Taking TOEFL and SAT/ACT cram classes: intensive test preparation

In regard to international college applications, test scores on the TOEFL and the ACT/SAT are considered by students, parents, and the school to be “hard” currency. Preparations for these college entrance tests, particularly the TOEFL, are very intensive for all Sunny High IAP students. All of the focal students in my study have attended after-school TOEFL cram classes. There are various types of TOEFL classes including: basic; enhancement; and VIP one-to-one, one-to-two, or one-to-three classes. Students can choose any class suitable to them. They can also choose where they go for these classes because there are so many TOEFL training companies in Moon City. Many of these educational companies concentrate in the Greenfield area. The Pole Star School is the biggest and most popular TOEFL training company. Many relatively smaller TOEFL training companies were created by people who used to work at the Pole Star School. The owner of Noah Education that outsourced Sunny High IAP’s TOEFL classes was an English training teacher at the Pole Star School for several years. He then left and opened his own business.

Jiajia took TOEFL classes with Noah Education. As she and her father noted, the reason they chose Noah Education was that the classes were held on the campus of Sunny High IAP and this kept Jiajia from a long commute to and from the school to the Greenfield. In addition, the two children of Mr. Lin’s friends who attended Sunny High IAP also took the TOEFL classes with Noah Education. They thought that the class quality was fine. When I was conducting my observational study, Noah Education worked with about 30 students like Jiajia at Sunny High IAP. The company took advantage of the opportunity of teaching the TOEFL to Sunny High IAP students in regular classrooms to recruit them for additional fee-paying classes. Some of the students had one-to-one TOEFL classes with the company in the Greenfield where the company rents its office. In my interview with Yifei, she expressed disgust with Noah Education. She said:

My TOEFL learning was not good in the 10th grade. I didn’t like the TOEFL classes that Noah Education taught... Mr. Fu, the owner of Noah Education taught our TOEFL classes. At the beginning, his teaching was fine. He taught us what the TOEFL was and what the test structure looked like. This information was useful. Then, he shared his English experience with us, his study and working experience in Canada, and the TOEFL learning experiences of the students whom he had helped. That was fine. Later on, we came to realize that he repeatedly told us the same stories. The main theme of his storytelling was how good his English was, how much higher the TOEFL scores had been for the students who he had helped, and how successful his teaching was. He advertised his TOEFL training services... Often, I didn’t pay attention to his teaching. One day in class I was inattentive. He approached me, saying “Look at your TOEFL score. How poor it is. You will see that one day, you must ask me to give you one-to-one lessons.” How ridiculous! Why do I have to ask him to teach me one-to-one lessons?

Yifei was not the only student who didn’t like Noah Education. Some of the study’s focal students showed their awareness that the entry of Noah Education into Sunny High IAP is for the maximization of the company’s interest by seeking more student customers beyond just teaching regular TOEFL classes. These students often searched for TOEFL classes outside the school.

Miaomiao had tried different kinds of TOEFL classes, including basic and enhanced, with two different English training companies. She ended up working with the Pole Star School’s VIP class. Her VIP class was one-to-two. She shared the class with Linglong, which means that a TOEFL training teacher taught the class to both her and Linglong. The following interview excerpt reflects what her VIP class looked like:

SL: What kind of TOEFL class are you taking now?

MIAOMIAO: One-to-two.

SL: What’s the name of the class?


SL: What does “VIP” mean?

MIAOMIAO: [laugh] Very Important People.

SL: Very Important People. VIP customers?


SL: What does the VIP class look like?

MIAOMIAO: Our [TOEFL] reading class is held in one of the small units in a big office. We go to a separate room tor the TOEFL listening classes because the room has some equipment tor CD playing and listening. The size of the room is like... It can hold about 7 or 8 people. However, when we have VIP [TOEFL listening classes] in that room, there are also some one-to-one ACT and one-to-one SAT classes there. There are also a couple of one-to-one SAT classes that arc for students attending U.S. high schools... Our instructor usually gives us one-to-two classes in these separate rooms. Then, after we finish our VIP classes, we can go to a self-study room that can hold about 20 people. There are several self-study rooms there.

