan, only instead of calculating your current state of health, the purpose is to rate you on the social food chain.

I knew that look well.

Whenever I pop in a Cartier or Louis Vuitton to ask for directions, the shop girls fix their steely gaze on me.

I felt sorry for the Uggs girl. As she approached the group, they pulled in their wagon trains together and closed in ranks.

Mean Girls, we like to believe, are an unpleasant vestige of our youth, that we’ve left behind those days of being socially streamed into either the popular cliques or the after-school clubs of outcasts. But insecurity and status tend to shadow us into adulthood.

Most of us at one time or another have, upon meeting new acquaintances, received the 30-second verdict.

To be fair, we ourselves crank up the scanner, too.

For men, this is the time when bragging rights over their stock market portfolio, property listings, Phuket vacation home and name card details trumps any thinning hairline, rice barrel belly and leather-like man purses.

But women, even commanding women, are made to walk the plank of style over substance.

Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world, has to withstand as much criticism over her efforts as the US Secretary of State as in her choice of clothing.

A peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be appreciated so much more if only she negotiated the pact in a slimming Chanel creation rather than the department store pants suits she favors.

Ironically, Mean Girls who are largely insecure themselves, prey on the cultural messages that heighten our own insecurities.

The modus operandi is to form a power base of selected insiders and grow stronger through excluding others. A poor grasp of manners works to their advantage with unreturned and ignored invitations substituting for outright rejection.

However, with age comes maturity. Or does it? Do we really care if we’re seen as winners or losers? Honestly, many of us do.

We place a value on ourselves according to what we accomplish against the shifting winds of society. We place that same judgment on others in line with their achievements and possessions. And it all becomes an ocean of subjectivity.

Accessing one another by our accomplishments, looks and background, though, is a game for suckers.

It was Ecclesiastes who, viewing mankind’s drive, wrote: “But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless – like chasing the wind.”

He observed tangible items are useless once we die. Our deeds are quickly forgotten by the living. And the wealth we build up is passed to others, whom we have no control over.

It’s comforting to know that the real measure of a man or woman can be made by the positive impact they had on others.

The sibling who always had your back on the schoolyard. The friend who patiently listened to your woes. The chatty neighbor who solicited donations for the homeless shelter. Your boss who acted as your sounding board long after you left the company. Your spouse who forgave you too many times to count.

Our true value is not subject to the prescribed thoughts and conditions of others.

Our true value is the legacy we leave in life and in death.

It cost me a double ice mocha, but the Uggs girl and I ditched the group later and went for coffee.

But I’m no saint. I really wanted to know where to get those velour pants

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Li, who works at a State-owned company, is paying 100,000 yuan ($15,870) for her 3-year-old son Jiabao to go to kindergarten this year.

“I don’t mind how much I spend on my child’s education, as long as the kindergarten proves a good one for my kid’s growth,” said Li, who did not wish to give her full name.

“He is going to be educated in Western countries, so he has to get ready and be able to speak English fluently.”

Nor did Li want to identify the name of her son’s school in the Wangjing area of the capital, where he started this month, but she said it promises a cozy environment, teachers from foreign countries, or Chinese teachers who can speak fluent English, and high-quality education.

“I like their teaching philosophy, which makes me happy, and hope will make my son happy,” she added. “I want my money to go to the right place.”

Another school, Beijing BISS International charges as much as 109,800 yuan a year for its kindergarten and first grade. The school, in the Chaoyang district, has a reputation for providing high-quality education, with its graduates having been accepted by top universities, such as Harvard and Columbia.

The school currently has more than 330 students of about 40 different nationalities. BISS believes that smaller class sizes make for better academic performance and communication.

Etonkids Huizhi Bilingual Kindergarten’s Datunli campus is much less expensive, charging 68,000 yuan a year but is soon to raise fees by 10 percent.

The school says it caters for children aged 2 to 6 whose parents are “working professionals”.

Etonkids Huizhi, which now has 100 children since it opened in 2010, runs six classes with three or four teachers. Class sizes range from 12 to 25. Another class due to start next month for under-3s is already full.

Places available at Golden Kids Kindergarten in Tongzhou district, east Beijing, are also scarce.

“You’d better make the decision as soon as possible,” said a recruitment teacher named Yang from the school, which charges 60,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan a year. “The last spot might be taken any time.”

The kindergartens justify their fees, claiming they spend heavily on hiring qualified teachers, especially those who hold foreign passports. Chinese parents, they say, prefer a bilingual environment and believe their children will adapt better to English at an early age.

“Basically I create an English environment for children, and speak as much as I can,” said a 24-year-old English language teacher at Etonkids Datunli Campus. “The more they hear language, the more naturally they learn.”

The teacher holds a bachelor of psychology degree from one of the top 100 colleges in the United States. He joined Etonkids a year ago.

However, having an overseas teacher doesn’t come cheap. Another foreign teacher with Etonkids said they earned between 120,000 and 156,000 yuan a year, depending on experience and qualifications.

A Chinese kindergarten teacher’s average annual salary in Beijing ranges from 9,600 to 36,000, according to report from Education Online website.

The monthly fee for public-funded kindergartens is less than 2,000 yuan.

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Arecent audit at Dickinson State University in the United States will have made uncomfortable reading for parents in China.

Over the last four years, according to the audit, the college in North Dakota had issued diplomas to 400 foreign students despite their failure to complete the required coursework.

