Is it twilight for cram schools?

Yoyogi Seminar, the third-largest cram school in Japan, has announced the closure of 20 of its 27 schools and facilities by March 2015. That’s more than a change in business plan for the large and profitable entrance exam industry. It may well signal the end of the annual ritual called “exam hell” and a major shift in Japan’s attitude toward higher education in general.

The high competition that spawned the cram school industry in the late 1950s came from large numbers of students competing for the limited spots at universities. Students needed whatever help they could get, and their parents were willing to pay for it. The cram schools (yobikō or juku) analyzed the results of past exams and provided practice tests, drill practice and test taking tips.

The schools weren’t cheap. As parents began to lose faith in public high schools, especially with the advent of relaxed education, they paid high fees for classes that ran late into the evening after regular school finished. Many cram school instructors became superstars, commanding salaries far higher than university professors. As a result, private spending on education in Japan became twice the average for other OECD countries, with a large portion going to cram schools.

Now, though, with lower numbers of students and more university positions available, students don’t need cram schools’ services as much. With the economic downturn, many parents are no longer able to pay the high fees cram schools demand. Other social shifts also contributed to their decline.

Cram schools were great at training students to answer questions quickly, but were not as good at showing them how to pose questions or come up with novel solutions. They did not teach students how to take risks, only how to play it safe. During long evening and weekend sessions, students learned how to compete with people rather than cooperate.

The schools did little to prepare students for the demands of global economy and a much more complex society than in the 1950s and ’60s. Cram schools could help when the complex subjects of mathematics, Japanese language, science, English and social studies were reduced to the multiple-choice question format universities wanted, but they neglected the development of critical and creative abilities. Students passed the exams but did not learn to discuss and write meaningfully, or think independently.

Many cram schools will remain. Home tutoring, test practice and support for students, as a business enterprise, will never disappear. However, the cram school industry must confront a world that is increasingly nuanced, demanding and interconnected. Japan needs students who can do something more than pick the one right answer from a choice of four on a single day in February. They need young people who can think outside the box, interact with diverse types of people, and engage with the world in meaningful ways.

  • kyushuphil

    I love the writer(s) of this editorial.

    He, she, or they has got it completely right.

    The only Q remaining has to do with the cowardice of teachers in the public schools. These are souls (almost all of them dead souls) who first gave rise to the cram school culture by their own total irrelevance to student needs in the public school system. And they have never learned to compete — or to cooperate with students and their families in putting Japanese education at any of the variously needed levels of global context.

    The cram schools may be going away — but not because teachers in the public schools have themselves learned anything.

    The writer(s) of this editorial know(s) what Japanese education needs for personal and global relevance. Why must the mass of teachers in the public schools remain so irrelevant, so dumb, so cowardly — as if they remain like cows in the field, yet seeing students as so much grass, ever just grazing on them, as if students were — or were meant to become — just more vegetable fodder for more and other institutionally dead higher-ups to feed upon?

    • Oliver Mackie

      As somebody who has been working alongside many teachers in the public school system (at two different schools) for over a decade, your referring to them as “cowardly” and irrelevent” is as insulting as it is incorrect (i.e. extremely.)

      • kyushuphil

        Q’s of cowardice and relevance depend on context.

        You, with only ten years teaching experience, have only one-quarter mine. And if your experience is limited to just Japan, and perhaps your home country, you’re still at one-quarter mine.

        Unless you can cite, as I have (published widely) the works of film, literature, stage, and song, in addition to classroom behavioral research studies — from many countries — unless you can do that, you’re only tossing adjectives sufficient to display neophyte status.

      • Oliver Mackie

        I credit your experience. However, I am not the one making accusations, you are. I quote again, in full, ” the mass of teachers in the public schools remain so irrelevant, so dumb, so cowardly — as if they remain like cows in the field, yet seeing students as so much grass, ever just grazing on them, as if students were — or were meant to become — just more vegetable fodder for more and other institutionally dead higher-ups to feed upon”

        You show me a respectable academic study (not a film, or literature, or a song, they’re not require to stick to fact, you know) that will back up your accusation, using the type of descriptors you have.

