Feb. 14-15: Online Days
Feb. 18-22: On-site Days in Washington DC

Quest for Equitable Education in Phases: Insights from an NGO in China

Shirley Pan

Adream Foundation

Bo Wang

School of Humanities, Guangdong Peizheng College & Adream Foundation

Challenges China’s basic education faces

A common challenge to schools in East Asian countries, despite students’ academic excellence, is to provide inclusive and quality education for all. This challenge is faced by China, the world’s largest developing nation and provider of basic education, in particular. On the demand side, there has been a growing need for better resources for compulsory education, high quality and customized education, as well as opportunities and rights for all-round development. On the supply side, balance in allocation of quality education resources is yet to be achieved. For example, in the more developed coastal regions, there are many choices for educational provisions, with well-trained teachers and well-equipped schools. In contrast, there is a dearth of qualified teachers, well-functioning classrooms and competence-based education in the vast inland regions.

Such a rural-urban divide is manifest if we understand it in the context of the OECD program for international student assessment, or PISA. In its mapping of education in China, the latest round taking place in 2018, PISA found the 15-year-old respondents from the top cities of Beijing, Shanghai and the rich provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang did exceptionally well in reading, math and science. However, further analysis revealed a range of problems, such as inequality, high cost, little trust, a big financial cost but poor efficiency, as well as massive control but minimal support (Zhang & Jia, 2020). Such are the findings from the four leading areas, and the challenges will look even bigger if the mapping is conducted nationwide.

In trying to close the gap, the Chinese government has attempted to reform its educational system from top-down multiple times. Take the latest “Double Reduction” policy as an example. The purpose of this policy is to reduce the amount and time of homework given by public schools, and to minimize hours of students from engaging private tutoring institutions, so that K12 students could spend more time on extracurricular activities.

This policy has been put into place in response to a widespread concern that instruction-related support services may negatively affect student and teacher behavior. Shadow education, a term used to describe private supplementary tuition, may overshadow core education provision (Bray, 2017). Students may prioritize tutoring time and reduce their school attendance before high-stakes examinations. In Egypt, tutoring has become a social norm (Sieverding et al., 2019).

Data from iResearch suggests that in 2020, the year before the clampdown, private investors made 2,056 billion yuan out of education, including 11% or roughly $32 billion from extracurricular tutoring for Chinese K12 students. With that segment largely gone now, provision of after-school educational services now lies solely with the government. Its public-school system urgently needs support from third sector organizations (TSOs), especially non-profit organizations (NGOs), to deal with that responsibility. Internationally, NGOs are recognized to have been playing a pivotal role in cultivating global competency as they bridge the gap between research and practice and provide essential resources, professional development, and context for educators and students (Hauck, 2020).

In China, NGOs in education dated back to the late 1980s, and the Hope Project is probably the first and most influential program for education in recent history of philanthropy in the country. In its booming time between 1989 and 2008, the Project built or renewed over 13,000 rural primary schools and sent roughly three million underprivileged kids back to school. Now, as the Chinese government has made K-9 schools totally compulsory across the country, the NGO role in basic education has changed from making schooling available to making quality education generally accessible to each kid.

Following the Project Hope and as a grassroots, 100% homegrown NGO, we present our work and reflections on closing the gap in China’s basic education, a long journey from Hong Kong to Shanghai then to the rest of the country in the past 15 years.

Adream’s actions in three phases

Adream was founded in 2008 with a dedicated NGO role: to advocate equitable access to quality education in underprivileged areas of China. As a young and high-flying financier, founder and chairwoman, Shirley Pan pooled her savings together with her partners first into a fund in Hong Kong, and then a foundation in Shanghai. Years of trips to and surveys in the poor heartland of China made them aware that more must be done in rural education.

Today, Adream focuses on its charitable work on holistic education and has developed itself from a humble charity into an organization that has a nationwide presence. Key to its growth is through advocating reforms that are not radical but progressive and substantial changes. There are three dynamic phases that all aim at more equitable quality education in rural China.

Phase 1: Establishing a budding charity by bringing quality education resources to less privileged areas (2008-2012)

Like many other charities in the sector of education, Adream first came on the scene with an aspiration to bridge the gap by giving money and materials. What made it distinctive is that while others funded new school buildings or libraries, Adream worked on refurbishing existing facilities and space. Imagining 15 years ago, high on the plateau near Tibet, a few pioneers walked into local schools, offering to turn one of their empty classrooms into a Dream Center where books, computers and internet are provided.

