REAP Field Research: Investigating why students don’t go to academic high school by conducting interviews in Pingli county in China

China has been growing at a phenomenal rate for the last few decades. It has relied on old engines of growth like investing in infrastructure and manufacturing. However, if China wishes to transit from a medium to high income country, China must continue to grow its economy (Khor et al., 2016). Economic growth in China increasingly depends on productivity growth (rather than investment or trade) (Li et al., 2017). Productivity growth is thought to rely largely on human capital (Barro, 1991). Better human capital is associated with higher levels of education in the workforce (Kharas and Kohli, 2011). Thus, our question is: How does China measure up with other middle and high income countries in this area?

This is where we come. We want to better understand why so many rural students don’t go to academic high school. We want to better understand what influences their decision making. How is the decision not to go to high schools lived? What are the human stories behind this decision? How is the decision actually experienced?

Our approach is to conduct semi-structured interviews by developing and then deploring questionnaires for people that may provide insight into a student’s decision-making process. These include vocational school administrators, teachers and students as well as junior high administrators, teachers, students and dropouts.

Commonly if junior high students do not go to academic high school, they have two routes they can take: vocational high school or dropping out. Thus, we interviewed administrators, teachers, and students in vocational high school to gain a sense of why they chose that route. Junior high administrators, teachers, and students play an important role because they allow us to understand the current situation of students, and how those line up with what dropouts and vocational students have said.

We then formulated questions for the seven categories with questions targeting certain areas, such as employment, education, family and future goals. For instance, we asked administrators, teachers, and students if they viewed the educational system to be beneficial to the success of the students, and this gave us the understanding that in some cases, this system is not compatible with all students, leading them to drop out. Then we conducted the interviews and recorded the data, and organised their stories. Finally, we created a framework of themes that answers why students don’t pursue academic high school, including unsupportive family environments, irreconcilable differences with school staff, direct/opportunity costs of attending high school, and incompatibility with test-centered schooling. We selected 8 primary interviewees for which we have the most information and create a case study based on the framework. We also used representative quotes and details from secondary interviewees to supplement the primary findings.

One interviewee was a 16-year old boy. He works as a server in a local restaurant in Pingli county. He lives with his aunt. His father deceased and his mother left him when he was 1 years old. He left school after 8th grade. After we interviewed him, we concluded that the main reasons for him to dropout from school are unsupportive family environment, irreconcilable differences with school staff ,and incompatible with test-centred schooling.

First, he had a broken family. His father was in jail and died when he was really young. His mother left him after his father got into jail. He grew up with his aunt, who he cares about but doesn’t really listen to her that much. His sibling in Pingli used to abuse him when he was younger. Thus, he had a bad relationship with his siblings.

Second, he had bad relationships with his teachers. His teacher slammed him into the wall twice and made him sit in the same seat in the back of the classroom for two years, which was humiliating for him. Although he sought help, the teachers paid more attention to the better students in the class, which was interesting because when we interviewed teachers, they said that they spent more time with students with worse grades. That being said, if he were given another chance, he would try to establish better relationships with teachers and work harder.

Finally, he made the decision to dropout very early at 8th grade because the system itself was too difficult for him to succeed. He did not have confidence to continue studying and taking the exam. As he said: “ I cannot do anything, no matter what I learn. I just cannot learn it.” This shows his lack of faith in the system.

Another dropout we interviewed is the cousin of a girl in Sanyang Middle School. He is a 16-year-old boy who lives with grandma. His mother, father, and step-mother are working out of province. He dropped out one month ago from 9th grade and currently stays at home doing nothing.

He has a complicated family. His grandparents are separated but live in close proximity. His father takes care of his grandma while his uncle takes care of his grandpa. They lived in two houses separated by a wall. He is only close with his grandmother.

Additionally, although the zhongkao (senior high school entrance examination) is next week, he doesn’t want to take it because he believes there is no hope in taking it. He views the chances of success on the test are slim to none. Even when his biological mother reconnected with him and encouraged him to stay in school he still refused. He hates the idea of 3 more years of school

However, there are also external reasons. First, his friends’ decisions have influenced his decision to dropout. His best friends in school all dropout and left to work in Shenzhen/Guangzhou. He also has a Internet friend from Xinjiang who is also a dropout. His friends’ decisions have influenced his decision to dropout as well.

Second, he was really nervous about the tests. He feels losing face if he had a bad grade in zhongkao so he would rather not to take the exam and not to know the outcome. The cost of failing is too high and this made him extremely anxious about study and exams.


Although we only stayed in the village for 5 days, I experienced and learned so much about the rural people’s lives. I was surprised about the development of these villages now compared to several years ago in which they were still lack of electricity and water. But now most of people live in good government housing. The village has nearly everything they need such as supermarkets, Taobao/express mail station, and transportation. However, although the basic infrastructure and living conditions improved, the human capital is still much behind. Conditions in rural China all create conditions whereby many students are “set up to fail.” These include mass migration to cities, divided families, relative poverty, high stakes testing and misaligned incentives for teachers to help struggling students. In addition, no major “stakeholders” in the lives of rural students, including families, schools, or local governments are equipped with the means or incentive to mitigate problems that arise due to these conditions. Thus, the overwhelming interpretation from interviewees — including dropouts themselves — is that staying in or out of school is a matter of personal responsibility

China’s economic growth is being limited by a lack of productivity, a result of a large percentage of the population in and entering the workforce lacking a higher level education. This makes China susceptible to the “middle income trap.” China’s growth is crucial to the world economy — a lack of growth would create catastrophic ripple effects on a global scale. Thus, we hope our findings could inform education policy making in rural areas in China to address these issues.

Written by Helen Chen ‘19, economics major and education minor at Stanford University. She is currently a FSI Global Policy Intern for the Rural Education Action Program.

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