Nearly a quarter million teachers in China do not have the educational background required by the government, but that number is steadily decreasing, according to education officials.
The number of unqualified teachers holding classes at state schools has dropped in the past year, a senior official said.
The number has dropped from 300,000 by the end of 2007 to 243,000 by the end of 2008, Guan Peijun, director of the ministry's Department of Teacher Training, said during an online interview with people.com.cn yesterday, which was the 25th annual National Teachers' Day.
The teachers' law stipulates that primary school teachers must have at least a high school diploma, junior high teachers must have at least an associate's degree (two to three years of college), and senior high teachers must have a bachelor's degree.
"This is an important sign showing the quality of teachers in China as a whole is improving," he said.
As colleges and graduate schools have expanded enrollment in the past decade, the percentage of teachers with the required higher education background is increasing quickly.
Some 71 percent of primary school teachers in China now have college diplomas, he said.
More than half of junior high teachers have a bachelor's degree, he said.
A university instructor from Beijing surnamed Ye said when she graduated from university with a bachelor's degree a decade ago, she and her classmates could find a good job teaching at college.
"But now, only people with a master's degree or even PhD can get employed by universities. With a bachelor's degree, a college graduate can only land a job in a high school in cities," she said.
But the rural areas still lack well-educated teachers, Zhu Xiaoman, center director and vice-president of Chinese Society of Education, told China Daily.
Some 80 percent of primary school teachers and 70 percent of junior high school teachers are working in the countryside, she said.
The higher education reform since 1994 has given college graduates the freedom to choose where they want to work, she said.
And most people want to work in the cities, not the rural areas.
"In China's cities, perhaps 10 graduates are competing for one teaching job. But the rural areas have much harsher living conditions, and therefore it is difficult to attract educated young people," she said.
As some teaching jobs in the countryside are vacant, nearly 400,000 substitute teachers, most of whom may not have the required diploma, are hired to teach at rural schools, according to the ministry.
Not working as regular teachers, they are not included in the statistics about unqualified teachers. So experts say the actual number of unqualified teachers taking posts at schools could be bigger than the official figure.
In recent years, the government has taken measures to improve the quality of teachers in the countryside, including the exchange of teachers between rural and urban schools, training of rural teachers, and recruiting university graduates to work in the countryside.
Between 2006 and 2008, 59,000 university graduates were recruited to work at 6,400 schools in 490 counties. They are paid by the central government.
At least 70,000 university graduates will be recruited to teaching jobs at rural schools this year, Guan said.
The ministry also closed some primary schools and asked students to attend better schools based in a county seat or a populated village, in order to provide them with better teachers and facilities.
But Li Zhiren, a researcher with Chinese Society of Education, told China Daily that the measure has led to some primary school students dropping out of school.
"The young children have to either walk a long distance to school or pay a fee to sleep at school dorms. Some families cannot afford these and had to ask their children to quit school. It is a new problem that the ministry should solve," he said.