Chengdu is the centuries-old capital of Sichuan Province, sprawling in a valley surrounded by the Tibetan mountains, home to pandas and spicy cuisine. It is also an up-and-coming financial center and critical hub for technological innovation in China’s southwestern region. As a result, the competition to get into educational institutions such as the famous Sichuan University is becoming fiercer. Private tutoring, or shadow education, has exploded as a lucrative sector for both native Chinese and foreign workers in response to the demand for better performance on the gaokao, China’s college entrance examination. The gaokao is considered one of the most stressful and difficult tests in the world, and good scores for test-takers can translate more than university options, which is why the pressure for students is so high (Ming, 2016). However, disadvantaged groups like ethnic minorities or rural migrants find it difficult to achieve high scores despite the so-called equality of public education. In fact, 95% of rural students drop out of the education system before they even take their college entrance exams (“China’s Education Gap”, 2016). Chengdu, with its growing economy and increased rural-to-urban migration, is one of many such cases.
I came to Chengdu in 2014 and stayed for three years, working as an English teacher in university settings, formal elementary and high school classrooms, and as a “shadow” tutor for businessmen and students preparing for overseas colleges. Over that time, I came to understand some of the fundamental differences in access to public services and quality education between poorer students and wealthy ones. While my personal experience and anecdotes may seem like just that—personal and limited—they are a microcosmic reflection of situations occurring all around China. There is a real problem with educational inequality in China that is affecting future prospects for the already under-resourced and marginalized, one that can only be addressed by first understanding how mechanisms like private tutoring both fulfill a demand but create barriers to access.
First, competition between private tutoring institutions is intense, but because shadow education is, in general, unregulated by the Chinese state, quality varies wildly. Public education, too, has fallen prey to marketization in a divergence from the professed strategic goal of equality in the education system (World Bank, 1999). So, even amongst public high schools there is a big push to get the best students and best teachers. Private tutoring helps middle school students gain access to better high schools, whether public or private, and so on and so forth up the educational chain. As Wei Zhang and Mark Bray discuss in their study of shadow education in Shanghai, differentiation of access to private tutoring has “offset” the ostensible equalization policies present in public schools and allowed “privileged families and elite schools” to compete on a totally different playing field (p. 221). Chengdu is much the same in that the only way to guarantee a good quality private tutor or public school is to pay extra money. Private and foreign institutions, however, can usually pay more money to attract better teachers and do more advertising in wealthy neighborhoods, thus quality is being condensed into those private and foreign institutions. Despite the lack of standardization, high demand for private tutoring services has not abated, and those who cannot afford to pay a high price will lose out on quality.
Second, while access to private tutoring is not the sole reason for wealthy students’ success on the gaokao, access to quality education in general is a huge factor. Private tutoring supplements a public education that has not kept up with student and parent demand (Li, 2016), offering new and different opportunities like English classes, art classes, writing courses for students who are applying to overseas universities, and other specialized content. I helped a classroom of teenagers write argumentative essays for the SAT, as well as college motivation letters, and their opportunity to learn directly from me (a foreigner who had participated in the U.S. education system) was available to them because of their socioeconomic status. Likewise, children who I taught in the “elite” i2 Institute of International Education were privy to personalized classes and extra assistance on homework, and most of them were preparing to enter competitive high schools and colleges.
Unequal access to higher education for disadvantaged groups occurs because high-quality private and public schools favor certain socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds (Wang, 2010). Nobody can make a profit from teaching a Tibetan, or a migrant worker’s daughter from Aba in the far western part of Sichuan Province. They might still manage to be successful on their own, but it is unlikely when quality resources are being funneled towards the privileged. This is why, in many ways, Chinese public schools are not succeeding in meeting the state’s strategic goals for equitable education. The demographic difference in quality is even more obvious when foreign schools are taken into consideration. I lived across the street from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and knew many of the people who worked there. Some of my friends were teachers in the local QSI (Quality Schools International) elementary school, a private institution for children of foreigners, consulate workers, and diplomats. This was one of the only places that required a master’s degree in education and continuous training. (My place of work, for comparison, hired some who were still in the middle of their undergraduate schooling and had no prior tutoring experience.) Rich Chinese parents would send their children to QSI because it had a great international reputation, but one of the only reasons they were able to get in was because they were able to purchase passports from Hong Kong that “proved” their children were “international” and therefore qualified to be in a foreign school (Fraser, 2018). It is not hard to see how easy it is for a privileged child to succeed on a much bigger scale—even beyond Chengdu and China—as opposed to one who does not even have access to updated gaokao textbooks because their school is underfunded.
My final point is this: there is a clear connection between wealth, educational attainment, and future prospects (Rong & Shi, 2001). Wealthier youth are more likely to go to both vocational schools and universities, but especially if they come from a certain demographic background (Liu, 2013) and wealthier youth in my personal experience are infinitely more likely to have a better, more exciting life. They can travel, study abroad, have good jobs and job performance. While private tutoring is filling a certain gap in demand that public education has been unable meet, it is the symptom of a wider problem of inequality and lack of quality. This brings us back to problems of access for rural-to-urban migrating students (Li, 2008) and disadvantaged groups like ethnic minorities. It is difficult to draw any conclusions about shadow tutoring and teaching in Chengdu, however. Equity versus excellence is a big topic in China now, but there is a dearth of research on the subject as it plays out in cities like Chengdu, which are not on the coast and have not received as much attention as Beijing or Shanghai. But if the proverb is true that “a book holds a house of gold,” then the best books that hold the best houses are still unavailable to many in Chengdu.
References and Works Cited
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 Shū zhōng zì yǒu huáng jīn wū, shū zhōng zì yǒu yán rú yù. Literally, “in books are sumptuous houses and graceful ladies.” Figuratively means “study hard, success and glory will follow.”
 The differences between rural and urban schools, as well as how public education is funded, are complicated issues beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that Chengdu has strict hukou laws which prevent rural-to-urban migrant students from accessing high-quality public schools where the provincial and national governments concentrate more resources.