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By Van Barker
April 29, 2015

Every year atop a mountain in China’s Yunnan province, a small minority of the roughly 450 students at Wantai Middle School[1] pass their high school entrance exam. In most cases, these exceptional students would be among the first of their family to attain a secondary education. This is a dream opportunity. Yet no more than ten students will go, with many deciding not to attend.  Instead, they will opt to get married, work in coastal factories, or help their families harvest the local walnut crop, just like their parents before them. How? Why? The truth is that Wantai is typical of thousands of schools in China’s rural districts. These students are but a few among millions of rural Chinese students from the outskirts of Beijing to Urumqi, all caught in a vicious nexus of forces which hinder their ability to advance themselves through Chinese schools.

I know because I teach at one. My employer, Laojiang Middle School[2], roughly 100 miles from Wantai, is the top-performing middle school in the rural districts surrounding the nearby city of Baoshan, also in Yunnan. My job here is easy compared to that of the local teachers. I teach an English course that is not tested at the provincial level, and my goal is mostly to get kids to have fun and practice their spoken English. Even so, working here can be sad and grueling: sad because of the challenges I see my students face, and grueling because these challenges seem so interwoven and massive.

Author teaching Chinese students in classroom
Author interacting with Chinese students in classroom

Within two years, even at a “good” school like Laojiang, at least 30-40% of my 300 students will have dropped out before the 9th grade, despite an official dropout rate of less than 1%. While some rural schools will force students to at least complete 9th grade, students here who drop out before 9th grade are not counted in the official tally. A portion of even the brightest, most high-achieving students will soon find themselves in similar circumstances – either dropping out before the 9th grade or declining to move on to high school. Instead, they’ll find themselves moving spare parts on an assembly line, stocking drinks at a restaurant in the city, or shoveling asphalt with a construction crew full-time between the ages of 14 and 17. Some will be married with a child on the way by 18, or plowing the fields back home. These jobs are not unessential, but in another world, many of these students could have gone on to high school and done almost anything else. With every semester, the pile of spare desks in the back of my classroom grows as a new wave of these students fades into the massive machine of China’s low-wage economy.

Seeing Laojiang, it would be easy to start pointing fingers at different causal factors. Classroom desks are falling apart, the school buildings are crumbling monoliths, and students sleep two to a twin-sized wooden slat at night. At semester parent meetings, a significant portion of the adults who come are illiterate grandparents or chain-smoking older brothers. The students’ parents are regularly absent for months at a time, away at factory jobs in the provincial capital. There is a teacher shortage and the area’s elementary school system is notoriously poor, meaning that a stubborn minority of students arrive at middle school functionally illiterate. They quickly fall to the bottom of their large, 60-student classes.

Additionally, schools like Laojiang lack any semblance of counseling or support staff to assist students with emotional issues or learning disabilities. Students here deal with the same developmental issues as students anywhere else in the world. Yet the homeroom teachers tasked with monitoring a student’s personal or learning-related issues are also the chief enforcers of classroom discipline. Here, this role may involve the use of corporal punishment, which while technically illegal is still frequently found in rural areas. Such punishment can include everything from whacking a students’ legs with a bamboo switch to striking students in the face with the flat of one’s hand. These teachers typically do not seek to do harm to students out of ill intent, and are simply using a tool they themselves experienced as youngsters and view as being appropriate. Yet such measures clearly complicate their role as a caregiver for a students’ learning and emotional needs, and do profound damage to students in other ways.

Importantly, pressure to drop out – self-imposed and from family members – can be immense. Many parents do not see financial benefit in having their child finish middle or high school. Within the context of a grueling classroom environment, a perceived lack of slots at ‘good’ high schools, and the sight of their peers heading off to work, it can also be easy for a student to lose faith in the usefulness of his or her own education. For many, the decision to drop out is one made largely on one’s own at the young age of 14 or 15.

Nationwide, the problems at schools like Laojiang can seem so overlapping and numerous that they defy conventional solutions, such as additional funding, scholarships, or an influx of teachers. As a fellow teacher in my organization, Andrew Bishop, notes, “In some schools, there are not enough teachers. In others, there is more than enough funding, but this funding is misappropriated. For some students, the [primary challenge] is being taught in Mandarin despite growing up speaking the local dialect, while for others the issue is a lack of educational support at home. The common thread is that there is no silver bullet that can solve all of these things at once.”

