Last June, a lively and well-equipped preschool opened in one of the poorest villages in Shaanxi province, as part of a pilot project seeking ways to improve childhood development called Nurturing the Future. The pilot is being run by the national health commission and the Rural Education Action Plan (REAP), a joint research program conducted by Shaanxi Normal University in the northwestern city of Xi'an, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Stanford University in the U.S. state of California.
The experiment sees idle primary school classrooms and government offices in certain rural areas of Shaanxi Province converted into early childhood development centers like the one Mengjie and her grandmother visit.
The project's organizers also conducted the first study to look at how parenting practices influence the cognitive development of children in China's villages. That research, conducted from 2013 to 2015, found that the best time to have the most impact on rural children's educational performance and growth is during the first three years of life. Yue Ai, a senior researcher from Shaanxi Normal University, said data from the REAP studies of 100 rural villages across the country have consistently pointed to the same conclusion.
Many rural children start to fall behind in terms of cognitive development from an early age, said Luo Renfu, who develops the curriculum for preschools run by the project. In fact, two out of five youngsters aged 18 to 42 months showed significant delays in either cognitive or motor development, or both, the study found.
These early problems can, of course, impact children later in their education, Luo said. "One-third of rural children drop out of high school" because they can't catch up after their bad start.
A lack of parental interaction is strongly linked to developmental delays in rural babies, the study concludes. Another REAP study of over 1,400 toddlers aged 18 to 30 months found that only 5 percent of the parents tell stories to their infants and about 37 percent sang to them. None of the parents or grandparents interviewed reported talking to their babies regularly, often saying, "Why would I talk to the baby? It can't understand me yet!"
Researchers found that when parents spoke directly to their toddlers, the children experienced faster development in language and other cognitive skills. All learning after the age of three depends on this early training, Luo said.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that millions of children in rural villages are left in the care of grandparents, who are semi-literate or too weak to care for children left by parents who move to cities to work, researchers said. One in five rural babies less than 12 months old is cared for by their grandparents, REAP researchers found. The number increases three-fold for toddlers aged 24 to 30 months.
Multiple international studies have shown that intervening in children's development during the first 1,000 days of their birth will produce the most impact at the lowest cost. Only two out of five villages in the study had a preschool for children above the age of three, and none of them had a day care for younger infants.
China spends 0.2 percent of its GDP on early childhood education and care facilities each year. This figure trails that of many developing countries, such as Argentina or Brazil, which spend 0.5 percent. Although China's education budget accounted for 4.3 percent of its national GDP in 2013, there is no specific allocation for early childhood development.
Cai Jianhua, an official at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said setting up a preschool in every village or rural community would cost about 60 billion yuan, or 0.1 percent of GDP. Cai also suggests training some of the current family planning officials to become early education teachers.
"Even if the country uses just a fraction of the energy it spends on family planning policies to improve the quality of rural education, it will have a brighter future," said Shi Yaojiang, a professor on education at Shaanxi Normal University.
Need for Skills
The country's changing economy requires people with more advanced skills, who can learn quickly, Zhang Linxiu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said.
"The job market in the future will be quite different," she said. "People who have only farming skills will have trouble competing in cities."
Industries need highly skilled workers if the country is to transition from basic manufacturing to high-end products. In the 1960s and 1970s, "the world's factories" were South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico, said Scott Rozelle, co-director of REAP.
"But by the 1980s and 1990s, as wages increased, the unskilled garment workforce gradually transformed to highly skilled workers in the technology and service sectors," he said. "In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, almost all workers have at least a high school diploma.
"This high-quality workforce guarantees these countries their industrial upgrade capability. In contrast, in Mexico, only 40 percent of the rural population has completed senior high school and a majority of its labor force had droped out from junior high … So the economy has lost its momentum."
A survey by Rozelle of automobile service shops in Shaanxi Province showed that 90 percent of the vocational school graduates didn't have access to the Internet. "So we have to ask what this low-skilled labor force will do in 20 years," he said.