It had become something of a ritual. Every three years, the OECD would release the results of its PISA exams, which are given to hundreds of thousands of students in dozens of countries. And every three years, an American freak-out would ensue as Chinese students seemed to be outperforming their U.S. counterparts by a wide margin.

In 2009, Shanghai students did so well — beating the world in math, science and reading — that President Barack Obama declared it a “Sputnik moment,” requiring immediate action. A similar panic broke out in 2012. But this year proved to be a surprise. The results from the 2015 tests, released this month, showed Chinese students ranked sixth in math, 10th in science and 27th in reading. What happened?

On one hand, the answer is simple. Instead of merely testing Shanghai’s elite, the 2015 exams included a broader selection of students across China, which dragged down scores. But the results also highlighted an important problem: China’s much-lauded education system remains riven by inequality, with far-reaching consequences for schools, students and, ultimately, the economy.

Unequal access to education is a centuries-old challenge in China. Traditionally, most Chinese have lived in the countryside, where the time, money and even the need for education was limited. Starting in the 1950s, the government began a largely successful effort to build a literate modern workforce. Between 1950 and 2001, China’s literacy rate improved from 20 percent to more than 85 percent. In 1986, the government adopted a nine-year compulsory education requirement.

Paying for that requirement, though, hasn’t been easy. Although the central government allocates some money to China’s schools, the bulk of funding is local. In rich cities, such as Shanghai, that generally works fine. Not so for China’s countryside, where money is so short that some schools can’t even provide desks, let alone books. Rural teachers typically earn one-third what their urban peers do — if they get paid at all. Inevitably, this leads to tension: Between 2014 and 2015, there were at least 168 “strike and protest” actions by rural teachers.

Ironically, China’s economic boom is worsening these problems. With plenty of jobs beckoning in the cities, tens of millions of Chinese have moved out of the countryside. But thanks to strict residency permit laws, their children aren’t allowed to attend city public schools. That leaves two options. Parents can enroll their children in local “migrant schools,” which tend to be inferior. Or they can leave them behind in the hands of relatives.

For the 61 million children who have been left behind, the educational outlook is grim. According to one study, only half of rural children have parents who read to them, compared with 78 percent of urban children. Rural kids would benefit greatly from preschool and kindergarten, but fewer than half have access to such programs, compared with 76 percent in the cities. In 2010, government researchers administered math and vocabulary tests to a broad range of students, and the results were damning: Rural students performed consistently worse than their urban counterparts, and the gap persisted even for children of intact rural families.

Those scores are indicative of a simmering economic dilemma. At a time when China’s leaders are trying to transform the economy from one reliant on factories to one based on services and knowledge-work, the country’s social and educational policies are blunting the ambitions of rural children. One survey found that 77 percent of urban children aspire to college, while only 59 percent of rural kids do. That’s a recipe for developing another generation of unskilled rural workers.

Fixing these problems won’t be easy. And many of them are out of the hands of government. But there are natural places to start, beginning with repealing the residency permit laws that too often separate children from their parents or relegate them to second-rate schools. Investment in early childhood education for rural kids could go a long way toward bridging achievement gaps. (China has lagged behind the global average in education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product for years.) And the government should lower the notoriously high fees that rural parents pay for public education.

In time, such steps might help transform China’s educational system into one better suited for the 21st-century economy. They might even ensure that China’s schools are worthy of the admiration they earn around the world.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist and author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”

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