Education Inequity: The Village in the Valley

“Basically, it’s kind of like this for teachers: Your scores suck, they move you to a less ideal situation. So, let’s say you end up at one of the top schools in the capital, but you can’t hang. They’ll put you just outside the city where the classes might be bigger, the kids might be tougher, and your life will just be generally more inconvenient. Let’s say you screw it up again. You can’t improve the scores at that school either. They’ll move you further out, to kids with fewer prospects, and you might be a bus ride or two away from the city. The process repeats itself, until you’re the only teacher in the little village at the crest of the mountain, where everyone speaks deep dialect, the kids will never ever leave, you’re getting some rice and a piece of hog fat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re two days down a rocky, windy, fog-shrouded, vomit-inducing mountain road from anything that resembles your old life.”

Kind of like the English professional soccer system, I thought.

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“Shit. So what happens when you screw it up at that school?”

“They just kill you. Nah, I’m kidding. Nothing. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably get your wits about you and get yourself out. Otherwise, I guess you’ll just stay at that school forever.”

“So, essentially, if you’re a bad teacher, your punishment is to go teach where they need good teachers more than anything.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the story.”

“Man. That is fucked.”

“Such is the world we live in, no?”

I’m reclined under a bunch of palm trees in a tiny village in a valley. A mango tree peeks out from behind the palm fronds. Every once in a while a ripe green mango will thud to the ground. It’s sticky, sultry out here. The kind of hot that makes you think of porches and fans. Mr. Peng is about 5’1” with a frame of ample proportions. He’s got that kind of roly-poly physique that you can tell is a product of lifelong consumption of naturally delicious food—fresh mangoes, house-raised chickens, and lots and lots of rice. Mr. Peng’s largesse did not come from empty factory calories that maneuvered their way into all kinds of weird places and make the body look like some sort of depressed dumping ground for preservatives. He actually looks strikingly like the Buddha around his neck, but with a beautifully full head of black hair.

Mr. Peng and his wife are teachers at the middle school here in the village. They also run the local hotel, which is across a concrete parking lot from where we sit, eating fallen mangos, bayberries, and drinking some kind of mysterious booze that tastes like a mixture of nail polish remover, rice crispies, and urine. Or what I assume those things taste like. Mr. Peng’s family is obviously quite wealthy for this town. He shows me some pictures of his mother and father in-law on vacation in Singapore and France with one of those flag-waving tour groups. People here do not go to France.

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A nearby village across the Yangtze

Being a teacher in the village is backbreaking, he says. More than anything else, it’s the constant perception of hopelessness. Daily hopelessness mixed with long-term hopelessness. There are 1500 students at the middle school and 81 teachers. At first glance, that might not seem so crazy. We love the “student-teacher” ratio metric, and 18.5-1 isn’t all that bad. Keep in mind though, that “teacher” means a lot more than “teacher.” Responsibilities extend far beyond the classroom, in both a literal and abstract sense. These “teachers” are also security guards, administrators, and, ostensibly, parents. In that regard, 18.5-1 is actually insane.

Mr. Peng says his students are always fighting, “falling in love,” and smoking and drinking on campus. What can we do, he says. There aren’t enough of us. He consistently laments problems of space. The next morning, he takes me to the school.

“This is where the basketball court used to be.” He says, pointing to a pile of rocks and dust awaiting construction. “I can’t imagine there’s another middle school in all of Yunnan without a damn basketball court. How do you think that affects the kids? Why do you think they’re fighting and sneaking off with their girlfriends and boyfriends between periods and during class?” He looks at the rubble, slides a rock under his foot, and shakes his head. “But what can you do?”

The school is actually pretty peaceful, kind of pastoral. One might even call it serene. The plants are well manicured, and though there is that omnipresent construction of modern China, there aren’t really any big machines. Just a few guys in reed hats squatting around some craggy looking tools. It’s the weekend, after all. No one here but these workers and a few teachers assigned to “guard” the school until Monday. The buildings are stacked almost literally one on top of another.

