The Unified State Examination (USE) is a high-stakes exam for senior school students as its results determine the student's chances of being admitted to a good college and going on to a successful career. Thus, many parents are prepared to invest in shadow education, such as private tutors or preparatory courses offered by colleges or private providers, to help students prepare for the exam.
Such shadow education is widely perceived in Russia as a guarantee of success in the USE. Similar stereotypes exist in many countries, in particular those where college education is increasingly common. In this context, it is not surprising that experts estimate that, by 2018, the world will spend over 100 billion US Dollars each year on shadow education, including private tutors and preparatory courses. In Russia, the strong demand for shadow education has led to many opportunities from various tutors and course providers, yet whether or not they are helpful is a big question.
Zakharov and Loyalka found that, contrary to popular opinion, participating in shadow education does not always lead to better USE scores. In fact, the impact of such out-of-school studies is low even for high-achieving students, adding a few meagre points at best to their USE score, while for low-achievers, the benefit is often zero.
One possible reason why shadow education may not bring its perceived benefits is that high school students, particularly low achievers, may not know when the quality of such education is poor and continue to take it instead of changing the provider – only to find out after the exam that their time and money has been wasted.
The study's authors used a dataset covering 2,936 school seniors across 127 schools in three Russian regions, different in terms of their socioeconomic development, including the better-developed Krasnoyarsk Krai, followed by Yaroslavl and Pskov regions. The analyses used the students’ scores in two mandatory USE subjects, Russian language and mathematics, both of which are required by the vast majority of colleges. The researchers interviewed the students, their teachers in these subjects, and the school principals.
The study method controlled for those characteristics of the students, families and schools which did not change depending on the subject – such as student gender, parental education, or school type. In addition to this, the study's authors also controlled those characteristics which varied depending on the subject – such as basic vs. advanced level of instruction and the average grade 10 marks in the respective subject.
Zakharov and Loyalka presented their findings in the paper 'Does shadow education help students prepare for college?’
Almost 48% of grade 11 students participated in shadow education in Russian language (30% used private tutoring and 28% attended courses offered by colleges), and almost 55% participated in shadow education in mathematics (39% used private tutoring and 28% attended courses). Students who participated in shadow education differed from those who did not in terms of socioeconomic status (Graph 1, Table 1).
Students using tutors and courses were more likely to come from more affluent families, live in urban areas and attend elite schools, to have more books in the home, and to be slightly younger than their peers who did not participate in out-of-school education.
Table 1. Sociodemographic Characteristics of Students Participating in Shadow Education
According to Zakharov and Loyalka, shadow courses and private tutors tend to have little or no effect on an average student's exam score. The question is then who is helped by shadow education.
Comparing the impact of shadow education on high and low achievers (Table 2), we can see that the former improve their performance by 0.13 SD (p<0.05, column 1 table 2). In contrast, for low achievers the impact of shadow education is not statistically different from zero (column 2 table 2).
It follows from the above that since tutors and preparatory courses at colleges only help high-achievers, shadow education may contribute to social inequality, particularly given the socioeconomic differences between the two groups of students.
Table 2. Impacts of Shadow Education on High and Low Academic Achievers.
The study's authors examined two possible reasons why shadow education has little or no impact on student performance.
First, students may lack the skills to assess the quality of the shadow education services offered to them.
Second, students may substitute time spent in shadow education for other key learning activities.
The latter assumption, however, did not stand up to closer scrutiny, as the researchers found no impact of participation in shadow education on the time students were likely to spend on homework or self-study to prepare for exams.
The former assumption, however, appears plausible. Indeed, low academic achievers may not know which shadow education services are of poor quality and thus choose the wrong providers. If so, the impact of shadow education on social inequality can be mitigated by regulating this type of educational service and finding ways to inform students and their families about the quality or suitability of certain shadow education programmes.