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Left-behind children E-mail
Friday, 17 November 2017 08:25


GUEST COLUMN, John Richard Schrock, Education Frontlines

Over many trips to China, I am sometimes given a formal dinner on my last day. And it is usually attended by a party secretary at the chair, dean or even university level. It is a unique feature of Chinese institutions that there are two persons in many administrative positions: one who manages the position and another who oversees the position to make sure it does not wander away from the ideals of the Party.

It is at this time at universities that train teachers that I am not particularly polite. “What is this university doing to get good teachers to go back and teach in the countryside?” I ask. 

“There are full-ride scholarships, free university tuition, to students who will go back,” is the answer.

“I know,” I reply. “But when I spoke to graduating teachers at Yunnan Normal, there were over 50 who had come from the countryside and only five took the scholarships. I asked the other rural students. Their parents scraped together and borrowed money to send them to school rather than have them come back to poverty.” 

“Okay. Well we have this Westward Expansion Programme where we send college students to teach in the countryside,” was the comeback.

“I have talked with some of them, and they appreciate the experience. But they are not trained teachers and their numbers are far too low.” I continue, “You need over a million trained science teachers alone in countryside schools. This did not touch the problem.”

“Well, we really have not solved this problem,” is the ultimate reply.

I mention that prior Premier Zhu Rongji (1998—2003) said that providing equity in education is the most important problem for China to solve. And then that “Zhou En-lai would not be happy,” a real heavy political statement since Zhou En-lai is greatly respected in China.

So far, China has still not succeeded in getting highly qualified teachers to the countryside schools. Instead, the countryside is coming to the cities. In some cases, young parents bring their child with them. But lacking a city birth document (hu kou), the child must attend a migrant school. And those schools pay poorly and have problems similar to countryside schools.

One secretary stated that they intended to rotate the best teachers from the regular schools through the migrant schools and thus even out this inequity. But the few public school teachers I have had the opportunity to talk with have said that there is no way they can be forced to rotate out of their Number One school. So the good intentions of the Party face an insoluble problem.   

Not all of the adult couples that move to the city take their children with them (many rural couples have had more than one child for some time). In China, there are over 6 million “left-behind” children living with grandparents. They attend the poor rural schools where a high school teacher may not have more than a high school education.

In China, divorce remains rare. Parental support of a child’s academics at home is normal and expected. Having Mom or Dad help you every night with the heavy homework load is an important part of a student keeping up in school. But when a child comes home to a less-educated, retired grandparent, it is hard for that grandparent to give them academic help when, on average, a rural Chinese farmer has less than an 8th grade education.

Due to their longstanding birth control policy, their school population across China has been coming down for a decade.  Massive numbers of citizens have moved from rural to urban areas. Rules on students returning to their birth home for the graduation test (gao kao) are being eased, so that migrant students can remain and take the test in big cities where their parents migrated.

These hard-working migrant parents are sacrificing to make a better life for their child. And all grandparents across China, rural and urban, are very much involved in their grandchildren as well. But this difference in educational opportunity remains unfair.

Chinese university campuses post signs showing the face of a rural student looking up from struggling with his or her homework, and the billboard asks “Do you have the time to help?”

Six million rural Chinese children — equal to twice the total population of Kansas — are “left behind.”    




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