The overall situation
At present there are 85,000 children in primary school in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and 40,000 in middle school (up to age 18). According to a representative of the Ganzi prefectural Culture-Education Bureau (Chinese: Wenjiao Ju), 95% of primary-school age children in Ganzi attend school. This figure is disputed by others, who say that the percentage is more likely 80 or 70, or even less.
If one considers higher grades, the proportion of children attending school drops dramatically. There are very few senior middle school students (17- and 18-year-olds). For example, in all of Dege (Derge) county there are only ten students at this level, which is considered college-track. A junior middle school graduate can read and write Tibetan and Chinese, do basic math, and has even studied a little English. Most graduates of junior middle school either stop their education, or go into a trade school.
The main reason children don’t attend school is poverty, exacerbated by the long distance that must be traveled to reach the nearest school. Another reason is that parents don’t trust the schools, and fear their children becoming sinicized. Finally, some parents feel that education is not useful, especially for girls.
There are three main sources of income for schools: (1) Government subsidy of a huge number of poor students, (2) Conduct of businesses such as shops on the school grounds, , and (3) Families support of own children through payment of educational fees.
Prior to 1985 some schools were operated in tents to better reach the nomad population, but these were stopped in favor of boarding arrangements at centrally located schools. The government provides books, desks, and chairs free of charge. In all of the classrooms I visited, every student had a book open on their desk. These books were dog-eared and marked up, but there seemed to be an adequate supply.
The statistics for schools in Ganzi are as follows:
Jr middle 22
Sr middle 19
Colleges 8 (including three teacher training academies)
In addition there is a Tibetan language school (Zangwen Xuexiao) where they teach art and other Tibetan subjects along with language to students aged 17-18. I have visited this school in past years; it is a very pleasant facility located above Kangding. (Formerly it was located in Ganzi County). The teachers and students are entirely Tibetan. This school is under Sichuan provincial authority, and not part of the Ganzi Prefecture system. In Kangding there is also a cadre school, presumably run by the CCP.
Conditions for teachers
There are some 8000 teachers in Ganzi.. From the fact that they are distributed among more than 1200 schools it is apparent that many of these teachers are sent out in ones and twos to remote districts where they may be the only educated person for miles around. They live in primitive conditions far from their homes and families. Some of them are not of the same nationality as the local population, and so it is very difficult for them to integrate with the community. The remarkable thing is that teachers in such situations are accepted at all by the locals, and are able to do their jobs. Yet evidently some of them are, because children from these remote areas do learn, some advance to higher levels, and a small but growing number go on to college.
Cheng Lianye is a Han 3rd and 4th grade teacher. She married a man in the forestry bureau who is assigned to the same rural Tibetan district of Jiagenba (sKyagan), in Kangding County. She seemed happy enough about her situation. She said “I’ve been here for 4 or 5 years. I like it here; summer is really beautiful.” About local customs, she said, “I can drink butter tea but I don’t like it too much!” She had learned some simple Tibetan, but her main language, and her language of instruction, is Chinese.
She is one of the lucky ones, because she is able to live with her husband and small daughter. Most young Han teachers assigned to Tibetan areas are doomed to batchelorhood, or separation from their spouses, until they can get themselves transferred somewhere else. They live in dormitory-style accommodations on the school campus, sometimes two to a room. At one place I saw that two women teachers had to share with one of their students, due to a shortage of student dormitory space. A 23-year-old single teacher, Wang Yong, told me “Conditions are difficult. I prepare my own meals, but I can’t get much meat and vegetables here.” His diet consists mainly of rice, potatoes, and tsampa.
Because of shortfalls in government funds, wages are frequently late. From the meager payments teachers must purchase food, clothing, and coal to heat their rooms in the winter. I didn’t see any televisions in any teacher’s room, nor is it very easy for them to communicate with their home towns. There lives are therefore almost completely isolated from the outside world.
Teacher retention is a big, big problem for education in Ganzi, and it’s getting worse as a developing economy provides more and more alternatives for bright, ambitious young people. Siliang Zhazi (Tib: Sonam Tashi), an educated Tibetan now working in a government office in Kangding said about Yajiang (Tib: Nyachuka) his home town, “Teachers are not so good anymore because they are thinking of money.”
Even in the top middle school in Kangding, an elite place where officials (both Han and Tibetan) send their children to study, suffers from morale problems among the teachers. Wu Bangfu, an English teacher who resigned in 1993 said “My salary was less than 200 yuan ($25) a month when I left. I asked the headmaster if I could go outside to make some [extra] money, but the answer was no. During that period my family was terribly poor. At my school, conditions were the best in the prefecture, but still most of the teachers wanted to get transferred to another unit.”
Wages for teachers now range from about 230 yuan ($28) per month for minimally qualified, new, or temporary teachers to 700 yuan ($87) per month for exceptionally well-qualified and experienced ones. By comparison, a bowl of noodles in a restaurant in Kangding costs about 5 yuan. A sweater costs about 150 yuan.