Mr. Peng passes into the courtyard. “Last year when the education bureau came, the school picked a few teachers and told them what to say. The rest of us not to say anything. That was really difficult for me. But, they came back a few months ago and the school didn’t say anything. I took the chief aside to look at this passageway. It’s the only one that leads from the courtyard and the classrooms to the cafeteria.” He motions to a footpath between two buildings the width of maybe two-and-a-half average-sized doorways.

“1500 students.” That’s all he says and I understand. “And the chief was surprised, and a little shocked. But he really cared. A couple weeks later they made another passageway over on the other side. Everyone felt a lot more at ease after that.”

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Me and some students

We walk around the grounds. The school is nice, it really is. It doesn’t have that run-down one-room schoolhouse feel that one might want to associate with a “poor” school. Mr. Peng tells me that the situation is pretty awful for the students. Students spend three years to complete middle school in China. At the end there’s a test that decides whether they’ll go to the next level. Mr. Peng says that the amount of year three students is about half that of year one students. I don’t think I need to spell out what that means. Of that number, he says perhaps 40% will pass the test to go to high school. So, maybe a quarter of the ones that started will continue–to high school, that is.

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Gao Fu Cai with his pet goat

“English is the biggest problem.” English is historically given the same weight as Mandarin and math on both the high school and college entrance tests. There are very few countries that do this—treat foreign language like a core subject— and there are certainly a vast array of countries with infrastructure better suited to such a heavy emphasis on foreign language. For starters, the other language on the test—Mandarin—is more often than not basically a second or third language as it is. As I see it, the prominence of English is the single biggest flaw in the current system—the biggest contributor to inequity, but is, fortunately, slowly being changed. “Many of the kids just lie on the desks during class. What else can they do? They have to study English, but there is really no one to teach them. The English teachers, they work hard, but they don’t speak English. If they were here today—the kids—you’d be the first English speaker they’d ever met.”

Just think about that for a minute. That’s like trying to learn math from someone who doesn’t know the times tables. It’s not the teacher’s fault, though. They surely want nothing more than for someone to teach them how to speak better English. Compare and contrast with the big cities on the east side of the country, where there are armies of well-trained local teachers and plenty of foreigners ready to do the job. Mr. Peng said the highest English score at the Middle School last year was 82%. I cannot imagine what that kid did to get to 82%.

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There is an assumed inherent “fairness” in this system of standardized tests—in ours too. In any system with standardized testing. The wealthy kid in the city is getting the same questions as the poor farmer’s daughter. But, it’s not about the questions. The same question, of course, may mean very different things to you and I. The paths we take toward gaining proficiency to answer that question will certainly be wildly different. The test may not be designed to be unfair, but it will become unfair as time goes on. Same with the American system of loading up on extra-currics and being “well-rounded.” The system may not be designed to be unfair, but those with the ability and resources can make the system work for them. If tomorrow, by some glitch in the structure, the world’s most prestigious and lucrative job became car-washer, by the end of the next few decades, the next generation of car-washers would be, on the whole, minted from the upper reaches of society. It will always be that way unless the world really changes or something.

You can make your changes at the climax of the system. You can try to change the end results by changing the ­end result. But, frankly that is some stupid, stupid stuff. The end result is a framework for how best to prepare. You don’t level the playing field when the game is over, you know.

Education inequity is not something I think that much about. It doesn’t rule my life. I am a teacher at a school. I have to plan classes and grade homework. But, I do think about it sometimes. And, as a teacher, it is almost inconceivably sad.

I think that many people in positions of influence, wealth, privilege etc. hold, consciously or not, a feeling that those on the underside of the coin are somehow not entirely self-aware of their condition. This provides, again consciously or not, an alleviation of responsibility and guilt. This is super dangerous. It is the act of confusing disenfranchisement, voicelessness, and cyclical inequity with ignorance. And it is simply untrue. The moment where Mr. Peng was unable to talk about the problems at the Middle School was a rather in-your-face example of this. But, it’s all around. And the most voiceless in any society are kids. They are also the most impressionable, the most malleable. They are far and away the most prescient “return on investment.” If you want to change the flow of the cycle, school is really the only place to start. That is, of course, if you want to change it.

