"So how do the children of the poor migrants along the railroad tracks get an education?" I asked.
It was December of 1993, and it was my final banquet after a week of training biology teachers at East China Normal University in Shanghai. The university Party Secretary was at the table and I waited until eating was underway to ask this terribly impolite question.
All discussion stopped as everyone looked to the top official to see what he would say: At that time, travel was regulated. These immigrants were in Shanghai without permission. Shanghai could not offer their children education or the whole countryside would flood into the city.
A decade later, the checkpoints were gone and travel was unregulated. Now I was at Shandong Normal University in Jinan and again, their university Party Secretary attended my farewell banquet. I waited until many toasts had eased the conversation to ask how China was solving the lack of qualified teachers in the desperately poor countryside.
"Well, we offer full scholarships to rural students to attend the university to become a teacher as long as they go back and teach in the countryside for ten years," was the reply I expected and I got.
"But I spoke before 200 biology student teachers at Yunnan Normal University last year and asked how many were from the countryside. About 60 raised their hands. I then asked how many came on scholarships—only six! The others said that they did not take the scholarships because their parents wanted them to live a better life in the city and have modern things. And the rural schools are very poor and pay teachers too little. So I know most scholarships go unclaimed," I replied.
"Okay," replied the Secretary, "but we now have the Western Expansion Programme where young college students go out to teach for a year, much like your Peace Corps," he asserted.
I rejoined, "I have met several young college students who have done this and I am impressed with their dedication. But these are just a few thousand young first-year untrained college students and you need about one million trained science teachers in your rural schools. Many of your rural schools are taught by teachers who have only graduated from high school themselves."
"So yes, these are problems we have not solved," admitted the Secretary.
Premier Chou En-lai saw this problem a long time ago. And later, China's fifth Premier, Zhu Rongji, called providing quality rural education the most critical problem China faced. Poor people of China realize that they are poor because they lack an education. Therefore, as long as they can see that their children have a fair opportunity to score high on the leaving exam and go to college, all is well. But if their children do not have this educational opportunity, then that could be grounds for social unrest.
This fact completely escapes Western journalists who cover China in total ignorance of language, culture and history. They just point to the growing economic gap in China and predict trouble. But China moved from everyone being poor to bringing 627 million people out of poverty by 2005. Their poor did not get poorer. A country with such a huge new middle class is very stable.
So how did China solve their problem with poor countryside schools and untrained teachers? Well, they didn’t. Over 240 million rural people (a number equal to two-thirds of the U.S. population) have migrated in to work at the fringes of Shanghai and Wuhan and other developed areas that are as modern as any American city. They often leave their children to be raised by grandparents for awhile; then when they have saved enough money, they bring them to the city. The city immigrant schools are separate and unequal, but better than in the countryside.
China could not get enough teachers to go to the countryside. So the countryside came to the city. And many rural schools are closing.
Kansas does not have mere high school graduates teaching in its rural elementary schools, but we do have many under-qualified teachers in our "countryside." Johnson County and the rich suburban schools cream off the most qualified new graduates with higher salaries. The difference in science teaching facilities between rich and poor Kansas schools is dramatic. And Kansas also is losing rural population.
But our political difference with China is great. China works to close their gap. Kansas politicians are working to increase our gap.