It wasn't until I started teaching last year that I realized just how large the gap can be between the high-achievers and the strugglers. As a young student, I was pretty myopic and just assumed that everyone else more or less saw things the way I did, understood things as I did. As a teacher, the gap is obvious, and consistent. No matter how difficult or easy I design a unit test, the same few students will always come out on top, and the strugglers will always lag behind. It makes logical sense to me, then, that teachers would spend more time with the students who are struggling, because they will continue to struggle otherwise, until they reach the point where they are so far behind they have no hope of catching up.
In China, however, the system is less like a pair of giant hands, and more like a sieve.
At a recent meeting with the school administration, I was asked to voice any concerns I had. I raised two points. First, I was concerned by the fact that the kids who were struggling in my English class had all been placed on the back of the room. I noted that in the US, these kids would be getting more of my attention, particularly after class. I went on to say how I felt like my hands were tied, because the pace of the English class is so fast, and because there is no "after class" here in Heqing, as the kids are essentially always in class.
As much as it kills me to say it, the group of 5 or so kids who populate the back two rows of my classroom have no chance of succeeding in English. None. Their English careers are over, so long as they stay within the Chinese eduacation system, and are not held back to repeat 7th grade (I need to look into this, but I don't think holding students back generally happens here). They've fallen so far behind that they have no chance of catching up. The next time I give a quiz to my class, I'm going to create a separate quiz (read: worksheet) for them because they generally leave my quizzes blank, and try to go to sleep. They are the least motivated students I've ever met. They don't respond to my attention in class, and because of they way the school day is structured, I can't give them any attention outside of class. Despite the general success of the rest of my class, these five kids made me feel like a colossal failure, that is, at least, until the meeting with the school administration.
"Every class has a few kids who don't make it. We move them to the back of the class where they won't influence the other students. You shouldn't spend your energy on them, spend your energy on the best kids in the class." The sieve in action.
The second point I raised was that I was still displeased that Joey's seat has been and continues to be empty. "He was a good kid. Maybe not the best student, but a good kid. He had a chance."
One of the other English teachers chimed in, "sometimes that happens. There's nothing you can do about it. The head teacher will pay them a visit, but that's about all we can do."
"Well, why was he pulled out of school, when Sean who just sleeps at the back of my class all day and doesn't do anything is still there."
"There's nothing you can do, just move on."
The following week at our staff meeting the headmaster analyzed some of the statistics that the education bureau had passed down to each of the schools. "The number of middle school students in Heqing taking the high school entrance exam （中考） is a bit lower this year, about 2600. This means that this year approximately 50% of the students taking the test will gain a spot in one of the high schools."
50%. I had heard that number before but it never had really hit home. If I were teachin 9th grade, only 20 out of the 40 kids in my class. Most likely the 20 sitting up front. The headmaster spent the rest of the time analyzing the 9th grade classes, and singling out the kids who were right on the border, teetering right on the expected cutoff line. "Teachers should focus on these kids, work a little harder with them, because they have a chance."
It made more sense to me, at that moment, why Sean, Lennie, Jimmy, Robbie, and Sammy are sitting furthest away from the blackboard. There are only so many high schools, only so many teachers in Heqing, which limits the number of high school students in Heqing. Demand greatly exceeds supply. When only 50% of each class (in a year when relatively few people are taking the test) makes the cut, the teachers are focusing their energy on getting as many people into high school as possible. Forcing as many kids through the sieve as possible. They do this by generally ignoring the lowest 25%. I'm sure their logic follows a pattern such as this: "I could help these five kids, but perhaps if I put all of my energy and resources into helping them learn, one of them might decide to take the high school entrance exam, and definitely not pass. Most likely they'll drop out next year anyways. It would be better if I focused on the middle 50%, that way, I might get 3 or 4 more kids into high school, giving them a better shot at life."
It really comes down to resources. If there were enough high schools and teachers in Heqing for 2600 kids, then everyone who wanted a spot would get one. There would then be a reason to work with each of the kids. But then again, they system is still geared towards a small elite, not an educated middle class.
In a world where big hands are the norm, the logic of the local teachers is detestable. But when faced with reality in a land of sieves, it is admirable.