The strongest impression that I get whenever I think about inequality in education is pure and utter, purely, utterly pervasive faultlessness. It’s like a Syrian civilian whose bombed out house happened to be trapped in the middle of an ideological civil war or a poor Bangladeshi farmer whose home and livelihood has been washed away as an abstract upshot of far-off and endless industrial revolutions. There is nothing they can do. In fact, there is nothing they could do. It is not that they are not aware; it is that they are not allowed to speak. My students can study hard–that will improve their chances. It really will. Their situation is by no means hopeless. They can beat the odds. But there’s nothing they can do now about all the developmental landmines they’ll come across. Surely, that’s a responsibility that falls elsewhere.

“So that’s the school.” Mr. Peng notes as we leave through the gate. “What do you think?”

“Hard to say. I mean I understand everything you said. But, as a school, it looks nice.“

“It does look nice, doesn’t it.”

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Giving Zach a Chance

              Zach is 12. Twelve is a rather young age to decide who is “dumb” and who isn’t. Zach, unfortunately, it has been decided, is “dumb.” He’s never been in love, he’s never put a car into drive, he’s never sat at the adults’ table. But, it’s been decided that he’s “dumb.” Strangely, the kids tabbed as “dumb” are given the least attention. This is a pretty precarious situation for Zach, who still has at least 4 years of school left. He’s placed at the back of the class with other students like him. If he can’t keep his hands to himself or shut his mouth, he’s encouraged to read quietly or put his head down instead of participating. He complies, because, hell, what 6th grader wouldn’t agree to that deal?

         Little does Zach know that every second he spends with his head on his desk is a second of education he will never get back. There’s no layaway for grammar points. He can’t comprehend how today’s bopping his deskmate on the head during a lesson about quadrilateral shapes is going to affect his disposable income 15 years from now. It’s impossible for him to connect the dots between an assignment on the future tense and the actual future. And, he shouldn’t. That’s not Zach’s job. That’s my job. Weeding out the “cans” from the “can’ts” is the way education is structured. Once you’ve been marked, you’re either in for an adolescence of an uphill battle or a self-fulfilling cruise toward higher education. Whether Zach’s in Sanzhaung, Sao Paulo, or Sydney, that’s the way it is. But it’s a little different in Sanzhuang.

         I teach a 6th grade class of 36 students. Based on recent history, about half of them will go to high school. Of that 18, maybe three to five will go to college. Forget The Princeton Review. I’m talking about college. Period. Eleven percent odds to go to college at all. You’ve got to be extraordinary just to do something that, if you didn’t do in most parts of the US, you’d get a lot of eyebrow raises. Factor in that 100% of students’ parents didn’t go to college. Factor in that almost all of their teachers didn’t either. Factor in that college, even if it’s totally free, still incurs a massive opportunity cost for students in rural Yunnan.

           Take this into consideration and Zach’s unjust predicament begins to make sense. At some point as a teacher, it seems, you’ve got to put your chips on the table. If you’re teaching forty students, among who four have a realistic shot at higher education and only half can make it to freshman year of high school, you’ve got to give them that chance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to get Zach up to speed in long division, let alone times tables. He had his chance. He missed it. It’s over. Put your head on your desk and bask in the blissful ignorance of a disappearing education.

           Zach’s not going to college. Zach’s not going to high school. But, that does not preclude Zach from receiving a meaningful education on his terms. It’s not the system that’s screwing Zach over; it’s the system’s resources. Too many students, not enough teachers, not enough support, not enough time.

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        I’m not a great teacher, especially in this exam-intensive system. I’ll never be as good as a local English teacher who’s been through the process, knows the ins and outs, and can perceive with almost Nostradamus like efficiency, what is and isn’t going to be on the county-wide final exams. What I, and other Teach for China fellows can provide, however, is a new perspective.

        I don’t let Zach read or sleep in my class. At the very least, he has to call back vocabulary words like everyone else. He is almost illiterate in Chinese, so in English class I just tell him to do his best, but don’t over scrutinize his work. The other day I was giving a review lesson about superlatives. Taller! Older! Stronger! Bigger! On a scale of excitement, the lecture was somewhere between a James Lipton monologue and Barry Manilow’s Classic Christmas. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I actually felt bad for my students. I assigned them to copy the vocab words, which were all adjectives with –er tacked onto the end, and began to walk around the room. I looked over at Zach in the back left corner, who was uncharacteristically industrious. As I walked toward him, he quickly shoved something in his desk and looked up straight ahead.

