I was standing in a small room on a dirt floor in blistering heat listening to a middle-aged man talk about his son's plans for the future. "My wife and I have limited educations. We are putting our hopes on our son," the father described. His son huddled against the door frame peering shyly into the small room with his big dark eyes, while his father spoke about him casually, perched on a small stool, animating his speech with hand gestures. A world away from my home in San Francisco, the father still had the same aspirations as many of the parents I knew. This family was one of the current flood of migrant families from rural areas, primarily Anhui and Sichuan provinces to the poor suburbs of Beijing. Due to China's rapid rate of urbanization and industrialization, rural farmers from all over the country are picking up and moving to urban centers to work in construction and freelance handiwork. However, the public infrastructure, especially the small public school system, cannot contain the inundation of migrant laborers, and old hukuo laws from Mao's regime forbid non-urban natives from attending public schools. Because of this, private elementary schools have risen in suburban areas to educate the children of migrant workers. However, these schools are frequently underfunded, inadequately staffed, and do not prepare children for middle or high school. The child described above attended a small migrant, meaning that he probably would not have the opportunity to live up to the high aspirations of his parents. Over the summer, I worked for an organization called the Rural Education Action Project, China (www.reapchina.org)—or REAP—as a summer intern. REAP is a collaboration project between Stanford University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which launches policy-directed research on issues affecting education for rural and migrant students in China. This innovative organization combines the brain power of the academic world with the compassion of the nonprofit world: instead of treating visible problems using limited resources, REAP conducts studies on the issues affecting education and potential solutions, then critically analyzes the results to determine how to most effectively treat the problem. REAP then collaborates with the Chinese government, giving policy recommendations. I worked on developing content for their Web site, copy editing, and laying out studies conducted by REAP into briefs to hand out to donors. In addition to office work, I also traveled around with grad students conducting research on English teaching methods in migrant schools, taking pictures, and interviewing parents to get a better idea of the issues plaguing this sector of society. We met children of ambitious parents who were cleverly navigating the education system to ensure their children went to high school, and we met destitute parents who were barely scraping by, with no time to worry about their children's future. Some of the migrant schools were wealthier, with play structures for their children and English teachers for every grade. Others had dirt floors, and English teachers who barely spoke the language. Observing classroom interactions was also eye-opening. In one class, all the children had specific sentences perfectly memorized in English, yet no idea what any of the individual words meant. English skills are important to progress in Chinese society, with much of the entrance exams for high school and university testing English skills. But good English teachers are few and far between, because anyone with good English skills can find a higher paying job than teaching poor students at migrant schools. My summer in China allowed me to perfect my chopstick skills and explore the culinary world of jiaozi (dumplings), but it also taught me the value of a good education, especially one that fosters critical thinking skills. Columbia's Core Curriculum focuses on fostering critical thinking skills in classes such as Lit Hum and CC. I don't think the importance of the style of teaching in these classes can be underestimated. They teach students to think critically about issues and prepare them for leadership roles in their careers. The education as a path to success model holds true for the United States as well, and while both the U.S. and China claim to be meritocratic, basing spaces at university and as a public official on standardized tests. But performing well on these tests depends on the resources a students' family has to fund a quality education to teach the necessary skills. Sound familiar? China is a society in transition right now, with rapid industrialization and urban migration transforming the country. China will soon be a great world power, as great as the United States. I hope that both of the governments will recognize the value of educating all levels of society, not just for humanitarian reasons, but as a significant investment in both their future as a nations and world leaders.
Columbia Spectator Staff