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Creating a future for small rural schools

Hengshui High School, known for its large size and success in preparing students for Gaokao (China’s College Entrance Exam), has created a franchised school in Zhejiang Province. This expansion stirred up a heated debate about school sizes and choices.
 
As these super schools grow and small rural schools face closure and consolidation, one wonders if such changes mean social progress. From Confucius to Socrates, all great teachers in history had a limited number of students around them. They probably could enroll more students or disciples if they wanted to, but the impact would diminish with the increase of size. Today, college-ranking organizations make class size an important criterion. Princeton, for instance, claims a 1:5 teacher-to-student ratio. For Caltech, it is as low as 1:3. Less selective universities, on the other hand, do not prioritize small classes, nor could they afford them with their smaller endowments. They hire adjunct faculty members or use teaching assistants to serve more students with fewer full-time teachers. It really hurts the effectiveness of learning.
 
Population crash in rural areas may have contributed to the closing of smaller schools. But more frequently, it is just bad judgment by those who associate school consolidation with the scale of economy or efficiency of management. Dr. Craig Howley from Ohio University argued in his writing that larger schools are not necessarily cutting costs. After a certain point, larger schools becomes expensive: More middle management personnel have to be hired to keep schools running.
 
Operational efficiency and academic results also motivate decisions to close and consolidate. Hengshui, for instance, is known for its semi-militarized management style that drives better results in Gaokao. Gaokao should not be the sole goal of schooling. Schools help students develop healthy character and life habits, as well as broad skills, knowledge, and attitudes for a fulfilled and productive life. Both research and common sense tell us that for broader educational objectives, smallness can deliver better results. As size increases, it is more difficult to personalize and individualize education or to pay attention to problems in students’ growth.
 
For Dr. Edwina Pendarvis, large schools also create inequality because they do not favor students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For equal rights to education, states like Utah, Kansas, and Nebraska have policies to protect what is called “ necessary existing small schools”. In China, large schools like Hengshui are private schools that families have to pay to get in. Poor families may not afford it, while they also lose community schools due to competition from their larger counterparts, as well as systematic closing and consolidation.
 
One way or the other, size alone is no answer. Bill Gates also poured millions into small schools, mostly in the urban areas where administrators can promise anything for the funding. Gates did not pay attention to the rural small schools, or schools that are small “by accident”. The results of such funding were therefore disappointing. To deliver the promise of small, China could learn from other countries that run small schools in a sustainable way, especially Canada and Australia, both of which are relatively large countries with few people.
 
China should replace rushed decisions to close small schools with creative ways to help small schools succeed. First of all, address staffing needs. Refrain from industrial or business thinking about “efficiency” in this area. A teacher serving a few students is not a waste, but a privilege that should motivate parents to choose such schools.
 
Rural communities should also use technologies to bring the best educational resources to schools. It should not be so difficult to accomplish with the ubiquity of technological infrastructures that are already in place. Mr. Tang Min, the author of MOOC Revolution, has gathered cases to illustrate how the Internet can bridge differences between urban and rural schools.
 
In addition, after some training and sustained support, rural schools could create action learning models of teaching to tie teaching to lives in rural communities. A few years ago, World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar gave an innovation award to an experiment in rural Peru to allow students to study using materials and schedules customized to rural students. Howley also advocates “REAL education”, namely “rural entrepreneurship through action learning”. Authentic tasks using community resources provides a more enriched educational experience. It also increases local pride for students and teachers.
 
Keeping schools in rural communities is an effective way to attract adult workers back to their hometowns to develop robust economies in the less developed areas of China. China should use small schools strategically. On the other hand, forced closing of schools will worsen current problems of extreme urbanization. Logistically, students who have no nearby schools to go to will have to use private buses. A few years ago, poorly regulated private busing system caused a number of accidents, killing dozens of schoolchildren on these buses. We should not forget so soon.
 
First Published in China Daily
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