Teacher education changes in China: 1974–2014

Nov. 01, 2014

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 5, 507–523, 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Since the 1970s, the Chinese political, economic and social sectors have experienced significant transformations, which have caused educational challenges. The quality of education, of the teaching force and of teacher education has become a major concern in educational reform.
This article examines the educational reforms conducted in China in the past 40 years.

Teacher Education Reforms

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, education in China, including teacher education, was severely damaged. Many teacher education institutions were closed, and the remaining institutions stopped admitting students for four years. In 1971, the university entrance examination was abolished and replaced by recommendation and nomination approaches. The candidates’ political qualities were accounted for initially in admission, and students were first selected from the ranks of workers and peasants, and then from the intellectual class. Therefore, most students who graduated from junior high schools were recruited to higher institutions, including teacher education institutions, these being known as ‘Normal’ (i.e. teachers’) universities. Teacher education programmes were shortened to two to three years, and according to Mao’s educational philosophy, the programmes were designed to prepare propagators of Mao Zedong Thought, soldiers of class struggles and good instructors who were loyal to education. Teachers’ continuing education was also cancelled.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Government shifted its focus to economic development, and then education and teachers were recognised as a key to the country’s development. With the population increase in China during the Cultural Revolution, the number of school-aged students increased after this period.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) published ‘Strengthening and Developing Teacher Education’ in 1978 and proposed to reset the closed, three-level teacher education institutions. Since that time, most institutions were rebuilt or newly established.
The shortened teacher education programmes were renewed in the 1980s, and normal school programmes, professional teacher college programmes, and university programmes were extended to three or four years, three years and four years, respectively. Since 1979, the MOE established a curriculum for each programme type and released them in 1981, and eventually all of the teacher preparation institutions adopted the unified curriculum.

Conducting compensatory training for teachers
The initial period for training elementary and secondary school in-service teachers was from 1977 to the early 1980s. The MOE organised several groups to write new textbooks for elementary and secondary schools in 1977 and required all schools to use the new textbooks since the fall of 1978. In this period, the minimum requirement for a qualified teacher was ‘knowing what you teach’.
The secondary period for in-service teacher training occurred from the middle of the 1980s to the middle of the 1990s. The State Council and Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) issued the ‘Decision on the Reform of Education’ in 1985, which stated that improving the quality of the teaching force was a strategic approach to reform education and urged the strengthening of training for teachers.

Facing the challenges of international competition regarding the nation’s strength in the twenty-first century, the Chinese Government recognised education as the basis for building national strength and determined that the degree of strong national strength depends on the quality of citizens. To fulfil the new requirements, the government deepened educational reform in different levels of education, particularly higher and basic education, and then began a new wave of transformation, which deeply influenced teacher education reform.

Reconstructing and opening teacher education systems
In 1999, the MOE presented the document ‘Suggestion on Restructuring the Teacher Education Institutions’ and changed the closed three-level institutions to an open two-level system. An additional two documents that were published later by MOE also required that teacher preparation gradually be implemented at the higher education level. Hence, reconstruction began, and secondary normal schools merged with three-year professional teacher colleges or changed to vocational schools. Some professional teacher colleges upgraded to four-year colleges or merged with other normal or comprehensive universities. The consequence of the reconstruction was that the number of normal schools decreased sharply.

Top-down mandated training for in-service teachers
To implement the new curriculum reform at the basic education level, the government policy for continuing teacher education focused on the new curriculum. The MOE required all teachers to be trained before teaching the new curriculum.
The main purpose of the new curriculum for teacher training focused on changing the traditional conceptions of teaching to learning new concepts, such as changing from passive to active learning, from the accumulation of prescribed content by memory to solving problems through inquiry and creativity.
With an unsatisfactory top-down in-service teacher training, an ambiguous understanding of curriculum reform, and problems that teachers faced while teaching the new curriculum, school-based teacher professional development was highly recommended and heavily relied on to help teachers implement the curriculum reform.
Finally, China is addressing many challenges, such as increasing population, resource and environmental pressures, and the accelerated transformation of the economic development mode. The quality of China’s human resources plays an important role in this era, and the Chinese Government will continue educational reform to build a powerful country based on its human resources. In short, the government attempted to improve quality through standardisation. With the introduction of new conceptions and requirements, teacher education institutions are facing new challenges.


The Chinese Government has conducted a top-down reform of teacher education over the past several decades. This reform has established a relatively stable teacher education system, regulated teacher education programmes and curricula, and provided an opportunity for in-service teachers to be trained and to upgrade their educational credentials. However, at the micro level, the teacher education process did not change significantly, except for the introduction of some innovative approaches, and there have been many problems for several decades. These problems have influenced the quality of teacher education. Although the government has issued new policies establishing the suggested standards for teacher education and indicating the macroscopic direction for teacher education.

Updated: Mar. 14, 2016