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High demand for China’s teachers is more burden than boon for students

When she began tutoring students in China, Chelsea Stone soon noticed that her role was more than just an educator—she was also serving as a social nexus point.

The mothers of her students were friends, she said, and those friendships determined who showed up. Students arrived for her classes together, and when one failed to come, the rest did, too. “They either came in groups or not at all,” Stone said.

That students under pressure to perform on China’s life-changing national entrance exams for high school and college might rather play hooky than miss a chance to socialize doesn’t quite track with popular perceptions. But that discrepancy is a prime illustration of the sprawling sector of test-prep and tutoring services that has popped up adjacent to China’s schooling system since market forces were introduced to the country: Shadow education.

But make no mistake: Pressure from intense, make-or-break entrance exams for high school and college is the driving force that pushes many Chinese students into the waiting arms of shadow education. A 2015 study conducted by Hong Kong University professors Wei Zhang and Mark Bray found that of 860 students from grades one through nine surveyed in Chongqing, 44.2% had received private tutoring.  

Yet while the more scrupulous outfits’ classes may benefit students who participate, shadow education also presents a variety of problems as teachers put their own bottom lines for pay and test performance ahead of students’ development. Indeed, shadow classes can serve more as a way to flaunt status than boost grades, or simply as a quick way to line low-paid teachers’ pockets.

Knowledge as power

For many daytime teachers in China’s public school system, the prospect of a supplementary income is appealing.

Salaries for teachers in China can vary substantially and are determined partially by a merit pay system, which was implemented in 2009 that determines basic wages, seniority pay, and performance allowances.

Structural ceilings on teacher salaries combine with traditional cultural expectations to push teachers to tutor during off-hours or become full-time shadow educators.

The industry is diverse in terms of employee demographics, business models and subject matter. Tutors range in age from recent college graduates to retirees, as do lessons, though English and math are most commonly taught, according to Zhang. The business arrangements can be as informal as an agreement between a full-time teacher and a student’s parent or as structured as the contracts drawn up by the tutoring centers established by major players like English First or New Oriental.

Regulations don’t technically allow teachers to tutor their own students in parallel with their full-time duties during the period of compulsory education that ends with grade nine. But lax enforcement means many teachers get away with it anyway, and after nine years’ education schools are permitted to directly provide students with tutoring sessions for the all-consuming national college entrance exam, the Gaokao, which comes with its own set of issues.

“What tends to happen for the Gaokao is classes that… instead of the kids going outside to the parallel [classes], the school itself runs the parallel, but in the school, and charges for it,” Bray said. “In fact, it ceases to be a parallel.”

Horses for courses

Where earlier decades saw a more traditional back-and-forth between teachers and parents over how much attention a student received, today the incentives common to shadow education have crept back into teachers’ daytime duties.

Zhang’s research chiefly covers the importance of favors and mutual obligation in Chinese education—for instance, she writes about one mother who found that the tutoring her son was receiving wasn’t effective. She brought his teachers gifts to foster a relationship with them and ultimately oblige them to provide her son with better schooling.

Today, Zhang said, traditional social norms and the market economy have worked in conjunction to foster a sizable shadow education industry, but have also come into conflict with one another. Prior to the prominence of the shadow education industry, teachers would tutor their students out of obligation. Now payment is also expected.

Zhang claims that a similar setup applies for teachers who refer their students to a tutoring center where one or more of their colleagues is employed. The teacher may receive cash payment for the referral, but the motivation may be more closely related to a specific obligation or the desire to more generally do right by those in a given teacher’s social network.

Sometimes market forces do actually incentivize more and better education for some students. Zhang pointed to the example of one teacher who refused to tutor students other than her own because she saw it as a “double benefit”: tutoring lessons generated extra income, and when her students performed well on exams, her merit pay would increase.

Not everyone can afford extra lessons, though, meaning that shadow education is widening the gap between the haves and have nots. Though sometimes used for remedial tutoring, shadow education is commonly used as a means for the most advanced students to get further ahead, according to Bray.

This makes it difficult for students who do not participate in shadow education to stay on par with their peers. The prevalence of shadow education also makes it easier for daytime teachers to rely on shadow educators and tutors to provide additional education for their students or fill any gaps in understanding that were not fully addressed during the school hours.

“In the old days when there was no shadow education or very little shadow education, teachers would say ‘I’m it. I’m responsible. It’s my job to teach these classes.” Bray said

Today, a widening wealth gap also means that teachers must struggle to teach at both ends of the spectrum, or choose to teach one over the other. When teachers assume that students have received extra lessons, it also puts students who have not received shadow education at a disadvantage.

Alternatively, when teachers teach at a lower level, it is likely that they are putting their students who do receive shadow education at a disadvantage; if they teach at a lower level, teachers risk wasting the time of students who are ahead in their lessons.

Only the best?

Yet as Stone’s experience suggests, the concept of a tutor also plays to a desire for luxury – ideally the kind that can be enjoyed in the presence of others – to help keep shadow services in high demand regardless of educational benefit.

“It’s somewhat of a status marker to have a tutor,” Stone said. And education companies and tutors who set their own prices can use this to their advantage, Bray noted.

“We’re dealing with supply and demand,” Bray said. “Pricing has to be set by what’s acceptable, but sometimes teachers deliberately push up their prices to make them sound like they have got special expertise, and sometimes parents sort of buy that idea.”

Although some may consider this practice unethical, Bray points out that to some consumers, this is part of the luxury appeal.

“Is a Gucci handbag really better because it costs five times as much as any other handbag?,” Bray asked. “There’s certainly a certain snob appeal attached to it.”

Whatever puts students in seats, the end result is parents and students manipulated into paying high fees for education that traditionally was given freely—or at least substantially less.

While education is still considered vital and perhaps of greater importance than ever, thanks to the rise of shadow education, the achievement gap has become wide enough that there is now a luxury market for learning that operates openly within Chinese schools. Zhang argues that the market economy is responsible: “If you look at 30 years back before China opened to the world…teaching was more of a profession of heart than a profession for living. The market economy is what changed education as a whole.”

As in many areas of modern life in China, market forces aren’t about to retreat from the education sector. But regardless of whether teachers are putting a price tag on once-free services like tutoring helps address the shortcomings of their official salaries, the gains made by the shadow education industry likely represent a net loss for the country’s teaching profession. 


Author: Colleen Schauer

Editor: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)

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