Many Chinese parents, especially the tiger moms and wolf dads, are focused on prepping their only child for cruel academic competition all the way to the national college entrance exam, to be held on June 7, 8 and 9.
But in recent years, a small yet growing group of parents are taking a very different and controversial approach to education: They are having their children home-schooled, taught either by themselves, like-minded parents, tutors or teachers at small private schools.
The Chinese education system is one that requires nine years of education in state-licensed public or private schools. Once students are "off track," it's hard to get back into the system, catch up with curriculum and take batteries of tests.
In Shanghai, parents who prefer a freer approach either send children to pre-schools before getting them registered with the nine-year system, or send them to costly unlicensed home-based schools for older children.
Many of the latter parents plan to send children to high school and college overseas and bypass the Chinese education system.
One home school in Shanghai, reluctant to have its name published, charges 100,000 yuan a year for full-time students and 40,000 yuan for after-school and weekend students.
Although home-based education is an option in a number of Western countries - as long as state curriculum requirements are met - it is not yet a legal option in China, where the idea is very new. The schools fly under radar and advocates hope that one day home schooling will be a recognized option.
Puzzled over choosing school
"I'm extremely torn about choosing a school for my boy," says 36-year-old Meng Yutai, who has a seven-year-old son, Lyu Zimeng, in a preschool-age school started by a like-minded mother. Meng decided to send him to primary school a year later than the usual age. "That's the best I can do now - give him an extra year of freedom," she says.
School starts in September, but parents are already collecting recruiting information issued by licensed public and private schools.
"I'm very puzzled," Meng tells Shanghai Daily. "My preference would be to put him in a home-based school like the kindergarten he is attending now, but it's basically impossible once he starts primary school, the first stage of nine years' compulsory education."
Meng doesn't want her son "to become a robot like other Chinese kids who are good at tests, but have lost their curiosity as children."
"But if I choose to keep him out of the system now, there is no way back, and it's too risky for the child to take a route so different from everyone else, with no guarantee it will succeed," she says.
She's under a lot of pressure from her family to quit the home schooling. "After all, the idea of home schooling is quite new, it's not accepted by most people, and it's not exactly legal," she says.
Meng's son, along with six other children aged between two and six, goes to an unlicensed pre-school founded by Gao Wen, a 40-year-old former manager. She quit her job four years ago when she realized her four-year-old son was getting along in a private kindergarten.
"He is very mischievous," says Gao. "We already sent him to a freer private kindergarten, but he just isn't the type to follow all the teachers' orders. They didn't know how to deal with him."
Gao believed there ought to be a better place for a naturally energetic child who didn't fit into the mold. Teachers called him "naughty," but his mother said that doesn't mean bad or silly.
She moved temporarily to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province where her son attended classes at a private school employing a freer and more progressive Montessori-like approach. Gao also took classes on the Montessori method and got a certificate.
Other parents send their children to Gao's home-based preschool for different reasons. Some didn't like the strict, robot-like environment at the previous kindergarten, "where children are taught to start and stop games, classes or meals all at the same time, regardless of their will or interest," says Meng.
Others prefer a smaller teacher-student ratio so students get more individual attention. Gao has seven children in class. In most other schools, the ratio is around 1:20.
Gao has designed a curriculum that aims to inspire children's interest in learning through games like finding the bad guy, singing, dancing, coloring, and many other activities. She only asks them to play games or study together for around an hour a day.
For the rest of the time, the children are encouraged to study and play on their own. They don't all have to eat together at the same time.
Gao takes her charges on field trips to nearby parks, organic farms, train stations and other spots once a week to get them interested in nature, science, technology, food and other topics.
Because she only handles seven children at a time, she can take time with each and understand his or her interests and characteristics.
"I don't want them to study for the sake of studying. I want to inspire them and maintain their curiosity and interest in learning," Gao says.
Now her son attends a licensed primary school in Shanghai, though Gao would much prefer to have him home schooled in a less-pressurized, more progressive environment. Although she runs a home-based pre-school, Gao has no confidence in her ability to teach older children.
Gao, like Meng, says she is under heavy family pressure to close her unconventional school. "I am not really qualified to teach beyond pre-school age," she concedes. "There are only a few home schools beyond pre-school level in Shanghai, and I don't agree with all their practices."
Since home-based schools are new in Shanghai and outside the system, there is no standard or regular curriculum. Each school goes its own way.
Some schools focus entirely on classic Chinese texts and teach no math or science. Their founders say it is necessary to return to traditional content and teaching methods. They consider modern education a failure that nurtures good test takers and high scorers with little sense of values and morality.
They argue that the system turns out many students who are highly self-centered and competitive, socially awkward, reluctant to share and compromise, short on compassion and lacking community spirit.
Many of these schools place pictures of ancient intellectuals like Confucius on the wall and in some schools, teachers even dress in traditional costume. Students are asked to recite the texts on their own and ask teachers when they confront questions.
Other schools are more balanced and follow public school curriculum, without giving so many tests, teaching to the test and loading students with homework. They leave time for physical exercise and art and encourage students to pursue their interests and undertake projects of their own.
Many parents in Shanghai are interested in a different mode, but it's difficult to go beyond pre-school level since only a handful of unlicensed schools still operate in secret. They fly under the radar after Shanghai education authorities cracked down on Meng Mu Tang, a famous unlicensed school named after Mencius' mother.
