Chinese measure aims at easing pressure on students

By Yichen Wang  |  Updated March 28, 2014 at 2:23 PM
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BEIJING, March 28 (UPI Next) --

Xinyu Cheng, a Beijing 10-year-old, attends supplementary math lessons on Monday nights. On Tuesday evenings, she takes calligraphy and then English lessons. Saturdays bring a preparatory class for a middle school entrance exam.

Now she is also considering picking up a violin class.

Xinyu's overbooked schedule is not unique in China, where cram school and extracurricular classes are common. Although China -- the country known for its hard-driving parents who spawned the moniker Tiger Mother -- achieves top results on international standardized tests, many parents, students, teachers and even the country's leaders agree that pressure on children has gotten out of hand.

Now the government is at work on a new measure to try to de-emphasize cramming, but such attempts have fallen flat in the past -- parents are afraid of letting their children fall behind in a country of 1.35 billion, where competition for top schools and jobs is intense.

"Parents can't risk their children's future for their childhood happiness, although parents feel heartache seeing their children suffer," said former elementary school teacher Qing Fu, who now works for a famous Beijing cram school.

Four leading institutions of this type in China, New Oriental, Tomorrow Advancing Life, Ambow and Xueda, all listed on the New York Stock Exchange, have more than 1,000 learning centers in 80 major Chinese cities. New Oriental generated $675 million in revenues in 2012, a figure that rose to $857 million last year, its annual reports show.

The emphasis on studying apparently has benefits. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, said in December that Shanghai 15-year-olds ranked first among those from 65 participating countries.

The program, however, showed that Shanghai students spend nearly 14 hours per week on homework and cram school work, the most among the countries covered.

China's government is working on a plan to ease the burden. One proposed measure, a draft copy of the plan reveals, says elementary schools should no longer offer after-school cram classes, although the plan doesn't challenge the powerful, profit-making learning centers.

The government has solicited advice from families on the plan and released it publicly. It is certain to go into effect, although its implementation date has not been announced.

Xia Ge, Xinyu's mother, seems underwhelmed by the effort.

"Polarization between good middle schools and bad middle schools is severe," she said, speaking Chinese.

"As long as the government doesn't release a policy to radically reform the polarization, it is no use to just claim they are easing children's burden."

Her daughter is staying put in her extracurricular lessons.

Yunshan Liu, a Peking University education professor, said China's Education Ministry is under great pressure to try to offer each child an equal shot at success, but said "education can never reach fairness and equity.”

 “It is actually about individualism,” the professor said. “Some individuals can change their fate via education. When a large majority of people want to pursue this goal while education resources do not increase proportionally, however, competition in education can only become even more intense," she said. Liu added that her point of view on extracurricular classes is neutral - they are simply a fact of life in China.

John Xi, a 10-year-old who goes to two cram schools every week for math and English, has special interests in paper planes and robots.

"I would read encyclopedias and books about robots, design and make paper planes, and go-kart race with my best friend, Haoyuan, if I could do as I wish on weekends, instead of cramming," he said.

When his mother stepped away, he whispered: "I don't like going to cram schools at all. My mother forces me to take those lessons."

Fang Gao, his mother, said that if she had a choice she would not send her son to cram classes.

"I want him to do things he likes in his spare time," she said. "Most parents hold the same opinion. However, we don't have choice. Most families have only one child due to the one-child policy.

"Thus, we don't want to risk letting our only child lose at the very beginning.”

Liu said "don't lose at the very beginning" is a well-known slogan -- and one created by cram schools.


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