      • kyushuphil

        Diane Ravitch, “The Language Police” (2003)

      • Oliver Mackie

        Thank you. But this book is about the U.S., is it not?

      • kyushuphil

        Yes, and mea culpa for my native U.S.

      • Oliver Mackie

        kyushuphil,

        I think we are probably very close to each other in what we would consider to be an ideal education and in our thoughts on standardized testing.

        My comments, however, have been directed at what you actually said in your comments here.

        The article is offering a brief history of crams schools in Japan, noting:

        1) “The high competition that spawned the cram school industry in the late 1950s came from large numbers of students competing for the limited spots at universities. Students needed whatever help they could get….parents began to lose faith in public high schools, especially with the advent of relaxed education…”

        2) “Now, though, with lower numbers of students and more university positions available, students don’t need cram schools’ services as much…”

        In evaluating crams schools, the article comments;

        “Cram schools were great at training students to answer questions quickly, but were not as good at showing them how to pose questions or come up with novel solutions. They did not teach students how to take risks, only how to play it safe. During long evening and weekend sessions, students learned how to compete with people rather than cooperate.

        The schools did little to prepare students for the demands of global economy and a much more complex society than in the 1950s and ’60s. Cram schools could help when the complex subjects of mathematics, Japanese language, science, English and social studies were reduced to the multiple-choice question format universities wanted, but they neglected the development of critical and creative abilities. Students passed the exams but did not learn to discuss and write meaningfully, or think independently.”

        I have no arguments with the article’s conclusions.

        In response to this article, you commented,

        “this editorial……has got it completely right.

        The only Q remaining has to do with the cowardice of teachers in the public schools. These are souls (almost all of them dead souls) who first gave rise to the cram school culture by their own total irrelevance to student needs in the public school system. And they have never learned to compete — or to cooperate with students and their families in putting Japanese education at any of the variously needed levels of global context.”

        As I have already noted, you also asked the question, “Why must the mass of teachers in the public schools remain so irrelevant, so dumb, so cowardly — as if they remain like cows in the field, yet seeing students as so much grass, ever just grazing on them, as if students were — or were meant to become — just more vegetable fodder for more and other institutionally dead higher-ups to feed upon?”

        Your comments do not, to me, seem to chime with your endorsement of what the article said.
        You say that the irrelevance of public school teaching caused the rise of the cram-school culture. You seem to use this as a criticism.
        The article noted that the public system did not bend to provide the kind of meaningless test-centered tutoring which the parents pushed children to undergo, in order to enter a university. This is something I believe is to its credit. The public education system in Japan, for all its faults, has tried to stay centered on educating the child in a wider sense than what is necessary just to pass a university entrance exam. It has also maintained a laudable focus on equality of opportunity for all.

        To back up your analysis of public education in Japan you have offered a model (“The Language Police” based on the U.S.) and you seem to be saying that this model applies to Japan too. OK so far. But as evidence of this argument, all you offer is a couple of films. One (24 Eyes) whilst certainly tackling a subject matter which is highly relevant, suffers very much form the fact that it is 80 years old, based on Japan between the wars, when the country became a highly militarized state. Regardless of what one may think of modern Japan, not a single person with any credibility in any relevant discipline claims that Japan (or Germany) is anything like what it was in the 1930s.

        The second piece of evidence you offer is another movie (a work of fiction, even if ‘based on a true story’) made in 2007 about a school in the U.S. racked by gang warfare and featuring a drive-by shooting as a key event. I do not see how this can be considered of any relevance to contemporary public education in Japan.

        I have to go to work now, but I will be happy to return later and provide details of how at the public institution where I work, we are given freedom and financing to help students develop the critical thinking and evidence-analysis skills they need, in the hope of making them better thinkers, public speakers, and writers, something which all the Japanese public school teachers I have worked with enthusiastically support.

      • kyushuphil

        I wish your positive perspectives applied widely here.

        The fact that your perspectives don’t apply widely shows now in two areas.

        First is English achievement. Japan doesn’t even rank in the top 100 countries in the world in its professionals having ability to use English. And in Asia, it is last or second-to-last of all thirty-some Asian countries internationally tested and anked for English skills.

