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

    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.