Education officials in Zhejiang, China is considering implementing some new rules to alleviate the burdens that weigh down on elementary and middle school students during their school years. According to Chinese state media People.cn, Chinese authorities in the eastern coastal province will be proposing 33 policy suggestions to reduce the academic burden for students.
Among those 33 policy suggestions, including items to ensure students have enough time to exercise and reasonably manage the frequency of tests, the most controversial point among the 33 suggestions is the curfew on homework: Elementary school students will not be allowed to do their homework after 9pm, and for middle school student, that curfew time begins at 10pm.
To further explain the policy, the Chinese officials intend to give students the freedom to refuse completing the remaining homework with parental consent.
Academic pressure has been an ongoing issue within the Chinese education system. In fact, the call from the Chinese government on reducing the burden for students started from 1988, and was reiterated in 1990. The issue was emphasized repeatedly in the early 2000s. And in 2013, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a harsh 10 rules reducing the academic burdens for elementary school students. These rules include putting restrictions on extra-curricular tutoring, frequency of tests, and the grading systems. However, despite putting in efforts for more than 30 years, little has been achieved in actually reducing the burden for students.
After 31 years, education officials are addressing the same issues with the same strategies. And the effectiveness of these government decisions is highly questionable.
Elephant in the room
Before understanding the real issue with the increasingly high pressure that Chinese students face in elementary, middle, and high schools, one needs to have a clear understanding of the struggles that led to the status quo in the first place. As a country of approximately 1.4 billion people, China has one of the most rigorous university admission exams in the world. In 2019 alone, more than 10 million high school graduates entered this race for a chance to have an opportunity to pursue post-secondary education that they desired.
Despite having an increasingly high admission rate – more than 80% of the high school graduates will eventually be admitted to a post-secondary institution – the increasing number of post-secondary institutions and chances to go to universities do not solve the on-going anxiety experienced by students, parents, and teachers. While a major portion of the university admission process is determined by the university entrance exam system called GaoKao, students with hopes to attend the best institutions might need to start preparing for that exam from day one.
To ensure the fairness of the selection process, China invests heavily in the examination system that determines the future schools for high school graduates. It doesn’t matter who you are, who your parents are, and the economic status of your family. Everyone has that chance to go to the top universities, as long as their score is higher than everybody else’s. Students are divided by provinces based on their household registration status for exam eligibility. And the top universities only accept the very best.
The quest for higher scores ultimately leads to endless and repeated practice questions. Unfortunately, even if one has the talent to have a good grasp of all kinds of knowledge that will be tested, the risk of not practicing enough is always too much to handle. In contrast to the US and Canadian systems, which focus on a combination of standardized tests and school averages, Gaokao is a once-a-year examination that students need to take. There is no second chance if you fail, or do not have a score that you are happy with, unless you wait for another year to try it again.
Students are not doing homework for no reasons. It is also not in the teachers’ interest to dump endless tests, quizzes, and practice questions to students. These practice questions are the best tools to handle a high-pressure exam. And with no imminent changes in the testing structures in most of the areas in China, curfews on homework will not really be effective in relieving the burdens that students have on a daily basis. Homework is not the burden that students need to bear, rather, it is a necessary step for students who want to succeed to be more competitive in this current system. It is not the teachers who put students under that pressure, it is the selection system. Before taking on the major struggle of Gaokao, students will need to pass high school entrance exams, middle school entrance exams, and the many other assessments that will impact their chances of getting into a good university.
Perhaps government regulations can stop elementary school students from finishing their homework after 9pm, but it is obvious that it cannot stop students from feeling anxious. When their future depends on this one single test, people are not willing to take any chances.