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Teachers College, Columbia University
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How to Educate the Children of China's Migrant Workers?

How to Educate the Children of China’s Migrant Workers?
Henan Cheng, Ed.D., International Educational Development
 
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Until five years ago, the law in China was that to attend public school, children had to be registered as locals in the school’s district. That left out China’s more than 140 million migrant workers -- a nomadic population that, if it were a nation, would be the tenth largest in the world. 
 
More recently China has opened some public schools to these children, but typically these are low-quality schools that, under-financed and often with 50 or more students to a classroom, are ill-equipped to help young people who often have difficult home environments and may not be able to speak or write Mandarin, China’s official language.
 
Henan Cheng, who has received her TC doctoral degree in international educational development, with a concentration in finance and planning, is not the daughter of migrant workers, but she feels a kinship with them. Cheng was born in central China, in Henan Province; grew up in another area when her parents were sent by the government to help build an automobile factory; attended college in Sichuan Province; worked as an engineer in Hubei Province, earned an economics degree in Beijing, taught in Guangzhou, and then came to the United States. All of which explains why Cheng, working with TC faculty members Henry Levin and Mun Tsang, has written her dissertation on the educational barriers facing China’s migrant children, particularly those from ethnic minority populations.
 
“I’m passionate about my research because this is not just an educational problem, it’s a social justice issue,” she says. “After 30 years of economic reform in China, we have a moral vacuum. People used to be taught to believe in communism, but now they don’t know what to believe in, beyond economic development. But I think that traditionally, influenced by Confucius, China wants to be an equal and just society. Confucius talks about how there’s no distinction among students, so everyone has the right to get an education, and I think this is deeply rooted in people’s minds.”
 
Cheng made two trips back to China for her dissertation, spending several months conducting interviews, focus groups and school visits in Kunming, the capital of Hunan Province, a region in China’s southwest that borders Vietnam, Laod and Myanmar and thus has many migrant workers from minority backgrounds.
Among her most significant findings: concentrating large numbers of migrant worker children in a given school is damaging to the academic performance of all children in the school. And, conversely, that high levels of total school spending correlate with higher student academic achievement.
 
“The question of education for the children of migrant workers is a very serious social issue, and with such a large population it will have a huge impact on society,” says Cheng, who has accepted a position for the coming fall as a clinical assistant professor at Loyola University in Chicago. “Also the government has placed so much emphasis on building up a harmonious society, and if they don’t solve this problem, tensions will grow between local populations and migrants, and between minorities and non-minorities. So the government should have the political will to do address it. And I think it will.”
 
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