Chinese parents and teachers scramble following government crackdown on tutors

Two years ago, Bi, the mother of an outdoor-loving kindergarten child in Beijing, enrolled her son in English classes three times a week to give him what she called an “immersion environment” for learning the language.

But now that the Chinese government has banned all tutoring related to school classes after school, on weekends, and during holidays, Bi, a middle school teacher who doesn’t speak English, has had to stop tutoring her son.

This is particularly worrying for Bi because learning English is compulsory in Chinese schools and is one of the four majors in the National College Entrance Examination, or Gaokao, which her son will take when he turns 18. For most students in China, the exam is the only decisive factor in determining whether they will be admitted to top universities in major cities, which often guarantee a better job with higher wages over the course of their careers. In the worst case, he could not be admitted to any university.

“What if he won’t be able to keep up with his colleagues,” asked Bi, who, fearing that she would lose her job for speaking with a foreign media company, asked not to be identified by her full name . “The school only offers two 30-minute English courses per week for first and second graders with no homework. We have to do something before he goes to middle school. ”

In June, as the Chinese government cracked down on tutoring programs to relieve student stress, lower families’ education costs, and ensure equal access to education, Chinese regulators announced in June that the K-12 tutoring industry would post the Close school. That’s a blow to a company that grossed $ 123 billion in 2019, according to a 2020 report by consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

The State Council, China’s highest executive body of state power, officially banned all tutoring programs from teaching school curricula such as English, math and Chinese on July 24, with a few exceptions. Private tutors, who are often licensed public school teachers trying to make extra money, are also not allowed to teach off-campus.

But that doesn’t stop parents from seeking help for their children. Some parents switch to more expensive private tutors whether or not they get government permission. Bi said parents in their circle secretly employ private tutors or public school teachers to teach at home, even though they usually charge more than tutoring companies.

“That’s why I’m hesitant,” said Bi. “Private tutors demand 2.5 times more from us than the institution. The decision [of hiring tutors] varies greatly from family to family and how much we want to spend on a child’s education. ”

The Ministry of Education could not be reached for an opinion.

“The burdens of excessive tutoring and the increasing cost of hiring tutors are effectively reduced within a year,” Yanpin Hu, inspector of the Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education of China, said at a press conference in August. “It will be reduced significantly in three years.”

Educational pressure

Fueled by China’s university entrance exam, which can only be taken once a year, the country’s education system forces students and their parents to support this grueling, exam-oriented system for much of their children’s young lives. For people from rural areas or lower-income households who usually only have one child, this exam can help move their children to larger cities to study and find more lucrative jobs after graduation.

“This is ‘involution,'” said Bi, referring to a term often used on Chinese social media to describe the highly competitive circumstances that make parents do something because their peers do it.

“I wouldn’t dare allow my son to chill out at home,” said Bi. “He’s happy right now. But he will accuse us of not taking him to tutoring when he is an adult and fails the exam. ”

The world of hypercompetitive tutors is particularly focused in urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai, where there are more experienced teachers and financial support from the local government.

“Cities have opportunities for parents to make decisions,” says Fred Mednick, Professor of Education at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. “It is a matter of choice, linked to the question of justice.”

Covert teaching

The increasing demand means that the tutors continue to teach despite the risk. Jennie Shi, a 24-year-old private teacher in Beijing, has been teaching elementary English for two years. But she was fired because the tutoring facility she worked for closed in June. She said she now runs an unlicensed private tutoring studio.

“The parents beg me to continue teaching because they couldn’t find anyone familiar with their children’s learning habits,” said Shi, using her English name to avoid reprisals.

She charges $ 30 an hour compared to the $ 12 institutions charge. But, she said, “Parents never complain about prices.”

Her tutoring company does not have the necessary operating permits from the local education administration, she said. In order to meet certain requirements, she must acquire a license to teach and all teaching materials must conform to the national curriculum standard. But she said she wasn’t worried about being reported.

“When the neighbors of my students see that we are doing tutoring, they just come to me and ask if their children can come with me,” said Shi.

Not all tutors were lucky enough to find a new job.

Tianyu Zhao, a 25-year-old college graduate who wanted to join TAL Education as a Rubik’s Cube tutor in June, said his job offer was canceled two days after the government acted. In China, many parents send their children to cubing tutoring to improve mental reflexes and help them stay focused and determined. Zhao said his department is awaiting a waiver as the new regulations argue that cubing is not relevant to the school’s curriculum.

TAL Education, New Oriental Education and Technology Group, and Gaotu Techedu are three of the largest Chinese education companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. However, since this summer they have not been allowed to make profits, raise capital or go public.

Bigger goals

The tutoring crackdown has forced families to take a step back and reconsider how much they rely on tutoring. Mednick said there should be a deep, introspective, top-down look at how Chinese children are raised.

“This is a wealth-based education system where everything is sacrificed,” said Mednick.

Bi, the middle school teacher, tries not to push her son too hard and arouse his curiosity. Aside from taking English lessons, her son has piano lesson every Sunday and spends soccer and hiking with the family on Saturdays.

But other parents find other ways for their children to keep up with the competition. Merry Ma said she started her daughter with weekly ruan classes, a traditional Chinese instrument class. The 36-year-old mother wants her 7-year-old daughter to work on getting extra credits for her high school or Zhongkao entrance exam that will be held in eight years.

“We couldn’t guarantee that she would do well in Zhongkao or Gaokao,” said Ma, also using her English name. “With less tutoring, she has to learn something different because her colleagues do the same.”

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