In 2016 the movie “Mr. Donkey” received widespread critical acclaim in China. According to the film’s co-director, Zhou Shen, the plot is based on the true story of a teacher who went to work in the countryside in Gansu province. Water was scarce in China’s arid northwest, so the school “employed” a donkey to fetch water from a nearby well.
Without sufficient funding to feed the donkey, though, the school’s headmaster decided to report it as a community teacher. This allowed him to apply to the government for an additional salary, which, in turn, was spent providing for the school’s beloved equid. But when a higher-level leader came for a surprise inspection and asked to meet “Mr. Donkey,” the teachers were left scrambling to come up with excuses.
Though the plot of the movie actually takes place in the 1940s, it sheds light on deeper social issues still plaguing China today. In the film, school dropout rates in the impoverished county are so high that five teachers are put in charge of just six students.
“Mr. Donkey” is an accurate illustration of the plight of those involved in giving or receiving basic education in China’s poverty-stricken areas. One such area is Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, which takes up most of the southern part of central China’s Sichuan province. About half of Liangshan’s population belongs to the Yi ethnic minority, a group historically characterized by low education levels and high gender inequality.
The numbers above suggest that Yi families put relatively little stock in education and, correspondingly, relatively little money and effort into young people’s schooling. At the same time, Yi students show little motivation to study and have extraordinarily high dropout rates. Around a quarter of Yi children drop out of the education system during primary school, and a further 11 percent do not complete middle school. Many Yi parents did not receive much schooling when they were young, either, and rarely communicate with the world beyond Liangshan. As a result, they tend to underestimate the importance of education and neglect formal learning for their children.
Poverty levels in southern Sichuan are quite severe. In 2015, Liangshan’s poverty rate — defined as those whose disposable income is less than 2,300 yuan ($333) per year — hit 13.4 percent, one of the highest in all of China. The average disposable income of the prefecture’s rural population is the fourth lowest in all of Sichuan, while in the province’s three poorest counties — Meigu, Jinyang, and Ganluo — disposable incomes were 40 percent lower than the national average. Poverty prevents families from investing in their children’s education, and when this attitude is passed on, it ensures that they remain deprived of it for generations.
Even though compulsory education in China is free, and boarding school students in Liangshan receive financial support and free school meals, many families still do not invest enough in education, and many students lack support for their studies outside of school. Liangshan’s students often grow weary of studying, get low grades, and drop out of school.
In fact, one of the main reasons many families do send their children to school is because doing so guarantees them a hot, nutritious meal. In addition, once the children are in school, parents need not worry about watching over them. In other words, school becomes more of a day care facility than an institute of learning.
Improving basic education in southern Sichuan, therefore, requires action on two fronts. First, we must strengthen parents’ dedication to their children’s education. Second, we must motivate the students themselves. Conditional transfer payments are one method worth examining. For families whose flagging devotion to education stems from entrenched poverty, we have implemented cash rewards for scholastic achievements. This encourages the children of Yi families to complete their studies, ultimately raising the area’s academic track record and overall educational level.
I have been assisting with field tests for the Youth Education Improvement Program (YEIP) in the Yi minority county of Mabian, Liangshan prefecture, since 2015. As with other mountainous regions in Liangshan, nearly half of Mabian’s population identify as Yi, and average educational levels are low. For our experiment, we randomly selected 16 schools teaching a total of 2,600 fifth- and sixth-grade students — that is to say, the last two years of primary school.
We separated all the participants into two groups: an experimental group that received cash bonuses for academic achievement and a control group that received no money at all. We gave out rewards for academic excellence and improved homework completion rates and overall academic performance. The first reward was handed out to students who scored in the top 12 percent in their class, with each student receiving around 200 yuan each time. The second bonus, worth 150 yuan, was given to the top 10 percent of students who had demonstrated the greatest improvement compared to the previous term. The final, more subjective reward gave handouts to the top 10 percent of students whose homework assignments pleased their teachers the most.
The beauty of the reward scheme lies in the fact that instead of just favoring the best students, it also rewards those who improve their grades and those who demonstrate a willingness to study hard. In China, schools give each student a score out of 100 in each subject. During the most recent review, the math scores of the experimental group rose by an average of more than 4 points, while their grades in Chinese class were up by around 1.7 points. This marked a clear improvement not observed in the control group.
When looking at the data more closely, we discovered that the highest rises in math grades came from students who had originally scored lower than most of their peers. Those who initially ranked in the 20th to 40th percentiles increased their grades by an average of 6.6 points. Those in the 40th to 60th percentiles, meanwhile, saw their average grades rise by 6.7 points. The Chinese class scores of the lowest-scoring 20 percent increased by 6.2 points.
Our research proves that YEIP incentives have the greatest effect on middle- and lower-level students. Further research has shown that the grades of students from the poorest 20 percent of the families improved the fastest, especially if the children were living with their parents. And if the mother spent a substantial amount of time with the child, the grades rose even more dramatically.
Insofar as the movie “Mr. Donkey” encouraged many Chinese to discuss human nature and the inner workings of state institutions, it still failed to address the origins of poverty-related problems in education — an oversight that’s all too common. Even though these problems receive considerable attention, we in China often fail to approach the question of combating them with sufficient reflection and sensitivity. While society mobilizes vast amounts of resources in the form of manpower, materials, and financial aid for use in poverty-stricken areas, we also need to ask how best to use these tools. Through educational incentives, YEIP can guide both parents and children to improve educational performance and provide effective relief from the crushing reality of poverty.
Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Students from the Yi ethnic group at a primary school classroom in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, Sept. 13, 2015. Hao Yi/VCG)