Shanghai’s annual People’s Congress ended last Friday with the accession of a new mayor: former police detective Ying Yong. Yet of all the motions proposed at the meeting, nothing shocked me more than the one taking aim at the private tutoring institutions that millions of Shanghai families employ to improve their children’s grades.
“Shut them all down,” a friend of mine who has a 10-year-old son posted on WeChat, the most popular mobile messaging app in China. He was commenting on a report by the Party paper People’s Daily on why Shanghai’s Party Secretary Han Zheng — the city’s highest ranking official — was so critical of private tutoring.
“There are many tutoring agencies in the marketplace — some qualified and legal, others shoddy and illicit,” Han told congressional deputies, adding that “the government is duty bound to step in and purify the private tutoring market, or we will be sorry for our citizens and their kids.”
Han emphasized that Shanghai’s schoolchildren have to work longer hours than their parents and often don’t get enough sleep or exercise. He described how many parents help their kids with homework after work and take them to tutoring programs on weekends or during school vacations.
A current priority for Shanghai’s educational reform is to cut back on the amount of homework assigned to primary and middle school students. Calls by the local education authorities since 2013 to lighten the workload of the city’s youngest students have largely fallen on deaf ears, and many schools are still in the habit of speeding through their syllabi before beginning intensive review lessons.
Han said Shanghai has the right laws in place but has not done enough to enforce them. Only by cleaning up the private education market, he continued, can we live up to the expectations of local parents and ensure that today’s children enjoy adequate social mobility in the future. He also promised government actions to tackle the issue in 2017.
Local education authorities claim that only a few such tutoring companies are properly registered as education firms, while thousands more are certified as business or charity organizations. Many more are not registered at all — in essence making it impossible for the government to know how many are out there.
Media reports citing data from the Chinese Society of Education suggest that the market for private tutoring was worth 800 billion yuan ($116.6 billion) last year. In affluent coastal areas like Shanghai, where parents have more disposable income to invest in their kids’ educations, an estimated 70 percent of households with school-age children hire such services.
As the father of a 16-year-old son with a little more than two years to go before college, I am constantly hounded by cold calls from private tutoring agencies. “Hey, Mr. Lu! How’s Jimmy doing lately?” they ask, referring to my son by his English name. With their sweet, upbeat tones, the tutoring advisers on the other end of the line sound even more familiar with our family than our next-door neighbor is. They know that we are father and son, which school he attends, and that he could use some tutoring in science.
My son’s educational experiences to date have shed light on the mentality that pushes parents into signing their kids up for tutoring programs. Twelve years ago, we enrolled him in a private, Chinese-run kindergarten that at the time cost around 3,600 yuan (the equivalent of $450) in monthly tuition fees. My wife and I assumed that kindergartens were nothing but organized play groups where our son could make friends and have fun. As it turned out, my son’s school specialized in teaching 3-year-olds how to use an abacus and practice mental arithmetic. It was torture for a little boy who was much more interested in watching the Thomas the Tank Engine TV show than learning his times tables.
After a talk with the headmaster, my son was allowed to play on his own while the rest of his class was learning how to use an abacus. Three years later, though, we were struck by how intense the competition was to get him into a good primary school. In the end, we pulled a few strings to get an interview with the headmaster of a prestigious primary school in Shanghai.
I asked about her criteria for admitting a prospective student. “Well, he or she has to be able read at least 1,000 Chinese characters,” she said, “and know addition and subtraction of numbers between 1 and 100 by heart.” When she saw me sitting agape in front of her, she explained, “My previous school was all about happy education, but here, we serve only China’s future elites.”
In the end, my son was accepted by a free public school in our local community. “Welcome to the real world,” I told him on his first day, knowing that from then on, he would be judged by his test scores. His burgeoning interests were not supported by the school: He knew the train route from Cairo to Cape Town, but his math skills had fallen by the wayside along with his old abacus in kindergarten. He was assigned mountains of homework, and there were many nights when my son momentarily drifted off at his desk, before jerking awake again and resuming his studies.
The real challenge came in fifth grade, the year he graduated from primary school. At the age of 10, he was forced to choose his destiny: whether to aim for a good high school and eventually college, or make do with a bad one and end up at a vocational school.
Few people I knew could bear the idea of their kids going into the drudgery and uncertainty of blue-collar work. Instead, they tried every means possible to get their children into renowned middle schools, regardless of the cost. They hired private tutoring agencies, had their children join the International Mathematical Olympiad, and developed their talents in sports, music, even robotics — whatever it took for them to get into a good school. In partnership with private agencies, the most popular middle schools offered night or weekend classes for their most ardent applicants beginning a year before their graduation from primary school. The idea was that if you sacrificed a lot of money and weekends, your child could eventually gain an edge over other applicants.
It’s an open secret in China that what makes a good school is not its faculty or history, but its ability to bring in the smartest kids and work them almost to death. Through five years of primary school, my son still had time to play piano and travel for several weeks each year. But his four years in middle school were a constant barrage of competition, since practically every class was held in exam conditions. Each grade was divided into 12 classes, from which six pairs of parallel classes were formed, each pair taught by the same set of teachers. Underperforming students were put in the lower-ability class, forced to either learn at a slower pace or work harder to eventually replace peers in the high-ability class. During this time, my son’s bedroom was always packed with half-finished test papers, and his face was as pale as a sheet.
The secret for most of the advanced students was to get way ahead in the syllabus. By seventh or eighth grade, one math-genius classmate was learning college-level algebra, while the class champion in English had studied all the vocabulary necessary for the next four to five years.
Worried that my son was too far behind in math, I talked with the boss of a tutoring agency said to excel at teaching the subject. His business philosophy, he said, was to “teach early and practice hard” — in other words, to teach kids material way beyond their age and get them to rote-learn the solutions to problems early in life. His company’s shabby classroom, crowded with desks and chairs, belied the fact that this man easily made 2 million yuan a year.
Parents took false solace in the thought that private tutors were helping their kids stealthily get ahead of their peers. Yet teachers were also happy to make money not from offering any new knowledge in class, but from reviewing what students had already learned. In the final year of middle school, most teachers at my son’s school would become private tutors themselves, packing out their home sitting rooms with students every weekend while parents waited for two hours at the McDonald’s outside the neighborhood. This happened despite the explicit rules in Shanghai that forbade schoolteachers from charging fees for private tutoring. Of course, nobody was going to report the teachers who did this, as the teachers might have been fired and the child branded a troublemaker at school.
After a lot of hard work and many hours of private tutoring, my son earned himself a seat at a decent-enough high school last September. The upside is that he feels no peer pressure now, because the child prodigies at his old school have moved on to more reputable establishments. He even convinced his mom to stop hiring private tutors for this year’s winter vacation and instead set up a research team with his classmates to explore how to make subway cars more secure and comfortable for passengers.
It is likely that the municipal Party chief’s words will result in some sort of clampdown on tutoring organizations. However, so long as our sons and daughters are still judged by their scores alone, truly eradicating the darker side to the private education industry will remain a tall order. Shifts in education policy are one thing, but unless they are accompanied by a cultural shift toward seeing education for its positive, holistic values, they will remain ineffective.
(Header image: A girl takes notes during an English lesson in a private tuition school in Shanghai, Aug. 18, 2009. Xu Xiaolin/Sixth Tone)