        The reason Japan does so poorly in English is that its teachers care only for grammar — and most-humanly irrelevant, dead, depersonalized, rote, mechanical regimentation.

        Second is essaying skill. Only now are universities and ministries of ed beginning to ask for essaying skill from college applicants. It has not been a priority before now. Only dead, crammed into.

        I wish more films, memoirs, novels, essays, stage productions, and songs took account of what actually happens in ed in Japan. That they don’t shows the universal agreement here that human stories never apply in or in regard to schools.

        Schools in Japan — contrary to your immediate experience — are imaginative and human dead zones. Most all teachers accept forms of humanity with no inclination ever to ask questions.

        When more schools stress essay writing, and put life back into their currently dead, overly-rationalized, or infantile English, we can say that the larger nation approaches your local experience.

      • kyushuphil

        A note of caution on dismissing apparently far-afield examples.

        I’ve mulled over how you’ve done this, rejecting as you do an American film on a school there as without merit for better seeing Japanese education. As you said,”I do not see how this can be considered of any relevance to contemporary public education in Japan.”

        I’ve shown this film< "Freedom Writers," several times now to classes of high school students here in the mountains of Kyushu. It speaks to them.

        Japanese students can see the great sorrow in our lives, in any people's lives, when a culture of group withdrawal cripples our ability to see and as humans connect to people in other groups.

        The American kids learned about racism in this film. They learned about the stereotyping that drove the Holocaust. They learned about the disastrous human effects of silence on people who helpless conform to limited expectations for them from a prevailing status quo.

        Have you never heard of Chie Nakane and her take ("The Vertical Society") on how Japanese get shunted too much into groups much too much separated from each other?

        Have you never heard of the tens of thousands of "hikikomori," all those who feel so helpless in a society forcing too many into unquestioning conformities?

        Have you never heard of the controversy from China and Korea over the limited knowledge of Japanese of their own history from within living memory of many who suffered that history?

        My students know how a culture of silenced voices affects us all — even if one great stimulus for seeing this comes from a country not their own.

        If you can't see the relevance of human examples drawn more widely than in your ken, please consider yourself the possibilities of exercising less quickly your dogmatic dismissals. Please be ready to learn as others, even youth, may be willing to stretch their ken and so much better make connections you refuse to allow.

      • Oliver Mackie

        BTW, I have 25 years experience in education, but I will accept that 40 years is qualitatively different, IF you can tell me what it is that one discovers around the 30-year mark that one couldn’t at 15 or 20….

      • kyushuphil

        Drones become that way from the start.

        Too many teachers early on become passive enablers of whatever authority trains or hires them.

        Remember the scene in “24 Eyes” where the young teacher on the island of Shodoshima objected to the witch hunt on during the early 1930s to collect and burn all books which cast any doubt on the growing militarism then? All her fellow teachers just meekly went along with the hysteria.

        If you want to measure the idiocies of standardized testing, ask around to see how many students get to experience alternatives to that pressure, those idiocies. Student could, by contrast, be writing essays, quoting from other courses and from fellow student essays. Teachers could be modeling skills for this by themselves quoting from fellow instructors, for perspectives on how material in one course puts material in another field in better perspective.

        Remember the key scene in “Freedom Writers,” the 2007 film based on a true story. All the students were shut in their own gangs, their own imaginative ghettoes — unable to see outside, unable to see “others” — until obliged to look at each other and see pains and hurts exactly as or worse than their own.

        Most teachers do not ask vision of students — they don’t ask for writing, questions, or wider references. They kiss up instead to status quo authority. They have no interest in reading student work or in anyone’s quoting much outside oneself or one’s own narrow discipline.

      • Sam Gilman

        Here’s the problem I have with your claims.

        Essentially you’re saying that Japanese students are significantly less imaginative, less creative than other students around the world.

        However, when students from around the world are given problem solving assessments, Japanese students do rather well. On the last set of OECD “Pisa” assessments, where they have to apply knowledge to solve new problems, they were third in the world.

        How do you explain this?

      • kyushuphil

        “Disqus Digests” now shows an initial “comment” from you that, for some reason, I’d never received.

        So I only saw what I did receive, which was your 2nd, with its dismissal of fiction as compared to hard evidence.

