Rural Education in China: How Teacher Quality is Associated with Student's Academic Performance

Rural Education in China: How Teacher Quality is Associated with Student's Academic Performance

. 6 min read

Jason Hung worked as a socioeconomic transformation intern at United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). He now works as a country director of China at Global Peace Chain and a visiting student researcher at Rural Education Action Program (REAP), Stanford University. He is a current Rotary Global Grant Scholar.

In 1986, the National People’s Congress enacted the Compulsory Education Law, requiring rural parents to send their children for 6 years of primary education, followed by 3 years of lower secondary education. Those who are academically and financially capable can optionally complete another 3 years of non-compulsory, upper secondary education prior to pursuing further academic or career development. Under the entrenched system of fiscal decentralization, rural-urban inequalities in educational setting are pronounced. Problems occurred include deficient and unequal local governments’ revenues or subsidies from upper levels of government in impoverished rural regions, resulting in fiscal crises where local governments fail to fulfil the obligations to pay teachers’ salaries and build teaching facilities.

According to 2008 National Inspection Report on teacher quality, from 2002 to 2007, gaps in teachers’ qualification between rural and urban space were significant. Here teacher quality refers to educational background, training, salary and experience. Consequentially, the percentage of rural teachers transferring out of village schools increased by 7.6 percent each year, while turnover rates of urban teachers remained fairly stable throughout the course. A remedy for rural schools to compensate their loss of teaching staff is to hire less desirable teachers, who have poorer teaching qualifications, as a replacement. Besides the loss of high-quality teachers in underdeveloped regions, dropout rates of rural students are also remarkable. Between 1987 and 1997, more than 4 million students dropped out of primary schools. Moreover, by the late 2000s, despite the fact that over 90 percent of rural students attended lower secondary school, less than 20 percent continued to pursue upper secondary education.

Since higher levels of education are beneficial for rural Chinese communities to help raise their agricultural production, alongside exploring and diversifying their off-farm labor market opportunities, this article examines the nuanced relationships between teachers’ quality and students’ academic performances in rural China.

Teacher Quality

In 2014, 87.3 percent and 96.5 percent of rural and urban primary school teachers held junior college educational qualification or above respectively; 73.3 percent and 87.8 percent of rural and urban lower secondary school teachers held a bachelor’s degree or above respectively. Additionally, in the early 2000s, up to 40 percent of rural teachers and 20 percent of urban teachers did not teach subjects in alignment with their professional qualifications.

Dan Wang and Manman Gao conducted in-depth interviews with 19 students from the Free Teacher Education (FTE) program – a piloted initiative which nourished the next generation of high-quality teachers. They found that teachers preferred teaching students from higher socioeconomic statuses and academically excellent backgrounds, and were less willing to teach in impoverished, low-performing schools in rural villages. As a consequence, schools located in poor, rural regions are often staffed by graduates from lower-tier academic institutions, rendering a rather unsatisfactory teacher and teaching quality and hampering rural students from striving academic excellence. These arguments were supported by Yang Peng, whose ethnographic data revealed a teacher shortage and poor teacher quality in Guizhou Province, one of the least developed regions in China, in 2013 and 2014.

Academic Outcomes

Since local governments in impoverished rural regions have failed to raise teachers’ salary levels due to their financial constraints, it is a common practice for rural schools to hire contract teachers—teachers who are employed on fixed-term contracts. Contract teachers are paid lower salaries and are less-educated relative to regular teachers, and rarely receive pedagogical training. Wang Lei et al. argued that contract teachers in poor western Chinese regions, namely Shannxi, Gansu, and Qinghai Province, were paid one-fifth the salaries of regular teachers. Also, the majority held at most an upper secondary educational qualification. Moreover, rural students taught by contract teachers performed worse in Chinese and Mathematics than those taught by regular teachers in the same areas. Here Lei et al.’s study ostensibly suggested a positive association between teacher quality and students’ academic performance, though additional research should be reviewed to conclude such an association or otherwise.

