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China on the Charles

I had a chance last month to sit-in on a fascinating meeting, a spirited exchange between the top officials of the Chinese education system and the American education system.  Representatives of the U.S. Department of Education and the Chinese Ministry of Education, the chief state school officers of a number of American states and the top officials of many of the provincial education systems had a chance to ask each other questions about how the other country approached the issue of teacher quality.  The event was sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Education, the U.S. Department of Education, the Asia Society, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We in the United States are most concerned about the quality of teachers available to the poor and minority students in our inner cities.  But the Chinese are really focused on the quality of the teachers in what they call their "rural" schools but what are in fact the schools in where poverty has concentrated their most challenged students, many of which are in their metropolitan areas as well as in the country. In a sense, time is on their side, as rural incomes are rising (making it easier to attract teachers), metropolitan areas are taking more responsibility for educating the children of immigrants from rural areas and class sizes in rural schools have been declining with the migration to the cities, but the problems with teacher quality in these areas are still very daunting.

Policies and practices vary from province to province in China and within provinces, too.  But it is still possible to construct a composite picture of the policies the Chinese have evolved to deal with the issue of teacher quality in the Chinese hinterland.  Some of the pieces of this system are the result of funded national programs, others of national policy in the form of unfunded mandates that provinces and localities are expected to fund out of their own budgets and others have simply evolved as officials at many levels have come to grips with the problems they have been facing

Promising high school graduates are offered a free ride at China's teacher's colleges if they agree to serve in designated rural areas for five years.  But they do not get the money up front.  Instead they pay their own tuition and expenses for college and, then, after they show up for their jobs as teachers, they are reimbursed.  But the incentives do not end there.  Most teachers in China are paid by their local government by the month.  In some provinces, however, these highly qualified teachers are employed by the province and are paid by the year, so their compensation is much more secure than for the average teacher.  These teachers are often also offered free or subsidized housing and transportation to serve in rural schools.  Finally, the authorities have let it be known that, for highly qualified teachers, service in rural schools will provide an inside track to promotion up the career ladder later, which means more responsibility and authority and higher pay.

There are other reasons that teaching, especially in rural areas, is attractive right now in China.  The offer of job security as a teacher up front to young people making career decisions is particularly attractive right now in light of the glut of college graduates — China is now producing college grads faster than its economy can absorb them.  The widespread use of distance learning in rural schools means that rural teachers can spend time — up to six months at a time — away from their school taking courses.  The housing that these teachers get is not just subsidized but built to a higher standard than typical rural housing.  And, in some cases, young people who opt for teacher education programs in college get priority in college admissions.

No surprise, the Chinese reported that this powerful package of incentives and related measures is working.  The system is not perfect.  Because much of the funding for these measures is provided at the provincial and lower levels, implementation is uneven.  But I had the impression that the Americans present were very impressed with way the Chinese are dealing with the issues at the nexus of teacher quality and school quality.
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