The new academic year has begun for primary and secondary school students under the “double reduction” policy (reducing the burdens of homework and after-school tutoring). Feng Yusheng, a primary two student at a public school in the Tianhe District of Guangzhou, can tell that something has changed: “For the past few days, our only homework was to read passages from our textbook aloud and to do our own reading.”
Feng used to lug home thick stacks of exercises, penmanship worksheets and dictation tests. By the time everything was done, it was almost time to sleep. Although it has only been a few weeks since the new term started, the students can definitely feel the difference.
Doing away with written homework and paper-based examinations for primary one and two students are measures instituted by the Ministry of Education to reduce the burden on students. Jointly issued by the General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council, the double reduction policy seeks to improve the quality of on-campus education and regulate off-campus education.
Among the new measures, it is stated that primary one and two students will no longer need to do written homework, while the written homework workload of primary three to six students should be managed such that they can be completed within an hour on average.
The guidelines also include regulations targeted at off-campus tutoring service providers, stating that off-campus tutoring should not be done on national festivals and holidays, or during the winter or summer holidays. Existing curriculum-based tutoring institutions must be registered as non-profit institutions. Furthermore, they are barred from going public to raise capital or to be involved in any capital-related activities.
In late August, the Ministry of Education issued a directive on strengthening the management of examinations in compulsory education schools. Schools in question were asked to conduct examinations scientifically and reasonably, and to ban paper-based examinations for primary one and two students.
For the students, it is good news that they will not have to deal with the stress of homework and examinations. But for parents who want to see their children succeed in life, this may not be good news. While their children may feel more relaxed, they may have to deal with new worries and troubles.
Mdm Liang and a few other parents have formed a group chat on WeChat to help themselves. Each has bought curriculum-based assessment books and are taking turns to mark their children’s assignments after they are uploaded to the group chat.
Feng’s mother, Mdm Liang, told Zaobao that primary one and two are the beginning phases of a child’s learning journey — if a strong foundation is not laid, students will suffer when faced with even more challenging upper primary curricula in the future.
Mdm Liang said while she understands that the double reduction policy seeks to alleviate the academic burden of primary and secondary school students and to nurture their overall abilities and core qualities, without homework, students may lose an opportunity to revise and retain what they’ve learnt in class. And now that paper-based examinations are also banned, parents would find it even harder to gauge how much knowledge their child has absorbed.
Parents are assigning their own homework
Since schools are not assigning homework, parents are thinking of alternatives.
Mdm Liang and a few other parents have formed a group chat on WeChat to help themselves. Each has bought curriculum-based assessment books and are taking turns to mark their children’s assignments after they are uploaded to the group chat. To motivate their children, they have even set up a weekly scoreboard and dangled the reward of shopping vouchers of a certain amount for the top scorer each month.
Mdm Liu, mother of a daughter in primary two, believes that at this juncture when the country’s education policy is at a turning point, everyone is actually facing a new education battle. Students and parents alike cannot afford to relax. Apart from the ability to absorb what is taught in the classroom, self-discipline and self-learning abilities will matter much for the children of tomorrow. Parents will also face greater challenges in terms of whether they can give their children proper guidance.
Long before the launch of the double reduction policy, Mdm Liu had signed her daughter up for off-campus tutoring classes during the summer holidays. Since the policy came into effect, curriculum-based off-campus tutoring service providers are only allowed to conduct classes on weekdays. Thus, since the start of the new school term, Mdm Liu’s daughter has been attending her off-campus tutoring classes on weekday nights.
“After work, we have to rush to pick up our child,” said Mdm Liu. The off-campus language and mathematics classes that her daughter attends are held on different weekdays. It would already be 9 pm by the time they reach home after class and there is not much time to do anything else. Nevertheless, Mdm Liu believes that there is a need to continue with these off-campus tutoring classes because new rules may have been implemented but competition has not gone away. The pressure to be promoted to the next grade is always there.
“As long as zhongkao (Senior High School Entrance Examination) and gaokao (National College Entrance Examination) are still there, parents are bound to remain anxious,” Mdm Liu said. In her daughter’s class, the majority of students have signed up for various off-campus activities and lessons. Parents often form cliques and share information. She worries that parents would have to spend even more on education services if off-campus tutoring service providers are further regulated.
...there are also relaxed parents who advocate happy parenting... These parents thus embrace the double reduction policy.
However, Mdm Liu notes that while there are “tiger mums” like her, there are also relaxed parents who advocate happy parenting. They either do not sign their children up for extracurricular classes or just sign them up for a few classes, and mostly encourage their children to exercise and read more. These parents thus embrace the double reduction policy. In their day-to-day interactions, parents with different ideals respect one another, but “nobody can change anybody’s mind”.
Teachers will have to bear greater burdens
In many ways, the double reduction policy returns the role of education from society to schools and families. This education reform demands more of teachers’ professional capabilities and requires teachers to play a bigger role and take on more responsibilities in the compulsory education phase.
Ms Zhao, a primary school teacher at Foshan, Guangdong, told Zaobao that before the new semester commenced, teachers were called to attend a special meeting that reiterated the importance of implementing the double reduction policy.
