Elevating quality of rural education in poor areas through TFC

Liu Zepeng Photo: China Philanthropist 

A noble man with a lofty mission is striving to provide children in China's remote areas with access to equal educational opportunity.

In 2010, Liu Zepeng, who was a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), felt disappointed with the central government which took no count of his proposal presented during the top political advisory body's annual meeting. In the proposal, Liu suggested that all the newly appointed civil servants should teach in underdeveloped western China for at least a year before assuming office, in hope of promoting educational equality in the country.

Four years later, Liu found a way to continue the unfulfilled dream by working for Teach For China (TFC), a Beijing-based charity organization dedicated to connecting children in the mountainous areas of China with high-quality education.

Since its establishment in 2008, the non-governmental organization has dispatched hundreds of well-trained young intellectuals to teach in the rural elementary schools in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangdong. Among the volunteer teachers, many graduated from well-known universities or worked for Top 500 companies, with some even having enviable overseas study experience.

"TFC's goal is my goal, which is the reason why I joined them after my retirement in 2013," said Liu, who is the charity organization's director general.

The 70-year-old man, who has also served as a high-level government official dealing with overseas Chinese affairs, said that he was inspired by TFC's founder Andrea Pasinetti, an Italian-American who became strongly interested in China's rural education after his investigation tours of rural schools in Yunnan Province, where he found that the schools were unable to attract and retain qualified teachers due to economic and geographical factors.

By virtue of his good reputation earned during more than 30 years of political career, Liu has been using his social connections to help the burgeoning TFC be better understood by the local education authorities, who have doubts about the credibility of a charity organization founded by a Westerner.

Insights into education

Liu developed his deep insights into China's educational landscape in the 1990s when he was an adviser to the Project Hope, a public welfare program initiated by the China Youth Development Foundation and the Communist Youth League Central Committee to give children in the poverty-stricken rural areas access to elementary school education by building well-equipped schools there.

At the time, Liu believed that the establishment of Project Hope schools would play a part in narrowing the educational gap between rural and urban areas. But after inspecting some schools, he realized that it was of no avail due to the lack of good teachers, especially when there was an exodus of qualified teachers from rural areas to economically developed coastal cities amid the deepening of the reform and opening up policy.

"At present, the problems have reached alarming proportions in China's rural areas, where less than 5 percent of elementary school teachers have bachelor's degree, and where there are 60 million leftover children receiving no home education," said Liu.

The former government official also considers it unfair that 80 percent of students in the cities have the opportunity to be admitted to universities while the enrollment rate in the rural areas is only about 5 percent.

In 2007, Liu established an educational fund named the Flowers in the Mountains as a part of his social experiment to prove that children from the mountainous regions are not different from their peers in the urban areas if they are given equal educational opportunities.

Subsidized by the educational fund, 16 youngsters from the mountainous regions, many of whom were from ethnic minority groups, were brought to Beijing, where they received world-class tennis training and quality literacy education.

"The children helped by the educational fund were trained by foreign tennis coaches and cut a figure in the international tennis tournaments…I hope that they could also go to university in the future," said Liu

Professional teacher's training   

Liu aims to set up a professional teacher cultivation mechanism, under which well-chosen volunteers will receive a series of teaching courses offered by educators and professors from normal universities, in a bid to make TFC standout among countless charity organizations, which pervasively focus on donating money and educational facilities to the schools in need.

"Having an academic diploma is not enough for a volunteer to become a good teacher…We do not want to see ourselves questioned in regard to professionalism and credibility. Therefore, we have created a complete professional chain consisting of recruitment, interview and training, which is used to test our volunteers' ethical standards and cultivate their teaching and communication skills," said the director general, revealing that the acceptance rate of volunteer teachers is only about 16 percent.

In 2015, Liu invited Kang Jian, dean of the School of Education of Peking University, to take charge of building the teacher training system.

According to Liu, TFC is planning to establish a teacher's qualification training center to provide professional training to both its own volunteer teachers and those in-service teachers from local schools.

"I have engaged in education for all my life. What I really want to do is to help those schools in the poverty-stricken areas. As I have never found a way out in the national teacher cultivation system, I believe that TFC offers a new way for education in the rural areas," said Kang.

Liu disclosed that TFC was in talks with the education authorities of Yunnan and Guangdong provinces and higher education institutions such as Peking University and Beijing Normal University for possible training cooperation.

A TFC official said that those negotiations went smoothly due to Liu's efforts in explaining what benefits TFC would bring to the local schools.

"In 2016, TFC will extend its coverage to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Gansu Province, a plan that has gained warm welcome from the local governments," said Liu, who reiterated that he was just a helper not a leader in TFC, even though the TFC official hailed Liu's connections, passion for education and personal charisma as a boost to the charity organization's cause.

Being regretful about the rejection in 2010, Liu intends to work with education scholars to write an investigation report on the current situation of education in China's rural areas, with a goal to make an impact on policymakers.

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