Are Chinese finally pursuing a "well-rounded" education this time around?
Two years after China banned academic tutoring, how is the education industry faring now?
Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored by TAL Education Group or any other companies mentioned in the article.
Massive changes in the education industry forced industry leaders to seek new paths
In July 2021, the Chinese government issued a "Double Reduction" policy, which banned all after-school tutoring for students enrolled in primary and middle school (typically 6-15 years old) in core subjects such as Math, Chinese, and English. The ban was motivated by concerns about the academic burden on students, the mental and physical health of the students, as well as the rising cost of tutoring.
The ban had a significant impact on the education industry in China. Two industry leaders, New Oriental Education & Technology Group (EDU) and TAL Education Group (TAL), saw their revenues and market capitalizations plummet. Massive layoffs came, affecting millions of people in the industry, especially young professionals with 1-3 years of experience.
With the biggest source of revenue gone, businesses in the industry were forced to seek new directions. Some shifted their focus to adult education, digital education products, and even completely different businesses, such as live-streaming e-commerce (with New Oriental Education Group being a famous example).
However, a common theme persists in the industry: new business initiatives to expand non-academic tutoring classes, or "素质教育 Suzhi Education," a concept frequently mentioned by Chinese parents and educators over the past decade.
These classes focus on improving the overall caliber of students rather than just aiming for higher scores. The New Oriental Group mentioned in their 2022 annual report that "...our new business initiatives include non-academic tutoring, intelligent learning systems and devices, study tours and research camps, educational materials, and digitalized smart study solutions..." Similarly, the TAL Education Group introduced a new system of "Suzhi Education" classes to promote the well-rounded character and competence of the students.
In this post, we will analyze the enrollment data for TAL's "Suzhi Education" course, which was provided by BigOne Lab. By studying TAL's latest course offerings, we can gain insight into how Chinese parents and students are adapting to the "Double Reduction" policy implementation.
What exactly is "Suzhi Education" that the Chinese have been advocating for?
The Chinese education system has long been criticized for its excessive focus on exams. Admission to colleges is determined solely by scores from the "Gaokao," which takes place only once a year. As a result, millions of Chinese students are burdened with studying long hours and discouraged from engaging in activities that do not directly contribute to their Gaokao scores. The competition for high scores is so fierce that many teenagers are sleep-deprived. Despite the implementation of the "Double Reduction" policy in 2021, which has increased the average sleeping hours of students, the hours still remain insufficient, with only 7.65/7.48/6.5 hours on average for primary/middle/high school students [China Research Association for Sleep].
Chinese parents and educators have long recognized the shortcomings of the exam-focused education system. "Suzhi Education," which roughly translates to "quality education" or "caliber education," focuses on the well-rounded development of students beyond exam scores. The scope of “Suzhi Education” is never universally defined, but the consensus is that it aims to emphasize aspects such as ethics, innovation-thinking, personality, wellness, and aesthetics—basically everything a well-rounded person needs to succeed and live a fulfilling life outside the classroom.
The concept of "Suzhi Education" was officially introduced by the State Council in 1993 and has been frequently discussed by educators and parents in the past decade. While everyone recognizes its importance, extracurricular activities have increasingly taken a backseat to academic tutoring. More importantly, despite understanding its significance, few know what the best practices are for learning all aspects of "Suzhi Education" since there is no established rubric for this learning system.
Now that education companies are being "forced" to seriously focus on developing programs for non-academic fields, the topic of "Suzhi Education" has become trendy again. Many are wondering: are Chinese finally pursuing a "well-rounded" education this time around?
Case study: TAL Education Group’s Suzhi Education class offerings
TAL Education Group was one of the pioneers in offering "Suzhi Education" classes aimed at primary and middle school students. The course series has four tracks, which are Innovation thinking, Literature & Writing, Programming & Robotics, and Science experiments. TAL believes that these courses address the core skills and qualities that students need to succeed in the future.
Upon first glance at the poster, I assumed that it was just another attempt to recruit students to learn math and science, but under the guise of "innovative thinking" and "science experiments.” (With such emphasis on Science and Math subjects in China, I have certainly seen cases like this growing up.)
