Taking Aim at China’s ‘3:30 p.m. Dilemma’
This summer, China unveiled sweeping new reforms aimed at the country’s education and after-school tutoring sectors. Known as shuangjian, or the “double reduction” policy, the reforms are meant to reduce the burdens on students and parents alike by decreasing the amount of time children in grades one through nine spend on homework and in private tutoring classes.
Seasoned observers can be forgiven for experiencing a bit of déjà vu. China’s authorities have spent much of the past 30 years trying to balance the needs of the country’s highly competitive exam-oriented system with a desire to promote higher quality and holistic education centered on improving students’ creativity, critical thinking, and well-being. As early as 1990, the State Education Commission — the predecessor of today’s Ministry of Education — announced a policy limiting learning time at school to six hours a day for primary school students and eight hours for secondary school students. A decade later, in 2001, the State Council — China’s cabinet — reiterated the importance of “burden reduction” in a major decision on basic education reform. And in 2018, the Ministry of Education implemented regulations on private tutoring organizations in an effort to slow down that industry’s growth.
The response to these policies among parents, students, and teachers has been consistently mixed, in part because policymakers have yet to resolve the “3:30 p.m. dilemma.” That is, if school gets out at 3:30 in the afternoon, but parents are working until five, six, or even later, who takes care of the kids in the interim?
This dilemma dates back at least to the 1990 reforms. Although ostensibly an effort to reduce schoolwork and give kids more free time, in the context of that era’s pro-market policies, the reforms contributed to a shift of childcare burdens from the state back onto families. Families who could afford nannies or after-school tutoring thrived; those that could not watched their children fall behind. According a 2016 national survey on the tutoring industry organized by the state-affiliated Chinese Society of Education, more than 80% of Chinese parents believe that private tutoring is necessary for primary and middle school students, and nearly 60% are willing to spend half or more of their household disposable income on private tutoring. Market research firm iResearch found that the market for K-12 private tutoring was almost 900 billion yuan ($139 billion) last year, a nearly threefold increase since 2013.
In her book on educational inequality in the United States, “Unequal Childhoods,” sociologist Annette Lareau coined the term “concerted cultivation” to denote the broad set of practices middle- and upper-class parents use to give their kids a leg up. They not only engage their children in an array of structured extracurriculars such as sports, arts, and music, but also participate themselves in school events like open houses, parent-teacher organizations, and teacher conferences — helping model for their children the soft skills needed to succeed at school and in society.
This stands in marked contrast to what Lareau calls “accomplishment of natural growth parenting,” which she associates with working-class parents. In place of tightly packed afternoons and weekends and constant parent-child communication, this approach involves setting boundaries and allowing children to develop on their own. Although perhaps less tiring for kids, natural growth parenting leaves them less prepared to manage their time, navigate educational and professional hierarchies, and advocate for themselves.
What Lareau observed in the U.S. in the late 1990s could be China’s future, as class distinctions shape not just what future generations learn, but how they learn. To resolve the “3:30 p.m. dilemma,” policymakers have pushed schools to provide more and higher quality after-school programs to occupy students until their parents get off work. The message they’re sending is straightforward: Education services should be provided by the state, not by private companies affordable only to the wealthy.
Whether this will prove effective remains unclear. With so much at stake, urban middle- and upper-class families are unlikely to give up on tutoring altogether. Instead, they will shift their resources to other after-school classes such as foreign languages, calligraphy, sports, and music, which haven’t been heavily affected by the “double reduction” policy. Those who can afford it may opt for exclusive and controversial one-on-one academic consulting services. Working-class families, meanwhile, will continue to face uncertainty as they struggle to allocate their limited resources in an effective manner.
At its core, the notion shared by so many Chinese that education is a driver of social mobility is paradoxical. As economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti argue in their book “Love, Money, and Parenting,” intensive parenting is a symptom of rising income and wealth inequality under neoliberalism — not a solution to it. In countries with high rates of economic inequality, parents feel greater pressure to support and prepare their children for the future. In contrast, parents in countries with relatively low rates of inequality and more family-friendly policies often focus more on children’s needs and facilitating their healthy development.
The real problems here are social and class-based, and these divisions will not disappear under the “double reduction” policy. The government has not yet met the demand from working parents for an answer to the “3:30 p.m. dilemma” that doesn’t leave their kids at a structural disadvantage — much less convince anxious middle-class parents to lay down their arms and adopt a more permissive approach to their children’s education. Chinese authorities should work to combine education policy with a holistic set of social policies that strive for poverty alleviation, protections for women’s rights, improved employment conditions, and more family-friendly welfare programs.
Since the start of the new semester, cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing have begun requiring teachers to supervise students after school. During this time, they are allowed to tutor students in their homework, but not to teach them new material. While these interventions can be useful in reducing students’ academic burdens and helping care for kids until their parents get off work, we are still a long way from eliminating educational inequality.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A boy returns home after school in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Sept. 2, 2021. People Visual)