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.