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.