Stanford professor Scott Rozelle’s talk on rural education causes a stir in China

American economist Scott Rozelle (罗斯高) has caused a stir in China with his recent pronouncements on the country’s rural education. Professor Rozelle is the co-director of the Rural Education Action Program (REAP) at Stanford University, a team dedicated to bridging the educational gap between cities and rural areas in China. In a recent talk given in China, Rozelle poses the serious issue that, according to REAP’s survey, 63% of rural children do not go to high school.

The first cause for this appallingly high figure, Rozelle believes, is malnutrition. Research by REAP has found that more than half of eighth graders in poor rural areas in China have IQs below 90, considered to be low, while urban kids from cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou who are classified as low IQ only account for 15%. “In our view, 90% of IQ depends on what happens in the period between zero and three years old”, said Rozell. If they are malnourished in this critical period, childrens’ mental development, behaviour and cognitive abilities will all lag behind.

The other factor behind the small number of children who make it to high school is insufficient child-rearing. In the REAP study sample, about 40% of the children are forced to separate from their mothers when they are younger than 18 months. Their parents usually go and make money in the cities, leaving their children to the care of their grandparents, something which can have a significant impact on their growth.

Hence the solutions offered by Rozelle’s team are to improve nutrition and maternal care, especially for 0-3 year olds. Basically, Rozelle’s theory is based on the assumption that rural kids do not go to high school because they have low cognitive levels, which he suspects to be the fault of malnutrition and insufficient maternal care.

However, there have already been a number of reactions to Rozelle’s talk within China, claiming that he is only looking at one side of the story. Zhangluo Chulin, writing in Narada Insights, questions Rozelle’s 0-3 year old theory by quoting Piaget. He also argues that educational resources have been severely tilted towards urban areas, especially after the “cancelling and combining schools policy” in rural areas, with teachers and resources being concentrated in bigger schools and the dropout rate increasing, mainly for first and second graders. Qiu Jiansheng, also writing for Narada Insights, criticizes the cities’ exploitation of the rural areas and the detachment between education and local conditions.

What has drawn the most criticism is one of Rozelle’s proposed solutions: calling for rural mothers working in the cities to return to their children. This seems to many to somehow echo the recently hyped term “widowed parenting” (丧偶式育儿), meaning the idea that women are supposed to take up all of the responsibilities and burdens of parenting, as if they were widowed. Critics feel that ignoring the father’s part in child raising, while asking women to shoulder their responsibilities in both work and family, is adding to their oppression.

Liu Yuanjiu, writing for Tencent, claims that the real solution isn’t encouraging mothers to return to their children’s side, but allowing children to join their parents in the cities. To those who respond that educational resources are insufficient for all these children to be able to go to school in the cities, he replies that education should not be seen as a “resource”, but rather as a social service.

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