William received funding for his internship from the The Cross Cultural Community Service Fund (CCCS), which supports international community service, advocacy, and activism.
This summer I spent four weeks working with Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program (REAP) as a research intern. REAP is an impact evaluation organization that aims to inform sound education, health and nutrition policy in China. Their goal is to help improve the lives of the millions of people by developing their human capital and overcoming obstacles to education so that they can escape poverty and better contribute to China’s developing economy.
As a part of the REAP research team I worked on their project evaluating China’s vocational education and training (VET) programs. There is a widespread belief at the upper echelons of China’s political decision-making bodies that VET is a way to give poor, rural students the skills they need for future employment. However, research has shown that VET has not been an effective tool for improving students’ economic outcomes. Not only are they learning less than their peers in academic high schools, but also many are regressing in basic skills like Chinese language and math. As a summer intern, I spent two weeks conducting field interviews with VET students and dropouts in China and another two weeks writing a paper incorporating quantitative and qualitative analysis to submit to academic journals and the Chinese Academy of Sciences—and ideally impact policy.
When someone mentions China, images of rapid development and growing prosperity frequently come to mind. Indeed, in the last 30 years China has made rapid improvements and its urban centers and infrastructure rival much of the developed world. However, in the rural parts of China far away from the developed coastal regions, millions of people continue to live in abject poverty with little hope of partaking in the advantages of China’s burgeoning growth.
It is often easy to think of economic development in abstract terms. Numbers such as GDP per capita and spending on infrastructure are important indicators. However, my experience working with REAP made me realize the important role that education and human capital play in economic development. Quality education is essential for any country to succeed. After meeting the kids that are enrolled in VET programs, it became clear to me that they are not receiving a quality education. Three main themes emerged in our interviews: first, students have low expectations for their ability to gain from VET and thus little motivation to learn; second, the schooling system is characterized by a complete lack of accountability for students to learn, engage in appropriate behavior, or stay in school; finally, the vocational education system leaves opportunities for schools to take advantage of their students for pecuniary gain through recruitment, illegal fees, and internships that benefit the school more than the student.
It became apparent to me that the educational opportunities needed to improve the lives of poor, rural students in China are not available in the current educational system. Integrating poor, rural students into an effective educational system is essential to China’s ability to make growth inclusive. If one hopes to create economic growth and development and fairness in a country, it is essential that the educational system help the least-advantaged members of that society.
-William Weightman ’17