NEW YORK/SHANGHAI — Ginny Feng still wonders if she did the right thing. Five years ago, when her son was 3, she decided not to start him in intensive math and Chinese language programs along with the rest of his peers. The 40ish-year-old human resources consultant from Guangzhou, in southern China, was worried that if her son learned the subjects ahead of time, he would not pay attention in class when he started elementary school.
But she later found out that preschool tutoring classes were a necessity. For her son, the subsequent years have been a harrowing process of catching up. “The teachers would assume all the kids had already learned Pinyin [phonetic Chinese script] and basic addition and subtraction,” Feng told Nikkei Asia. “They teach very fast.”
Feng’s son, about to start grade 3, now has several classes after school and on weekends: computer coding, chess, writing, basketball, soccer and calligraphy. “I have a relative who didn’t take her kid to those [pre-school] classes and she cried for a month when elementary school started because her kid couldn’t keep up,” she said. “When you’ve seen enough cases like that, you wouldn’t dare to skip tutoring.”
“Parents in my circle have a perfect metaphor for this. It’s like you’re watching a movie in the theater and the entire first row stands up, if you don’t do the same, you won’t be able to watch the movie, so you have to stand up too.”
Chinese parents’ anxiety over their children’s academic careers has fueled a multibillion-dollar industry of tutors and buxi ban, or cram schools. Childhood for many Chinese children is a ceaseless conveyor belt of extracurricular classes and tutors, and an expensive time management nightmare for parents that has put many off the idea of larger families, even as China’s leadership promotes two- and three-children households.
Earlier this summer, China’s leadership apparently decided enough is enough. Some academic competition is a good thing but too much is a public liability, and the current model may have gone too far.
The crackdown was announced in June with the education ministry spelling out what it would do to supervise the sector. The State Council and Chinese Communist Party jointly followed that up with a clearer statement on July 24, requiring education companies to become nonprofits and forbidding them from going public or raising capital. That has thrown into question the futures of massive companies like TAL Education Group and New Oriental Education & Technology Group. In total, $126 billion in market capitalization has been swept off from Chinese education stocks listed in China, Hong Kong and the U.S., according to Bloomberg.
Beijing’s tougher-than-expected clampdown is aimed at correcting what President Xi Jinping has called a “chronic disease,” one stemming from businesses’ pursuit of profits from parents who worry that their children might be left behind in China’s test-oriented education system.
“Xi’s emerging agenda of social goals, grouped under the heading of ‘common prosperity,’ is more directly opposed to markets’ tendency to exacerbate inequalities,” said Gavekal Dragonomics analyst Ernan Cui.
Meritocracy or aristocracy?
For many, the urge to tinker with China’s spectacularly successful education system is puzzling. Its academic results are first-rate as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which administers standardized tests worldwide every three years. China topped the rest of the world in reading, math and science in the latest test, in 2018.
Many countries have tried to emulate China’s model of schooling. The U.K. in 2014 began to trial an East Asian “Maths Mastery” program that is based on Chinese and Singaporean education methods.
Lenora Chu, author of “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,” said that the Chinese system has its merits despite the lack of flexibility.
“If you look at the American system, you have high school graduates who are barely literate or numerate, in some cities these things are very difficult to fix,” said Chu. “You have a high school kid in China, maybe he has never learned to pick a topic that interests him because they don’t have electives in high school, but he’s really good at math and he can read. Some of these other things, I really firmly believe that [if] he’s got the fundamentals, he could patch some of the other stuff later.”
“Not everyone’s going to be the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk or take us to the moon… Most people are just going to be an engineer, a teacher, a doctor,” Chu continued. “I think there’s a bit too much emphasis on creativity in the Western model of education at the expense of fundamentals, and I would say the same for the Chinese system, it’s the opposite.”
China’s system, theoretically, is a pure meritocracy. Centered on the Gaokao, the nationwide university entrance exam that governs the future of many Chinese children, it is rigidly designed to ensure a level playing field. But many see the private tutoring industry as a way for the wealthy to unfairly game the system.
