“At Three Years of Age, We Can See the Future”: Cognitive Skills and the Life Cycle of Rural Chinese Children

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Demographic Research

July 2020


A young child with hands on forehead looking away from the camera into the distance standing in front of a wall with Chinese characters on it and distant mountains.
Photo credit: 
Rural Education Action Program
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BACKGROUND: Although the Chinese education system has seen massive improvements over the past few decades, there are still large academic achievement gaps between rural and urban areas that threaten China’s long-term development. In addition, recent literature underscores the importance of early childhood development (ECD) in later-life human capital development.

OBJECTIVES: We analyze the life cycle of cognitive development and learning outcomes in rural Chinese children by first exploring whether ECD outcomes affect cognition levels, then determining whether cognitive delays persist as children grow, and finally examining connections between cognition and education outcomes.

METHODS: We combine data from four recent studies that examine different age groups (0–3, 4–5, 10–11, 13–14) to track cognitive outcomes.

RESULTS: First, we find that ECD outcomes for children in rural China are poor, with almost one in two children who are cognitively delayed. Second, we find that these cognitive delays seem to persist into middle school, with almost 37% of rural junior high school students who are cognitively delayed. Finally, we show that cognition has a close relationship to academic achievement.

CONCLUSION: Our results suggest that urban–rural gaps in academic achievement originate at least in part from differences in ECD outcomes.

CONTRIBUTIONS: Although many papers have analyzed ECD, human capital, and inequality separately, this is the first paper to explicitly connect and combine these topics to analyze the life cycle of cognitive development in the context of rural China.

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