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August 26th, 2019

j r schrockGUEST COLUMN, John Richard Schrock, Education Frontlines


A population equal to two-thirds of the United States has moved from rural China to urban China in the last decade. This rapid draw-down in rural communities has resulted in villages of mostly elderly retirees and a shrinkage of rural schools. China's rapid educational expansion has been a 30-year miracle, dramatically raising the educational level of the younger generations. But this advancement has not been equal between countryside and city. And the shrinkage in rural schools is causing China to consolidate to improve quality.

When I speak to large groups of future biology teachers-in-training at their normal universities, I ask for hands of those who come from the countryside. In spite of more than half of China’s population living in rural areas ten years ago, usually only one-fourth of the students have come from those regions. When I ask how many of them are planning to go back to the countryside to teach, all hands drop. That is their problem.

Rural schools in China face a dramatic shortage of college-educated qualified science teachers--roughly a million nationwide. The term for a countryside person [nóng​mín, 农民] or “peasant” is a term that has the connotations of poor and uneducated. And poor pay and primitive living conditions is the reason new teachers will not return. Many country schools are staffed by teachers with less than a college education. This decreases the opportunity for students to get a good education and score high on the high school leaving exam or gāo​kǎo [高考]. They do not have an equal chance to advance into college, an inequity that I always press when talking with university party secretaries. So that one-fourth who are in university and raised their hands studied hard to overcome the odds.

Young rural parents who migrate to the industrial opportunities in China’s cities have two options. They can leave their child or children (many rural families have more than one child) with the grandparents, send back money, and return to their rural home during this holiday. These are China’s “left behind” children [liú​shǒu​'ér​tóng, 留守儿童]. The rural “left behind” numbered roughly 60 million in 2005 but have dropped to under 40 million today.

            The other option is to take your child (or children) with you to the suburbs of the industrialized cities. However, residency documents or hù​kǒu [户口] prevent these children from attending the regular urban schools. They must attend special migrant schools where again, although located in the city, teacher pay is low and students again have lesser-qualified instructors. These urban students are therefore also “left behind” children and numbered about 17 million in 2005. They now have risen to 23 million. When I again point out the inequity in education, party secretaries tell me that there are plans to rotate the good teachers from the "number one" public schools through the migrant city schools. But regular teachers say “no way!” 

There are also about 20 million migrant kids whose families move about, especially in distant rural herding communities. Their numbers have not changed and they pose a separate and difficult problem.

But in China’s rapidly changing educational scene, the governments at national, provincial and local levels can and does work to consolidate these shrinking rural schools. Providing the best teachers possible to restore educational equity remains uppermost on their agenda.

The United States faces a similar problem. Unfortunately, providing qualified teachers for our shrinking, mostly-rural school districts in the United States in order to provide educational equity is not at the top of our American education agenda. Many rural areas in America are also depopulating, although not at the breakneck speed of China. Yet, providing qualified teachers and academic equity for rural students is rarely voiced. Arguments made for school consolidation are usually couched in terms of saving money.

In most states, public schooling makes up the biggest state budget item, often comprising half of state tax dollars. With 50 states and 50 different systems for managing schools, it is difficult to generalize. But in the 1950s and 1960s, a national movement toward school consolidation did occur as one- and two-room schools were replaced by larger modern classrooms, often on a township level for elementary schools and county level for high schools. But many states did not fully consolidate. As our rural areas depopulate, the number of school districts that lack a full array of specialized teachers grows. And it is not just our Great Plains and Midwest regions that face this dilemma. States such as Vermont with 270 districts, New Jersey with 545, Maryland, New Jersey, Maine and Virginia also need consolidation. But the desire to keep our undersized local school for sports, community identity, or other political reasons makes consolidation efforts fail.

Americans may disparage China’s central control. But it is the downside of our local control democracy that results in the United States producing educationally “left behind” children.

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