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The education gap is tangible in rural China

Children from urban areas in China are 6.3x more likely to attend a university than children from the countryside, largely because of the better primary and secondary education in the cities. However, I didn’t need to see the statistics to know that this was true.

My first year in China was spent in rural Guangxi as a placement with a Chinese charity. Of the dozen or so “needy” schools we were working with at the time, mine was considered to be one of the poorest, and was located in a small county an hour from the freeway. Some of my students’ families earned less than 1,000rmb per year as farmers, and the majority owned less than 4 sets of clothes.

My students came from the surrounding countryside and a few from further away, for virtually all 300 of them, my class was the first place they had seen a foreigner in the flesh. The few students who came from Nanning or Liuzhou (the big cities) were noticeably taller and heavier than the other students, their English was better too.

In the countryside, students were being taught English by listening to their teacher read dialogues, and lecture on grammar in Chinese (or more often Baihua, the local dialect, since many of the teachers had failed their Mandarin exams). Given the circumstances it wasn’t surprising that after 6+ years of English, few students could muster more than “Hello, my-a name-a is-a…”

A few of these students hoped to work in foreign companies as sales staff or translators (the most prized job placement in China at the time), while many others set their sights on Guangdong province where they mostly ended up working in hotel restaurants or working in low-end retail. Most students though knew that their place in life was to be an English teacher, a spot that few of them cherished.

Their parents had insisted on this career for them because teaching was a stable job, and it would keep them close to home (which is highly valued by parents without any real retirement plan). The students who took these positions generally had the lowest grades in the class, and it was depressing for everyone involved.

I like to think that my year spent teaching was of some value to them and their future students. However as we’ll see over the next few days, it’s not just teachers that are failing, it’s the entire system.

In the 3 years after I left Nanning Teachers College (college is 3 years, university is 4), it was promoted to Guangxi Teacher’s College for Minorities, and then to Guangxi Teacher’s University for Minorities. These promotions came without any significant improvements to the infrastructure, teaching standards, or management (for more on this read: Chinese education evaluators are passing failing schools). In fact the entire Foreign Languages department still only has one professor with a Master’s degree, and that is the dean of the department.

Things were not much better at my second school either. Rats lived in one of the few multi-media rooms, and the projector seemed to malfunction every time I used it (other teachers reported the same difficulty). Yet these institutions are tasked with somehow reversing this growing inequality between rural and urban education.

Over the next few days, we’ll be exploring how the educational gap has grown so quickly, what systemic problems underlie these inequalities, and search for hope in China’s trial programs that are aiming to put the country’s system back on track.


21 Comments

  1. yaxue c. says:

    I have heard from several first-hand sources that many villages have closed the village schools in recent years due to lower enrollment, but as a result, the children have to go a long way to attend just elementary school. Some of the villages are not small villages, but villages with thousands of people. I found the news very disturbing and heart-breaking. Yesterday I was walking around the block with a friend of mine from college she was here to send her daughtor to attend U Penn’s undergraduate program. I said it is such a shame that China is doing so little for the education of the rural kids… As I went on giving some examples I became very passionate, but my friend merely chuckled and enhhed and seemed to me utterly unresponsive. I said, “XX, it costs so little to give the children school! What could possibly have prevented your party from doing this?” (I had just found that she was a veteran party member).

    The apathy is such you feel like smashing it with a hand grenade.

    • Tom says:

      There are several “back to school” programs, like this one (http://www.amityfoundation.org/wordpress/projects/education/school-project/) that allow you to sponsor a child in rural schools. It costs roughly $50 to educate a child in rural China for a full year, and my wife and I are very happy to contribute to programs like this one. Its something I am passionate about too, and I hope that it shows.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Your friend doesn’t care eh! As long as HER daughter gets to be educated in USA!! I think these sponsor a child’s education programmes are excellent (I sponsor a boy in Uganda) but why should we do it when veteran party members don’t give a stuff! It makes me mad too!!

  2. yaxue c. says:

    Thanks Tom for the link. Shame on me too as I have not done my part, no matter how small, to give a little help.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    美丽,you are right! I joke with my friend, trying to have a good time, but I know there is a chasm the size of a sea between us. Part of the reason I haven’t done anything so far is the lack of confidence. Tom mentioned the Red Cross scandal, and before there was the Hope Project (希望工程)scandal. That was a project aimed specifically to help build schools and sponsor poor children in rural areas. Google a little bit, and you will hear all about it. It is just nauseating! A couple of years ago, a friend of mine worked in a village as a member of a “Helping the Poor” (扶贫)team. Since he was on the ground and he is a good man I can trust, I wrote him asking if I could send some money to set up a small library for the children. He told me, “I will see about it,” but I never heard from him again. My instinct is that, they went as a team sent by the government, they had their ways of doing things, and they didn’t want me (a fake American but not a genuine Chinese either) to be part of it and possibly complicate things for them. I am afraid that, without a comprehensive governmental approach, it’s hard for the rural education to thrive on handouts by well-intentioned individuals.

