One of the major challenges facing policymakers who are in charge of education in China today is how to provide quality, safe and nurturing boarding school services to the more than 10 million elementary school students who live at school away from home. This problem has been amplified by China's recently implemented Rural Primary School Merger Program. As a result of this merger program, more than 20,000 rural primary schools were closed each year from 2001 to 2005, forcing many additional students to begin boarding at their new schools to avoid long commutes.
Although there are many problems with boarding schools, one particular concern is that dorm managers (those in charge of managing student dormitory life) are poorly trained--if trained at all--and their management approaches are frequently ad hoc. Poor management may be behind the extremely unsatisfactory living environment found in many boarding schools. Dormitory rooms are often dirty, the facilities are in disrepair, and basic hygiene practices are not taught, enforced, or used. The needs of students—physical, academic, social and psychological—are often overlooked.
With the eventual goal of improving the overall well-being of China's 10 million boarding school students, REAP set out to examine whether a dorm manager training program could impact the physical health, psychological health, and educational achievement of boarding school students. Our study was done in rural Shaanxi, one of the poorest provinces in Northwest China. From 2007 to 2009, REAP researchers led by Yaojiang Shi and Renfu Luo conducted a pilot dorm management intervention in rural Shaanxi in order to better understand the issues facing those who live in boarding schools and to assess the effect of a boarding school management training program on the well-being of boarding school students.
REAP used a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) approach to evaluate the impact of introducing a boarding school management protocol to dorm managers. The first step in this research strategy included randomly choosing 10 boarding schools that have fairly comparable boarding facilities. Information on the welfare of students in these 10 schools was gathered during a canvass survey of 144 schools carried out in 2007 (see canvass survey at Educational Challenges, Boarding Schools). From the 10 sample schools, we then chose 5 schools to be treatment schools. The dorm managers in these 5 schools attended an intensive (2-part, 17 day) training program in dorm management. In contrast, the dorm managers in the other 5 schools (the control schools) did not receive any training. The figure below shows the location of the 5 treatment and 5 control boarding schools.
The second step of the research project involved doing a baseline survey of the dorm managers, students, and teachers in all 10 sample schools. This set of surveys was designed to produce a picture of dorm management and student life in all treatment and control schools before the dorm managers from the treatment schools received training. REAP's surveys covered the following areas:
After finishing the baseline, the third step of the project was training dorm managers from the treatment schools. REAP researchers designed a comprehensive dormitory management protocol to cover all of the dorm manager's responsibilities. The REAP team then gathered the dorm managers from the treatment schools to a central location to take part in a rigorous 10-day training program in July of 2008. The following spring, dorm managers from the treatment schools also took part in a week-long "refresher" training course. The table below shows the main content of the training program.
The last step of the project took place in June 2009. The REAP team revisited all of the schools and redid the baseline survey, called our evaluation survey. We then compared the changes in the Psychological Health, Cognitive skills, Time Allocation, Daily Behavior and Nutrition/Health of students again in the treatment schools and the control schools. In this way, we assessed the effectiveness of dorm manager training on improving the lives and educational performance of boarding school students in China’s rural schools.
The results of this study proved that dorm manager training programs were a highly effective means of improving student health and behavior. Among students from treatment schools (whose dorm managers had taken part in the training program), significantly fewer students reported feeling cold while sleeping at night. Students from treatment schools were also less likely to experience diarrhea.
Furthermore, the dorm manager training program led to improved student behavior. On average, the program resulted in improved student punctuality in arriving to and leaving on time from class and significantly fewer student disciplinary problems outside of the classroom.
Finally, through qualititative interviews with student and dorm managers, REAP researchers found that communication between dorm managers and the students they were responsible improved significantly as a result of the program. This is a probable mechanism underlying the improved student health and behavior that resulted from the program. Although REAP's intervention could not change any structural constraints--such as facilities, the number of dorm managers working part-time versus full-time, or salaries--the dorm manager training clearly improved their interactions with students, helping them to more consciously care for boarding students.
Jennifer Adams, Assistant Professor in School of Education at Stanford University who was a key researcher in the project, concludes, “The answers to these questions are not only significant in China, but also in other developing nations that are struggling to provide education for disadvantaged, hard-to-reach children. The results of our work can inform rural education policy, and improve the educational experiences of rural children by illustrating what works and what does not in primary boarding schools. Ultimately, we hope to enhance the boarding experience of 10 million elementary students in China and more around the world. ”
REAP thanks the Ford Foundation, China, for providing funding for this project.