Over the past few years, the Chinese government’s efforts to reduce the academic burden placed on primary- and middle-school students have been met with resistance from an unlikely source: parents.
Earlier this year, China’s Ministry of Education issued regulations limiting the amount of homework given to most primary school students to one hour, and to 90 minutes for all middle schoolers. Of course, no parent enjoys seeing their child buried under a pile of papers and textbooks. But if officials expected families to embrace the move to rein in the afterschool tutoring industry and lower primary- and middle-school academic workloads, they were sorely misguided. An essay that went viral argued that attempts to “reduce student burdens” would merely shift said burdens to parents.
Anxiety over the reform is particularly acute in large, coastal cities like Shanghai. The city’s zealous enforcement of the central government’s schoolwork directives has left many local parents frustrated at yet another round of reform that does nothing to address the root issue plaguing the city’s schools: unequal funding. They also worry it could put their children at a disadvantage in the race to secure a spot at a top college.
China’s test-centric education system has long been a pressure cooker, one in which students are constantly asked to prove they are worthy of further investment. Tracking — in which the best students are selected according to their test scores and given access to better teachers and resources — is ubiquitous, and the country only guarantees education through middle school. To secure a place in high school, students must pass what is known as the zhongkao, or high school entrance exam — a test designed decades ago to help the country manage its then-limited educational resources by weeding out roughly 50 percent of middle school students.
As if the pressure of the zhongkao wasn’t already high, simply getting into high school may no longer be enough: College hopefuls must get into the right high school. In the late 1970s, China established a system of “key” high schools, which would be run by local authorities. This was in keeping with the country’s traditional commitment to educational tracking and a desire to concentrate its resources on the best students. Students at these schools would have access to the area’s best teaching and learning resources and would be far more likely to test into a top university than their counterparts at “ordinary” high schools.
In Shanghai, this problem is compounded by new affirmative action policies that reserve more spots at top Chinese universities for students from poorer interior provinces to combat geographic inequality. Even though the average Shanghai student has access to resources that such inland students could only dream of, however, policies aimed to even the playing field nationally will unlikely be of much comfort to local parents — many of whom see their children’s path to an elite university and a bright future getting narrower by the day.
To ensure their children are not winnowed out by the system, parents begin competing over educational resources as early as preschool, some turning to private schools to prepare their kids for the zhongkao. Many consider Shanghai’s private schools superior to its public schools — at least at the primary- and middle-school level — in part because these institutions are more willing to skirt the government’s limits on homework and class time. Competition for places is fierce, however. The best private preschools might receive thousands of applications for a few dozen spots each year. While this may seem over-the-top, local parents truly believe — and not without reason — that only by getting their children into the best preschool, and from there the best primary and middle school, will they receive the best education the country has to offer upon reaching high school and university.
Others have turned to afterschool tutoring to supplement their children’s education. These programs charge hefty fees for specialized classes that often move far more quickly than the official curriculum. And like private schools, their willingness to ignore government rules if it means giving students a leg up makes them popular with parents. When one well-known — but unaccredited — training school opened registration for a new class, parents camped out all night for the chance to enroll their kids. When asked, those in line said they didn’t care about accreditation, only whether the training school could give their children an edge.
So, when the government lectures parents and schools for overworking their charges, the reaction is unlikely to be positive. While on the surface it is nice that first-graders are no longer assigned hours of homework each night, the simple fact is that before they even graduate from primary school, many of these students will be taking tests with the power to effectively define the course of their lives. Parents and teachers aren’t the ones who designed a system that rewards only test scores and functionally punishes preschoolers for having non-academic interests, but they know that if students at public schools don’t make up for the lost assignments — whether through extracurricular tutoring or by transferring to a private school — they will fall behind those that do.
If the Shanghai municipal government truly wants to improve the situation, it needs to spend less time telling parents and teachers to let students relax, and more time creating an environment in which students can actually do so without putting their futures at risk.
The first step should be closing the gap between so-called key high schools and their non-key counterparts. The gap between the two should be narrowed, or — ideally — abolished. This should not involve merely redistributing resources from key schools, however, but also investing more in ordinary high schools to improve their quality of instruction.
Second, the city needs to rethink how it regulates private primary and middle schools. It should increase funding at public educational institutions citywide in order to help close the quality gap. Once that is done, private schools can be relegated to their original purpose: supplementing the public-school system by providing alternative options for students ill-served by mainstream public education, rather than replacing it.
Finally, the city should reconsider its homework policy. While it’s important not to overwork students, Shanghai officials must recognize that, in the broader context of China’s university admissions system, if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind. If parents feel like their children aren’t getting the best education, there is nothing any government on earth can do to stop them from doing what they think is best for their child. Cracking down on extracurricular tutoring, for example, won’t do anything to lower demand for such services; it’ll just raise prices.
In truth, even all this may not be enough. As a country, China highly values education, and a degree from one of its best universities is valuable in the job market. Parents and teachers will continue to push students however they can. A city like Shanghai has no power to fix this problem: It can only alleviate some of the pressure being placed on younger students. A true solution will require national action.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students exit the testing hall after taking the High School Entrance Exam in Shanghai, June 19, 2016. VCG)