Equity in Education: An Analysis of China’s “Double Reduction” Policy from a Utopian Socialist Perspective
On July 23, 2021, The General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the General Office of the State Council jointly issued a policy statement titled “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Students’ Homework and Off-Campus Training in Compulsory Education.” This was a revolutionary policy, which later became known as the “double reduction” policy, that banned private tutoring in China with the primary intent of reducing academic and performance related pressure placed on students. It was labeled the “double reduction” policy because it reduced both homework and tutoring for students. Although Robert Owen and the Utopian Socialist school of thought greatly valued education in its various forms and believed in continuously enhancing education for the general population, the unique culture of education in China in juxtaposition to Western countries - where the Utopian Socialist school of thought originated - creates a unique opportunity for discussion. More specifically, the intuitive argument to be made, given his support of education, is that Owen would be actively opposed to China’s ban on private tutoring, as it would result in decreased education for the country’s youth. However, upon observing Owen’s beliefs at a deeper level, it can be seen that Owen would have likely been a supporter of the ban primarily for its efforts to reform China’s education system in an equitable and growth-oriented way.
Robert Owen: Background and Contributions
Robert Owen was born on May 14th, 1771 in Wales. From a very young age, he showed promise in academia. He performed extremely well at his local school and was offered a position where he would be employed as his schoolmaster William Thickens’ assistant. Through this experience, Owen gained experience in teaching, which would later influence his opinions on education.
His opinions on education were most well-represented through his most famous experiment at New Lanark. In 1810, Owen purchased four textile factories in New Lanark to join the Chorlton Twist Company in producing textiles. With Owen’s leadership, the company expanded extremely quickly. However, Owen soon became distraught over the reality of his success. He was primarily concerned with the fact that he was employing children and subjecting them to miserable working conditions:
“In the manufacturing districts it is common for parents to send their children of both sexes at seven or eight years of age, in winter as well as summer, at six o’clock in the morning, sometimes of course in the dark, and occasionally amidst frost and snow, to enter the manufactories, which are often heated to a high temperature, and contain an atmosphere far from being the most favorable to human life, and in which all those employed in them very frequently continue until twelve o’clock at noon, when an hour is allowed for dinner, after which they return to remain, in a majority of cases, till eight o’clock at night.” ( “Life and Struggles”)
As a firm believer that humans are extremely malleable and nurtured by society into their final product, Owen decided that the current working conditions at New Lanark were unacceptable. He strived to change the working conditions as best he could. In particular, he advocated for “reduced working hours for children and public education” in an effort to reconnect child laborers with their physical, mental, moral, and practical gifts (“Greed, Lust, and Gender,” 159). His hope was to implement a new “social system based on cooperation” to ultimately turn children – “innocent, unformed, blameless creatures” – into humans with “greater concerns for others” (“Greed, Lust, and Gender,” 159). This new social system would actively prevent children from experiencing the corruption he believed would inevitably occur due to harsh working conditions.
This hope turned into a reality when Owen decided to build a school for children and stopped employing children under the age of ten at New Lanark, which was a huge step against child labor compared to other textile factories at the time. Those children were sent to Owen’s nursery and infant schools. Older children were limited to working ten hours a day. They also had to attend secondary school. At infant schools, Owen avoided teaching out of textbooks as much as he could and emphasized free discussion and fun exercises to build curiosity and allow for exploration. For instance, class sizes reached 40 students so that several small groups could be created. Teachers were asked to serve as facilitators of discussion and activity for these small groups. Infant schools also used an open classroom approach where “children move freely from indoor to outdoor environments” (“Infant Schools in England”).
New Lanark was largely successful not only in creating a healthy environment for children to grow up in, but also in mastering a form of Utopian Socialism. For example, one-sixtieth of wages were donated for sickness, injury, and old age. Crime and poverty were reduced amongst laborers in correlation with increased education. It was clear to Owen that creating a central system to train all children regardless of background was helpful in creating the type of worker he dreamed of. From New Lanark’s success, Owen solidified his belief that education should be nationalized and in a way that would foster the kindness and collaboration amongst the working class he found in his textile factories. In one 1813 essay titled “The Formation of Character,” Owen stated that “the governing powers of all countries should establish rational plans for education…these plans must be devised to train children from their earliest infancy in good habits…such habits and education will impress them with an active and ardent desire to promote the happiness of every individual” (“Report on the Proceedings”).
This, then, begs two important questions. Firstly, to what extent should education be nationalized in the form of free, public education? Secondly, how should this public education be structured to best promote good habits like growth, happiness, and morality amongst children? These questions serve as the primary debate in China, where (1) the education system is significantly more nationalized than before through the recent ban on private tutoring and (2) where the outlook on education as the primary driver of success is much more prevalent than in Western nations.