To examine the relationship between teacher quality and students’ academic excellence, Emily Hannum and Albert Park analyzed data from the 2000 Gansu Survey of Children and Families (GSCF), a survey focusing on 2,000 children aged 9 to 12 and their families in 20 rural counties in Gansu Province. Their findings demonstrated that students of regular, higher-paid teachers outperformed their contract, lower-paid counterparts in Chinese language scores, academic aspirations, and diligence in competing homework. Lisa Yiu and Jennifer Adams analyzed the same dataset but exclusively studied teachers’ expectations on students. They define teacher quality as being teachers’ expectations on the academic excellence of students. Their findings revealed that teacher expectations for rural primary school students were positively associated with parental expectations, in which the latter was a strong predictor of children’s chances of staying in school, completing compulsory education, and graduating from secondary school. Additional findings indicated that teachers’ expectations on students were negatively associated with students’ SES background. Therefore, teachers in rural regions tended to hold lower expectations on students’ academic excellence and commitment relative to those in better-developed regions. For example, 71.5 percent of teachers for the wealthiest quintile of families expected their students to complete post-compulsory education, versus only 63.2 percent of teachers of students from the poorest quintile. Other literature echoes Yiu and Adams, supporting the argument that teachers’ expectations are indicators of parental expectations and students’ academic achievements.

Moreover, Jiayi Wang and Ying Li operationalized students’ academic achievement based on examination excellence. Here examination excellence was measured by the average number of points, qualified rate, failure rate, excellence rate, and standard deviation in Chinese Language, English Language, and Mathematics of students in West China. Data was obtained from the 2006 unified graduation examinations initiated by the Institute for Educational Research, an examination taken by all grade five primary school students and grades one through three secondary school students. Findings revealed that West China’s curriculum in these three subjects was extremely unsatisfactory and disparities between the highest scores and the lowest scores on same subjects were remarkable. For example, the qualified rate for Chinese Language in provincial capital and town primary schools were 100 percent, while that in rural village primary schools was as low as 66.9 percent. Furthermore, the dropout rate of lower secondary school was 2 percent in provincial capital schools whereas the rate was 36.8 percent in rural village schools. In terms of cognitive ability, students from the provincial capital lower secondary schools and rural village schools scored 22.3 (s.d. 4.1) and 16.8 (s.d. 4.0) in memorization; 22.4 (s.d. 6.2) and 14.9 (s.d. 5.7) in understanding; and 15.8 (s.d. 4.6) and 20.1 (s.d. 5.3) in application respectively. Rural village school students also far underperformed in English Language, attaining an average of 51 out of 100 compared to 64 for provincial school students.

The majority of rural primary school teachers graduated from technical secondary schools (53.2 percent), while over 70 percent of urban, town, and local teachers, and 51.9 percent of provincial teachers, completed junior college. In lower secondary schools, the majority of rural village primary school teachers, 62.7 percent, finished technical secondary schools whereas teachers from provincial schools mainly earned educational credentials from junior colleges, 66 percent. Wing and Li’s study emphasized the undereducation of rural school teachers, in addition to the lack of academic excellence faced by rural village students. According to findings from their multivariate analysis, they concluded poor teacher quality is a significant factor in rural students’ unsatisfactory academic performance. Additional findings from Xuehui An et al. and Jane Golley and Sherry Tao Kong’s reiterated that teacher and teaching quality affects students’ academic outcomes, reinforcing the importance of such quality on students’ academic success.

Moving Forward

Rural governments should prioritize the entitlement of financial resources to village schools, in order to ensure the latter can provide more desirable monetary incentives for employed teaching staff. Not only can this approach minimize the rural-urban salary gaps, teachers can also be compensated for the relatively poor working environments in rural space.

Local governments should also closely monitor the operation of rural schools, facilitating better-quality teachers to commit to rural teaching in the long-term by raising their salary levels. This helps reduce the loss of teaching talents in villages. In doing so, rural students’ academic outcomes can plausibly be improved.