Today my co-worker informed me that she would be sending her 14 year-old son to study in New Zealand, and she was understandably sad about it. For the last year he has struggled to meet the school’s standards, but has been left behind by teachers who care more about their own performance bonuses than helping him reach his potential. He is a good kid, who simply does not fit the model of Chinese education. His family feels like there are no decent choices for educating him in China, but hate to be separated.
My co-worker revealed part of the problem when she explained that every night he’s given hours of homework focused on memorizing answers. He doesn’t see the point, and she doesn’t either. After all even with her help, his English grades are only mediocre, and she has been handling English communications for the hospital for 2 decades (not error free, but certainly good enough). “Their grammar points aren’t practical, and none of them learn how to actually speak” she said, and from what I’ve seen, it seems to be a fair assertion.
Part of the problem is that China has attempted to develop faster than any other nation in the history of the world, which has provided many benefits, but seems now to be the source of many problems as well. Problems like: excess infrastructure, poor construction, rural protests, and a myriad of other concerns. While it’s clear that it is possible to build at record speeds, it’s not really possible to gain experience at the same speed.
This problem can be seen quite clearly in education. It’s an undisputed fact that there are thousands of English teachers, Chinese and foreign alike, that are not able to speak English fluently and clearly. So these teachers focus instead on text based activities that help cover their own deficiencies. Of the universities I have worked for, there have always been several teachers who have exclaimed that I was the first foreigner they had ever spoken to.
The problem is that China continues building (and expanding English programs) regardless of the ability to staff these projects. In education we can see that between 1978 and 2011, China established over 1,900 universities, and expanded enrollment from 850,000 students to over 22 million. If you do the math, you would see that schools have gone from an average of 850 students per campus, to over 11,000 in just 30 years. The lack of qualified professors seems to have been of little concern, as China heralded the success of expanding education.
In the effort to improve health care, China built nearly 20,000 clinics, hospitals, and health centers over the last few years, but only trained 60,000 new general practitioners. Of the health professionals I’ve talked with, experience is far more important than med-school itself, so these new graduates barely make a dent in the need for qualified medical staff. While the effort to expand health care should be applauded, it is not enough to simply build clinics, it will be years before these facilities are actually staffed with experienced practitioners.
In another discussion I had this week with a foreign engineer working here, I was told that crashes like the ones in Wenzhou and Shanghai were unavoidable without experienced operators. My Chinese friend quickly pointed out that this would mean that China shouldn’t be rushing ahead with new technologies, but instead be more cautious in expanding. The engineer agreed and shrugged his shoulders wondering out loud if the government would actually be willing to slow down. He said, “My company has provided many technology transfers to our Chinese partner, but simply having the hardware, and being able to build a safe and effective system requires much more than that.”
While China has seen nearly a hundred years of change in just thirty glorious years (note to self, it’s time to cut back on the People’s Daily reading), it has been largely a superficial change. Teaching methodology, medical experience, and engineering competency are still lagging behind what the infrastructure might suggest. For my co-worker’s son, it means he will be leaving behind his family and country for the next 4-5 years, and might never return, for others it has been far more costly.
Important note: I do not mean to say that all change has been pointless, simply that there are limits to how fast a country can develop. Literacy is up across the board as a result of expanded primary education, but English proficiency is still a distant dream and university education does not compare to Western universities. Life expectancy is up across the board, but this is partially a result of the civil war ending, and putting a stop to many of the Party’s early and disastrous policies. These numbers are also skewed in favor of China’s eastern cities, with life expectancy still lagging behind in the countryside. China has built thousands of miles of road and rail, which have helped improve China’s economy, but they are now crumbling under the weight of their own debt and occasionally simply crumbling from poor construction.