Miaomiao and Linglong went to Pole Star for their TOEFL VIP classes on Friday and Saturday in the second semester of 11th grade. Each class session lasted two hours. They spent the rest of the day in the self-study rooms at Pole Star because they thought that their study efficiency was high there. For example, on Friday, they left the school after lunch for their 2 p.m. TOEFL class. They usually returned to the school at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. For each TOEFL class, they usually spent three hours both ways to go back and forth from the school to the Greenfield. It was an exhausting commute for them. Miaomiao mentioned that besides the TOEFL VIP classes, she had had other TOEFL and ACT classes. All these classes were held in the Greenfield area. She commented, “The Greenfield has become the center of various kinds of educational training.” This is reflected in the following interview excerpt:

SL: When did you take these classes [other TOEFL and ACT classes]?

MIAOMIAO: Summer and winter vacations and weekends. My former classmates in Anhui came to Moon City during summer vacations for such classes, too. They lived in hotels. The hotel expenses were almost as much as my school tuition. Every summer and winter vacation, there were often no vacancies at the hotels near the Greenfield. Hotel prices just kept increasing. Most of their customers were the students who had come here to take the TOEFL and other English training classes.

Miaomiao explained that many students came to Moon City for TOEFL cram classes because teachers here are more professional and high quality. When she discussed her TOEFL and ACT training teachers, she emphasized that few of them have majors in English and many of them major in business, finance, and law. This raises some interesting questions: Who is the main teaching force in the rising English training industry in the Chinese and international education markets? What counts as a good teacher in what kinds of educational fields?3 Miaomiao and Linglong had autonomy to choose how many classes they need. Pole Star provided them with flexible educational services based on their personal learning needs. However, the classes could not be observed by others—including their parents. Only people who pay for such VIP services can gain access to the curriculum and teaching. The company strictly controls this access. This is the common rule that many other TOEFL and ACT/SAT training companies hold. This situation complicates what Bernstein (1977) calls “weak framing” and what he mentions as the combination of “strong classification” and “weak framing.” The students have autonomy to determine the TOEFL teaching pace, but they don’t have power to change and control the TOEFL knowledge. The form of TOEFL cram classes looks student-centered, but, in nature, the learning and teaching are test-driven. I also argue that the companies’ worry over being observed is not only because they want to protect their “knowledge patent” but also because they know that their teaching is not any more innovative than traditional drill-based Chinese teaching style. This point is further confirmed by what Weiwei described about his one-to-one TOEFL VIP classes.

Weiwei originally attended TOEFL classes at Pole Star. One of the instructors who taught him resigned from Pole Star and created his own company called Little Owl’s Learning Company. He rented some places in a building at the Greenfield. According to Weiwei, the owner of Little Owl referred to himself as the principal of his company. Weiwei followed him by leaving Pole Star and enrolling at Little Owl. As a senior customer, Weiwei was provided with a personalized TOEFL study plan by Little Owl. Through most of his 11th grade, he spent Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at the TOEFL VIP one-to-one classes because he thought that Sunny High IAP didn’t provide him with adequate personal help with TOEFL test preparation. He described his learning experience with Little Owl like this:

WEIWEI: I would spend whole days there [Little Owl]. I usually arrived in Little Owl around 8:30 a.m., 9 a.m., or 9:30 a.m. Returned home around 6 p.m. Basically a whole day.

SL: How long did each of your one-to-one classes last?

WEIWEI: Two hours. After that, there were some teachers at Little Owl observing students do self-study.

SL: Is it helpful to your TOEFL learning?

WEIWEI: Very helpful.

SL: For example? How did it [Little Owl] help you?

WEIWEI: It valued the TOEFL basics. Take the [TOEFL] Listening as an example. The instructor trained me to master every listening exercise piece. I was taught to listen well to each passage and catch its meaning. Otherwise, I could not move to the next passage. The teaching method that the Little OWL adopts is to let us dictate every sentence in the TOEFL listening exercise piece. For the first time, the instructor said one sentence in English, I dictated it in Chinese until I finished the whole exercise piece. Then we went to the second-round exercise. He/shc said each sentence in English; I dictated it in English. In this way, I went through the TOEFL example piece twice—once in Chinese and another time in English. Then I was trained to read. He/shc played the CD of each listening exercise sentence by sentence. I would repeat the exercise sentence by sentence until I was able to retell the whole piece. This technique helped me master every listening exercise piece. This was the outcome that I should reach. This teaching approach effectively improved my TOEFL learning. It was very helpful to me.

SL: How much did this teaching method improve your TOEFL scores?

