Monthly Archives: October 2011

Entrance Examinations and How They Distort History Education in Japan

Before I refocused much of my research on supplementary education, I conducted a lot of research and wrote a dissertation on history education in Japan and the Germanys. I published this research as a book last year, “Guilty Lessons? Postwar History Education in Japan and the Germanys“. While I don’t discuss supplementary education in that book at all, my research on history textbooks was in part an inspiration for my current focus on juku.

In the course of a major research project, there are a number of questions that get asked time and again, some virtually every time one presents on a given topic. For my research on history education, especially in the Japanese context (the book was comparative in nature and included a discussion of history textbooks in East and (West) Germany as well), one of the questions I frequently heard was, “Yeah, but no one reads the textbooks anyway, students only study for the entrance examinations and thus rely on juku materials to study history.”

As you can see right away, this was not really a question and it was typically posed in that dismissive “so what?” manner that we academics unfortunately pose so often to each other. Nevertheless, I took this question seriously and after having heard it a couple of times went looking for research on the portrayal of national history in juku materials/instruction hoping to be able to add citations for this literature in footnotes to at least address this question even if I would not be able to answer it properly.

Note that this is also a question that Philip Seaton raises in his review of my book for Monumenta Nipponica.

As I went looking for this literature, it quickly dawned on me that there was no such literature. While I found this astonishing – given the frequency with which this question was posed -, I assume that it was a bit of an oversight in the larger literature on juku and on Japanese students’ sources of knowledge in different elements of their education. No such luck, there is no sustained engagement with these topics in any social science literature in Japanese or other languages. This observation was one of the central insights that propelled me toward juku research.

 Kazuya Fukuoka’s Research on the Reception of History Textbooks and the Role of Juku

Kazuya Fukuoka is a political scientist at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia (U.S.) I met him some years ago at a conference that was hosted by the Hiroshima Peace Institute and organized by Mikyoung Kim and Barry Schwartz. Kazuya co-authored a chapter with Barry Schwartz that appeared in the edited volume that resulted from this conference, Northeast Asia’s Difficult Past (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2010), “Responsibility, Regret, and Nationalism in Japanese Memory”.

Kazuya has also just published a new article in the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, “School History Textbooks and Historical Memories in Japan: A Study of Reception“. In October 2011, the article was available on the Springer website as an OnlineFirst publication. Through in-depth interviews, Kazuya determines that the reception of materials presented in school, especially textbooks, is not a straight-forward mechanistic process, but that it varies significant across individuals.

One of the aspects that Kazuya focuses on in particular (yes, I’m finally coming around to the juku link in this whole discussion), is the role of “entrance examination hell” (no page# given in the PDF I obtained through my university’s subscription). In his interviews, Kazuya heard reports from his interviewees that contemporary history was rarely discussed in the upper years of high school because it rarely appeared on university entrance examinations, and that history/social sciences is primarily perceived as a subject that requires memorization.

Social Studies in Juku Instruction

What Kazuya reports on the basis of his interviews here confirms my experience in juku as well. First of all, social studies is relatively rarely requested by students/parents. The dominant subjects continue to be Japanese, mathematics and – in middle and high school – English.

When I have observed 社会科 classes in juku, they have largely reflected that same kind of encyclopedic quality that Kazuya’s informants mentioned and that also corresponds to the empiricism that I found to characterize history textbooks.

The one notable exception I have come across in my fieldwork is a small juku in Chiba where the 塾長 (who is very active in juku association circles centred on Tokyo) spends a fair amount of time using coverage of a specific theme in newspapers to explore current events and their linkages to the three social studies subjects.

Guest Post: German Nachhilfe

A guest post by Steve Entrich, PhD Student, Univ of Potsdam:

 “Private Nachhilfe” or after-school lessons as given in juku-like institutions, private tutoring at home, and all other forms of supplementary education has been the focus of an annual debate in Germany.  Parents, education experts and politicians, who see this kind of “shadow education” as a result of shortcomings in schools, regularly express their concern about the growth of supplementary education.

Where once a school was able to guarantee children an education good enough to succeed in society, many parents now see the future of their children at risk due. The fear that the school system is not changing quickly enough or at least not in the right direction to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury leads to more private agitation.

Naturally, demands for responses focus on schools’ accountability. To do so, reforms of the educational system are necessary and were implemented over the past few years – mainly as a result of the bad performance of German pupils in PISA 2000. In general, PISA has led to an unbelievable amount of research activities.

What is often forgotten is the fact that research focused not just on the assumed failures of schools is needed, but also about Nachhilfe, which was also the topic of a lot of discussions.

For some years the German media is now bringing up the problem of Nachhilfe but except a few regionally specific social scientific projects no national or even comparative study has been carried out.

In the end, not all the debates about concerns towards this kind of education were pointless.

Finally, in 2007 the government reacted and the BMBF, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, commissioned a report. Shortly after, the selected private research institution, the FiBS (Institute for Education and Socio-Economic Research and Consulting), came up with a survey of over 169 pages summing up all the available data about forms of commercial Nachhilfe, data records about offering institutions and an international overview about comparable data including Austria, England, Poland, Japan and South Korea.

The survey was titled with: “What do we know about Nachhilfe? – Status and Examination of Research Literature about Offering, Need and Effect” (in German).

All in all, the education experts of the FiBS stated, that the current state of research was “fragmentary” or rather “confusing” (p. 12) and so a lot of work has to be done until we can fully understand how we – in political as well as societal terms – have to deal with this educational reality.

