Record: Zheng Guo-ping, “A Qualitative Study of Educational Needs of Homeschooling Families in China” in US-China Education Review 4, no. 6 (June 2014): 391-400 [Available Here]

Summary: In early 2014 I reviewed a fascinating article by Xiaoming Sheng about “Meng Mu Tang,” an education cooperative operated by a Confucian Chinese mother that began as a home school for her own children and eventually expanded to twelve children in the city of Shanghai.  This present study builds on Sheng’s work and offers an empirical study of this mother and four other home educating families in China.

Zheng begins with an orientation to Chinese education law.  Since the passage of the 1986 Compulsory Education Law all Chinese children have been required to attend government schools.  But this increasingly competitive and lock-step school system, however effective it was at sorting children into their future occupations, did not sit well with some of the growing Chinese middle class, many of whom valued both the traditional moral education of the older Confucian model and the more individualized and child-centered learning often associated with American Progressivism.  This frustration has led some of these families to turn to home education despite its questionable legal status.

She next turns to a brief survey of the literature on Chinese home education, most of which is journalistic.  She notes that home education is growing, especially among the urban middle classes.  A website called the China Homeschooling Association has been formed to organize the 200 or so spontaneous groups that have developed throughout the country, and since 2010 the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Yunnan Province has hosted a National Homeschooling Conference.  In 2013 it was joined by the International Homeschooling Symposium in Beijing.  Zheng cites an estimate that there might be as many as 18,000 children being educated at home in China.

Despite this growth, officially home education is illegal.  Zheng recounts the legal travails of  Meng Mu Tang and of those of another home educating father, suggesting that such problems will only be averted if either the law is changed or new interpretations of the rather vague law can make room for home education.  For either of these reforms to take place, though, we need more empirical data on what these Chinese home educators are actually doing.  That’s what she sets out to do in the rest of this article.

Zheng provides five case studies of families representing a wide geographic range–Guangzhou in the east (which evidently has the largest and most vibrant home education community), Chongquing in central China, and Dali, further south, which is known for its home-education friendly atmosphere given its ethnic diversity and tourism.  The first of her case studies is the mother who started Meng Mu Tang.  Her story is more completely told by Xiaoming Sheng, whose narrative I summarize here.  In short, this woman created a curriculum that emphasized Confucian morality and English skills for her own children and eventually those of several other Chinese families, all of whom were frustrated with the drill-and-kill pedagogy of Chinese schools and who hoped to send their children to the United States for higher education.

The second study concerns Jie Wen, a 16-year-old girl in Guangzhou, who as a young teen had hated her government schooling and begged her parents to let her learn at home.  Jie’s mom quit her job to help her daughter, and after two years Jie went to the United States to finish high school.

Third comes the Liu family from Chongquing.  Daughter Chang, both of whose parents were university professors, was 11 at the time of the study and had been home educated for the past four years.  The parents had been frustrated by the lack of freedom and individual initiative in Chinese schools.

Fourth is the Zhang family.  Son Hao had been restless and unsuccessful in school, so the mother moved with her son to Dali to live together with several other home educating families in a three-story house.

Finally comes the Sun family.  His school problems were more academic than Hao Zhang’s, but his mother also moved to Dali to join the cooperative.

Based on these five examples, Zheng generalizes that many Chinese home educating parents are driven to the practice both by an intrinsic interest in child-centered education and by their children’s bad experiences in government schools.    Interestingly, a large percentage of Chinese home educators tend to create more cooperative, even fully communal arrangements rather than the single-family homeschooling common in the United States (though this exists in China as well).  Zheng thinks this communal tendency is due partly to the fact that most urban Chinese have only one child and would have a very hard time finding socialization opportunities for this child without such living arrangements.  But whether cooperatively or independently, Chinese home education clearly indicates that the values of many parents are changing “from the utilitarian instrumental rationality of examination-oriented education to the ultimate value rationality of the child’s free comprehensive development.” (p. 398)

Zheng concludes with some policy proposals, which boil down to an appeal to government to attend to the concerns of these families, for their critiques and actions are potentially of great benefit to all Chinese children.  She would like to see a more collaborative effort, where government would not only legalize the practice but provide academic resources and socialization outlets for such children.  She believes that allowing children to escape the deadening formality and sameness of government-run schools would help “revitalize [the] innovation spirit” of China. (p. 399)

Appraisal:  I enjoyed reading this article very much.  It added breadth and scope to the earlier work of Xiaoming Sheng I’ve mentioned already and demonstrated that the Meng Mu Tang phenomenon was no isolated incident but a harbinger of an emerging trend within Chinese home education–residential cooperatives.  Clearly, this form of education would only work for families with the means to send their children overseas for higher education, as it does not do a great job preparing students for the brutal entrance examinations necessary for admission to China’s universities.  But for the rapidly growing population of Chinese citizens who are increasingly taken with Western-style individualism and self-actualization, home education makes a lot of sense.  Whether Zheng’s proposals for softening the legal climate will get anywhere I have no idea, but there are clearly critics of the Chinese system who share some of these home educators’ frustrations with the way that system squelches the entrepreneurial and creative spirit that is necessary for economic innovation, cultural imagination, and scientific discovery.  If Communist Party operatives become convinced that home education is a viable way to foster innovation and economic progress like Zheng claims, it could happen.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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