Fig. 1: Dream Centers Built by Adream Since 2007

Inspired by humanistic philosophy of education, Adream emphasized on building a favorable learning environment of holistic education for learners with student-centered courses and turning teachers into a more supporting role. The settings of these dream centers included convertible desks and chairs that were more friendly and caring for learning of smaller groups. One has to note that changes in the classroom setting were not popular in some schools in rural China that time. Because the classroom setting was convertible in these dream centers, teachers were sometimes pressured to upgrade their teaching methods and improve their relationships with students.

Meanwhile, Adream offered a variety of supplementary courses and makes them part of the regular curricula in partner schools. Its efforts, which went beyond the combination of classrooms and extra courses, triggered a chain of reaction in the education landscape of rural China, turning thousands of rural classrooms from traditional cells of rote-based learning to attractive spaces, spaces where students and teachers valued creative questions more than quick answers and where trust-winning became more important than help received.

Adream differed from conventional charities in the sector of education in that it gave first priority to sustaining the supply side of programs. Realigning its value chain a couple of times, Adream provided sustainable Dream Centers, Dream Courses and professional development for teachers, all of which were on the supply side. For instance, it offered 30+ courses either introduced or jointly developed with higher learning institutions and corporate partners; it put in place teacher development programs and credit banks so teachers were motivated more to participate in holistic education. In the meantime, it kept improving its supply chain non-stop to cut back on unit price and maximize returns on charity. In short, it built a community of charities with love-oriented and cross-sector resource integration, and delivered holistic education in a timely and effective manner in disadvantaged schools. The first five years enabled Adream to grow with approximately 800 schools, proving that even a grass-root charity can earn not only official approval to go into a growing number of schools, but a sizable impact on the centrally-controlled school system.

Phase 2: Mobilizing stakeholders from public, private and philanthropic sectors by creating a dynamic network for systemwide expansion (2013-2018)

Adream raised its profile by focusing on the supply side in Phase Two. Because its partner schools were scattered in the enormous regions in rural China, efficiency became a huge challenge to Adream. We built more integrated partnerships across different regions, specifically for new partnerships in this phase.
In doing so, we convinced local authorities of education to share half of related costs for refurbishing and operating our Dream Centers. Local governmental agencies were persuaded to supervise and assess how Dream Courses were taught, how holistic education was integrated into their education development agenda, and incentives were given to teachers who also familiarized themselves with Adream programs through many training opportunities.

With the strong support from local governments, Adream was able to operate by region, each with a larger cluster of Dream Centers, and a peer-coaching salon shared among every 4-6 schools to support rural teachers in the long run. Long story short, Adream saw this process as a decentralized one where all parties were Dream partners with shared interest in taking on the tremendous challenges remote areas faced on equitable quality education. A community of public, private and philanthropic sectors (PPPS) was formed with joint efforts with experts to help disadvantaged schools. This PPPS model, by turning beneficiaries into benefactors, generated observable, cohesive outcomes far greater than any single party could possibly deliver.

Phase 3: Improving the ecology of learning and teaching for children in rural schools with voluntary choices and sustainable actions by all parties (2019-Present)

Since Adream’s partnerships started to boom with regions, Dream Centers have been growing with additional number of 450 on average every year. The radically increased number has brought about new challenges. Regions vary enormously in their individual situation and objectives of learning and teaching. The more stakeholders involved in the process, the harder the objectives and priorities can be shared for Adream to continuously maintain and grow such partnerships. To address this problem, Adream sponsored a 3-year “ecological survey” of regional education, known as Apex Action, exploring right strategies based on regions’ operation of education.

First, modeling on Frank Wijen’s (2014, p. 310) model of institutional adoption, Adream incorporated its programs into the education ecology across different regions. Seven regions, evenly distributed across the coastal, central and western areas of the country were analyzed in terms of how critical factors worked out in each of the sample regions and how best the solutions could fit into the equation. For example, provisions of education in each place were marked by “development levels” and “official support”; success factors of operation include consensus, action plan, degrees to which standard operation is delivered, operation sustainability, intrinsic motivation to deliver holistic education in the region, etc.

Objectives of incorporating holistic education into schools in these regions included students’ ability to develop personal dreams, teachers’ understanding of education philosophy, schools’ methodology of education, empowerment of regional teacher development institutions and categories of regions in their access to equitable quality education, to name a few. In analyzing the sample data of these key variables, Adream classified its hundreds of partner regions into four main categories, each with different expectations and needs for hardware, teacher training, courses, and funding, and adjusted its operational toolkit and improvement strategy accordingly.

Insights from Adream’s adventures

In its 15-years effort to improve access to holistic education in China, Adream adventured from a humble journey of providing quality education resources and services for schools and children in the then pockets of poverty in China. Today, that objective has evolved with effective approaches and helped achieve regional equality by building communities of educators for sustainable improvement. We have learned many lessons by reflecting on its brief history.