However, the syllabus was a pleasant surprise to me:
I have seen class designs that are very practical in real-world scenarios. For instance, a second-grade Innovation-thinking class (~age 7) includes topics such as "market research", which trains children's analytical skills by conducting research on product sales in supermarkets and understanding the sales strategies of product combinations. There are also classes like "The Art of Purchasing", which teaches students to analyze how merchants pay different costs for the same item and how to apportion the total cost in order to improve their data processing abilities.
I have seen classes that encourage reading both Chinese and international masterpieces. In a Literature & writing class offered to second-grade students, they are asked to read “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” by Selma Lagerlöf and "The Thousand Character Classic," a Chinese classic. (This reminds me of my middle school days when I spent a lot of time reading books instead of actually listening to my Chinese class. When I was in middle school, I remember we often spent weeks on just one article, trying to figure out every possible way the article could be tested in an exam. I thought that free exploration of literature was the best way to learn, rather than taking exams that had definitive answers. Nowadays, kids have that option, even though it could lie outside their mandatory education.)
I have seen classes that focus on health and wellness. In an innovation-thinking class for fourth-graders (around 9 years old), students can learn about calories, calculating BMI, nutrition, food combinations, and how energy transforms from food to the body. (This is my personal favorite.)
Beyond these, I have seen a diverse range of topics offered. Many of them teach students practical skills, aesthetics, logical thinking, and analytical skills through a variety of real-world scenarios. These range from managing personal finances, baking, and architecture, to astrology, detective puzzle solving, exploring ethnic traditions, and many more.
Are parents paying for TAL's "Suzhi Education" classes?
We analyzed course enrollment data for TAL's "Suzhi Education" classes to understand how parents and students are reacting to TAL's course offerings, and how those reactions differ among different regions of China. We examined enrollment of classes offered for primary and middle schools, primarily for the 6-15 age group, using data from four semesters in a full year: Fall 2022, Winter 2023, Spring 2023, and Summer 2023 (for which term enrollment is mostly completed).
To ensure comparability across cities and prevent bias toward cities with larger populations, spending on class enrollment was proportioned based on the 0-14 age population in each city (as per the 7th National Census).
And we discovered some very interesting trends:
Innovation-thinking is the top choice nationwide
TAL offers year-round classes in Innovation-thinking, Literature & writing, Science experiments, and Programming & robotics. Among these courses, Innovation-thinking has the highest total enrollment amount, with 1.4 billion CNY in course registrations from Fall 2022 to Summer 2023 in the 37 major cities where TAL offers the classes and BigOne Lab tracks. Literature & writing follows with approximately one-third of that amount, followed by Science experiments and Programming & robotics.
Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, and Chengdu are the top five cities in terms of spending on the Innovation-thinking class series during the period, followed by Hangzhou, Xi'an, Changzhou, Wuxi, and Shenyang.
In terms of spending on course enrollment (per million individuals in the 0-14 age group), there is not a significant discrepancy between the first-tier cities and others. For instance, Shenyang, ranking 10th nationwide, spends approximately 310k per million individuals in the 0-14 age group. In comparison, the top three cities, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, spend 610k, 540k, and 480k, respectively.
With the nationwide advocacy for innovation and high-tech, it comes as no surprise that parents are increasingly investing in innovation and science-focused classes. Instead of focusing on the first-tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen), where education spending unsurprisingly ranks highest nationwide, it is more interesting to compare how the emphasis differs in other cities. What is noteworthy is that even cities like Xi'an and Shenyang, not typically associated with being innovation incubators, are also placing a priority on innovation-focused education.
Xi'an, which ranks 7th in spending on innovation-thinking class, is probably one of the most underrated cities. Many may not realize that in Q1 of 2023, Xi'an recorded real GDP growth of 7.6%, surpassing powerhouses like Shenzhen (6.5%) and Guangzhou (1.8%). The new economic driver, electric vehicles, is becoming the secret hero behind Xi'an's rapid growth. In 2022, the number of EV cars manufactured in Xi'an accounted for 14% of the nationwide total. This means that for every 7 new energy vehicles produced in the country, one is made in Xi'an. As cities like Xi'an find new paths toward economic growth, parents are also increasingly recognizing the importance of science and innovation.
Hangzhou parents spend the most on the Science experiments class, almost 3x that of Beijing
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