Millennia of history, the world’s largest population, and one of the most influential global economic power houses – China has quite a reputation to uphold. China is seen as an important current and future competitor to rival the United States in its influence on global stage. As the country’s technology, economy and political system continue to develop, its education system appears to be an increasingly apparent lag on further progress. China will have to make significant changes to its education system in order to continue its upward trend of development and close the gap between its urban and rural population.
Background of China’s Education System
China’s unique education system is known as the ‘Two-Track System’. The history of the Two-Track System can be traced back to reforms launched by the Chinese Nationalist Party after the revolution against the Qing dynasty. Due to shortages of educational resources, the system was designed so that village schools in rural areas were supported by local communities and county government, while urban schools were supported by the central government. After the Communist Party took power from the Nationalists in 1949, the new communist regime adopted the same model.
As early as the 1950s and 1960s, the central government attempted to foster a regularized, standardized education system across the country. The rural population initially rejected this opportunity, because the content and timing of standardized education were unsuitable for local needs. Most Chinese peasants were subsistence farmers, and the centrally-designed curriculum was useless for agricultural labourers. With this rejection, the rural population and county leaders drafted their own education system that better suited the cycle of agricultural life. This separation of urban and rural education earned the system its name.
However, as it is visible today, this separation in education system led to unequal education opportunities and quality of education. The gap between urban and rural communities emerged almost immediately since the implementation of this Two-Track System. Interestingly enough, the only time the gap was closed and inequalities between urban and rural schools were eliminated was during parts of the decade-long Cultural Revolution. Once this period of utopian planning and vicious purges ended, the Two-Track System gradually returned. Whereas urban communities modernized their education system and content with materials matching the evolving technology, growing economy, and globalization, the rural schooling system froze in its place.
Education Inequality – A Lopsided Country
Along with unsanitary living conditions and the lack of clean water, electricity, and a proper health care system, many parts of rural China are troubled with an inadequate education system.
Rural schools have been closing at a concerning rate since 2000. According to Rong Jinglong, director of the Butuo County Education Bureau (one of China’s innumerable rural counties), the county had an elementary school in each of its 190 villages in 2003. Based on the most recent count on January 2013, this county now only has 58 schools remaining. According to the 21st Century Research Institute of China, 63 rural primary schools, 30 learning centers, and 3 middle schools have been vanishing per day since 2000. Rural children, who cannot easily travel outside of their community for schooling, are losing their main source of education.1
The alarming rate of school closure is closely tied with the second problem – lack of support and communication with both central and local governments. With no support from the central or local governments, many rural schools cannot afford the most basic teaching materials such as chalk, blackboards, or even desks and chairs. Schools also suffer ‘wear and tear’ over time: with no heating, air conditioning, electricity, or even the most rudimentary means to repair the crumbling school building, it is unsurprising that many schools decide to close.2
There are various causes behind lack of government support. Some cite corruption, others argue that central government officials do not see the necessity in funding schools that have few students attending on a regular basis, and some blame incompetence of rural community leaders. All of these claims are worth noting, but another major factor is China’s geography itself. As the world’s second-largest country, it is nearly impossible for the central government to look into every single corner of its nation. While local governments can request further assistance from the central government, the communication and coordination between local and central governments are usually extremely poor. Unlike in urban centers such as Beijing and Shanghai, the central government rarely pays attention to mostly self-sufficient rural communities unless it is forced to. Thus, urban schools continue to move forward while rural schools stop in their tracks or simply disappear.
Aside from the lack of financial support, the government is also failing to fulfill its responsibilities to provide these communities with well-educated, professionally trained teachers. As schools close and students leave, few teachers decide to stay in the rural communities to continue teaching. Consequently, many villages resort to appointing make-shift teachers with no professional teacher training (and sometimes not very educated themselves) to fill the void of professional educators. It is thus unsurprising that many rural students have an extremely poor level of education. Many students are unable to even write their own names after years of education.
As schools continue to close and quality of education becomes increasingly questionable, many families face a dilemma. Should they bother sending their children to school or not? In places such as Butuo County, some students walk up to four hours to reach the nearest primary school. As Liu Shankui from the Rural Education Institute of Northeast Normal University said, “It is too hard for young students to walk a long way to school and they are not capable of handling the dangers on the road either.”
As parents lose faith in the schools’ ability to properly educate their children, education becomes an insignificant part of their list of priorities. These problems collectively contribute to the fourth major problem, increasing drop-out rates and overcrowding. Since most of the school closures happen in areas where there are few methods of convenient transportation, many families decide to let their children drop out rather than trekking far away to school every day. Some children leave school before they even graduate from primary school.3
On the flip side, the rural schools that do remain open face another issue – overcrowding. According to the China Youth Daily, townships or larger rural community schools are expected to expand to meet the need of rural students with no schools available in their own community. For example, the Butuo County’s Ethnic Primary School has a quota of less than 1200, yet their current student body counts 1800. With the preexisting shortage of education resources, larger rural communities must now find a way to support not only their own community but students from nearby areas as well.
Now What? Moving Ahead
As previously mentioned, China’s size makes it effectively impossible for the central government to oversee the entire country’s education system. Some level of decentralization is necessary. In this sense, the Two-Track System was correctly designed. What went wrong is the execution of this design. Local governments must establish better communication with the central government, and the central government must be more enthusiastic and willing to assist the needs of rural communities. Both levels of government must be willing to cooperate if any changes are to be made to current circumstances.
The problem remains that China has huge numbers of small, rural communities; to assess all of their needs would be a daunting task, and it would be impossible to meet all the needs immediately. However, the government has to start somewhere. The Chinese government can initiate a census system starting from the poorest counties with the most urgent needs based on their regional level of income and reports on living conditions from local officials. If need be, the government may even dispatch its own personnel to report on the circumstances of these rural communities. Then, the government will have to work its way up from the poorest regions and carefully craft an agenda that will eventually universalize education practices and funding within the country.
Neglecting to respond to the current education inequality may plant the seeds for factionalization of China as rural communities drift apart from urban communities. This can’t possibly be good for any country, let alone the Chinese, which grounds its legitimacy in nationalism and the prospect of a unified, prosperous China. The goal may appear impossible to achieve, but it has been done before. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, China faced very similar circumstance to the one it is witnessing today. There were high drop-out rates, poor literacy rates, few properly constructed schools, and scarcity of resources. Even so, just a few years of a proactive attitude, communication and cooperation between local and central government was enough to bring up the rural education levels to match those of urban areas of China. China has a much stronger economy and a far more stable political climate today. China can accomplish this again, and must.
** Read Part 2 of this article.
1“China’s rural education at risk.” China.org.cn. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-01/08/content_27618239.htm>.
2“High Dropout rates in Rural Schools.” China.org.cn. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. <http://china.org.cn/english/2004/Jun/99362.htm>.
3“China’s rural education at risk.” China.org.cn. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-01/08/content_27618239.htm>.