Teacher professional development among preschool teachers in rural China


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 42:3, 219-244

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Heilongjiang, a third tier, less-developed province in terms of the national ECE index in China (Hong, Luo, & Cui, 2015) may be considered representative of less-developed provinces of China.
This study investigated professional development (PD) in rural China, and focused on the following two aspects: (i) PD opportunities, support, model, and content;
(ii) preschool teachers’ attitudes (perceived PD quality and PD needs) toward current PD activities.
A quantitative method was adopted and a questionnaire was the core instrument to gather relevant information.
Relevant documents were collected from preschools and local government websites, e.g., teachers’ written reflections about PD activities, preschool records about teachers’ attendance in PD activities as well as the official PD activities available to teachers.
These documents were collected to triangulate school documents and information gathered from surveys of teachers and principals.


This study was conducted within the third largest prefecture-level city, D, in Heilongjiang province.
Like other cities in Heilongjiang, Early childhood education (ECE) in City D is underdeveloped (Heilongjiang Bureau of Statistics, 2018).
Three preschools within City D that were funded by the county government were selected using convenience sampling.
A total of 74 teachers (response rate of 80.4%) and three principals (response rate of 100%) took part in the study.

A questionnaire was used as the primary method to explore the preschool PD situation.
The questionnaire was based on drafts developed by Rao and Lau (2016) for a UNESCO Survey of teachers in pre-primary education.
Minor revision of the questionnaire was made to localize the questionnaire fit into the local Chinese context.
The modified teacher questionnaire consisted of 60 questions divided into three sections: teacher demographic information, qualifications and professional development, and pedagogical practice.
Items enabled an understanding of PD activities and key stakeholders’ views on them.
For the modified principal questionnaire, the principals also needed to provide information about PD activities in the specific school context.

The questionnaires were distributed through an online survey tool SoJump in May 2017.

Data analysis plan
Questionnaires data were processed using Statistical Package for the Social Science version 24 SPSS) or Microsoft Excel for Mac (version 2016).
The qualitative data generated from the open-ended questions were coded and categorized into different themes using both inductive and deductive approaches (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006).

Results and discussion

Improved teacher education attainment VS low specialization
In the current study, around 98% of the teachers in the sample schools held a diploma or above, and 32.3% of degree holders had majored in ECE, which is higher than previous findings.
From the principals’ survey, it was also found that teacher qualifications varied considerably in the sample preschools.
Surprisingly, the newest preschools had higher proportions of bachelor’s degree holders and teachers with teaching certificates compared to the provincial level model preschools.
One possible explanation for the improvement is the increasing emphasis on preschool teacher quality with the implementation of the second Three-year Action Plan in Heilongjiang Province from 2013.
According to this study, teachers’ academic levels seem to have increased rapidly compared with the education department statistics (79%) in 2013.
Nevertheless, there is still an urgency for PD given inadequate pre-service training and limited teaching experience among teachers in this study.
The findings are consistent with research conducted in other countries and show that teacher education level does not contribute to predicting appropriate teaching practice.
Instead, targeted PD activities can strongly predict ECE quality.
In this condition, teacher in-service professional development should be given priority to compensate for the shortfalls of pre-service training.

Limited PD opportunities
Less than half of the teachers in this survey were able to meet the minimum PD time requirement due to heavy workloads and limited PD opportunities.
Inadequate PD funding also contributes greatly to the limited PD opportunities.
From the information the principals provided, the authors found that two sample preschools (J and Y), but not preschool F, had invested far less than 5% of their total annual expenditure on PD in the past year, which did not meet the minimum requirement.
Only 4.5% of the total education funding is invested in early childhood education in Heilongjiang Province yearly (Meng, 2015), which explains the insufficient funding situation in M County.
In addition, education departments and teacher training organizations do not appear to be undertaking external inspections effectively, as 40% of the teachers reported never having received any external feedback. Furthermore, outside organizations such as the education department and training institutions/universities have not provided enough PD opportunities for rural teachers.
Over 84% of PD activities are provided by the preschools themselves, and commercial companies are the second major PD provider.
To answer the national call to promote PD, it is important that the preschools themselves are not the main providers, but that the local education department and the education community are both be responsible for rural preschool teacher professional development.

Effective PD vs growing needs
According to the teachers’ reports and pedagogical practice, in general, the current PD has a moderate impact on teachers, which is aligned with previous findings (Desimone, Porter, Garet, Yoon, & Birman, 2002; Ingvarson, Meiers, & Beavis, 2005), but the PD quality varies in content and models.
The teachers gave the highest ratings to PD involving content areas, health, nutrition and safety, curriculum development/planning, and felt that certain topics like child development, diversity and inclusion, and family and community engagement had comparatively less impact on their practice.
A more nuanced understanding of the factors that contribute to uneven PD quality is required.
It is noteworthy that teacher moral education accounts for a great proportion of in-service PD.
In China, moral education covers a range of topics: “education in communist ideology, politics, law, morality, mental health” (Zhu & Liu, 2004).
About 83.1% of teachers reported attending PD activities concentrating on teacher moral education.
Although most of the teacher participants in this study had access to PD, they still expressed a strong desire to have better quality PD.
The most common perceived needs were in the areas related to child development, curriculum, information and communications technology, which is also identified from teachers-reported pedagogical practices.
In addition, the teachers’ self-reflection and class observation notes indicated that rural teachers needed a stronger foundation in topics related to children’s development and pedagogy since they described having difficulties in interpreting children’s learning behaviors and their own teaching behaviors from a professional perspective.
Instead, the analysis of teacher’s teaching reflection and observation notes remained on a superficial level.
From this perspective, there is an unmet need to strengthen teachers’ theoretical learning.
In addition, teachers also reported that they were in great need of targeted training to improve their skills in arts-related subjects, e.g., playing the piano, dancing, drawing and handicraft skills.
This finding that teachers desired more training in these areas was unexpected.

Obstacles to PD
Even though over 75% of the teachers had access to PD, the teachers and principals all expressed their concerns about supporting it and concurred about the obstacles.
First, they rated the lack of sufficient PD time as the biggest deterrent, which was greatly influenced by the insufficient number of teachers.
According to principal reports, it is difficult for county preschools to recruit enough teachers with ECE backgrounds because of the relatively low salary and benefits.
When confronted with this situation, teachers had to take on greater workloads and could not spend enough time on PD activities.
Second, the teachers and principals were worried about the limited off-campus study opportunities since the in-service teachers had very limited ECE knowledge and experiences.
Teachers appear discontent with the way professional knowledge is delivered rather than the content or the trainers.
Instead, teachers are eager to have the type of PD which incorporates professional knowledge into their daily practice.
Rural preschools are facing great challenges in promoting PD.
There is a need for public attention and support to address this difficult situation.
Especially in a disadvantaged area like rural Heilongjiang, the government should take a more active role in providing financial and resource support (Zhou, Sun, & Lee, 2017).
One optimal option to close the PD opportunity gap is to explore the use of distance education or online platforms in rural areas given the lack of proximity of experts, further to bridge the PD opportunity gap between urban and rural regions (Broadley, 2010).
Further, rural preschools should explore diverse methods to support teacher development.
Rural preschool teachers should be provided with more individual guidance as findings from this study indicate that teachers report benefitting most by direct feedback from preschool principals, senior teachers, and mentors.
At the same time, it is recommended that novice teachers in rural communities be provided with adequate individual support and prompt feedback.

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Updated: Nov. 25, 2021


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