In an interview in 2017 to the prestigious scientific journal Science, Professor Scott Rozelle, from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, in the United States, warned: almost a third of the population of the second largest economy in the world is falling behind in school education.
At that time, research carried out by the team of Rozelle, coordinator of the Rural Education Action Program (Reap, in the acronym in English ), pointed out that more than half of eighth graders in poor rural areas in China had an IQ below 90 and a third or more of children in these regions did not complete elementary school.
Adding to this account the 11% or more of children living in urban Chinese areas who also performed poorly on assessments of skills and learning , Rozelle estimated to Science that about 400 million Chinese were “at risk of becoming cognitively impaired” s”.
Such a large proportion of the population without obtaining adequate education would be a bad indicator in any country, but it is especially dramatic for China, which bets on the training of its people to continue growing to levels above the rest of the world and to increase its middle class, with a focus on growth in personal income and consumption.
“This is the biggest problem that China is facing and that no one has ever heard about it”, highlighted Rozelle five years ago.
Trying to verify if there were strategies that could reverse this worrying scenario, the Stanford researcher’s team monitored nine programs in the last years, covering 11 interventions, which contemplated 47.480 secondary school students (step that precedes the high school in the Chinese school curriculum) rural in 713 Chinese schools.
In May, a report pointed out the result of these strategies and it was disappointing: they were unable to to generate significant learning improvements in the student population served.
These programs and interventions were based on four main axes. The first was financial aid, as many families in rural China cannot afford to pay basic education fees, “which are among the highest in the developing world.”
The second axis was encourage the continuity of studies through extra classes in which teachers discussed with students career possibilities, desired salary levels and skills and training necessary to achieve these goals, in addition to emotional control and ways to deal with anxiety – which is high among students in rural areas of China.
Another axis was supplementary online training and continuous monitoring of teachers working in these regions, in addition to the introduction of a payment system in which teachers received salary bonuses with based not on the average performance level of their students, but rather on the performance gains of each student compared to students in other schools who were similarly performing when the pro grass began.
Finally, the fourth axis consisted of the delivery of free eyeglasses to students with vision problems.
However, almost five years after the interview of 2017, Rozelle’s team concluded that none of the 11 interventions applied were able to improve the performance of the students monitored in the study.
“One interpretation of this is that student performance in rural Chinese secondary education is not susceptible to simple policy changes,” the report noted. “After exploring some hypotheses, we found suggestive evidence that the nature of Chinese high school enrollment policy and secondary school curriculum are the best possibilities to explain the lack of performance gains.”
The Stanford study pointed out that the education system imposed by the communist dictatorship, highly centralized, prevents students with more difficulties or slower learning from being satisfactorily attended – and they end up being left behind.
“ Due to the importance of the high school entrance exam, the curriculum in high school is highly structured, difficult and fast-paced. It is also regulated at a higher level of administration (eg county, prefecture or province) so as to be fair to all students in the jurisdiction,” Rozelle’s team report highlighted.
“Because everyone in the jurisdiction takes the same exam, everyone needs to cover the same material for the exam in the same time frame and to the same depth. As a result, the pace of the class often escapes the control of teachers and principals – and does not take into account differences in ability among students,” the American researchers described.
In recent years, dictator Xi Jinping placed education as one of the pillars for the transformation of China into a “modern socialist nation” until 2049 and into a “prosperous” and “strong” great power until 2049, year of the centenary of the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War.
However, just as the Communist Party defended last year that China is a “democracy that works”, the difference between discourse and practice follows the local pattern of gigantism and the warning that 400 millions of Chinese people can be run over by history is still valid.