There's a long tradition in China of mothers struggling to find the proper environment for their sons to study. Meng Mu Tang (Mencius' Mother Hall) famously moved the household three times in order to find a quiet and supportive environment where Mencius (BC 372-389) could study.
In 2006, the unlicenced Meng Mu Tang school made headlines because a dozen students spent most of their time studying classical Chinese texts and Shakespeare. There was no math and study was self-directed.
The school was ordered to close but resurfaced in 2009. It was again ordered to close. It is reportedly running quietly today, like a few other schools.
Home schooling beyond preschool, whether in private homes or unlicensed venues, is prohibited by law, according to the Shanghai Education Commission. A commission spokesperson tells Shanghai Daily that this alternative education violates China's Compulsory Education Law, which stipulates that all children must receive nine years of education at government-licensed schools, public or private.
Penalties are not specified, but it is hard for students who haven't kept up with state curriculum to get back into the system. These students find it difficult or impossible to take high school entrance exams and college entrance exams if they are not registered with licensed schools.
"Right now, the public and the authorities don't really understand our practice, which forces us to operate underground, but that will not be for long," Wu, headmaster of home school Ri Yue Tang, tells Shanghai Daily.
"This kind of school is already getting some acknowledgement in cities like Beijing and Shenzhen, but it's still relatively strict and new in Shanghai."
Philosophy and English
Wu, who used to teach English in middle school, says he has a dozen students aged from six to 15. Two of them are full time and the others attend after school and on weekends.
He encourages them to study whatever interests them, but rules out Japanese and Korean animation, comics and romantic TV series, on grounds they are "poisonous to the mind."
Wu was cautious about granting an interview and agreed to only talk over the phone. He says most students are studying Chinese philosophy, such as Confucius' "The Analects" as well as the English textbook called "New Concept English." They also take open education classes of top American universities available on the Internet.
One 15-year-old student is reading "The Analects" and taking a Yale University online class in finance - both on his own initiative, Wu says.
The headmaster says he is knowledgeable in many subjects and well connected with experts in all subjects who can help students with difficult questions and special lines of inquiry.
Wu says of the 15-year-old: "His parents are wealthy businessman, so he doesn't really need a diploma. He will not take China's national college entrance exam. His parents will probably send him abroad."
Though the atmosphere is relatively relaxed, Wu says some physical punishment is necessary when students slack off too much.
Like parents of that 15-year-old student, many parents with children home schooled beyond preschool intend to send their them abroad for high school and college. Some have reached deals with licensed public or private schools to keep their child registered, without requiring attendance, according to Wu.
Parents prefer home schools for different reasons.
Some parents simply don't believe that academic tests scores are everything and that a student must enter the best high school to get into the best college, which is essential to get into a well-paying, respected job.
"We definitely didn't have so much homework when we were young. We played a lot through the school years and prepared intensively for the entrance exams in the last year. And look at us - we're are doing pretty well," says Wang Minmin, who teaches law at a Shanghai university and sends her five-year-old son to Gao's home school.
"It's really not necessary to be that competitive," she tells Shanghai Daily.
Some parents complain that the curriculum is dry, repetitive and neglects Chinese culture. Other parents object to mountains of homework "that doesn't necessarily make them smarter or better," according to Alan Xue, a 42-year-old electrical engineer who works at home in order to teach his 14-year-old son.
The engineer, a graduate of prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University, plans to send his son to a US high school in two years, but he keeps his son registered with a licensed private school in case the boy opts to take the exam for a high school in Shanghai. He keeps up with basic curriculum.
"It will be his choice," Xue says. "I'm giving him with more options, not limiting them."
Xue took his child out of school seven years ago when he found the boy was losing confidence because he kept getting barely passing scores in Chinese literature tests. Parents always know their children's test scores and their class ranking, because most schools post test results and standings online, without using names.
"Every child is different, but in Chinese schools, one teacher is often in charge of more than 40 children and naturally they can't pay full attention to each of them," Xue says. "It's easiest to teach them all the same way, but teaching should be done differently, according to the students' aptitudes."
Inspire the curiosity
His son excels in logical thinking, so he learns math and physics quickly and doesn't need regular, repetitive tests of the same 100 problems, his father says. The boy does very poorly in memorizing texts that don't interest him, resulting in low scores on Chinese literature tests that require a lot of memorization.
"But if he is very interested in the material, he will recite it and once he remembers, he will not forget. The key is to inspire his curiosity and incentives to learn the material," Xue says. "I don't blame teachers because naturally they are too busy to identify individual aptitudes. My son is not stupid, but getting bad scores made him think he was."
When the boy first started studying at home, Xue spent a year telling him interesting ancient Chinese stories until he became interested in history and historical figures. Then his son asked to read the classic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."
From that point onward, his confidence in learning Chinese was gradually restored. His father says he now can recite a few classic texts, including parts of "The Analects."
As for other subjects, Xue mainly follows official textbooks but applies his own methods and doesn't assign as much homework as in other schools. Instead, he requires the boy to practice tai chi with him every day, hang out and play with two other home-schooled children in the area, and travel with him every few weeks.
"I'm not saying school education is not good, but the teacher-student ratio makes it impossible for education to suit everyone," Xue says. "It would be great if some kind of gate could be opened for people like us, granting permission for home schooling."