Volume 43 - Article 7 | Pages 169–182

“At three years of age, we can see the future”: Cognitive skills and the life cycle of rural Chinese children

By Huan Zhou, Ruixue Ye, Sean Sylvia, Nathan Rose, Scott Rozelle

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Date received:20 Jan 2020
Date published:24 Jul 2020
Word count:2363
Keywords:cognitive delay, early childhood, early childhood development, rural China
Additional files:43-7_additional_material (pdf file, 137 kB)
Weblink:You will find all publications in this Special Collection on Life-Course Decisions of Families in China here.


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.

Objective: 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.

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

Contribution: 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.

Author's Affiliation

Huan Zhou - West China School of Public Health (Sichuan University), China [Email]
Ruixue Ye - West China School of Public Health (Sichuan University), China [Email]
Sean Sylvia - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States of America [Email]
Nathan Rose - Stanford University, United States of America [Email]
Scott Rozelle - Stanford University, United States of America [Email]

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