    • Tom says:

      This is one of the fundamental issues that has to be grappled with when doing charity/aid/development work anywhere. Is helping the poorest, and most oppressed peoples, actually helping the government continue to oppress them? Is it worth letting them suffer so that someday they will rise up against the powers that be? I think this mentality envisions some kind of populous uprising, while slowly providing better education in the countryside is necessary to eventually lead to the changes that help them free themselves.
      Many people have pointed out that Tian’anmen square failed because it did not have support in the countryside, but would education have changed how those villagers saw the demonstrations?
      Charities may also help people realizes how many things are left undone by the Party, this is why N. Korea is fearful of aid.

      • Yaxue C. says:

        Excellent point, Tom. Even if charities/aids do the last thing, that is “help people realizes how many things are left undone by the Party,” it is a worthwhile enough cause to engage in. What is the Chinese government’s attitude toward the kind of charity you worked for before? It would be great if you could give us a post on that down the road.

  4. Jin Zhao says:

    There’s a regional gap as well. I grew up in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. Although Kunming is a medium-sized city, Yunnan is a remote province that has been historically deprived of economic and, certainly, educational resources. In fact, kids from my province are disadvantaged in many ways. For instance, when I was applying for college, many top universities’ foreign language studies programs (such as Peking University and Beijing Foreign Studies University), especially those in major languages such as English, did not even accept students from Yunnan province. We were left with options to Vietnamese, Thai, or Burmese if we were to apply for these school, because Yunnan borders or very close to countries these languages are spoken. I ended up in Beijing Foreign Studies University, which was one of the best that actually accepted students from Yunnan. When I started college, I realized that students from Beijing had way lower scores in the college entrance exam. With their scores, there was no way that students from Yunnan could be accepted to my school.

    • Tom says:

      The gaps flow in three ways, from rural -> Urban, From small cities -> big cities, and from west -> east. Rural students make up only 10% of Peking universities total, down from 30% just 20 years ago. I’ll be talking a lot more about these issues in the next few days.

  5. Lao Why? says:

    Being connected and getting into a good school is no guarantee that the student will benefit. They have to be willing to learn. I work for a company in the financial industry. We go through new hire interviews about twice a year. I have become very jaded about anyone served up with a Chinese university degree. I have even had grads of Beida and Tsinghua that know nothing about the field they were supposed to have studied. Either they lie about their degrees or they skated through by cheating and buying papers or most mainland universities are substandard. Probably elements of all 3.
    One lady with a PHD in real estate economics could not remember anything about her dissertation, completed only 5 years ago. Another was interviewed to be an English interpreter, having studied at a respected Beijing language university. Midway through the interview, I had to ask what her major was because I had assumed she studied English. She confirmed she majored in English but she could not carry on a simple conversation.
    To say resume inflation is a common practice in China is an understatement.
    Personally, I think Chinese today don’t so much value education as they value the degree.

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  7. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  8. […] who works in education in rural China and blogs at Seeing Red in China, shares his first-hand teaching experience in the Guangxi province, and analyses some of the systemic problems in the educational system of […]

  9. […] Tom, who works in education in rural China and blogs at Seeing Red in China, shares his first-hand teaching experience in the Guangxi province, and analyses some of the systemic problems in the educational system of […]

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  12. Sadly the disconnect between rural and urban access to education is not unique to China. Here in Australia we have an enormous problem with rural access to education. Often it as a result of the tyranny of distance and infrastructure. It is even worse when you start looking at the access of the indigenous rural population.
    It saddens me when I hear people talking about uneducated people as though they chose to be that way. As a teacher I always found people have an inherent need to learn. It is up to us as teachers and part of the system to ensure we provide the opportunity, resources and exciting teaching pedagogies that will inspire students.
    It may be that you cannot change the system but you can improve the experience of a few and that is valuable.

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  15. […] poor sanitation, limited access to medical treatment, and few opportunities at a better life. These rural schools are lacking, but at least offer a more stable environment for learning than the urban migrant […]

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