The Newsletter 56 Spring 2011

Shadow education with Chinese characteristics

Wei Zhang

Thirty years ago, under a strict socialist regime which prohibited private-sector activities in education and other sectors, China was very different from its capitalist neighbours in East Asia. Now it increasingly resembles them. The scale of shadow education is among the similarities. But China still has some distinctive characteristics.

With 208 million children in primary and secondary schools, China’s education system is the largest in the world.1 Like the country as a whole, the education system has undergone radical shifts in the last three decades. One dimension has been the nationwide emergence of the shadow system of supplementary private tutoring.

In some respects, the shadow education system in China resembles that in its East Asian neighbours. However, China has some distinctive ingredients in the dynamics of change. First is the dramatic economic growth of the last few decades, which has given families disposable incomes beyond their greatest dreams. Second is the one-child-family policy, which means that parents can concentrate their increased incomes on just one child. And third has been the emergence of new avenues for social mobility, which have increased competition between families. Add to that the traditions of a Confucian culture that value learning and diligence, and the stage seems to be set for massive growth of private supplementary tutoring. And that is precisely what is occurring.

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