Roughly 95 percent of these students were Chinese.

It was just one of several controls “waived or intentionally overridden or ignored” by DSU, according to the audit, which has again cast a spotlight on the risks families face in paying out huge sums to have their children educated overseas.

Such investments often create what sociologists call “the new urban poor”.

“Parents are surrendering their last resources to wager them on a child’s future by sending them abroad,” said Lao Kaisheng, an education policy researcher at Capital Normal University. “If these children don’t get the decent jobs and the salary that is expected, their parents will naturally be sucked into poverty.”

Ministry of Education data show that more than 330,000 people nationwide went abroad for study in 2011, making China the largest supplier of students to Western schools.

The desire to send offspring to schools overseas has existed for decades, although today it is largely fueled by the belief that it gives youngsters an advantage in the tough domestic employment market.

However, not many Chinese families have enough saved in the bank to cover the tuition fees and accommodation and living expenses involved in overseas study potentially hundreds of thousands of yuan. Instead, many are choosing to take on massive debt at a critical time in their own life.

It is a gamble, experts say, and the stakes are high.

“People need to think over the input and potential output, as well as the risks that any investment brings,” said Zhang Jianbai, who runs a private school in Yunnan province and is a self-proclaimed “explorer” of new education models.

He said that parents in small cities across his southwestern province, many of whom earn just 2,000 yuan ($320) a month, often sell their apartments to fund their children’s study overseas.

“Those who are now suffering trouble (owning property is important in Chinese culture) or financial difficulties would not have been in this position had they chosen a more suitable way to educate their children,” he added.

Differences in quality

After graduating from the university in his native Guangdong province two years ago, Wang Jianhai was sent to Texas to get a master’s degree, which his family believed would give him an edge in the job market.

His father worked at an electronics factory in Zhuhai and earned more than 10,000 yuan a month, so the adventure was not a great financial burden. However, after his return, 26-year-old Wang was no better prepared to find work.

Even his English skills had not improved, he said, as “we stayed with other Asians most of the time”.

Eventually, his parents had to invest more money to help their only son eke out a meager living by running his own electronics store.

“He hasn’t earned a penny back for us, even though we’ve taken care of him for 26 years, while other people his age might have earned more than 200,000 yuan by now,” said his 66-year-old father, who did not want to be identified.

“We could have had a decent life after retirement with our savings, but now we’ve painted ourselves into a tight corner,” he added bitterly.

Wang said his father has had to quit his favorite hobbies swimming and rock climbing to save money. He added: “It’s not just the lack of money, the feeling we’re now poor makes me really ashamed when I’m with friends.”

Although parents see an overseas education as a shortcut to success, experts argue that very few truly understand the vast differences in quality that exist among colleges in developed nations.

“The quality of the schools is varied, from heaven to earth,” said Lao at Capital Normal University.

In the United States, for example, one of the most popular destinations for Chinese students, options stretch from world-renowned Ivy League universities, such as Harvard or Yale, to about 3,000 community colleges. There are also many diploma mills, which require very little or even no academic study.

Zhou Rong, a senior advisor at New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting, said that although every student dreams of going to a prestigious college in the US, many fall victim to diploma mills.

She provides guidance to at least 300 students every year and said only one or two academic stars will make it into an Ivy League college, with rest enrolled in common or even “nameless institutes”.

“Regardless of where they end up, ultimately the value of a diploma (in this country) has been undermined due to the sheer amount of people who pursue one,” Zhang in Yunnan added. “It’s extremely silly for someone to pay such a high price for a diploma.”

Looking abroad

Despite the struggles being experienced by families and returned students nationwide, the demand for places at overseas colleges does not show any sign of abating.

All 35 final-year students in a class at No 1 Middle School affiliated to Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei province, have decided not to take the national college entrance exam in June; each has instead been admitted to a higher education institute in the US.

Special classes for students applying to universities overseas have also become common at schools nationwide.

Zhou Haoyu is part of such a class at Shanghai Yan’an High School. He said he has 21 classmates, which means one in every 18 final-year students is looking to go abroad.

Education industry insiders say foreign colleges have become increasingly eager to profit from this trend among Chinese students, especially since the start of the financial crisis.

“At international education fairs, which attract colleges from across the globe, any lecture or symposium about how to enroll Chinese students is guaranteed to get a full house,” said Chen Danli, marketing manager at Aoji Enrollment Center of International Education, a consultancy service in Beijing.

Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University of China, said everybody knows Chinese parents are willing to spend money on their children, but he warned that those looking to benefit today are largely “second- and third-rate colleges that don’t offer scholarships or subsidies”.

As with any investment, foregoing due diligence dramatically increases the risk of making a loss. That is why Yunnan principal Zhang Jianbai says it is essential for families to take a pragmatic approach, so as to prevent them from wasting money and ending up in debt.

Parents need to be reasonable, he said, as well as “clear about what they expect from the study period mental development or practical skills”.

Personalities must also be taken into account, experts say, as not every youngster will be suited to the challenges of overseas study, which involves extra stresses such as coming to terms with language, lifestyle and culture differences, and requires a lot of self-discipline.

Only by looking closely at the road ahead can parents avoid the pitfalls, Lao at Capital Normal University said.

“Using money that had been intended to improve the living conditions of people in later years to make blind investments in education will ultimately be wasted,” he warned.

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