The Han-Minority Achievement Gap, Language and Returns to Schools in Rural China

The goal of this article was to document and explain the gap in educational achievement between Han and minority students in primary schools in western China. In our survey of 300 schools in Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces (involving nearly 21,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students), we find large differences in achievement on standardized exams between Han and minority students. On average, minority students perform 0.25 SD lower in math and 0.22 SD lower in Chinese. Most strikingly, minority students who do not generally speak Mandarin as their primary language score 0.62 SD lower than Han in math and 0.65 SD lower than Han in Chinese.

Using decomposition methods pioneered by Oaxaca (1973) and Blinder (1973), we find that most of the achievement gap between Han and minority students with no alternative ethnic language can be explained by differences in endowments of student, family, and school characteristics. Of these, differences in students and family characteristics appear to contribute the most to differences in achievement. Little of the gap between Han students and non-Mandarin minority students (Salar and Tibetan in our sample), however, can be explained by endowment differences. Comparing these students only to Han students in the same schools significantly reduces the size of the achievement gap, yet a difference of more than 0.2 SD persists. None of this remaining gap is explained by differences in endowments. Although several explanations are possible, we believe that a likely explanation is that the ability of students to learn may be hindered by difficulty comprehending instruction in Mandarin (given that no schools in our sample provided instruction or texts in minority languages). While we cannot say with certainty why these students may benefit less from a given amount of schooling inputs, our analysis suggests that teachers play a significant role.

While we believe that the findings of this article are important, admittedly, the study has a number of limitations. First, although our sample contains suf- ficient numbers of minority students to conduct analyses, studies involving a larger sample of minority students (particularly non-Mandarin minority stu- dents) would provide further insight into the achievement gap. Second, our survey did not collect information on the Mandarin ability of individual students (although we tested students on the Chinese curriculum, this may be distinct from pure language ability). Future studies should employ such information to assess to what degree language is contributing to the underperformance of students belonging to groups that do not speak Mandarin as their primary language.

Despite these limitations, however, our results call for the attention of policy makers to approaches to address the underperformance of minority students in China’s rural areas. Given the large and increasing importance of educational attainment to economic well-being, addressing the large achievement gap between Han and minority students may help to mitigate economic disparities in the future. On the basis of our results, promising approaches to address the achievement gap would include those focused on improving the returns to minority students of given schooling inputs (e.g., through pedagogical practice). Further, if future studies show language to contribute significantly to the gap, interventions such as remedial tutoring in Mandarin may also yield large benefits.