“What is it Zach? If I was watching this class I’d be bored too.”
“Nothing…” A cheeky grin emerges.
“Fair enough.”

When the bell rang Zach approached me.

“Mr. Loeb, you can’t tell Mrs. Wang,” (His homeroom teacher)
“I wasn’t going to.”
“After all, it’s your fault.”
“Well yeah, I know, but not every class can be fun. I’ve told you that.”
“No! I was working on this.”

       He shows me an absurdly intricate drawing of a futuristic looking city. Written on the bottom in Chinese, “My Ideal Hometown.”

“I see. It’s, umm, really good, Zach, wow. Don’t worry about it. You’re free to go.”

           This year Sanzhuang’s theme for the CORE (Community Outreach Rediscovery and Enlightenment) project is “My Ideal Hometown.” Myself and my two co-fellows 张晓杰 and 赵娅楠 asked students to get into groups of five with others from their village. The groups would compete for an educational field trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, at the end of the school year. Zach is from a tiny mountain village called Dongpo. Because his academic success has been low, he was apparently not a desirable team member. Because Dongpo is the smallest village of all the feeder towns for Sanzhuang, the other students said they had to take Zach on their team, otherwise they would only have four members.

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             Zach didn’t let them down. It appeared that all his restlessness and nervous energy in the classroom was being channeled toward the project. Whereas previously getting him to write his own name in English proved an almost impossible task (his favorite version is ScAh), now he was drawing elaborate diagrams of urban plans, and doing so way beyond the expectations of the project. When half of the remaining 27 teams were eliminated after the first two rounds, tiny Dongpo was still in contention for the trip to Kunming. Zach would come up to me after almost every class asking what the score of the competition was, even though I’m sure he knew each team’s point total by heart. I’d have to tell him, “Zach, we just got back from a holiday. The score hasn’t change in a week.”

“Oh, right,” He’d say.

           Last weekend we tallied the scores. Zach didn’t win. Dongpo placed sixth out of an original group of 30, a rather impressive showing considering they were competing against teams from towns 5 times their size. The winning team was made up of five incredibly motivated girls who, though it’s still early on in the game, look to be very much on track to go to high school, college, and beyond. But Zach held his own. He may score 70 points lower than them in the classroom, but his team finished a mere five spots below them on the CORE project. And you know what? He was bummed out. He asked me what set the other team apart and why his team didn’t win. Dongpo’s model was great, I said, but the winning team’s written work was exemplary. Every week Zach receives papers full of red X’s, 30% test scores, and angry looks from teachers. At this point, he’s learned to shrug it off. But not this time.

            Seeing Zach give his absolute all—and then some—got me thinking. Elementary school isn’t about prepping kids for high school and college. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about giving kids the chance to discover a passion. Some kids like math, some kids don’t like math but do it because they know they have to. Some kids hate it, can’t do it, and will never change their mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t be passionate about something. That doesn’t mean they’ve missed their shot at a productive obsession. Newton liked gravity, Galileo liked stars, and Zach from Dongpo likes drawing intricate constructions of his ideal hometown. Newton wouldn’t have known how much he loveeeed gravity if an apple didn’t bonk him on the cranium. Zach wouldn’t have known how much he loves drawing if he wasn’t given the opportunity through the CORE project. I mean and believe that with complete conviction. Zach’s not even close to “dumb,” whatever that means, his passions have just been on the shelf.

            The scale will never be tipped in Zach’s favor. The time, money, and political influence needed to give kids like him a high-level of education just isn’t here. But, if we have the opportunity to move the scales ever so slightly, we should give it our best shot. The students deserve it. Zach deserves it.

        I’m reaching out to everyone and anyone who reads this blog to please help me and my co-fellows reach our fundraising goal so we can make CORE possible this year and beyond. Consider the link below. Everything helps: Donating, sharing, supporting, even just knowing.

Thank you.

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