Can China Successfully Educate Its Future Workforce?

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A student raises his hand to answer a question inside a classroom at a branch of Lingzhi primary school, which is housed inside a rented four-storey residential building, in Wuhan, Hubei province, Nov. 14, 2011. The civilian-run school, founded in 1999 mainly for children of migrant workers, has about 600 students in its two branches.

With dirt streaking their faces and clothes, children shout and run around a concrete courtyard that doubles as a playground at the Dexin School. Minutes later, they squirm in their seats after being corralled into classrooms with bars on the windows. Their voices can be heard disrupting their English class as American volunteers try to get them to repeat phrases like "You are beautiful."

This private school in a provincial capital of southern China educates some of the country's most disadvantaged students. They are all so-called migrant students who have moved with their parents from the countryside to cities. At Dexin, volunteers and often underqualified teachers work on a shoestring budget with impoverished students whose parents might earn as little as $2 a day. Parents choose Dexin and other schools like it because they are shut out of public institutions.

While China aims to continue to modernize its economy, the plight of millions of migrant children at Dexin and other substandard urban schools could jeopardize the nation's ability to grow and develop a skilled workforce, experts warn.

Chinese law prohibits people from moving without government approval, a policy aimed at keeping its 1.3 billion citizens evenly distributed. Even so, hundreds of millions have fled rural areas to China's cities in recent decades in hopes of finding work, most often low-wage, low-skill jobs. Once they arrive, municipal governments are typically either unwilling or unable to offer public services like health care and education.

In an effort to help educate this growing segment of the population, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations — as well as individual citizens — have set up thousands of schools, mostly at the elementary level, for migrant children. At many, like Dexin, finding enough teachers and funding to get by can be a Herculean task. The result is frequently a subpar education that researchers say could harm the country in the long run.

"It's a large, enormous and growing problem, and it requires the immediate attention of China's national authorities," says Matthew Boswell, a project manager for Stanford University's Rural Education Action Project (REAP), which is working to reduce China's rural-urban education-achievement gap. "I don't see any sign of that happening instantly, but the problem will only get bigger."

China has depended on urbanization to fuel its growing economy, but the migrant student population is of increasing concern. For China to maintain superpower status, its workforce needs to be more literate and better educated, according to Boswell.

In 2010, China stunned the world when 15-year-olds from Shanghai beat their peers around the globe on international assessments in reading, math and science. (American 15-year-olds finished in the bottom half of the pack.) China's reluctance to provide quality schooling to all its students, though, could result in millions of migrant children becoming unemployable as adults.

"Those kids growing up in urban schools, they'll probably have no problem," Boswell says. "The people who are the same age as them but grew up in a migrant community, there's just no way" they'll be able to compete.

"I can't think of other problems that have such far-reaching impacts on society," says Henan Cheng, a researcher at Loyola University Chicago who has studied migrant education in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. "Just think of the size of the migrant population."

Exact figures aren't available, but some nonprofits say there are more than 225 million migrants living in Chinese cities. Just over 10% of them, or 25 million, are children. (Many parents leave their children behind with relatives when they move to urban areas in search of work.) As urban migration continues, authorities are bracing for more than 350 million migrants by 2050.

On paper, the situation is improving. In 2006 the Chinese government allowed migrant children to enroll in public schools, and some local governments now offer subsidies to private migrant schools. Yet specific policies are decided at the municipal level, and insurmountable barriers often keep migrant students out of public schools.

In some cities, students must obtain seven official certificates — documenting things like where they were born — before they can enroll in a public school. Migrant students may also be required to pay tuition as high as 1,000 yuan a semester — about $150 — which their city-born peers aren't charged, according to Compassion for Migrant Children, a China-based nonprofit that runs schools and community centers for migrant children in Beijing.

In Kunming, where the local government has made an effort to increase migrant access to education over the past five years, about 50% of migrant students are able to attend public schools, Cheng says. Yet these students are often segregated from urban children and sent to the worst public schools. The rest — if they go to school at all — attend schools like Dexin.

At Dexin, about two-thirds of the students pay an annual tuition of a few hundred yuan — about $40 to $60 — while families who can't come up with the money attend for free, second-year teacher Zhao Gui Shun says through a translator. For parents who work as day laborers, it may take a month to earn enough for tuition. Dexin also receives a small government subsidy: about $8 a year for each of its 400 children.

The tight budget takes its toll, particularly when it comes to finding teachers. Zhao describes Dexin's employees as "half-teacher, half-volunteer," noting that their salaries are significantly lower than those of their peers in public schools.

The students at migrant schools also tend to have behavior problems and come from unstable homes. "All the parents care about is making enough money [to make ends meet]," says Zhao, who was called out of a meeting with a visitor at one point to calm a class of shrieking children that teenage volunteers from the U.S. were struggling to control. "They don't realize they have to help teach kids."

Such factors lead many migrant schools to have high teacher-turnover rates and difficulty in attracting qualified candidates. According to a 2011 study by REAP, only 48% of teachers in migrant schools in Beijing had a college degree. Still, teachers must use the same elementary-school curriculum that conventional public schools do — covering the basics of math, science, history and Chinese, for instance — to prepare those who plan on taking the middle-school entrance exam.

The same study also found that, although migrant students outperformed students in poor rural areas, they did worse than students in urban public schools. Migrant students who were able to enroll in public schools, however, did significantly better on tests than their peers in migrant-only schools. The report's authors concluded that "the longer students are enrolled in migrant schools, the worse their performance becomes."

Teachers like Zhao still feel their work is hugely important, especially when compared with the alternative for migrant children. "If it weren't for this school, maybe some kids would just pick up food on the street or become beggars," Zhao says. "There's no future for them."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.