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Mar 27, 2016

Yang Guidong, a private tutor, wakes up before dawn on a cold winter morning. An hour later he’s arriving at his first destination of the day: an apartment in the Jiading District of Shanghai, approximately 40 kilometers away. By the time he returns home at 10 p.m., Yang will have visited four different homes. As he collapses from exhaustion on his sofa, hechecks his phone to confirm today’s earnings: 6,000 yuan, or $920 — not bad for a teacher.

But Yang is no ordinary teacher. He is not affiliated with any school, preferring instead to move from place to place as a tutor for hire. Yang’s toolkit consists of a single smartphone app: QingQing, or “Changing,” as it is known in English. Like other similar tutor apps currently available, QingQing works like ride-hailing apps such as Uber, only instead of finding a car and driver, it locates private tutors for children according to the user’s location and preferences. With just a few swipes, users can view a list of available tutors, including details of their academic and professional experience, teaching fees, and performance evaluations by clients past and present.

Developed by Shanghai Changing Information and Technology Co., QingQing is available in 12 major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In a recent appraisal by TAL Education Group, the company was valued at more than $100 million.

The availability of this kind of technology has helped expedite a trend of public school teachers quitting their jobs to fly solo in the world of tutoring. In China, public teachers are prohibited from working as private tutors to supplement their low salaries, though many still seek out under-the-table tutoring jobs.

This certainly is not the nature of education. If things go on like this, I am afraid the Chinese education system will be damaged.

Yang used to be a math teacher in Jiangsu province, but he quit in 1995 after the allure of private tutoring and Shanghai’s abundance of wealthy patrons became too great to resist. Over the past 20 years, Yang has become one of the most successful family tutors in Shanghai, with an annual income of more than $150,000.

With the current popularity of the QingQing app, Yang is now busier than ever before. With online reviews replacing word of mouth, Yang’s reputation for improving students’ results on math exams is instantly accessible to the app’s thousands of users. He can even charge as much as $90 per hour — three times the rate of most QingQing tutors. Despite a grueling schedule, demand far exceeds supply, even to the extent that Yang sometimes earns as much in a day as a public school teacher earns in a month.

Screenshots of Qingqing, a smartphone app that has created an online market for private tutors.

Yang points out that his earnings today are higher because school holidays mean more time for children to take private lessons. Still, even on a normal school day, Yang can expect to take home around $450.

Official data on the number of children studying with a private tutor is hard to come by. Estimates vary widely, from 50 to 90 percent, depending on the age of the child. (Parents of senior high students, for example, are far more likely to employ private tutors.)

But many education experts and teachers disapprove of apps like QingQing. Unlike ride-hailing or food-delivery apps that provide life-enhancing services, they argue, this kind of app serves only to add stress to already overburdened students. 

Tong Zhuo, a teacher at one of the best high schools in Shanghai, believes the main purpose of family tutors is to improve students’ exam results in as short a time as possible, which means teaching methods tend to be purely pragmatic. “This certainly is not the nature of education,” said Tong. “If things go on like this, I am afraid the Chinese education system will be damaged.”

QingQing founder Liu Changke disagrees, saying the software helps facilitate traditional methods of tutoring by supplying students with suitable teachers, facilitating payment, and streamlining evaluations.

Many Chinese parents side with Liu, saying they are left with little choice but to employ private tutors for their school-age children in such a highly competitive environment. Some parents hire as many as five different tutors — to cover the main subjects of Chinese, English, math, physics, and chemistry — and spend up to $1500 each month. (By comparison, the average monthly income in China’s largest cities is below $1400.)

“Teacher Yang charges a lot, but he’s worth it,” said parent Lu Wenjuan. “The first time he came, he managed to pinpoint my son’s weak areas in math in just two hours.”

This summer, Lu’s son will take the gaokao, China’s college entrance examination. The period until the exam is “sprint time,” she said. As she gushed over her son’s recent progress on a practice test, the 18-year-old rolled his eyes impatiently. Noting his displeasure, Lu turned to him and said soothingly: “It will all be over soon, darling. Once you get into a good university, you will have lots of time to play.”

Yang assured Lu that her son will succeed, adding, “As long as he does what I say.”

(Header image: A private tutor teaches a young student in Fuzhou, July 7, 2013. VCG)