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Learning payoff

By JAMES J. HECKMAN/ZHOU JIN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-10 08:23
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Developing rural China's human capital will help reduce inequality

China's rapid growth in the past 40 years was fueled by substantial physical capital investments applied to its large stock of medium-skill labor. However, the large supply of medium-skill labor that fueled China's growth is running dry. The dependency burden is growing. Building a skilled workforce meets this demographic challenge by substituting skills for bodies.

Rapid growth has produced rising incomes but also substantial inequality and regional imbalances. Migration out of rural China has been a powerful engine of growth but has also created its own set of problems. The majority of migrants from rural to urban environments leave their children in the countryside. There were 69 million left-behind children in 2018.

This phenomenon is a consequence of the hukou, household registration policy, that restricts the access of the children of rural migrants to urban schools and health facilities. Recent research demonstrates that lack of quality parental involvement is detrimental to the growth and development of children. More attention needs to be given to children living alone, children living in single-parent families, children of migrant families, and left-behind children with less-educated relatives.

In rural China, about 40 percent of children's fathers work outside the county of residence. In addition, many mothers migrate or work during the daytime. As a result, in many families (about 30 percent), it is grandmothers who act as the primary caregiver. The average years of education of these rural grandmothers is less than three, and 40 percent of them do not have any formal education.

These circumstances, coupled with regional funding disparities, contribute to serious test score, enrollment, and graduation gaps between rural and urban Chinese children.

Recent policy addresses these problems in a variety of ways. Restrictions on mobility due to the hukou policy are being lifted. A recently launched early childhood program-China Rural Education and Child Health Project (China REACH) by the China Development Research Foundation-implements the wisdom of another Chinese proverb: "A child at 3 determines the adult at 80." This proverb captures the insights of a large body of scholarship on the factors that shape child skill development. The early years play a crucial role, and parental engagement with the child is an essential ingredient.

Modern research sees "scaffolding" as the appropriate child development strategy. Much like a sculptor who shapes a representation of a person, parents, families and neighborhoods shape the child. Successful parenting, like successful sculpting, works with what it is given and builds, step-by-step, recognizing the unique features of the object or person it is shaping, and goes to the next level. Successful parenting requires sensitivity and skill. It is a time-intensive activity with a lifetime payoff for both the parent and the child.

Recent research demonstrates the lack of knowledge about parenting on the part of many parents and caretakers. Many undervalue their important role and do not understand the processes of good parenting. They do not know what normal development trajectories are or how they can bolster them. At the same time, many well-intentioned organizations conceptualize early child learning in the same way they conceptualize education: stuffing facts, figures, and methods into the heads of children, classroom-style.

The early years should not become a classroom but rather an extension of what successful, loving parents do: nurture the child and recognize their uniqueness and emotional needs. "Lessons" are about academic, social, and emotional skills, and they are taught by example and learning-by-doing. These lessons are best taught by loving parents and caregivers. There is no Pisa test for gauging a successful early childhood curriculum-just a flourishing child.

China REACH not only adapts to the child and the parent; it is also affordable-costs per child are 3-5 percent of featured full-time early childhood programs in the US. Instead of brick and mortar childcare centers, China REACH works with parents in the child's home with one-hour visits per week. Home visitors are at the same level of education as the mother of the child (i.e., they have 10 years of education on average).They share common backgrounds with the people they visit. Trained home visitors visit each treatment household weekly and provide parenting or caregiving guidance to parents (caregivers).

The program emphasizes teaching and encourages the caregiver to talk with the child through playing games, making toys, singing, reading, and storytelling to stimulate the child's cognitive, language, motor, and socioemotional skill development.

The evidence from the parent program that inspired it, from replications around the world, and from recent studies of China REACH in the field shows that it positively impacts many dimensions of child development. Both cognitive and socioemotional skills are boosted. Executive functioning-the ability to plan and cope with adversity-is also enhanced.

Treatment group children were much more likely to graduate from college and participate in society in a variety of productive ways. This initiative and programs designed to accommodate rural migrant children in urban China will go a long way in closing the urban-rural divide and in building the skills needed to propel China into the 21st century.

James J. Heckman is a Nobel Laureate economist and the Henry Schultz distinguished service professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Zhou Jin is a research associate with the Center for the Economics of Human Development at University of Chicago. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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