Here in Laojiang, our school principal has been thinking about the area’s dropout and high school attendance problems for years.  “It’s not about money. Of course, we can always find good ways to use more money. But it’s about the household education of the students. It’s about their thinking.” He takes a drag on his cigarette and furrows his brow as he ponders the problem. Young and energetic at 41, he has taught and served as an administrator at Laojiang for sixteen years. During his time here, he has seen it grow from a school of 300 with 20 of its graduates heading to high school to a school of 800 sending 100 of its students to high school. “There’s this thinking that, if I don’t succeed in middle school, I’ll just go get a factory job,” he notes. “We’ve got to start thinking bigger.”

It is easy to place blame for such thinking on parents, many of whom have no more than a primary school education themselves. Many do not appear to foster an environment which encourages their child to achieve academically, or to be as deeply involved in their child’s education as they should. In reality, however, the problem stems just as much from the environment at school as it does at home. When students start to underperform in class, it is easy for them to start believing that dropping out is not only a better, but even appropriate, option for someone in their situation. Considering the grim conditions students face at rural Chinese schools, this is an all-too-easy rut for students to fall into. A co-worker of mine recounted a story of an 8th grade student who was reflecting on his decision to drop out the year before. At the time, he had been struggling to achieve good scores and wanted to leave school to work and make something of himself. From his perspective, leaving school did not appear to be a mistake, but instead a way to prove that he had value. Now, however, my co-worker notes that the student regrets his decision, going so far as to warn his friends on social media of the difficulties of working life and the value of staying in school.

In this way, the problem stems from a nuanced mixture of both financial and environmental influences. To begin with, high school comes with a price tag. While only a little over $1,000 USD for all three years, this is still a sizable sum for rural residents. Meanwhile, jobs remain readily available, even for underage teens. If support for education at home is lacking, any additional lack of commitment to school from the students themselves can result in the idea of finishing middle school or going to high school being quashed altogether. Sometimes students have no choice but to drop out to help their sick or disabled parents on the farm.

“You’d think [this issue] would go away as more students go to high school and college and return home, showing everyone the strong value of their education,” the principal remarks. “Ironically, it doesn’t always work this way. The immediate thought, even if the student is clearly doing well for themselves, is, “Why are you back here? Something must have gone wrong.” In the principal’s mind, the only solution is to keep on broadening the portion of students who go to high school and college year after year, so that awareness of life outside the dropout pathway exists. “I think we need at least ten more years here at Laojiang, to start changing attitudes,” he says.

Despite this grim reality, there is a large potential for individuals to make a difference. Chinese and American coworkers of mine in Teach for China (TFC), the organization sponsoring my placement at Laojiang, are filling empty teaching slots at schools across the region and raising money to make change in incremental ways: first-ever school libraries, new beds for students, water filtration systems, eye exams for children who cannot read the blackboard, and high school scholarships. While money in and of itself will not solve the problem, significant investments in school resources can boost graduation rates and high school enrollment over time.

Additionally, as my principal went on to note, every additional outside perspective can give a student a broader educational vision. Serving as examples themselves, TFC teachers aim to do just this. Fortunately, we are also just one of many organizations looking to make a difference in these areas. Whether these efforts can serve students presently walking down the windswept streets of Laojiang or the misty mountain paths of Wantai remain to be seen.  Every student who remains in class makes a difference, lending powerful incentive to bridge these educational gaps day by day, one student at a time.


(With thanks to current and former TFC teachers Andrew Bishop, Pan Wenhui, Tom Lehmann, Zheng Siyuan, and Rachael Burton.  Additional thanks to Principal Jiao[3])

[1] The name of Wantai Middle School was changed for publication purposes.
[2] The name of Laojiang Middle School was changed for publication purposes.
[3] The name of Laojiang’s principal was changed for publication purposes.

Van BarkerAuthor biography

Van Barker is a 2014-2016 7th Grade Teaching Fellow with the US-based nonprofit Teach for China.  He is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a 2012 Program Assistant at the US-Asia Institute.


The US-Asia Institute does not endorse the opinions voiced in the article above and is not responsible for the accuracy of content by the author or referred sources. This article was published by the US-Asia Institute to further respectful discussion of issues and views currently affecting Asia and US-Asian relations.

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