They were reminded to adjust their education ideals and to steer clear of “landmines” such as asking parents to buy extracurricular materials, or assigning too much homework. They were also asked to optimise and innovate their teaching methods so as to maximise efficiency in the classroom.
On the implementation of the double reduction policy, Ms Zhao — who has been a primary three teacher for over 20 years — says she is neutral, and neither approves or disapproves of it. She can see that the policy is made out of concern for students’ health and will have long-term benefits but it remains to be seen if it will work out as expected since everyone is still feeling their way forward.
“The gap between students may continue to grow,” she said.
In her view, under the policy, motivated students with greater self-awareness may create their own opportunities to learn, but unmotivated ones lacking a strong foundation and parental guidance “may end up in a worse situation”.
Student care services for primary and secondary schools have been extended to 6pm, and teachers are under more pressure as their office hours are also extended.
Prevent adding to teachers’ non-teaching load
To make her lessons more effective, Ms Zhao is reevaluating her pedagogy. She says that when she prepares her lessons now, she thinks about how to engage the students and improve the quality of teaching. She also intends to reduce the amount of homework for students.
Ms Zhao says frankly that under the double reduction policy, after-class services in compulsory education schools are expected to cover all bases. Student care services for primary and secondary schools have been extended to 6pm, and teachers are under more pressure as their office hours are also extended. Some teachers may reach school at 7am, and only leave at 7pm.
...it is essential not only to reduce homework and after-school tutoring for students, but also to lessen the burden on teachers. - Xiong Bingqi, director of 21st Century Education Research Institute
Xiong Bingqi, director of 21st Century Education Research Institute, said in the midst of implementing the double reduction policy, it is essential not only to reduce homework and after-school tutoring for students, but also to lessen the burden on teachers. If teachers’ non-teaching duties are heavier and work fatigue sets in, it will be difficult to improve the quality of teaching in schools, which will in turn make it harder to reduce the burden on students.
Xiong said that under the double reduction policy, teachers’ participation in after-class services, teacher rotations, and student care are now included as performance indicators. For example, after-class services are generally undertaken by the school’s teachers, while school cadres, special-grade senior teachers, city-level academic leaders, and core teachers are expected to proactively take on after-class duties. This is likely to put more pressure on teachers.
This would go beyond the current scores-focused criteria and give schools greater autonomy in conducting classes, to spark greater academic energy in rebuilding the entire foundational education system. - Xiong Bingqi on the need for a systemic reform
Go beyond grades only
He felt that while schools are taking on more duties, parents are not satisfied with the teaching standards, and there is still demand for tutoring outside of school, which would drive academic tutoring underground. The key to making the double reduction policy work is effective reduction of teachers’ non-teaching load and allowing them to fully focus their energies on teaching.
Xiong felt that it would take a systemic reform for the double reduction policy to reduce students’ burden, including teaching assessments and how classes are held in school. This would go beyond the current scores-focused criteria and give schools greater autonomy in conducting classes, to spark greater academic energy in rebuilding the entire foundational education system. If these systemic reforms are carried out, clearly it would create an environment more conducive to students’ healthy development, which would be helpful for China to nurture talent.
Conversely, if these systemic reforms are not pushed through, people might still be highly anxious, focusing only on students’ grades and not their overall development, and the perennial problem of education would remain unsolved. Xiong said there are a lot of expectations for the double reduction policy, but the key is whether comprehensive systemic reforms are pushed through to fulfil the aims of the policy — that is the most important factor.
Tutoring institutions shifting towards ‘quality education’
With the double reduction policy aimed at reducing students’ tutoring load, the first to be hit are the tutoring schools offering academic subjects. These institutions are now in the transition phase, adjusting not just their class schedules but also to the concept of “quality education”.
Quality education includes lessons on morals, capability building, character development, as well as physical and mental health, on top of exam-oriented education.
A teacher with online education platform Youdao told Zaobao that after the double reduction policy came out, there was a serious cutback in sales staff for Youdao’s sales contractor, but it has retained its counsellors, lecturers, and education researchers. The company is shifting to quality education, and is actively developing smart software, while hiring lecturing and research positions for child development.
Xueersi under TAL Education Group focuses on academic tutoring, and recently its many schools all over China have been adjusting their scope. According to Southern Metropolis Daily, such schools include those in Shenzhen and Ningbo, which are adding quality education tutoring in language, arts, sports, and technology, as well as off-campus student care services, and education consultancy services for parents.
As for public school teachers conducting supplementary lessons outside of school, China previously banned this by requiring teachers to sign a commitment at the beginning of each school year not to accept gifts or conduct supplementary lessons. There would be severe penalties for breaching the agreement and “earning pocket money” or running tutoring classes, including getting sacked and having their teaching qualifications revoked.
Next step is to clamp down on underground academic tutoring
It is understood that with the injunctions from the education ministry, most primary and secondary school teachers dare not touch this “high-voltage line”. However, there are a minority of teachers who have previously quietly held lessons outside of school, possibly in their own homes, or even travelling to other cities or regions to give supplementary lessons.
Banning and clamping down on underground academic tutoring is probably going to be the next step in cleaning up the tutoring industry under the double reduction policy. Industry players say that primary and secondary school teachers who take the risk and engage in tutoring are likely to face harsher penalties in future.
The Chinese education industry expects more changes to be implemented as the policy is pushed through.
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