WEIWEI: My original TOEFL test scores were about 40 to 50. It [this teaching approach] upgraded my score to 80 to 90 [The full score of the TOEFL test is 120 points. Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing account for 30 points, each.]

Weiwei took the TOEFL test several times. He finally received a TOEFL score above 90, which allowed him to be admitted to a top 50 U.S. university. Each of his one-to-one TOEFL VIP classes cost ¥1,200, which means that he paid $100/per hour for the English lesson. As he and his mother, Ms. Fan, mentioned, they paid at least $10,000 for the TOEFL VIP classes. When I asked them if the school allowed Weiwei to leave a regular course of study to attend his VIP and SAT classes, they responded that it was allowed although the school didn’t want students to do so. Indeed, several of the study’s focal students mentioned that their parents helped them to negotiate with the school and ask for permission to take test preparation classes outside the school. One of the students explained, “Eventually, the school had to agree with us. After all, the school also hopes that we will gain good test scores and receive admissions from top overseas universities. Our good performances will benefit the school because it can use them to advertise the school when recruiting new students.”

When recalling his after-school English classes, Weiwei emphasized that attending such classes allowed him to meet students like himself. He made some new friends and learned some new information about international college applications. However, Ms. Fan had hoped he wouldn’t study outside the school because she believes that the school climate is relatively pure and the school-based student-teacher relations are sincere. When Weiwei attended

The educational consulting industry 135 the after-school classes, she didn’t know what kinds of people he would encounter. She was worried that he would be cheated by strangers. But Weiwei wanted to go elsewhere for the TOEFL and SAT classes to improve his U.S. college entrance test scores. He told Ms. Fan that many of his classmates did so. Ms. Fan had to agree with him and paid expensive class fees for the VIP classes and also school tuitions although Weiwei didn’t physically study a lot at school in the 11th grade. Her compromise was based on the desire for Weiwei to get good test scores for overseas college admissions.

Weiwei’s case is special but not unique — a few of the focal students in my study had similar informal schooling experiences. Sunny High IAP students often show their paradoxical feeling about their belonging to the school, especially when they compare their informal schooling with English training companies to their formal schooling with classmates and teachers. This point is demonstrated in Baixue’s critique about the Pole Star School.

SL: Do you think the Pole Star School can be referred to as a school?

BAIXUE: It cannot be referred to as a school because there are no renqing [ A1W, literally “human emotions.” In this context, renqing means “affective relations”] [between students and the Pole Star School], All affective relations only exist between students [in the Pole Star School]. For example, I might meet a very good friend there. We can get along well with each other. That’s all. But can you refer to Pole Star as a school? [No.] It [Pole Star] doesn’t view itself as a school [The company just uses the name of school],

SL: But is it called the Pole Star School'!

BAIXUE: It is the Pole Star educational training institution. That’s it. That means, I give it money, then it works for me. That’s it. In other words, I spend money purchasing their patents. Then, it [the Pole Star School] gives knowledge to me. That’s it.

SL: As you just mentioned, it is a trading relationship and an employment relationship. Are you satisfied with this relationship?

BAIXUE: From a pure perspective of completing a thing [study-abroad consulting], I would be very satisfied with the institution because it doesn’t involve too much renqing. However, if we give up going to a high school, we fully rely on attending Polar Star. Then... I think that we... our life is defective.

SL: Could you say more about this?

BAIXUE: I won’t have the feeling of going with classmates on a spring field trip. In other words, all classmates come together, laughing, taking pictures, taking graduation pictures, and taking pictures of other memorable moments. If I spend my three-years of high school there [at Pole Star], what a defective life it is.

Baixue emphasizes that if a student doesn’t attend collective activities and doesn’t have collective memories, his/her EQ (emotional quality) would decrease. What she interpreted implies that a school is a critical space where students interact with other students and teachers and produce affective relations (Lynch, Baker,

& Lyons, 2009). However, I argue that market-based social and educational reforms destroy the formation of these affective relations by imposing neolib-cral positions on public schools, stimulating the development of for-profit educational companies, and pushing students to consume educational services for their private interests. This imposing process contributes to the construction of students’ neoliberal subjectivities. However, people are not puppets. Some privileged Chinese students develop an awareness of what valuable things they lose in the process of preparing for international college applications. But they are involved in a paradox: on the one hand, they strategically utilize their family’s capital for achieving their instrumental goals of gaining high test scores for accessing world-class universities; on the other hand, they cannot avoid becoming the victims of neoliberal hegemony.

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