Much has been made of Chinese student achievement test scores, but inconvenient confounders are often ignored, such as that Chinese learn by rote. No teach in America wants to do that. Teachers are poorly paid and clean their own toilets.

And only elite kids take the tests. The non-elites were overwhelmingly decimated by China's one-child policy, a totalitarian government mandate enacted in 1979 to reduce the population until agriculture could catch up. However, it closed the education gap, at least for those not born illegally. And for those women who weren't aborted by government decree. 

Since there were so few women, the one-child policy accounted for about half of the additional education that women in China achieved after the policy was put in place, finds a new analysis. And since few men could get married, they stayed in school longer also. 

Image: The Ohio State University

The Han impacted most

The data are population figures from  the Chinese Family Panel Studies collected by the Chinese government since 2010, so caution is warranted. They don't release anything if it makes them look bad, and these data are meant to be spun so that their one child policy allowed women to achieve better education while ignoring how it decimated the female population in China. It focused on the Han, the ethnic majority in China who were most strictly impacted by the law. The analysis compared two groups: an older generation (born 1950-1959) whose education decisions would not have been affected by the one-child policy and a younger generation (born 1960-1980) whose decisions would be impacted.

As was the case everywhere in 1950, men had significantly more education than women born that year, but those men and women born in 1980 had about equal levels - nearly nine years of schooling. The authors concluded that, after taking into account other factors that could have affected educational attainment, the one-child policy was responsible for increasing Han women's years of schooling by 1.28 years compared to Han men. That explains 53 percent of the 2.38-year increase in education attainment of women born between 1950 and 1980.

A second analysis compared Han women to non-Han women in China who were not subject to the strict one-child policy. The results were nearly identical to the first analysis: The Han women's educational attainment increased by 1.29 years compared to non-Han women.

Communist elites benefited most

Looking specifically at young women who had one or more parents who were members of the ruling Communist party - and therefore could not hide from retribution if they did not get an exemption due to their status - the one-child policy had a more robust impact on increasing education among children.

After their schooling was over, the one-child policy delayed women's first marriages, delayed how soon they had a child, and increased how many entered the job market. Women who were only going to have one child were in no rush to settle, the competition for men was far greater.