Feng reckons she spends 8000 yuan a year on extracurricular lessons, which is about 7% of her household’s annual income. She said the number of his classes is considered moderate in her circle and her ratio is considered low. More competitive parents could spend at least over 20,000 yuan a year on their child’s lessons.
In addition to the expense, there is the anxiety. Chinese adults refer to their childhoods as being a jiwa, or chicken baby, a kind of shorthand for the extremely stressful academic journey to being admitted into a university.
Peter Pan, 27, is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science currently based in Germany. Growing up in Zhejiang province, Pan was put on a rigorous schedule in elementary school. He had six after school classes because extracurricular achievements could add points to middle school entrance exams. As a result, Pan never had a free weekend, including winter and summer breaks.
“I faked being sick many times when I was a child,” he said. “Maybe I should add acting to my curriculum too. In elementary school, I didn’t dare to tell my parents, even when I scored 99 out of 100 on my tests.
“Most of the kids of my mom’s friends had the same experience. I think the classes satisfied our parents’ competitive needs more than ours.”
Another word many Chinese use to describe the educational process is neijuan, an unhealthy competitive environment in which too many people fight for too few resources and where great investments often lead to low outcomes. The tutoring arms race many families engage in has sent the cost of raising children soaring, and many young people now are hesitant to start families.
The fierceness of the competition is visible. In Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, 78.4% of families have paid for education services in the past year, according to a report published in March by the Shanghai Consumer Council. Roughly 70% of families spend at least $1,800 a year on after-school programs.
The average monthly salary in top-tier cities this year is about $1,300, according to Chinese media. This means that on average, the monthly education costs for a child take up at least 12% of a parent’s salary.
According to media coverage of the Shanghai Consumer Council report, over 84% of the parents surveyed said they were stressed about schooling expenses, with 55.2% calling education bills “very stressful.”
Although the Chinese government has been trying to alleviate the pressure on parents and students for years, past policies have yielded little success. The recent ban on for-profit tutoring is more radical than previous measures, but critics say it treats the symptom rather than the disease.
Feng, the Guangzhou mother, said she does not see any change unless the Gaokao itself changes.
“I think the ban is with good intention but it’s unrealistic,” she said. “Neijuan has become a need for parents. How many parents are really willing to stand by? I think government policy can’t extinguish this phenomenon; it could only make it more discreet or force it to change into a different format of operation.
“When there is demand, there is supply, and there is a market. Parents’ demands are the easiest money to make; policy can’t stop this market.”
Henceforth, tutoring companies will need permission to teach school subjects. Their classes cannot take place during holidays, weekends, or during winter or summer breaks. And the companies cannot hire foreigners based outside China.
In its July announcement, “Opinions on Further Alleviating the Burden of Homework and After-School Tutoring for Students in Compulsory Education,” China’s Ministry of Education said that schools need to improve their after-school services and cannot give parents “homework” in any format.
Measures that include allowing only nonprofit companies to offer after-school tutoring and keeping foreign investment and listed companies away from the sector will result in severe operational disruptions for existing players, Fitch Ratings said on July 30.
“We expect [kindergarten through 12th grade] after-school tutoring companies to focus on operational compliance and accelerate their diversification away from academic-related tutoring,” the rating agency wrote.
Nurture not nature
Yong Zhao, a professor focusing on education at the University of Kansas and the University of Melbourne, also said that regulating the tutoring industry can “never work” because it’s the parents who have a zero-sum type of worldview.
“It’s a system, a culture that wants you to be better than others,” Zhao said. “China will never have enough high-quality schools because high-quality is defined by ‘better than others.'”
Zhao said that even with music and drawing, there are levels and awards children need to pass and compete for. “You’re always allowing others to judge you,” he said.
“It’s teaching kids that education is not about learning, not about growing, it’s trying to be better than others,” he added. “You removed this internal desire to explore ideas.”
Zhao said that students intertwined in the test-focused system often do not know where their passion lies and lack leadership skills and innovative thinking.
For high school, Pan went to a strict boarding school, which made for “the darkest time” of his life, he said. Students had to study from 6:50 a.m. to 9:50 p.m. Every other week, they would be given a half-day off. Dating and other activities unrelated to studying were not allowed. Despite the harsh lifestyle, Pan said not that many of the school’s students gained admission to top Chinese universities.
