HONG KONG—Growing up in the Chinese city of Chengdu, Nannan excels in school. Now 7 years old, he has started working on math problems normally given to children two grade levels higher. His foreign-language skills are so advanced that he began learning Spanish taught entirely in English.
His mother credits much of Nannan’s success to private tutors she hired. Like millions of Chinese parents, she doubted her son’s schools alone would give him the skills he needed to succeed in China’s ultracompetitive society.
But Nannan had to say goodbye to his tutors after China overhauled the industry in July as part of a wider campaign to rein in private businesses that leaders saw as exacerbating inequality. Authorities said they didn’t want parents spending so much money on tutoring and wouldn’t tolerate what in effect was becoming an alternative education system.
The new regulations are known as “double reduction” because they are aimed at lessening the amount of tutoring and homework. They banned tutoring as it was practiced and set up new rules—including requiring any remaining tutoring programs to register as nonprofits—that made it impractical for them to continue. The rules also ordered primary schools to stop assigning homework for lower grades and eliminate some exams to reduce worrying among students and parents.
Yet for many Chinese parents, the new rules have only created more anxiety. With or without tutors, children must still pass demanding tests for admission into top secondary schools and universities, leaving many parents unsure what to do now to help their children succeed.
Richer families are finding workarounds for the new rules, including hiring teachers to move in with them full time as nannies, raising the risk that middle-class children whose parents can’t afford such luxuries will fall further behind.
Nannan’s mother, a college teacher, says her son lost motivation after the new tutoring rules were imposed, openly questioning the need for extra study.
“I feel anxious,” said his mother, Ms. Li, who asked not to use her full name because of the sensitivity of the subject in China. “I am still confident that he can get to the college level, but I had hoped for greater things.”
Many parents agree there were real problems with China’s tutoring industry. Private education companies were known to use aggressive sales tactics and left some parents feeling like they had to pay for more classes or risk seeing their children fall behind.
One advertisement, now banned alongside all academic tutoring promotions, read, “Let us cultivate your child; or else we’ll only cultivate your child’s competitors.” Some parents spent the equivalent of about $16,000 a year for outside tutoring, according to agreements seen by The Wall Street Journal.
Many parents say the new restrictions have gone too far, though. Some parents, afraid to publicly criticize the government, are blaming—and sometimes suing—tutoring companies, many of which haven’t returned money parents paid for classes since their businesses were hurt by the double-reduction policy.
A recent survey of around 3,600 parents conducted by Liu Junyan, an East China Normal University researcher, found that many parents are worried about whether their children can get what they need at their schools, and about what to do if the parents don’t have enough time or ability to pick up the tutoring burden.
China’s Ministry of Education has pointed to schools it says are providing high-quality classes to replace tutoring as examples of the policy’s success. The ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“‘Let us cultivate your child; or else we’ll only cultivate your child’s competitors.’”
A separate survey by the Communist Youth League, an organization that trains future party leaders, said 73% of the half a million parents it surveyed felt less anxiety after the policy was launched.
Known in the academic world as “shadow education,” private tutoring has also troubled other governments. South Korea banned its tutoring industry for two decades in hopes of easing family burdens and promoting equality, but it lifted the ban in 2000 after its policy failed to significantly curb demand.
In China, an initial attempt by the government to regulate the industry in 2018 was largely ineffective. Capital poured into the business, spawning major education companies with an overall market value of over $120 billion before the clampdown, according to market researcher Qianzhan.
In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the tutoring industry a malady and vowed to revamp it. Soon afterward, double reduction was released.
Almost overnight, the policy wiped tens of billions of dollars off the value of for-profit tutoring companies listed on U.S. and Hong Kong stock exchanges. Hundreds of thousands of their employees, including tutors, lost jobs. Some have applied to operate as nonprofits, but many companies have simply stopped providing tutoring services.
Jennifer Ding, co-founder of an educational consultancy called Grokwise, said the new rules have effectively killed part of her business preparing students to compete for slots in elite Chinese schools.
“It was like pulling the firewood from under the cauldron,” she said. “I didn’t see such drastic measures coming, with no leeway and executed at such dazzling speed.”
As tutoring programs started disappearing, parents searched for alternatives. Wealthier households invited former tutors to move in with them after some posted videos on social media offering their services as live-in helpers. Other families combined to hire private tutors in secret.
Some parents arranged informal underground networks, sending their children to tutoring sessions in which only one family at a time knew the location of the meetings to reduce the risk for the tutor.
In Shanghai, Vicky Cang began sending her 11-year-old daughter Xixi to a tutor who was renting a spot in a nursery school so that she could inconspicuously accommodate a group of eight students. On weekends, Ms. Cang paid a neighbor to teach Xixi language courses in classical Chinese and hired the English tutor’s husband for a math session at their apartment.
“People around me are still getting tutoring classes,” Ms. Cang said. “They are only doing it covertly and with more trouble.”
Tutors who are willing to keep working secretly are raising their fees, parents say.
Some parents who can’t find tutors or afford the higher cost say they are trying to handle the burden of extra tutoring themselves, but it isn’t easy. Some say they are struggling to explain math concepts. Others have relied on smartphone apps that can scan questions and give answers. The government recently barred those, too.
In Chengdu, Nannan’s mother, Ms. Li, said many parents have welcomed one aspect of double reduction: the elimination of homework in lower grades, which made life easier for parents who struggled to help their children with assignments. One parent even reported a teacher to the authorities after the teacher attempted to assign an oral homework assignment, Ms. Li said.
Ms. Li said she reached out to a few parents and started talking to them about whether they could tutor their own children as a group, with parents taking turns handling the instruction.
The bond her son was building with professional instructors is being broken. Last month, Nannan took one of the last math classes with his tutor. The tutor’s eyes became wet as she asked children in a group tutoring session if they would remember her.
Nannan didn’t cry. Later, Ms. Li said, he went back to the recordings to watch his tutor chatting with the children.
He said she was a beautiful teacher, Ms. Li said.
China’s New Rules
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