Salaries are based first on a teacher’s educational qualifications, next on number of years in service, and last on effectiveness in teaching. Hence there is not much incentive to achieve excellence in the classroom. The main route to advancement is further training, and teachers are regularly sent back to school in order to refresh their knowledge or learn new skills. Yet this continued training and opportunity for advancement does not seem to be enough to motivate teachers to stay within the profession if they have any other option.
Conditions for students
The counties of Ganzi Prefecture have a great disparity in wealth. Two counties, Kangding (Dardo) and Luding, are predominantly Han; Luding because it is located at a low elevation at the eastern edge of Ganzi, and Kangding because it contains the bustling prefectural capital. The other counties of Ganzi are overwhelmingly Tibetan and very poor. (The population of Dege County, for example, is 96.5% Tibetan ). Three counties--Baiyu (Tib: Pelyul), Derong, and Shiqu (Sershul)--are recognized as “national poor counties.” Four more--Xiangcheng (Chaktreng), Daocheng (Dabpa), and Dege (Derge)--are “provincial poor counties.”
The average per capita income for rural areas in Ganzi is about 700 yuan per year. The cost of sending one child to board and study is 80-90 per month at primary school, and 120 per month at middle school. Thus it can be seen that attending school would pose a severe financial hardship on most families if the government did not subsidize the cost.
Lucky are those children who can live at home while they attend school, for living conditions for boarding students are Spartan in the extreme. At a typical village primary school, buildings are usually low single-story longhouses divided into rooms, each of which has a door opening into the school courtyard. A single dormitory room is normally shared by five or six students sleeping on a large wooden platform. Broken windows, flaking plaster, leaking roofs, and cement floors are the norm. There is no running water at most schools, only a centrally located pump or well. Heat comes from a small unventilated coal burner placed in the middle of the floor. Food consists of tsampa and butter-tea, three times a day, with occasional additions of noodles, cabbage, or potatoes. Vegetables and meat are in very short supply. And because many of these children travel a long distance that includes several hours of walking to reach their school, they cannot bring much food from home and must rely solely on government-provided supplies.
Two boys in their quarters at Kyagen
Primary School, Kangding County.
Children living in school dormitories amounted to 1/3 to 1/2 the total number of pupils at the three district schools I visited. Very few of these are first grade students (7 years old), because the youngest students are served by satellite schools in villages that are closer to home. By the time they are in 3rd or 4th grade, however, local educational resources are exhausted and the children must become boarding students at more distant places. If the parents are unwilling to send their children away from home, a government official may come out to convince them. Children of the same age group from a given village or area are generally kept together in the same class. Class size ranges from 20 to 50 students depending on demographics.
Conditions at the Xinduqiao Middle School are considerably better than those of the primary schools I visited. Xinduqiao is not a large town, but it offers enough comfort to be somewhat more attractive to teachers. They have a new school building, completed with a loan from the World Bank in 1996. The student body numbers 208 boys and 212 girls, of whom 200 board at the school. The college-bound proportion hovers around 90% in the last three years. The school owns 42 personal computers that it uses to teach computer skills to students. The staff includes 34 Tibetan teachers and 10 Chinese.
Sherab Tshogyon is a seventeen year old student at the Xinduqiao school. She lives in a dormitory room with three other girls. Unlike the primitive dormitory accommodations of primary schools, this room is equipped with four separate beds--one for each girl--and a window. She comes from Jiangde District, an agricultural area 55 kilometers distant, and the journey home involves several hours of hiking on foot. She has seven brothers and sisters, one of whom is a student at the same school. When asked about her favorite course, she declared that it is Tibetan language. Her career aspirations were less well-defined. “I want to go to college” she said, when asked about her plans. And after that? “I want to see America!”
limited in language and are usually unwilling to be posted in rural Tibetan areas. Thus, the quality of teaching in the Tibetan countryside lags well behind that of more developed regions.
This middle school was considered experimental when it was opened three years ago, because it offers a bilingual program (more on that later). The experiment is now considered a success by the government, and the school is a model for expansion of the bilingual concept. Yet it lacks many things that would be taken for granted in the poorest Western school. There is no running water on the campus (a water tower has been built, and plumbing installed, but the school lacks a pump to bring water from the well to the tower). There is no cafeteria; students carry food from the commissary to their rooms where they eat. Although there is space for a library in the new building, there are no books.
Teachers who instruct children in Tibetan areas are usually products of the educational system they are serving, which creates a vicious cycle of mediocrity. This problem is not unique to Tibetan areas, but afflicts to varying degrees all minority areas in China as well as impoverished Han areas. China has a strong “affirmative action” policy that lowers admission standards for minority students seeking admission to universities and teacher training colleges. For example, in 1995 the lowest acceptable test scores for Tibetan collage entrants was 210 for science and 230 for humanities, compared to 400 or more points for Han students. Thus, the system is churning out poorly-qualified teachers who are then sent to Tibetan towns and villages to bring up the next generation. Han teachers may have superior qualifications but are