In China's countryside, tracts of forests are being replaced with concrete as a new type of factory is being built: the education factory. Motivated by a push to redirect China's economy toward a more innovative, high-tech future—and hopefully dodge the "middle-income trap"—the government is investing in vocational school parks designed to educate hundreds of thousands of students.
China's vocational schools focus on workplace skills, rather than theory and academic subjects. However, in twenty years these students may be left behind, possessing skills that are no longer applicable in China's changing economy. Furthermore, many vocational schools fail to provide human capital enhancing experiences, instead shipping their students off to work as interns in factories that are often irrelevant to their majors and in some cases violate Chinese labor laws.
Harney writes, ""You can build as much as you want, but unless you get good teachers, good curriculum and a system that assesses and rewards high performing schools with more resources, it's just going to be a waste of money," says Scott Rozelle, co-director of the Rural Education Action Program at Stanford University and the author of many papers on vocational education in China.
"There is no question China needs to raise skill levels. Wayne Zhang, who runs a home decor products factory in northeastern China, says that finding skilled workers - in order to increase capacity or make more complex products - is increasingly hard. Of the 100 such staff he set out to hire last year, he has only been able to find 60.
"As of 2010, just 24 percent of China's workforce had attended at least some upper secondary school, compared with an OECD average of 74 percent, according to a study published by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University in February."
In response to this problem, REAP launched Assessing and Credentialing Vocational High Schools, a project aimed at establishing an evaluation system to hold vocational schools accountable to education standards and provide incentives to improve. Preliminary results show that the system is leading to improved student learning and school satisfaction. Read more about this project here.