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The flood of China’s rural residents into cities has resulted in millions of migrants living illegally in urban areas where they are often denied basic social services, like education. In 2006, the central government made it clear that compulsory education for migrant children is the responsibility of local governments, and that migrant children should be allowed into public schools instead of relegated to private ones. But that doesn’t always happen—and, even when it does, a lot of inequality remains.

Migrant education
Henan Cheng

Henan Cheng, an assistant professor in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education, recently published research about Kunming, a provincial capital city in southern China, where about 50 percent of migrant children attend public schools. She spoke with The Hechinger Report about her findings and what still needs to be done to improve the education of China’s migrant children.

Q: What happens to migrant children attending a public school? Do they get the same kind of education that local children do?

A: On the surface, migrant children get the same kind of education once they are admitted into a public school. In some cases, [principals and teachers] even talk about how the migrant students get preferential treatment by the government. For Kunming, the municipal government subsidizes schools for them … and they offer small allowances for migrant families every semester. It’s not a big amount of money, but it’s a good gesture. For example, they offer each migrant student 50 RMB [about $8] every semester so they can buy some books or school supplies.

There are different levels of public schools in urban areas. For example, in Kunming, there are four key municipal elementary schools. Those schools are not open to migrant students at all. For those migrant children who are admitted into public school, those public schools are often very low quality. Once I visited a public school in the neighborhood where there are a lot of Muslim migrants. I interviewed a school teacher—she’s a local resident. She talked about how she helps her students adjust to the school and to the city. She told me that her daughter—they live very close to the school that she’s working in—she chose to send her daughter to a better public school. That’s the irony. You have this teacher, very dedicated teacher, to help the migrant students and she talks about how she likes her school, she likes her kids, but then she sends her own kid to a different school.

For the majority of migrant families, the choices for public education are the low quality public schools. In some schools there are like 50, 60 students per class. And then there’s a severe shortage of teachers. The school principal has to teach because they don’t have enough teachers. In my study, there’s strong quantitative evidence that indicates that the proportion of migrant students has a significant negative impact on the students’ math achievement. If you have a school with almost 100 percent migrant students, then their average math test score is much lower than a school with only 10 percent migrant students. The principal teaching—that variable also has a very significant negative impact on the students’ academic achievement.

Are people concerned about this segregation between urban and migrant students?

This is a relatively new phenomenon in urban schools. The government and the public schools, they’re really working on how to get those kids into public schools. The segregation and educational quality issue will probably take a while for them to realize. In schools, when I talked to both migrant students and the local urban students, I was really surprised by how they perceived each other—very differently and very negatively.

My first trip to Kunming in 2008, I mainly focused on migrant students. I went to visit a private migrant school. I interviewed some students and asked them, “Do you like your school?” and they said, “Oh we like it a lot. We’re happy here.” Then I asked them, “If there is an opportunity for you to go to public school, would you like to go there?” I would expect them to say, “Oh, of course, I want to go to a public school” because the school conditions are much better. A girl told me, “No, I don’t want to go to public school.”

I was really surprised, and I asked her why. She said, “I would have no friends there. I don’t like the local kids.” Later, I paid more attention to this issue. It’s a big problem. Most migrant students I interviewed in my study, they have no interaction whatsoever with the local residents. They live in their own bubbles. Their playmates, their schoolmates—they’re all migrants themselves.

When I made my second trip, I also had a chance to talk to some local kids, and I asked, “Do you like to play with the migrant kids?” and they gave me the same answer: No. For example, they would say, “They’re so dirty. They smell very badly.” They even told me some definitely made-up stories about how migrant kids never take baths, or take baths in sewage water. It’s totally untrue, but they all believe that. The teachers, when I interviewed them, they didn’t mention anything about segregation. They just feel like this is normal because the migrant kids come from the same area and they feel more comfortable playing together. I think the schools should at least be aware of the issue and take some action.

What are some of the barriers that migrant students have to deal with to get their education?

There is this social barrier. In my interviews, I keep on hearing the teachers mention they can tell right away who are migrant students and who are not migrant students, just by what they wear, how they behave and even how they smell. These migrant kids, their parents usually sell food on the street. If they sell chicken in the market, then they smell like chicken. That can be the reason for the kids to be discriminated against. Those kinds of things going on, I think, has a very significant impact on the migrant student’s self-esteem, on their socialization with their peers. The teacher and the school principal talk about, “A lot of migrants, they’re quiet, they’re not very social.” To a certain degree, that reflects that they’ve already got a lot of negative stereotypes and discrimination against them.

Another big barrier is an institutional barrier. In China, after you finish six years of elementary education, you need to take an entrance exam for middle school and usually those exams, you have to take them in the place that you have your household registration status—usually in your hometown. For those kids after they finish elementary school, they have to move back to their hometown to take the exam. Right now, there’s still no easy mechanism that can help facilitate a migrant family to help the older kids get into middle school and high school.

Based on your research, what do you think still needs to be done to improve migrant education?

Although I tend to be critical about the government’s policy, we have to recognize that the government—at both the central and local levels—has made great efforts in terms of improving access to public education over the past 10 years. Another improvement over the past 10, 15 years is there is big public awareness about educational rights about migrant children.

My research has been focusing on educational quality because you don’t want the kids to get into school and then fail it. That’s not the purpose of education. The purpose of getting them into school is to help them succeed, help them to have a better future. When I visited those poor-quality public schools for migrant students, I kept on asking myself questions: Will those do any good for migrant students? Even if you send them to public school, is that enough? My answer is absolutely that’s not enough. We need to improve the quality of the education they’re receiving so that we can prepare them for a better future than their parents. I think if the government really wants to help the kids, if the schools really want to help the kids, they should do something more concrete, more solid, like providing services for the kids to integrate into the urban environment, to help them socialize with other people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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