An ambitious experiment hopes to save them
By Dennis Normile –
Glasses askew and gray hair tousled, Scott Rozelle jumps into a corral filled with rubber balls and starts mixing it up with several toddlers. The kids pelt the 62-year-old economist with balls and, squealing, jump onto his lap. As the battle rages, Rozelle chatters in Mandarin with mothers and grandmothers watching the action.
Elsewhere in this early childhood education center in central China, youngsters are riding rocking horses, clambering on a jungle gym, thumbing through picture books, or taking part in group reading. Once a week, caregivers get one-on-one coaching on how to read to toddlers and play educational games. The center is part of an ambitious experiment Rozelle is leading that aims to find solutions to what he sees as a crisis of gargantuan proportions in China: the intellectual stunting of roughly one-third of the population. “This is the biggest problem China is facing that nobody’s ever heard about,” says Rozelle, a professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
Surveys by Rozelle’s team have found that more than half of eighth graders in poor rural areas in China have IQs below 90, leaving them struggling to keep up with the fast-paced official curriculum. A third or more of rural kids, he says, don’t complete junior high. Factoring in the 15% or so of urban kids who fall at the low end of IQ scores, Rozelle makes a stunning forecast: About 400 million future working-age Chinese, he says, “are in danger of becoming cognitively handicapped.”
Among Chinese academics, that projection “is controversial,” says Mary Young, a pediatrician and child development specialist formerly of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. But although experts may debate the numbers, they are united on the enormity of the problem. “There is definitely a tremendous urban-rural gap” in educational achievement, says Young, who is leading pilot interventions for parents of young children in impoverished rural areas for the government-affiliated China Development Research Foundation in Beijing.
A desolate classroom reflects the limited academic opportunities in China’s depopulated rural villages.
RURAL EDUCATION ACTION PROGRAM
While China’s dynamic urban population thrives, much of rural China is mired in poverty. More than 70 million people in the countryside live on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank, and children have it particularly hard. On a recent visit to Shaanxi province, at a group of farmsteads isolated in a remote valley, a 27-year-old mother of two says that she would like to send her kids to preschool. But she would have to rent an apartment in town to do so—a prohibitive expense.
Many parents migrate to the booming cities for work, leaving children with grandparents. (China’s household registration system requires that children enroll in schools in the district where their parents are registered.) Left-behind children tend to leave school early, eat poorly, and have little cognitive stimulation in the crucial first years of life. Grandparents, with limited education themselves, are poorly equipped to read to the next generation. They sometimes carry swaddled infants on their backs while working their fields, which delays infant motor development, Young says.
Such early deprivation, Rozelle and others say, limits kids’ potential for success in life. “There is a massive convergence of evidence” that development in the first 1000 days after a baby’s conception sets the stage for later educational achievement and adult health, says Linda Richter, a developmental psychologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who doesn’t work with Rozelle.
China’s millions of at-risk children could threaten its future. Economic modeling shows that in some low- and middle-income countries, such as India and Tanzania, “the gross domestic product lost to stunting can be more than a country’s spending on health,” explains Richter, who helped produce a series of papers on early childhood development published online in The Lancet last October. Conversely, she says, “There is a special window of opportunity” for interventions that bolster health and improve parenting.
That’s what Rozelle is setting out to prove—on an unprecedented scale. In 100 villages across Shaanxi, his team of Chinese and foreign collaborators is following 1200 baby-caregiver pairs; half attend the enriching early education centers and half serve as controls. If the intervention works, Rozelle says his team will seek to convince authorities to establish early education centers nationwide. “It will keep China from collapsing,” he says.