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KUNMING, China—With dirt streaking their faces and clothes, children shout and run around a concrete courtyard that doubles as a playground at the Dexin School. Minutes later, they squirm in their seats after being corralled into classrooms with bars on the windows. Their voices can be heard disrupting their English class as American volunteers try to get them to repeat phrases like “You are beautiful.”
This private school in a provincial capital of southern China educates some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. They are all so-called “migrant” students who have moved with their parents from the countryside to cities. At Dexin, volunteers and often-under qualified teachers work on a shoestring budget with impoverished students whose parents might earn as little as $2 a day. Parents choose Dexin and other schools like it because they are shut out of public institutions.
While China aims to continue modernizing its economy, the plight of millions of under-educated migrant children at Dexin and other substandard urban schools could jeopardize the nation’s ability to grow and develop a skilled workforce, experts warn.
Chinese law prohibits people from moving without government approval, a policy aimed at keeping its 1.3 billion citizens evenly distributed. Even so, hundreds of millions have fled rural areas to China’s cities in recent decades in hopes of finding work, most often in low-wage, low-skill jobs. Once they arrive, municipal governments are typically either unwilling or unable to offer public services like health care and education.
In an effort to help educate this growing segment of the population, nonprofits and non-governmental organizations—as well as individual citizens—have set up thousands of schools, mostly at the elementary level, for millions of migrant children. At many, like at Dexin, finding enough teachers and funding to get by can be a herculean task. The result is frequently a subpar education that researchers say could harm the whole country in the long run.
“It’s a large, enormous and growing problem, and it requires the immediate attention of China’s national authorities,” said Matthew Boswell, a project manager at Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Project (REAP), which is working to reduce China’s rural-urban education achievement gap. “I don’t see any sign of that happening instantly, but the problem will only get bigger.”
China has depended on urbanization to fuel its growing economy, but China’s migrant student population is of increasing concern. For China to achieve superpower status, its workforce needs to be more literate and better educated, according to Boswell.
In 2010, China stunned the world when 15-year-olds from Shanghai beat out their peers around the globe on international assessments in reading, math and science. (American 15-year-olds finished in the middle of the pack.) China’s reluctance to provide quality schooling to all of its students, though, could result in millions of migrant children becoming unemployable as adults.
“Those kids growing up in urban schools, they’ll probably have no problem,” Boswell said. “The people who are the same age as them but grew up in a migrant community, there’s just no way” they’ll be able to compete.
“I can’t think of other problems that have such far-reaching impacts on society,” said Henan Cheng, a researcher at Loyola University Chicago who recently studied migrant education here in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. “Just think of the size of the migrant population.”
Exact figures aren’t available, but some nonprofits estimate that there are more than 225 million migrants living in Chinese cities. Just over 10 percent of them, or 25 million, are children. (Many parents leave their children behind with relatives when they move to urban areas in search of work.) As urban migration continues, authorities are bracing for more than 350 million migrants by the year 2050.
On paper, the situation is improving. In 2006, the Chinese government first allowed migrant children to enroll in public schools, and some local governments now offer subsidies to private migrant schools. Yet specific policies are decided at the municipal level, and insurmountable barriers often keep migrant students out of public schools.
In some cities, students must obtain seven different official certificates—documenting, for instance, where they were born—before they can enroll in public schools. Migrant students may also be required to pay tuition as high as 1,000 RMB a semester—about $150—which their city-born peers aren’t charged, according to Compassion for Migrant Children, a China-based nonprofit that runs schools and community centers for migrant children in Beijing.
In Kunming, where the local government has made an effort to increase migrant access to education over the last five years, about 50 percent of migrant students are able to attend pubic schools, Cheng said. Yet these students are often segregated from urban children and sent to the worst public schools. The rest—if they go to school at all—attend schools like Dexin.
At Dexin, about two-thirds of students pay annual tuition of a few hundred RMB—or about $40 to $60—while families who can’t come up with the money attend for free, second-year teacher Zhao Gui Shun said through a translator. For parents who work as day-laborers, it may take a month to earn enough for tuition. Dexin also receives a small government subsidy: about $8 a year for each of its 400 children.
The tight budget takes its toll, particularly when it comes to finding teachers. Zhao described Dexin’s employees as “half-teacher, half-volunteer,” noting that their salaries are significantly lower than their peers in regular public schools.
The students at migrant schools also tend to have behavior problems and come from unstable homes. “All the parents care about is making enough money [to make ends meet],” said Zhao, who was called out of a meeting with a visitor at one point to calm a class of shrieking elementary children that teenage volunteers from America were struggling to control. “They don’t realize they have to help teach kids.”
Such factors lead many migrant schools to have high teacher turnover rates and great difficulty in attracting qualified candidates. According to a 2011 study by REAP, only 48 percent of teachers in migrant schools in Beijing had a college degree. Still, teachers must use the same elementary-school curriculum that conventional public schools do—covering all the basics of math, science, history and Chinese, for instance—to prepare those who plan on taking the middle-school entrance exam.
The same study also found that, although migrant students outperformed students in poor rural areas, they did worse than students in urban public schools. Migrant students who were able to enroll in public schools, however, did significantly better on tests than their peers in migrant-only schools. The report’s authors concluded that “the longer students are enrolled in migrant schools, the worse their performance becomes.”
Teachers like Zhao still feel their work is hugely important, especially when compared to the alternative for migrant children. “If it weren’t for this school, maybe some kids would just pick up food on the street or become beggars,” Zhao said. “There’s no future for them.”
This story appeared on Time.com on February 9, 2012 as part of an exclusive partnership. Reproduction of this story is not allowed.