Firstly, Adream has stayed as efficient, open and trustworthy in charity as possible, and has continuously committed to improving learning, teaching and public education system. Secondly, it has made it possible for students to pursue their dreams so they can flourish in self-esteem, pride, and life purpose. Thirdly, given the scarcity of charitable resources, it has engaged various governmental agencies in creating multi-layered and cross-sector communities of charity and a supplementary teacher training system. Fourthly, instead of relying on external resources, schools are encouraged to self-generate such resources, sometimes internally. For education charities, it is imperative to focus on students’ need, such as holistic development, and to adapt their strategies to local or regional conditions in different stages of development.

As an NGO in education, Adream has learned a lot in dancing with the public and private sectors. The simple truth is that to truly advance basic education in terms of both equality and quality, governmental agencies, business sectors and charities have to work together and stand as one. In China, one of the weak areas in developing basic education has always been the lack of dialogue and collaboration among public, private and philanthropic sectors, which often complicates the role played by governmental agencies in the provision of basic education, and sometimes stifles innovative ideas and refusing helping hands from TSOs and marketplace.

Over the last one and half decades, Adream has identified key stakeholders as two types: donors from the business sector and general public, and key figures in all levels of governmental agencies who make policies and/or implement them. Adream has refrained from dividing them as donors and official agents in general, but treat each and every of them as a key actor to engage individually.

One practical strategy Adream has adopted is to consult first with the business community and the public, identifying their feedback about education equality and child development as a whole person. Directing their attention to such issues, Adream has been incessantly turning them into voluntary contributors of money, services, or favorable policies. Keeping the cross-sector conversation going helps resolve problems where they are, and strengthens Adream’s role in promoting new social impact or achieving consensus in social governance. Likewise, funding, including those earmarked for charity, are pumped into schools in a more efficient way, and resources are supplied sustainably to the curriculum and the training for teachers and headmasters.

Secondly, Adream has enhanced its capacity to collaborate with all levels of governmental agencies, from policymakers to implementers and evaluators. For example, Adream communicated with various governmental agencies about joint funding of Dream Centers, organizing teacher salons, and institutionalizing peer coaching networks. With the help from Adream, governmental officers in charge of related affairs of education, such as curriculum and instructions, visited classrooms more often to collect feedback on how teachers and students grew from who they were. New ways of teaching and ideas of education improved the “taste” of these officers on learning and teaching. A growing number of senior educators, particularly headmasters, have decided to be “Dream Education” supervisors, or ambassadors after they retire in the region. Their new role extends their professional work, so retired officials are still given related opportunities to be active in their home county.

Closely engaging with the public and private sectors, Adream itself has evolved a lot: first as a contributor of resources, then as a catalyst lighting the spark to change a larger group of schools. Today, it’s a staunch advocate of changes from within to the heart of the ecology of regional education. Being the catalyst, Adream aspires to awaken the long-asleep educator community, get them out of the comfort zone and to do their part so the gravity center of education could migrate from rote learning to cultivating character and competence.

Of course, setbacks were inevitable in these 15 years. One of them is worthy of some further reflections, i.e., the Impact Survey Adream commissioned in 2013 to Rural Education Action Program (REAP). Steered by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, this costly program was conducted over three years in an assessment mode of randomized control trial. From its results, Adream did not see great changes in students. As a matter of fact, nothing improved substantially, be it the academic performance, sets of values, sense of belonging or feeling of happiness. Grudgingly Adream saw the massive gap between a “perfect” blueprint of education reforms and the arduous implementation process. That urged Adream to introduce a comprehensive modeling for the entire lineup of Adream Courses and clarify their core pursuits in learning and teaching: getting the younger generations to be truth-seeking, love-giving, and keen to chase their life dreams. With these goals in mind, Adream classified its Dream Courses into three categories and tried to record the impact of every course in both cross-sectional and tracking-effect evaluations.

Nowadays, Adream is marching toward ecological changes to deepen its impact on regional education. Are Adream’s solutions striking a chord with the local people? Will the impact sustain after Adream’s terms of services expire? Or, will five years of work be good enough to change the educational ecology in a region, or better still, put its education on track for equality? Theoretically, not many research projects have been conducted on regional ecologies of education, let alone how to improve them. Emphatically, too, Adream has yet to develop the tools and indices in its system now that schools are increasingly self-motivated. Also, with more regional education authorities setting reform agendas in their Five-Year Plans, it’s imperative for Adream to dig deeper in tracking and inspiring improvements in the targeted areas. That is how we will set the stage for future.


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