Away from China’s bustling cities, a crisis is mounting in rural areas that will impact the entire country. By the time China’s children reach working age, ⅓ of them will be intellectually stunted. In rural China, 50% of 8th graders score below 90 on IQ tests. According to the 2010 census, only 24% of China’s labor force attended high school. With China’s booming economy placing new demands on its workers, economist Scott Rozelle asks: “ What do you do with 400 million people in your labor force who can’t learn? “That can’t switch jobs?” “This problem of healthy cognitive development, especially among China’s rural population, which is about 60-70% of its babies, is the biggest problem that China faces that no one knows about.” To tackle this problem, Rozelle established collaborations with researchers and institutional partners to form: The group first tried to boost test scores by improving children’s health. They conducted surveys in rural areas and found that 27% of children were anemic, which is an indicator of malnutrition, 37% had intestinal worms and 20% had myopia. The researchers realized that any one of these factors would obstruct education. If you’re sick how can you learn? REAP provided students with vitamins, de-worming treatment, and corrective glasses– Sure enough, their math scores improved far more than their peers who didn’t receive interventions. These findings helped convince China’s central government to establish a school lunch program in 2011 that now benefits more than 20 million rural students daily. There’s a giant body of evidence showing that it’s the first 1000 days that sets the stage for later educational achievement and adult health. So, Rozelle’s team started focusing on children in the earliest stages of life. In 2013, they tested 1800 babies from 348 villages in impoverished areas of the Qinling Mountain Region. 49% were anemic and 29% scored below normal on a standard intelligence assessment for babies called the Bayley Test. But this time, when the team intervened with vitamins, test scores didn’t improve. They’re entering a time when they should be starting to learn other things but with very low levels of cognition. That’s when Rozelle turned to parenting as the possible culprit. In 2014, REAP started asking caregivers how
they parented. Just a ⅓ reported playing with or singing to their child, 11% had told a story to their child the previous day, and less than 5% had read to their child. REAP then studied 513 child/caregiver pairs. Half received in-home parental training, which involved weekly coaching for 6 months. The study found that the training brought Bayley scores up to normal but only when the mother was present. With many mothers leaving rural homes to find jobs in cities, 30% to 40% of rural children are raised by grandma. When a grandmother received the in-home training however, the child’s Bayley score barely budged. The trainers had trouble reaching the children and their mothers in these remote regions and the process was time-consuming and expensive. The in-home visits did little to relieve the isolation of kids, whose mothers weren’t in the picture. What’s more, a questionnaire filled out by the mothers who did remain with their children suggests 40% of them showed signs of depression. To overcome these obstacles REAP has embarked on its most ambitious experiment yet. The team has targeted 100 villages in The Qinling Mountain Region and set up early childhood education centers in half of them. There’s free play, group activities, reading, and one-one parent training. They are following 1200 baby/caregiver pairs to see how a stimulating environment and effective parenting shape the intelligence of young children. “ We went in one generation from everyone raising who they thought were to be subsistence farmers and now we need to raise college kids. And that’s true in Latin America, it’s true in other middle-income countries. Unless you get zero to three right there’s going to be huge huge problems.” The first assessment of the childhood education centers will be completed in early 2018. If their interventions are successful, Rozelle and his team hope to convince Chinese authorities to scale up and establish early education centers nationwide.