He went on to note that since there are a limited number of spots at top Chinese universities and many students competing for them, parents grow nervous that their children may fail the Gaokao and end up “sweeping the streets as a janitor” — a warning many Chinese parents, including Pan’s mother, deliver to their kids.
The government has been trying to lighten the burden for years now, but the competition has not let up.
Joyce Fan, 29, a lawyer in New York, attended the notoriously competitive high school affiliated with Renmin University in Beijing. Although it was not officially required to test into the school, Fan said she noticed that most of her classmates came from a handful of middle schools where Math Olympiad is required.
Fan hated the Math Olympiad classes and often asked her father, a software engineer, to do the homework for her. There were a few times her father could not figure out the questions.
“Because my dad couldn’t do some of the harder problems, I was just very annoyed at him. And then I found out that my classmate’s dad, I think he’s literally a math professor at Beijing University, also couldn’t do the problems,” Fan chuckled. “When my dad found out about that, he was just really happy, he was like, ‘Look, I’m not stupid. It’s just that these problems are really not reasonable’.”
Eventually, the Math Olympiad classes were canceled due to government reform to “alleviate students’ burden.” But Fan said the math program just changed its name to “extraordinary experimental course” and continued to teach math at that level.
The tutoring companies now being ordered to become nonprofits could attempt a similar rebranding effort. Parents, their customers, see tutoring as not merely a means to help their children reach higher but as a must-have for kids simply trying to keep up in school.
A chance to succeed
China’s large population might be the obvious factor behind the unhealthy competition, but Feng sees another one — unevenly distributed educational resources. She said top-tier cities have many more quality schools and education resources outside school — tutoring services and extracurricular classes. This means people are trying their best to raise their families in these cities, and parents do not dare to move back to their hometowns.
“I have friends who would even complain that there are not many tutoring services or extracurricular programs available near her apartment complex,” Feng said. “The out-of-school resources are just as important.”
Children growing up in smaller cities and towns that lack quality educational resources end up with less of a chance to succeed.
Fan said that banning tutoring services is more likely to affect middle-class families because wealthy families would not have a problem employing multiple private tutors.
One way or another, parents will always find a way, Feng said.
Robert Yan, 52, who has been teaching for over 30 years in Ningbo, agrees that the Gaokao is the fundamental cause of out of control competition. But he said school systems should also change, and that teachers and parents need to alter their view on education.
“Both government and schools should work together making parents believe that vocational education is not inferior in higher education,” Yan said. “Public schools [also] need to realize and implement the principle of human development as the purpose of education.”
Fan said China’s school system fails to nurture creativity and emotional intelligence but she still thinks it is superior to American public schools.
Fan, who went to Northwestern University in the U.S., said the Gaokao is a fairer system than what American colleges use to admit students.
“I’m a fan of the Chinese education system,” she said, “even though I still have nightmares where I don’t know how to answer a question during an exam. I think someone who comes from a poor family still has a chance to test into a top university through Gaokao, but you hardly see that happening in the U.S. … Most of my college classmates were somewhat wealthy.”
Fan said that public education in the U.S. is not sufficient for high school students to excel at college admissions. She said some students from public high schools she met had a hard time pointing out China on a map. Fan said her undergraduate classmates had more advantages.
“I feel like a lot of people got into Northwestern University or peer institutions because they came from upper middle class or upper-class families,” Fan said. “It’s only those families who are able to supply the extracurriculars that will get them admitted to the prestigious universities, like helping children in Africa or working as a curator’s assistant for an art gallery.”
But it is proving impossible to strip out class and social factors in the educational experience of both the U.S. and China.
“I think people are too fixated on social status in China that if you’re a blue-collar worker, people immediately look down on you,” Pan, in Germany, said. “If we can respect all different professions and reach the point when someone without a college degree can find a decent job and be respected, then we will probably not have this neijuan problem.”
Pan does not see this change happening soon.
“Some of my friends are now married with kids,” he said, “but from what I’ve seen, they’re repeating their parents’ mistakes with their own children.”