Chinese Education Reimagined: REAP co-director Scott Rozelle's Interview with Center for Education Innovations


An Interview with Scott Rozelle

“So, imagine, if you had unlimited resources to change two or three things about China’s education, what would they be?”

I asked this to Scott Rozelle, professor at Stanford University and co-director at the Rural Education Action Program (REAP) - an impact evaluation organization that makes evidence-based policy recommendations, seeking to close the education gap for China’s poor and marginalized students. Given that I had a limited time to interview Scott, who was to board a plane to Beijing in 30 minutes, I hoped this question could foster some interesting answers and reflect some of the deepest concerns this mandarin-speaking American professor has for China’s underdeveloped education system.

Without hesitation, Scott began to draft his blueprint for China’s education in bold and creative strokes. “These are several things I’d like to change,” he started passionately, proposing ambitious changes in a wide array of areas in China’s education sector…

Free High School Education

“If possible, I’d love to roll out a very aggressive plan to promote high school education in China.” Scott began by proposing the cancellation of high school fees for China’s disadvantaged students.

As Scott explained, due to unreasonably high tuition fees, a lot of rural and low-income families can’t afford to send their children to high schools. According to a research by REAP, only 40% of junior high graduates in China’s poor rural areas go to academic high schools, as compared with more than 80% high school enrollment rate among China’s urban students.

To Scott, this inequality in education attainment has directly translated into tremendous inequality in the Chinese society in general, which in turn spells detrimental consequences for China’s economic development in the future. “If you think about it, throughout modern history, no country has been able to progress from a middle-income country to a high-income country with such high inequality in society.”

“Never,” said Scott emphatically.

Equipping Students with the Right Skills

In addition to increasing access to high school education, the quality of education is another concern for Scott. “Nowadays, when you walk into any classroom in China’s rural high schools, what you see is a sea of students’ blank stares at the blackboards – students aren’t learning what they should be learning, nor what interest them.” Scott continued to point out that the problem exists in vocational schools too. “China’s zhigao (mandarin for vocational high schools) are all pianrende (mandarin for liars). In fact, half of the students drop out by grade 2 in vocational schools.” According to Scott, vocational schools in rural and low-income areas don’t even teach the basic skills students need to succeed in the job market. Knowing that the opportunity cost for attending vocational schools is too high, students naturally drop out of school to get low-paying jobs instead.

As Scott elaborated, while China shifts away from a labor-intensive economy to a more service-oriented, knowledge-intensive economy, it requires that workers be equipped with the proper 21st century skills and technical skills. His comment exactly echoed a recent McKinsey report on China’s skills mismatch, which predicted that if China didn’t close its current skilled labor gap, the country could be facing an opportunity cost of $250 billion, or 2.3% of the GDP in 2020.

A Teacher Incentivization Plan

“We also need to incentivize teachers. “ Scott added. “Right now, teachers in China buquegongzi (mandarin, meaning “don’t lack salaries”).” Instead, Scott commented, what they lack is the incentive to improve students’ academic performance. In the US, initiatives such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTP) have been promoting new assessment systems to hold teachers accountable for students’ performance. “Maybe the same needs to happen in China, too.” Interestingly, unlike in the United States where teachers unions have become an intractable force strongly opposing reforms that can hinder teachers’ interests, teachers unions are rather non-existent in China. It would be indeed intriguing to see what would happen if China proposed a similar teacher incentivization strategy to tie teacher pay with student performance. 

A Free AND Nutritious Meal Plan from Early On

“I’d also love to propose a health and nutrition plan for disadvantaged students from very early on,” said Scott. As a matter of fact, since October 2011, the Chinese government has already piloted a lunch subsidy plan in 680 rural counties, through which each student gets a subsidy of 3 yuan every day during the school year. “3 yuan buys you nothing these days. It’s a free meal, but not a nutritious one.” Scott laments.

“Schools need to cover at least 40% of the nutritional requirements for students,” Scott further elaborated on his plan. This needs to happen early, because if poor rural students suffer from malnutrition starting in kindergarten they will also suffer from significant cognitive underdevelopment, which then lingers until secondary school and even college -- further broadening the achievement gap between rich and poor students in the country.

Indeed, the reality revealed by REAP’s research is rather disheartening. By testing nearly 60,000 children across China for iron-deficiency anemia between 2008 and 2012, researchers at REAP estimated that 30 to 35 million school aged children nationwide were suffering from malnutrition. A series of similar studies further predicted that if the micronutrient deficiencies of Chinese infants/toddlers were not corrected before they reached 30 months old, it would mean 20 to 30 percent of China’s future population would be in danger of becoming permanently physically or mentally handicapped.

Overcoming Shortsightedness of the Government

In addition to the four proposals above, Scott also poignantly revealed the difficulty of overcoming political shortsightedness in committing long-term investment in education. According to Scott, “The local government could be looking at its progress in the upcoming years, but not what is to happen in 20 to 30 years.” Faced with this short-sightedness, Scott proposes that the central government should more aggressively allocate financial resources specifically for investment in education. “Unless the central government intervenes, it’s hard for local governments with limited fiscal revenue to initiate educational changes at the grassroots level,” Scott predicted.

In the absence of central government intervention, REAP’s approach already exemplifies some of the most effective ways to encourage local governments in spearheading education reforms. Starting from 2008, the organization has been working closely with various levels of the government to help rigorously design and evaluate potentially effective and scalable education interventions in rural China. Provided with research-backed data to demonstrate program effectiveness, the local government is then able to showcase their return on education investment to higher-level governments, which in turn are encouraged to roll out the program in a larger-scale.

“The Chinese government actually seems very receptive to changes, as long as it knows what kind of change actually works” commented Alexis Medina, a project manager at REAP that I interviewed about Contract for Dreams, a REAP program that supplies and assesses the impact of vouchers on increasing high school enrollment among rural students. As an example, she told me that informed by REAP’s longitudinal study from 2010 to 2013 - which showed poor junior high school students were 13% more likely to attend high school when given guaranteed financial aid - the Chinese State Council has since adopted a new national policy requiring that high schools inform junior high students of their financial aid status before their graduation, while also issuing bank cards to guarantee timely disbursement of the fund.

“Ok, I need to board the plane now,” Scott said hastily, as I heard him breaking up a bit while entering the plane. Off he went to the country he deeply cared about, and I knew he was to realize his blueprint bit by bit, by trudging through the remote villages in China, asking questions, testing answers.


R4D's Xuejiao Cheng is originally from Anhui province and has spent time in Hunan and Sichuan as a volunteer teacher for ethnic minority students. Xuejiao has a B.A. in English Literature from Peking University and an M.Ed. in International Education Policy from Vanderbilt University.