Case studies released in March indicate that longstanding problems like inadequate staffing, low pay and brain drain have become the bottlenecks in improving children's education in western China's rural areas.
The size of the Gangcha County teaching staff was set in 1987 and hasn't changed since. The badly understaffed, financially embarrassed county in Qinghai Province's Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture has employed a total of just six college or polytechnic school graduates as new teachers in the past 20 years.
As a result, while the number of students kept rising every year, the very few teachers have been increasingly overloaded with work. Normally specializing in a specific subject, they are now being forced to teach extra subjects that double or triple their workloads.
Yao Nan, a village teacher in the county, said that when he first came here four years ago no more than 30 students were enrolled in the school. The number has tripled now, but they have only seven teachers to instruct students in five grades.
"I teach mathematics and Tibetan to first-grade students, and Tibetan to fourth-grade students," Yao said. "On average, leaving aside individual instruction, I have to teach 42 periods per week, while the normal number is supposed to be somewhere between 14 and 16."
The number of students is expected to reach 150 as six-year compulsory education becomes more widely enforced in the area, but faculty augmentation is still up in the air, he said.
Zhang Luqin is head of the Ulan County education bureau in Qinghai's Haixi Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture. They managed to keep the faculty limited to 570, the 1991 quota, until 2001. Gnawed by the shortage of teachers, the county was forced to increase the headcount by recruiting seven new teachers.
"If we pay the seven teachers 1,000 yuan (US$120.50) a month each, it will lead us to bankruptcy," Zhang said. "We have no alternative but to deliberately default on paying their wages or pay less, even though we know it's against the law."
The neighboring Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi are in a similar situation.
According to Chen Yanxiang, vice director of the Gaolan County education bureau in Gansu Province, since the county established its faculty size in 1988, enrollment has increased by 11,960 students, but the number of teachers has increased by only 118.
In 2003 the county government released a document on employment of elementary and secondary school teachers, requiring an expanded faculty of 2,435, but there are still 493 vacancies waiting to be filled.
A number of schools that are hard pressed for teachers have been forced to give priority to teaching of core subjects like Chinese, English and mathematics at the expense of enhancement courses such as music, art and physical education. This prevents the children from receiving a well-rounded, complete education.
The shortage of permanent teachers has also forced rural schools to employ temporary help. Huang Shuqi, vice director of Wuqi County's education bureau in Shaanxi Province, said that around 400 of the county's 2,300 teachers are not on the regular payroll.
Some educators point out that engaging temporary teachers in large numbers lowers faculty quality as a whole, but the fact is that those irregular employees are taking on heavy responsibilities for very little pay in the rural schools of western China.
After graduating in 1996, Wang Xiaorong went to Litao Village Primary School in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to work as a substitute teacher. Her monthly salary is 90 yuan (US$10.80).
Last July, Hongzhuang Township, which had jurisdiction over Litao Village, was amalgamated with Zhangyi Township. No department was made responsible for issuing Wang's paycheck, and she has taught the children ever since without being paid at all.
But she sticks it out. "Only 10 other teachers are working at the school, where over 200 pupils are enrolled. If I left, what would happen to those children?"
In Daotanghe Township's boarding school in Qinghai's Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Region, 13 of the 66 teachers are temporaries.
After graduating from Hainan's normal school for ethnic minorities, the 13 have been working in obscurity for meager monthly earnings of 400 yuan (US$48.20) each. In addition to their regular classroom workloads, they are required to care for the students on a day-to-day basis; sometimes they have to foot the kids' medical bills out of their own pockets.
Although no official tally is kept of the number of temporary teachers, they clearly constitute a sizeable group making important contributions to the education of rural children in western China.
Song Manlin, director of Guyuan City's teaching and research division, said, "Compared with permanent teachers, the irregulars are paid much less and have very few chances for continuing education, which puts them in a more disadvantageous position."
Brain drain in rural areas
A mass migration of rural teachers to the cities is a significant reason for the serious shortage seen in recent years. A survey shows that working in cities has become a common objective of many rural teachers from the country's impoverished western regions, leading to overstaffed urban schools and understaffed rural ones.
As an ancient saying goes, when the city gate catches fire, the fish in the moat are made victims. The faculty brain drain has led a number of rural students to leave school.
A way out
Answering the call of the country, in recent years college students and teachers from eastern and southeastern China have traveled to the west to help.
The Ningxia Department of Education reports that its southern mountainous area has long been troubled by a paucity of teachers. In Guyuan City alone, a total 2,000 teaching positions need to be filled urgently.
Each year nearly 1,000 teachers have gone there to help. They have brought with them new teaching philosophies and methodologies and given strong impetus to enhancing local teachers' professional skills.
The Ministry of Education and the Communist Youth League Central Committee jointly introduced a volunteer program in 2003, encouraging college students to teach in the west.
The first year of the program saw a total of 6,000 volunteers going to 191 poverty-stricken counties to work for one or two years in such sectors as education, public health and agricultural technology. Last year the total number of volunteers reached 10,000, 6,000 of whom were new recruits. The program brought glad tidings to the west's rural education.
The volunteers are good news for rural education in western China, but experts point out that the short terms of their tours may not be utilizing their value to the fullest.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, March 30, 2005)