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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Our series on China's countryside continues today with a trip to a village school. Many people in China's rural area see education as the way to lift their families out of poverty.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, many of their schools don't have teachers with proper credentials.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Looming over the Zhangjiabao Village elementary school are the hills of Northwest China's Gansu province. It's an alien landscape of towering cliffs, and deep gulleys caused by severe erosion of the dusty earth known as loess soil. Gansu is one of China's poorest provinces.

In one classroom, small children with ruddy cheeks crowd together on rough hewn wooden benches and desks for music class.

(Soundbite of children singing)

Next door, English class is in progress.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Across the schoolyard, Zhang Yonglin is teaching a Chinese grammar class to first graders.

Mr. ZHANG YONGLIN (Chinese Teacher): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: The classroom is all bare concrete walls and floor without any decoration. Zhang uses nothing but chalk, textbooks and a blackboard. The 27 bright eyed and attentive kids in his class here all come from poor farming families. Even inside the classroom, they're bundled up against the cold in hats, scarves, sweaters and jackets.

Mr. ZHANG: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Zhang has been teaching here for 19 years and his experience shows in class, but now he could lose his job. He has no formal teaching certificate. And China's Education Ministry has announced that it intends to gradually replace all 300,000 of China's uncertified rural teachers. There's no deadline yet for the firing. Zhang has tried to get certified but so far without success. The hang up was his thick rural Gansu accent.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) I failed the Mandarin test three times. I grew up in the countryside and I'm use to speaking my native dialect. This has been a huge disappointment.

KUHN: Uncertified teachers make up a small fraction of the national total. But in poor, rural areas, they can account for up to half. The Zhangjiabao elementary school has eight teachers. And four of them, including Zhang, are uncertified.

One problem is money. The local government, which runs the school, is heavily in debt and in no position to pay the salaries of certified teachers. While certified teachers get paid around $100 a month, Zhang and the other uncertified teachers make around $12. That was a raise. Until this year, his pay was $5 a month, which he supplemented with income from farming. He says it's barely enough to survive on.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) Family members get sick. My parents both passed away in the last five years. The funerals cost a lot of money. So money is a big deal to us. There are many things we want to do but can't afford to.

Another reason there are so many uncertified teachers here is this school can't entice certified teachers to work in such harsh conditions. The Zhangjiabao elementary school is not the poorest in the area, but it lags far behind most city schools. Rural schools receive a far smaller portion of resources than urban ones. As teacher Zhang voices his agreement, school Principal Liu Wen says this puts them at a great disadvantage.

Mr. LIU WEN (Principal of Zhangjiabao Elementary): (Through translator) City kids use computers. Rural kids haven't even seen computers. Our kids say, what kind of web is the world wide web? It must be a spider web. Rural students can only look in envy at what the city kids get.

KUHN: No computers and also no heat except for the cast iron stoves in the teachers' offices. Teacher Wang Zhengming splits wood for the fire. He was the school's first teacher in 1958. He's never been certified. He's now in his 60s and he's taught for nearly half a century since beginning as a teenager. He's proud of having nurtured three generations of students, 72 of whom have gone on to college. He's not worried about his own future, but he is concerned about the younger generation.

Mr. WANG ZHENGMING (Zhangjiabao Elementary Teacher): (Through translator) The younger teachers ask me, what about our future? I say, the state is the state, the party is the party. The Communist Party will not treat you young people shabbily. I say this just to encourage them.

KUHN: Principal Liu also hopes that the government will find some way to take care of the uncertified teachers.

Mr. LIU: (Through translator) Whether they've taught five, 10, 20 or 30 years, they made a contribution to society and the school so they should get compensation or some other job placement.

KUHN: Back in the classroom, teacher Zhang Yonglin keeps on teaching, despite the uncertain future. His classes in Zhangjiabao Village will go on, but no one knows for how long.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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