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October 17, 2018

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The ugly truth about after-school tutorials

ASKED what she did during the National Day holiday, one of my former students at Suzhou Foreign Languages School sighed.

“My parents signed me up for various tutorials that ran through the entire holiday. Even the best students in my class took tutorials, so naturally I couldn’t avoid them.”

As someone who survived the grueling gaokao, the college entrance exam, seven years ago, I fully understood her frustration and fear that this ubiquitous one-upmanship will only get worse.

The Ministry of Education has been repeating its call to relieve elementary school and middle school students’ workload since before I was a student.Suggestions have included shortening school hours, cutting down on homework and fewer, easier exams.

Sadly, this is not enough to guarantee a carefree childhood. Instead, most kids are now boiling in another pressure cooker — after-school tutorials.

This year, around 84 percent of children in Shanghai have attended or are attending after-school tutorials. In Guangdong Province one survey found that more than 70 percent of parents and children were “willing to be tutored.”

In some Western countries, “shadow education” is used to describe after-school tutorials, implying this kind of tutorial is supplementary to mainstream education and perhaps even slightly sinister. In China, shadow education is out in the open, in the spotlight even.

Something originally intended for underachievers now targets top students.

I remember the parents of a student I used to teach would drive him all the way from Suzhou in Jiangsu Province to Shanghai every weekend, just to make sure that he could learn English from a so-called star tutor which Suzhou, as a second-tier city, allegedly could not provide.

I also remember being stunned by a seventh-grader at my former workplace who had already mastered high school math. The 12-year-old boy looked extremely supercilious while detailing to his peers his tutorial experience.

Peer pressure is chiefly responsible for this endless lobster quadrille. Some explain it in terms of the “theater effect” — when one of the audience in the theater stands up to get a better view people sitting behind also have to stand up. In the end, everybody stands on their seats, only to get exactly same view as they had at the beginning.

Similarly, when the first child benefits from after-school tutorials, other children feel inadequate and follow suit. Eventually, when all the children are taking tutorials, competitive advantages previously gained are neutralized.

As a result shadow education is insidiously turning something public and free education into something private and profit-driven. A former colleague who used to teach economics at middle school has quit his job and started his own business, charging each student 500 yuan (US$73) per hour.

Elusive solutions

His students revealed that he usually teaches a group of around ten students for two hours in the evening, making 10,000 yuan in two hours, more than a middle school teacher’s monthly salary: a demonstration that his economic expertise was clearly “wasted” in public education.

This prosperity will, of course, breed discontent among school teachers. The heady gains have persuaded some teachers to stake their whole careers on this risky business — if caught, they would have their teaching certificates permanently revoked.

When money becomes an educator’s chief motivation, both parents and students lose out, and there are other complications.

Some young students and their parents have been duped by tutors who promise to raise the scores within a certain period of time. Such empty promises easily skew the children’s self-worth and may do more harm than good. Some students do end up getting into prestigious universities, perhaps with the help of after-school tutorials, but they soon run into other issues, such as feeling inadequate in self-study. Students brought up on cramming rarely develop a genuine interest in a particular subject.

It is high time for our educational authorities, parents and society at large to take drastic measures to dampen this enthusiasm for after-school tutorials.

Early this year, the Ministry of Education teamed up with three ministry-level departments in initiating a campaign against illegal after-school tutoring institutions, stressing that they must be properly licensed.

It also warned that teachers who encourage students to attend tutorials outside school will find themselves in trouble.

Central and local authorities are also addressing the problem, given that such tutorials are rooted in college entrance procedures heavily reliant on scores.

Recently the Shanghai Municipal Committee of Education adjusted the admission to make it easier for students from public junior high schools to enter prestigious senior high schools, by introducing a quota system that would essentially discount scores earned by students in private junior schools.

Whether this practice will make much difference is anyone’s guess.


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