        Your first “comment” asks a very decent Q — how to explain otherwise good evidence as to creativity abounding yet in Japanese youth.

        Without being baited as to causality — they are almost never simple, or singular — Japanese youth have had many blessings to stir them. One, diversion of funds that might have gone to military spending, but did not. Two, absence of massive wealth gap between rich and not-rich citizens.

        And three, a culture which intermittently for centuries has valued the individual voice in questioning the status quo of various times: Tanomura Chikuden, Ariyoshi
        Sawako, Ozu, Kawabata, Sōseki, Junichirō Tanizaki,
        Yosano Akiko, Bashō, Murasaki Shikibu, Miyazaki Hayao, Chie Nakane, Kurosawa.

        Some of these communicated “fictions.” Doesn’t matter. Engines for vitality, coherence, and respect for wider contexts come from many sources. Causality is humanly complicated. Or does this not occur to those living too exclusively in “hard facts,” those for whom “fiction” = “not true”?

      • Sam Gilman

        I’m sorry, but I fail to see how fiction counts as evidence. Fiction can be deployed to gain understanding of evidence, to put a human face on research findings. But as evidence of a social reality, in itself fiction counts for precisely nothing.

      • kyushuphil

        You’re making the mistake that “the best and the brightest” made back in the days before and during Nam.

        I was translator/interpreter of Vietnamese then — a grunt, Spec 4 and Spec 5 in the U.S. Army. I saw first-hand the human side. I also saw how, like you now, with your penchant for “evidence,” all then atop the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House poured out litanies and white papers of fact, statistics, graphs, charts, and other forms of hard rationality.

        They were all hard core materialists. They would win in Nam — they were so cocksure, so arrogant. They had the “evidence.” Such arsenals of shells, bombs, M-14′s, M-16s, Cobras, Hueys, B-52s, Agent Orange, napalm, fortified hamlets, etc., etc., etc.

        What they never had, with all their “evidence” and reams of fact, was any respect at all for the human heart.
        Fools, fools, fools — all of them from the best universities and the best think tanks in America. Such things as mere “fiction,” merely human stories, culture, couldn’t count for them, the hardcore materialists.

        There’s a black wall in Washington, D.C. now, on the Mall, where America’s final testament to such elite fools names the names of those just on one side who paid the ultimate price for such elite idiocy.

        Speak on, with your contempt for mere “fiction,” you who learn nothing from history.

      • Sam Gilman

        Phil,

        If you had read carefully, you would have seen that I certainly didn’t dismiss fiction as useless, and that I clearly said it had a role in giving research evidence a human face.

        And if you had thought carefully, you would have realised that your argument means that if I wanted to get a better understanding of the Vietnam War, I shouldn’t read a history book with all its “evidence” and “data”, I should instead watch Rambo, it being a work of fiction on the same topic.

        To put it simply, you’re exhibiting a failure to read and write critically. I suggest essay-writing. I hear it’s a cure-all.

      • kyushuphil

        Why the big either/or with you?

        It’d be your problem, except its hold on you has you also imputing my logic be binary as yours, also obliging total choices, all of one or all of another.

        Not only do you elevate feigned rationality and logic so much that you ascribing to others your own limitations, but you also flaunt a foppish cynicism. Essay-writing a “cure-all”?

      • Sam Gilman

        So you do accept the need for actual research evidence to support your claims? You appeared to spurn its value when I originally suggested it could not be wholly replaced by fictional work. The binary was created by you.

        Westerners can have all sorts of madcap ideas about Japan no matter how long they stay here. We need to show evidence where we can to back up our claims.

  • Oliver Mackie

    The real problem is indeed the area covered by the article but not the way it views it. It is true that the reason that the cram schools came into existence was to give students help that they weren’t getting in the public system to pass university entrance exams, but it fails to note that those entrance exams are exactly of the type that have no place in a well-designed education, i.e. simply attempts to get test-takers to memorize (then forget) a bunch of irrelevant information.
    The public system, which of course is far from perfect (but where isn’t it?), rightly places considerable emphasis on creating rounded human beings,
    not something that any ‘top’ Japanese university looks at when filling its ranks.