Education in China
In China, compulsory basic education includes pre-school education for three years, primary education for six years, and secondary education for another six years. The National Higher Education Entrance Exam, known in China as the Gao Kao, is taken by all seniors in secondary school to determine higher education placements. After taking the Gao Kao, Chinese students will rank the universities they would like to attend and are matched to one of the universities on their list. The matching process is dependent upon whether a student’s Gao Kao score is high enough to meet the minimum threshold for the universities on their list. The intentions of the Gao Kao, more broadly, are to nationalize education and promote standardization and the fair accessibility of higher education opportunities for all students.
Because the Gao Kao is the most heavily weighted test in determining higher education outcomes and, therefore, career outcomes for students, there is extreme pressure to score well. In 2018, 9.75 million students took the Gao Kao and 7.91 million students were placed into universities, resulting in an acceptance rate of 81.13%. Although this is considered high, competition is arguably more intense than ever before, as the top universities that result in the best career outcomes have acceptance rates generally below 4% (“Education in China”). This competition has resulted in intense studying day and night for students. It has also resulted in the rise of private tutoring firms, which profit off supplementing public education with additional, after-school education.
In one study done in 2016 through the Chinese Society of Education, it was reported that more than 75% of students between the ages of six and eighteen in China participated in after-school tutoring classes (“China Bans For-Profit Tutoring”). To remain competitive for the Gao Kao, parents feel forced to pay the high costs associated with after-school tutoring classes. Advertisements for academic tutoring programs feed into this fear. One advertisement read, “Let us cultivate your child; or else we’ll only cultivate your child’s competitors” (“Who Says no Tutors and Less Homework Is Bad?”). For this reason, private tutoring in China has grown to be worth $300 billion, with huge public firms like New Oriental Education & Technology Group and Koolearn Technology Holding Ltd leading the industry (“China Bans For-Profit Tutoring”). In fact, some parents spend up to $16,000 per year for outside tutoring (“Who Says no Tutors and Less Homework Is Bad?”). They spend so much for outside tutoring that they put the financial security of their family at risk, which has actually resulted in lower birth rates as parents realize they are oftentimes unprepared to burden the costs of private tutoring (“China Bans For-Profit Tutoring”).
The "Double Reduction" Policy
The Chinese government soon realized that private tutoring was offsetting the initial goal of the Gao Kao, which was to offer students of all backgrounds the same opportunities to higher education, through extremely expensive private forms of tutoring. It also realized that private tutoring was adding an additional layer of competitiveness to the Gao Kao process, which increased pressure on students in an unhealthy way. To mitigate the issue, China released the “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Students’ Homework and Off-Campus Training in Compulsory Education” in 2021, launching the “double reduction” policy.
In regards to preventing private tutoring, the “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Students’ Homework and Off-Campus Training in Compulsory Education” and the “double reduction” policy not only banned private tutoring, but also announced intentions to improve the public school system to eliminate the demand for private tutoring as a whole. In Clause 13, it is stated that “all localities will no longer approve new off-campus training institutions for disciplines for students at the compulsory education stage, and existing discipline-based training institutions are uniformly registered as non-profit institutions” (“The General Office”). Furthermore, Clause 10 enhances public school resources with additional after school services funded by the government by stating that schools should “make full use of after-school services time, guide students to complete their homework conscientiously, provide tutoring and answer question for students…expand learning…and carry out a variety of popular science, style, art, labor, reading, interest groups, and community activities. No new lessons may be taught during after school service time” (“The General Office”).
Clause 12 targets the same goal as Clause 10 but by using “national and local education and teaching resource platforms and high-quality school network platforms to provide students with free high-quality special education…covering all grades and subjects” (“The General Office”). Another component of this free education initiative involves recruiting especially talented teachers into teaching free online classes and answering student questions outside of regular classroom hours.
In regards to reducing stress, the “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Students’ Homework and Off-Campus Training in Compulsory Education” made a few broad statements discussing the intentions of the new ban to reduce stress, including that the government hoped to “focus on the healthy growth of students’ physical and mental health, protect students’ right to rest…actively respond to social concerns and expectations, and reduce the burden on parents” (“The General Office”). More tangibly, China worked to standardize education so that students would not be incentivized to study advanced material beyond the scope of their public school education. For instance, Clause 14 states that “it is strictly forbidden to exceed the standard and advance training” both in school or through extracurricular resources and private tutoring (“The General Office”).
A lesser-discussed component of China’s new ban is how it changes the incentive to improve the quality of teaching from a teacher perspective. Before the ban occurred, many public-school teachers would teach in public schools during the day and at private tutoring firms at night. Public-school teachers had no incentive to teach well in public schools with the knowledge that they were much better compensated at private firms. In fact, many teachers left public schools for private tutoring firms or, as speculated, taught poorly in public schools so as to drive more students towards private tutoring at night. Clause 11 addresses this issue, stating that the government will “severely investigate and punish teachers’ off-campus compensated lessons in accordance with laws and regulations, until the teacher’s qualification is revoked” (“The General Office”).