Clearly we will have to observe other Nachhilfe-systems around the world to see what concepts seem promising to us for dealing with Shadow Education. Sadly not much was done after the FiBS report was published. While I myself am in the middle of a research project about Shadow Education in Germany and Japan, not much is done in German research institutes to see what is going on in Nachhilfe-institutions. Just one thing seems to be clear: Nachhilfe – or however you may entitle this kind of private tutoring – is expanding all over the globe. Last year FiBS started a survey about Nachhilfe in the G8-States and found out, that the need for supplementary education of this kind is growing steadily.

One reason for this – Nachhilfe institution operators themselves said so – are the school reforms mentioned above, e. g. the structural reform of the Gymnasium, where students don’t need to go to school for 13 years altogether (including 4 to 6 years of primary education) but just 12 years. Pressure in school has intensified and so more and more students (and parents) look for help – and they find it. If you follow FiBS, 58 % of institutional Nachhilfe offers stated that the request for their private after school lessons has steadily increased over the past few years.

I still hope for more research activity in this field of study and am happy, that the BMBF has already included a section about out-of-school learning in the national report on education as a result of the FiBS report. We do know that Nachhilfe exists and is expanding; we just have to understand how to deal with this fact in the present and the future as well.





Competition = Excellence?

In an editorial for the Globe & Mail on Oct 11, 2011 (“Alberta’s Education System Offers Lesson in Competition“), Tom Flanagan, a professor at the Univ of Calgary and presumed confidant of Prime Minister Harper, extolled Alberta schools for their status as higher ranking than “those of any other English-speaking jurisdiction in international tests of education competence”.

The editorial asks the question why exactly Alberta has been doing so well. This is a very worth while question to ask, even after considering whether standardized scores have much to say that’s meaningful. While many countries (who have done poorly, e.g. Germany, but also some who have done very well, i.e. Japan) are somewhat obsessed with PISA scores, these scores are largely ignored in Canada.

However, Dr. Flanagan hardly provides an answer to this question. He merely lists the many alternatives that are open to students and parents in Alberta. From the number of alternatives, Dr. Flanagan concludes that there is vibrant competition among these alternatives. By some unspecified leap of faith, he then concludes further that this competition must produce the excellence that is observable in Alberta.

It is this logic that underpins many of the arguments for supplementary education as well. Choice leads to competition among schools (or supplementary education institutions) which leads to excellence as only excellent options “survive” competition.

Yet, there is little more than apparent logic that speaks in favour of these links. Empirical evidence is scant at best.

For example, on charter schools, research in the United States has questioned whether such schools actually open up competition because geographic mobility inhibits further-away choices. Dr. Flanagan counters with bussing strategies in Albertan cities that bring options closer to interested students. Fair enough, yet ultimately the number of options that students and parents look upon as reasonable to consider is still very small.

Next, does choice actually produce competition and if yes, competition on what? The choices that Dr. Flanagan points to (from charter schools to various language immersion options) sound great and many of them would certainly be options that I would consider with my children (disclosure: my children are all enrolled in public French immersion schools in Vancouver), but few of these alternatives explicitly aim at pedagogical or outcome excellence, they seem to emphasize content options instead. By which logic does the presence of French or Mandarin immersion programs raise math achievement scores?

Some pedagogical alternatives do exist, of course. How do students and parents evaluate these options? Presumably on the basis of some kind of standardized testing and word-of-mouth. The latter is probably somewhat unreliable, even in smaller cities, but somewhat meaningful, while the former may be fairly reliable, but only meaningful for broad comparisons, much less so for the individual fate of a student within a given school.

It is precisely questions that emanate from a discussion about the role of choice and excellence that have driven me to research about supplementary education in Japan. Here’s an entire sub-education system that’s built around for-profit competition with no shortage of options and parents in metropolitan regions who are not inhibited at all about sending children 90 minutes on public transport to a specific juku. Yet, a diversity of options? Excellence?

The diversity of options is entirely restricted to a diversity of delivery methods (individual, small group, less and less large group, on-line, worksheets, etc.). There is virtually no curricular diversity in a supplementary education system that shadows conventional schools quite closely. The same holds for other countries where hypereducation has taken root, i.e. Korean or Taiwan in E Asia, or Brazil, Egypt, Turkey elsewhere around the world.

So in the end, I would certainly agree with Dr. Flanagan that choices, especially substantive and curricular choices for students are a good thing. However, I’m not sure what part, if any, of the observed excellence in standardized testing is due to the presence of choices.

An Era of Hypereducation?

In 2010 I wrote an Asia Pacific Memo that argued that “hypereducation” was the way of the future. In this Memo, I was primarily referring to contemporary education in South Korea as a hypereducation system, but also predicting that China was heading in this direction.

What do I mean by hypereducation?

Here are some aspects that define hypereducation:

  • private investment that approaches or surpasses public investment in education even when this public investment is substantial
  • a strong, collectively-agreed upon belief in the importance of education/educational credentials for intergenerational social mobility
  • a highly institutionalized supplementary education sector that goes beyond immediate and short-term concerns with remedial efforts or exam preparation
  • a broad lack of trust in conventional schools (including private schools) that flies in the face of empirical evidence that suggests a high level of achievement

What societies have entered this era of hypereducation? In East Asia: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. If you agree with my Asia Pacific Memo argument, then China is not far behind? Elsewhere? The island of Manhattan, clearly. I still know too little about non-Asian cases like Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Portugal and Turkey to be able to judge whether hypereducation is also developing in these countries.