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Shadow education deepens social inequality

Author  :  Xue Haiping     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-03-01

More and more students spend their winter and summer breaks attending an endless series of classes in order to get ahead in highly competitive examinations and the future job market.

In modern society, education is an important means by which individuals achieve upward social mobility, but it is also a mechanism for the reproduction of social class. Its function and the extent of social reproduction vary because education is largely affected by social systems, social stratification and the development of education.

In recent years, the fairness of compulsory education has become a social concern. The government has adopted a series of policies and measures to guarantee educational equity in compulsory schooling, reducing the extent to which it exacerbates social stratification. At the same time, a phenomenon that international academics call “shadow education” is emerging in China.

The shadow metaphor indicates that this form of tutoring only exists as a corollary to formal schooling. The curriculum in the shadow sector to some extent mimics that of the schools, and the shadow sector changes in size and shape to parallel the regular system.

Private tutoring after school extends academic competition beyond the confines of campus. This not only intensifies academic competition but also consumes substantial resources of families and society while undermining the government’s efforts to promote educational equity, which deepens social inequality.

Role in social reproduction

In the stage of compulsory education, the increasingly fierce competition in shadow education means that the role education plays in social reproduction has undergone an important shift. Shadow education has increasingly become the determining factor in social reproduction.

According to the theory of “maximum maintained inequality” proposed by American sociologists Adrian Raftery and Michael Hout, the expansion of education does not necessarily lead to equality in educational attainment for all social classes. The upper or advantaged classes will benefit more, they argued. The key form of competition is the chance to receive education.

In addition, UC Berkeley professor Samuel Lucas’ theory of “effectively maintained inequality” states that when basic education is generally accessible, competition will focus on high-quality education. In China, the imbalanced development of educational resources creates a large gap between urban and rural schools as well among different schools in one place.

When the government attempts to control disparities, students and families turn to private tutoring in order to effectively maintain inequality. The booming shadow education industry gives urban and advantaged families access to a variety of quality after-school courses, raising students’ academic performance in exams and giving them the upper hand in future job searches.

Popular at middle school level

Shadow education mainly refers to supplementary private tutoring in subjects that are also taught in mainstream schools, but it also includes extracurricular subjects that are learned primarily for pleasure or for holistic development. After all, the two forms of schooling will both give an edge to students in examinations and the job market.

The National Survey Research Center at Renmin University of China carried out a China Education Panel Survey in 2014. It studied a total of 19,487 students in the seventh and ninth grades from a national random sample of 28 administrative units at the city level and below based on layered variables, such as education level per capita and the proportion of the migrant population. The survey indicated that more than 33 percent of junior middle school students receive tutoring in academic subjects and around 29 percent were tutored in non-academic subjects while more than 15 percent participate in both.

The survey also found that 23.3 percent of students took English lessons, accounting for the largest proportion. Around 20 percent were being tutored in mathematics, 11 percent in Chinese and 4 percent in mathematical Olympiad class. In terms of extracurricular subjects, 10.6 percent of students have music or musical instrument lessons, 8.5 percent are tutored in sports, and 2.4 percent in chess.

Mass participation

Demand for shadow education is shaped by interrelated factors at multiple levels. Geographically, the demand for shadow education is likely to be higher among students in developed regions and in urban areas where the competition is high and the supply of tutoring is more plentiful and diverse.

Junior middle school students in western provinces participate in academic and non-academic tutoring at a slightly higher rate relative to those in eastern provinces and much more than students in central regions. Also, urban students at different administrative levels show significant differences in terms of private tutoring. In general, there is a higher participation rate at higher levels.

At the community level, urban students commonly receive more shadow education than their rural counterparts.

Participation in shadow education may also vary in different categories of schools. Students in better-quality schools spend more on shadow education while more students in public schools participate in shadow education than those in private schools.

Gender plays a role in the participation of shadow education. More girls receive private tutoring.

In addition, more students from single-child families take after-school lessons.

Generally speaking, students at higher grade levels participate more in tutoring, which may be partly attributed to the implementation of the High School Entrance Examination, whereas increased participation in tutoring in the seventh grade may be explained by the use of tutoring to help students adapt to learning at the new grade level. Finally, high achievers are usually more active in shadow education.

Likewise, at the household level, students in more prosperous families are more likely to receive tutoring. To be more specific, parents who received higher education and hold an occupational advantage tend to get their children more and better tutoring alongside formal education.

Apart from socioeconomic factors, parental presence is also a major factor. Students from households in which both parents work in their hometown tend to get tutoring more than those from families in which one or both parents migrate elsewhere for work.

In sum, the higher parents’ expectations are for their children, the more likely students will participate in shadow education.

Growing educational gap

Studies have shown that investment in shadow education is least among lower-income families and greatest among higher socioeconomic groups. Students from more prosperous social classes and urban areas tend to enjoy more and better tutoring alongside formal education. Shadow education has become a vehicle for the reproduction of class inequality. To a certain extent, it is a reflection of the gap between urban and rural areas as well as the wealth gap.

As the mainstream school system in compulsory education trends toward more balanced development, the extra support urban and advantaged junior middle school students receive may lead to higher academic achievements and more work opportunities, maintaining and strengthening social stratification.

Educational fairness is the basis of social justice, while the fairness of compulsory education is the starting point. Therefore, at the compulsory education stage, the government and schools are required to provide a level playing field and ensure that each child can equally access the best possible educational resources.

Shadow education poses a huge challenge to education fairness because it aggravates the uneven distribution of educational resources among different regions, schools and social classes.

To this end, the government cannot turn a deaf ear to shadow education. It must reexam the relationship between formal schooling and private tutoring in an effort to integrate the two. Measures to contain the impact of the shadow education system on mainstream schooling are needed to prevent private tutoring from perpetuating social reproduction. At the same, education’s role in spanning the intergenerational occupational effect needs to be strengthened.


Editor: Ma Yuhong

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