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Qinghai's Barefoot Teachers

November 21, 2011

Caixin Weekly: China Economics & Finance (Caixin Media)
- Wednesday, November 16, 2011,

Low teacher salaries and changes to local leadership could end an
education program for rural children in Qinghai Province

By staff reporter Zhan Yanling | 908 words

Out on the sparsely populated stretches of grasslands in Qinghai Province,
the children of farmers and nomads rely on a traveling teacher system.
With booming growth in China's western regions, huge gaps in urban and
rural education quality have persisted. While program has raised the
testing scores of preschool-aged children by almost 20 percent in the
three years since it began, and saw encouragement the Ministry of
Education, experts say the future of the program sits in precarious
straits stemming from funding sources. Twenty-seven-year-old Zhou Xingbang
has been a traveling teacher in Qinghai Province's Ledu County for two
years. Each week, he visits two village classrooms to provide lessons,
spending three days in one and two days in another. Villages are eligible
for teachers if they have ten or more preschool-aged children. In Ledu
County, there are nearly 100 traveling teachers. In 2009, the China
Development Research Foundation, a government-sponsored NGO, launched an
early childhood education program with Ledu County as part of a pilot
education program. Three years later, there are more than 140 early
learning centers throughout the county, providing education for 3,128
preschool-aged children. "Children's studies at this stage give them the
same opportunities as children from the cities from the start," said Li
Xiaoling, an early learning center teacher in Putai Township's
Xinjiazhuang. Lu Xiaohua wanted to send her child to the town center
nursery school four kilometers from home, but was unable to. "One semester
is 1,000 yuan, which we can't afford," she said. Ledu County's per capita
annual income is 3,872 yuan, making it a national-level impoverished
county. The county has a population of 280,140, but only the central
schools in the county seat and in each township have nursery schools.
"Preschool education is still nonexistent in 80 percent of mountain
areas," Li Jibiao, deputy director of the Ledu County Bureau of Education
told Caixin. "If we can't solve the issue of early development for poor
children, the intergenerational transmission of poverty and a widening
social gap are almost inevitable," said Lu Mai, the founder of the
traveling teacher program and secretary of the China Development Research
Foundation. Setting up a nursery school in accordance with standards
requires 1 to 2 million yuan, a significant investment. And the 2,000 to
3,000 yuan in annual tuition is beyond the capacity of the ordinary local
peasant family. Financial pressures were unavoidable. Ledu Deputy County
Magistrate and then-Ledu County Secretary of Education Zhou Yongshang told
Caixin, "Ledu is a western agricultural county that relies on transfer
payments from the central government. If we want to ensure nine years of
compulsory education, there's just no money left over to put into
preschool education." The majority of the funds for the traveling teacher
centers came from the China Development Research Foundation. At early
education points, teachers receive only 1,500 yuan per month to cover a
living allowance and travel expenses. Each teaches 30 children on average,
a cost of only 600 yuan per student annually. Adding in winter heating
costs and infrastructure costs related to school buildings and
playgrounds, and the annual cost per child is approximately 800 yuan. Lu
says that the government can afford to foot the bill for this sort of
low-cost, high-quality, sustainable model of education. But investment at
this level is not enough to retain the traveling teachers. "Every time I
talk with a classmate over the phone I get in a bad mood. They make
several times what I do," said Zhou Xingbang, who graduated with a degree
in primary education from Qinghai Normal University. "When I'm 30, I'll
find another livelihood in order to bear family responsibilities. Right
now I don't know just how long I can continue to do this." Li Xiaoling, a
teacher at the Xinjiazhuang early education point said, "Regular teacher
salaries in Ledu County for recent graduates are around 2,500 yuan. If our
salary could reach 2,000 yuan, not including insurance, we'd be
satisfied." But Lu said that after two years of testing, traveling
education is sustainable. In addition, the traveling teacher project has
received the approval of the Qinghai government, which has decided to roll
the program out province-wide in two stages this year. The provincial
government will invest 40 million yuan in early childhood development
projects in 13 agricultural counties and two animal husbandry counties in
the province. The Ministry of Education issued a directive in September
stating that it would launch more traveling teacher programs throughout
China's central, western and eastern regions. The document required the
living allowance standard for volunteers to reference salary levels for
employees of local state-run institutions after their probation period.
The central government would give each early education teacher a job
subsidy, amounting to 15,000 yuan annually in central and western regions.
Local governments will make up the remainder of funding. In Qinghai, based
on a 2,500 yuan monthly income for newly recruited staff at local
state-run institutions, and excluding central government subsidies, there
is still a funding gap, which the local government will have to fill. Zeng
Xiaodong, head of the education department at Beijing Normal University,
said the quality of "traveling education" is an issue that also must be
addressed. While the costs of the model are low, there is no guarantee on
quality. Zeng said when the government provides a service, the tasks are
broken down into several departments with multiple managers. On the other
hand, without reforms to the government's budgetary system, a takeover
could easily lead to unstable sources of funding. According to Zeng, "if
local leadership changes, traveling education won't necessarily continue."

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