A year ago, as part of an application for a graduate program in Hong Kong, I took an IELTS test — a standardized English exam evaluating the proficiency of non-native speakers. Many of the students sitting alongside me that day — those who were preparing to study abroad — had signed up for classes at private training companies. Some of these courses lasted just a couple of months, others about half a year.
Some people had taken monthlong cram classes, others extended one-on-one courses. All of the programs had cost anything from a few thousand to tens of thousands of yuan — not exactly cheap considering that these companies’ clients were mostly college students.
Curious about why students were flocking in droves to these exorbitant IELTS courses, I got a job as a teaching assistant at a relatively well-known training company in southern China during my last year of college. At first, I thought — mistakenly, it turned out — that the teaching assistant’s role was purely to tutor students outside of class hours. But after I joined the company, a number of unpleasant experiences proved to me that the true value of young teaching assistants in such companies comes down to the fact that students are more willing to bond with people their own age. Upon this foundation of trust, teaching assistants are encouraged to pressure students into signing up for more classes and spending more money.
Most of the students’ course fees are paid by their parents. As parents generally lack knowledge of language training programs and the limits to what their child can learn, they often assume that companies have good reasons for charging such high prices for lessons. The parents of most of today’s college students were born in the 1960s and ’70s and have almost no grasp of English. For this reason, they are neither able to help improve their children’s English, nor able to understand the best way to learn a foreign language.
In addition, parents are often easily seduced by the reputation of foreign education systems and easily swallow any gossip they hear about university life in the West. As American and British colleges require students to speak good English, parents thus see IELTS training courses and educational consultancies as secret weapons in the fight to secure a good education for their children. If such companies can provide their children with the specialized skills about which parents themselves know so little, then it is worth parting with huge sums of money to achieve those aims.
The sales pitches of many firms revolve around highlighting the supposed differences between students who enlist their services and those who do not. Salespeople will explain the rigors of the IELTS tests, all the while exaggerating the difficulty of applying to college abroad. These sales techniques seize upon parents’ anxious desires to see their children succeed, as well as their desires to see their kids gain admission to schools as quickly as possible.
Sales techniques also illustrate the disparity between commission rates for salespeople and for teachers. At my former company, sales representatives earned commission on parents’ final payments; as a result, they had a vested interest in signing up lower-ability students, who stayed with the company longer, attended more classes, and put more money back into the pockets of salespeople.
On the other hand, in-house teaching staff were paid commission only when their students scored higher than IELTS Band 7 — a grade that sits at the more challenging end of the spectrum — and even then, took home less than sales staff. The company’s entire setup was therefore skewed toward attracting new students, lowering expectations, and resisting progress wherever possible.
Training organizations, under the guise of working in the noble sphere of education, are not doing all they can to help students pass language tests in as little time as possible. Rather, they aim to make students heavily reliant on their courses, encouraging them to sign up for ever-longer series of classes in order to gain the most benefit from their services. In essence, it is akin to cultivating a psychological dependency on the courses so that students believe the only way to attain their desired grades is to buy more class time.
Yoki Yim is a former part-time IELTS teaching assistant at China’s largest private education provider, New Oriental. He told me that many of his former students claimed that teachers did not encourage them to pass tests the first time around. Indeed, some teachers would even recommend a certain number of tests students needed to take before they could expect to see any progress.
This was very similar to the experience I had at my former company. I once asked my students whether they felt confident going into their first-ever IELTS exam. Their answers left me dumbfounded: “Our teachers all say that you just test the waters the first time around. You shouldn’t go in hoping to do well, because most people need to take the test three or four times before they get a good score.”
Once I realized that students’ sign-up rates were tightly bound up with staff incomes, I understood why students thought of the exams in these terms. Staff said that it was both easier and more economically beneficial to teach courses for less-academic students than high achievers, as lower-ability students are more likely to sign up for a long series of classes. Once the often hefty sum of money has changed hands, it represents a substantial shot in the arm for both the salesperson and the company as a whole.
However, teaching very bright students leaves much more to chance, as more hinges on the quality of the teacher, on the students’ natural intelligence and motivation, and most of all on the difficulty of the IELTS test itself. If something gives within any of these elements, and the students’ scores do not live up to expectations, then high-achieving students are left high and dry. Looking at it from a staff perspective, such students are less important, or lucrative, than increasing sales.
Perhaps worst of all, training companies’ methods usually follow traditional Chinese notions of teaching to the test. When I worked as a teaching assistant, many of the teachers in classes I observed preferred to give students supposed shortcuts and tricks to performing well on exams at the expense of real learning. Among these tricks of the trade, some of the most common were the apparent “truths” of the IELTS reading exam: that it was not necessary to understand the full article, and that as long as you grasped which types of answers the examiners were looking for and could adapt to them, then there was no reason why any student couldn’t get full marks. Yim, who now teaches at a remote-learning IELTS training school in the southern city of Guangzhou, confirmed that his company also took this approach with students.
I knew that if I stayed at my former company much longer, I would perhaps be given the opportunity to become a full-fledged IELTS teacher. However, having experienced the way such companies run, I had no desire to continue my employment there. If I had, I would have become like the production-line teachers who staff these schools’ offices: overloaded with work, paid a pittance for a salary, feeding misguided students endless study courses, and churning out more test-oriented study machines with little interest in holistic education — students who simply seek the dubious honor of being able to say they went abroad for college. You can see why I’ve already left.
(Header image: A student reads an English textbook in Qingdao, Shandong province, Dec. 18, 2016. Yu Guolin/VCG)