No Peasant Left Behind

China has made great strides. Now can it fix its backward rural schools?

At South China Normal University's primary school, the walls at the campus gate are painted bright red, blue, and yellow. Inside, students in their colorful uniforms scurry past giant posters telling the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The leafy campus has three basketball courts, a track, and the latest in child-safe playground equipment. A new computer lab is packed with 30 Lenovo PCs and liquid-crystal display monitors, and there's a school Web site.

These are just some of the ample resources the government of Guangdong is lavishing on one of its pet educational projects. Because Beijing now considers overhaul of the school system to be critical to economic growth, public schools like South China Normal are being turned into laboratories where new pedagogical approaches are tried. The best methods will then be seeded across the nation's vast network of schools.

For one thing, educators are shifting away from lecturing and exam-based grades -- just as the U.S. is embracing more standardized metrics. In China, education czars are putting less emphasis on tests and more on in-class experiments and discussions. "Students cram and recite," says Shen Baiyu, director of curriculum development at the Education Ministry in Beijing. "They remember, but they don't understand." The lack of creativity, says Shen, is "a fatal disadvantage of Chinese education."

That educators are focused on such questions is testament, in a way, to how far China has come educationally. The country has achieved enough of the basics that planners can focus on the next level of pedagogical quality. Consider that China has a literacy rate of 85%, compared with just 60% at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the decade of radical upheaval that ended after Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Moreover, thanks to a mid-1980s policy to provide universal education for grades one through nine by 2000, the literacy rate among people between the ages of 12 and 40 is now 96%. "Almost every child can have a basic education," says Wei Yu, former Education Vice-Minister who is now a vice-president of the Chinese Association for Science & Technology. "That's a big achievement if you think how large our country is."


The scale of the educational challenge is indeed daunting. China has 218 million children in grade school through high school, more than the total populations of Japan and South Korea combined. There are over 10 million teachers and more than 500,000 schools in all, about 75% of which are scattered across the vast countryside, far from the coastal boomtowns. Elite schools like South China Normal may be well off, but overall spending is low: China spends just 3.2% of its gross domestic product on education, vs. 5% for the U.S., though that's more than ever before. "There is little doubt that [China's leaders] have done extremely well," says Gerard Postiglione, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong.

Today's big worry is that the system can't accommodate the next stage of growth. Beijing has prepared an ambitious road map for the country's educators, part of a broader goal for China to become a developed nation capable of competing with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in science and technology. Plenty of stellar grad students from China attend top U.S. universities, but the government wants to get more Chinese into the ranks of the highly educated at home. To do so, they have set a goal to push high school enrollment, now at 40%, up to 70% by 2010; university enrollment is to reach 20%, vs. 13% today. By 2020, the government wants 85% in high school, and it's aiming for university enrollment to exceed 40%. (In the U.S., the high school enrollment rate is about 93%, and university enrollment is about 60%.)


China's elite also worries that the school system favors wealthy areas along the coast at the expense of poor inland provinces. The disparities are stark in places like Pucheng, a rural county in north-central Shaanxi province about 60 miles from Xian, the ancient capital of the Han Dynasty. Unlike Guangzhou's cheerful schoolyards, Pucheng's schools are covered with grime. The students sit at backless wooden benches, two to a desk, in classrooms where the lights are turned off to save power. Puddles of water stain the cement floors.

Another rural feature: Boys far outnumber girls in many classes. Peasants traditionally favor boys and often keep their daughters out of school. More recently, the one-child policy has led to a preponderance of boys nationally, since some families are suspected of aborting female fetuses to make way for male children. The male-female discrepancy can be extreme: 9 girls to 21 boys in one class.

Pucheng schools don't have deluxe new computer labs, either. Administrators are happy to have one PC with a satellite dish for downloading education programs beamed to them from Beijing, part of a program for rural schools run by the Education Ministry. Sun Chengli, a 24-year-old Pucheng native, is in charge of training teachers how to use the equipment. It's not much compared with the largesse at Guangzhou schools, but it's a start. Training "is not very difficult," says Sun. "The teachers are all very motivated."


Closing the rich-poor gap has become a hot issue, especially since President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao took office in 2003. Both often talk about the need to alleviate poverty in interior provinces by encouraging more investment and infrastructure there. The overriding worry is that sharp inequality could lead to social unrest, which would in turn spook foreign investors, threaten economic development, and weaken Beijing's rule. "The lack of equality has caused serious concern," says Wang Rong, head of the department of education economics and administration at Peking University. "If you don't solve this problem, then you can really have trouble. Education is a starting point."

So Beijing has been working to ease the burden on families and governments in poor regions. A few years back it capped the amount schools can charge families for textbooks and miscellaneous fees to supplement meager school budgets. In 2003 the central government followed up by launching a $96 million-a-year program to subsidize the costs of textbooks in poor areas. Working with the charitable foundation of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, who funds many educational initiatives, the government has provided satellite dishes and PCs to 70,000 schools in the countryside, at a cost of $1.2 billion, with plans to double that amount by 2007. "There are lots of smart students in the villages, but they're not exposed to information and knowledge," says Wang Zhuzhu, deputy director of the national center for educational technology at the Education Ministry. "It's important to change the mind-set."

Like the U.S., though, China has a decentralized education system in which local governments foot much of the bill. Funding can vary widely, depending on a province's fortunes. Shaanxi is one of China's poorest, with a per capita income of just $170, vs. $1,800 in Guangzhou. The provincial government spent just $72 million on education last year for 10 million students in all grades. In a new program, officials plan to exempt 1.6 million students from some school fees. But given widespread poverty, Lu Mingkai, deputy director general of the provincial education bureau, says there are limits to what the province can do. "People's desire for good, quality education has significantly increased; everybody wants their child to go to the best school," he says. "But there's a gap."

Even wealthy cities have their problems, namely legions of migrant workers who arrive in search of jobs. The size of the "floating population" is estimated at 120 million, about 8 million of them school-age children. In Beijing alone, there are 340,000 migrant children, many of whom aren't permitted to attend the city's schools. So they enter schools set up by the migrants themselves that are unlicensed and often located in run-down neighborhoods. Even so, migrant families, which make about $900 a year, pay more than $100 per child to attend. There are more than 200 such schools in the capital, estimates Han Jialing, professor at the Institute of Sociology of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. Recently, responding to the government's prodding on inequality, Beijing has let about 240,000 migrant children attend official schools, up from 80,000 two years ago.

The new measures should help some of China's poor families. But even as educators talk about addressing educational inequality and revamping curriculums, scoring well on entrance exams remains the key to upward mobility in the Chinese school system. And unlike poor families in Shaanxi, the wealthy residents of cities like Guangzhou have the cash to help their children do well. Chen Xuqi, a 13-year-old student at South China Normal's primary school, says she and her friends spend weekends at cram seminars to study English and math. They're getting ready to enter junior high school and want to ace the entrance exams. "We always talk about this," says Chen in near-perfect English. "All the people want to get into a good school." For China's education reformers, coming up with the money is just the start.

By Bruce Einhorn

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