China Wants Students Working Less. So It’s Asking Teachers to Do More.
Last summer, China’s Ministry of Education introduced the so-called double reduction policy, ordering schools to cut down on the time students spent each night on homework and implementing tough new measures to rein in private tutoring institutions.
The goals of the policy were straightforward: to alleviate students’ academic burdens, help parents struggling to pay for a seemingly ever-growing array of costly extracurricular tutoring classes, and give kids more free time. Whether these top-down measures can really alleviate student burdens remains to be seen, but their impact on the country’s sprawling private tutoring sector has already made global headlines. Some tutoring companies tried to pivot, becoming nonprofits or transitioning into unrelated industries like livestreaming e-commerce; many simply shut down.
But private tutors and students aren’t the only ones who have had their lives changed by the “double reduction” policy; the implications of the policy for parents and schoolteachers should not be overlooked.
Unlike full-time private schools, which represent an alternative to government-run schools, private tutoring institutions were supplements to in-school instruction. Some tutoring classes were for remedial learners, but many more advanced classes represented an extension and deepening of what was covered during school hours. In addition to their role keeping student learning on track, Chinese private tutoring institutions also took on some of the childcare burdens of working parents, especially in the hours between when students got out of school and when their parents got off work.
In recent years, the global demand for such services has expanded dramatically. In China, this has created a booming industry worth an estimated $120 billion, as Chinese parents have embraced, half-willingly, half out of necessity, the concept of intensive parenting to help their children navigate an increasingly competitive educational and job market. At the same time, because not all families have the same financial resources to spend on tutoring services, the growth of the private tutoring market also generated fears of a growing education equity gap.
Now that the new policy effectively removes private tutoring institutions from the picture, the burden of afterschool childcare and extracurricular learning will inevitably fall more heavily on parents and, by extension, teachers. Although a new law on promoting “family education” went into effect early this month, its stipulations regarding the roles and responsibilities of parents and other members of society remain vague.
One workaround already being adopted by some cities involves relocating these burdens from private tutors and families onto the shoulders of schoolteachers. For instance, Beijing, Shanghai, and the southwestern megacity of Chongqing all now require teachers to provide after-school tutoring free of charge. In announcing the pilot for its “open tutoring scheme,” Beijing’s municipal education authorities stated their intention to eventually expand the scheme to cover all junior middle schools in the city and all major subjects in the curriculum. The city has also promised fiscal support for these services and to pay teachers for their time, but whether these funds will be sufficient to offset the sudden intensification of teaching and caring burdens remains to be seen.
The effects of the private tutoring industry’s collapse on schoolteachers are not limited to their afterschool responsibilities. While policymakers are intent on reducing students’ academic burdens, they also emphasize the need for better in-class instruction as a way to make up for reduced out-of-class learning. This is a big ask for many schools, and additional support for teachers is needed to ensure that they have the tools necessary to improve their classroom performance.
One of the most common and crucial forms this support can take is ongoing professional trainings for teachers. Thanks to decades of commitment and investment, many cities boast a multi-tiered training system, in which trainings are planned, provided, and coordinated across the school, district, county, municipal, and national levels. More recently, in 2010, China launched the National Teacher Training Program to support teachers in traditionally underserved rural areas.
Despite these efforts, a recent large-scale randomized evaluation found that the NTTP had not had a significant impact on student achievement, casting doubt over its effectiveness. Other surveys, including one conducted by researchers at Peking University in 2010 and 2011, highlighted substantial urban-rural disparities in terms of training accessibility, quality, and diversity.
Even in public middle schools in a city like Beijing, which are among the best-funded in China, teachers’ opinions on the effectiveness of capacity building programs are mixed. According to a survey I conducted in 2017, a majority of respondents appreciated the quality, frequency, and diversity of the trainings they received on pedagogy. Still inadequate, however, were trainings on critical topics such as student psychology, classroom management, and how to communicate with parents.
This finding is highly relevant in the context of the “double reduction” policy, as a more solid grasp of these themes would help teachers improve classroom performance. It is likewise important to equip parents with better knowledge on how to engage in school affairs, especially in light of the new family education law. And both sets of trainings will have to take into account the already busy working schedules of many teachers and parents. Teachers’ own psychological well-being and their work-life balance should not be compromised.
Apart from general capacity building, there are other ways of relieving the new teaching and caring burdens on teachers and parents. A recent experiment in Beijing suggests the potential of school libraries as hubs for afterschool learning. Fostering local innovations like this is the goal of an ongoing project co-organized by two Beijing-based educational nongovernmental organizations. Together, they are inviting schools, teachers, media outlets, and other stakeholders to share, scrutinize, and take lessons from local practices. Such localized experiments and contributions by non-governmental actors should be encouraged by the government as a way to identify appropriate solutions for the country’s diverse social contexts. That, of course, must be in addition to increased direct government support for educational equity, which is all the more vital now that parents cannot make up for inadequate in-school instruction with afterschool education.
The “double reduction” policy may end up reducing the burdens on China’s students, but the more the country asks of parents and teachers, the more support they’ll need. For the policy to be effective, the education authorities must incorporate solutions to the real problems faced by both groups into their plans.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: An English teacher looks over her students at a primary school in Beijing, Dec. 23, 2021. Hao Yi/Beijing Youth Daily/People Visual)