In summary, China’s recent regulations were meant to eliminate private tutoring, improve public education, reduce stress on students, and re-align teaching incentives for teachers as a form of quality control. Robert Owen would likely agree with each aspect of this policy and the direction China is moving in in terms of education.
Robert Owen on the "Double Reduction" Policy
As stated earlier, Owen firmly believed in the nationalization of education so that all children could receive a standardized education and be taught to be good humans. China’s ban on private tutoring had those exact intentions, as over the course of the next few years, free online tutoring platforms will be consolidated under government control to provide educational resources for students. Companies that profit off private tutoring will virtually be eliminated. In fact, the announcement of the “double reduction” policy in July triggered falls of as much as 60% in the share prices of tutoring companies listed on the New York and Hong Kong stock exchanges (“China’s Crackdown on Tutoring”). In October of 2021, several of the biggest companies in the industry like US-listed firms Zhangmen and OneSmart closed operations overnight (“China’s Tutoring Ban”). Around that time, almost all of the other large players in the industry, including Gaotu Techedu, the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, and Tal Education Group, released statements acknowledging the severely negative impact the policy would have on their profitability but, at the same time, agreeing to comply with China’s instructions (“China’s Crackdown on Tutoring”).
Owen’s method of education, shown primarily through his teachings at infant schools, also aligns closely with China’s goal to reduce stress on students through the “double reduction” policy. Alongside opposing the usage of books in infant schools, Owen stated that schools should prioritize teaching around children’s interests and that learning should occur through play and exploration, supplemented with “some useful object within their capacity to comprehend” (“The Life of Robert Owen”). Although distinct from China’s method of textbook teaching, Owen would have celebrated how China has been able to move in the general direction of loosening pressure on students and allowing them to experience an exploratory phase in their education.
Finally, Owen would have supported the “double reduction” policy for its intentions to realign the incentives of teachers with the incentives of students and parents. By preventing self-interested teachers from “sabotaging” the quality of public education, China’s ban on private tutoring would drive teachers back to providing high quality lessons to students through public school and further intensify the education system’s level of nationalization. Capital is anticipated to be allocated in a more nationalized way, as investment in private tutoring will no longer exist and wages for teachers will be better in public schools compared to bankrupt private firms.
Although Owen would have likely supported the intentions of the “double reduction” policy, in practice, the policy was less impactful than the government had hoped. Despite the crackdown, private tutoring has not been eliminated entirely. While one survey from the Communist Youth League said that 73% of the half a million parents it surveyed felt less anxiety due to the “double reduction” policy, this improvement has not been reflected in the form of decreased demand for private tutoring (“Who Says No Tutors and Less Homework Is Bad?”). Anecdotal evidence from an article titled “China’s Tutoring Ban Leaves a Trail of Debt, Anger, and Broken Dreams” has revealed that several illegal, for-profit tutoring shops continue to remain open, as parents are still desperate to improve their children’s education.
This is all very interesting to see, as it is important to highlight that China’s public-school education is in no way poor. The intensity of demand for private tutoring services speaks more to the value of education in Chinese culture than to the quality of education students in the country receive. Owen may have been happy to see this prioritization of education above all, but ultimately, would still be disappointed in China’s education system as a whole. China’s education system does not capture the do-good, moral experience Owen had hoped to cultivate at New Lanark. Chinese students are still incentivized to perform well in school for the sake of admission into elite universities that will lead them to elite jobs. They have yet to adopt a mentality of education for the sake of pure moral and intellectual growth, rather than greed and individual achievement. In addition, China’s education system is still built around the Gao Kao which is inherently an exam that teaches students to seek right and wrong answers and study out of standardized textbook curricula. The Gao Kao prevents students from truly achieving the state of curiosity that was so valued at New Lanark.
In conclusion, Owen would have been in agreement with China’s “double reduction” policy from an ideological perspective relative to China’s previous position in education. However, from a wholistic perspective, he would not be satisfied with the educational environment in China. If this is the case, then it is worth it to consider how Owen would wish to reform China’s education system. Given the Gao Kao’s institutionalized importance in determining students’ future outcomes in the country, perhaps Owen would argue that the best way forward would be to remove the Gao Kao as a whole. Through this removal, people would feel less burdened to pursue academic perfection in a stress-inducing way, but rather, to pursue education for the sake of intellectual and societal growth. It is the hope that in tandem with such a policy, the cultural value of education would still be preserved over time. Regardless, Owen would look towards transforming China’s education system from its current state into something more closely resembling New Lanark.
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