Monthly Archives: January 2012

Asia Pacific Memo on Supplementary Education in Malaysia

Today, on January 26, 2012, we published an Asia Pacific Memo on supplementary education in Malaysia by Husaina Kenayathulla who has recently completed her PhD at Indiana University.

For her PhD Husaina has analyzed extensive data on the participation in supplementary education in Malaysia (extensive), including on ethnic and regional differences in that participation. In the Memo she focuses on the regulation of supplementary education. While Korea is known to be the case of the strictest regulation of supplementary education in the context of hypereducation, the Korean government has been battling hagwon mainly out of a concern with inequality. This is a concern that is also frequently raised in other jurisdiction, i.e. access to supplementary education may lead to class reproduction. Another concern, more prevalent in developing countries generally, is with corruption. This corruption is rooted in low teacher salaries and often involves the withholding of class materials during school hours to use these as the basis of tutoring after hours.

Neither inequality nor corruption are driving regulation in Malaysia, Husaina argues, instead it is a concern with the quality of education.


Abacus Instruction in Vancouver

Following my recent post on abacus education in Japan, I feel like I have to report on my daughters’ (6 and 9 years old) encounter with the abacus here in Vancouver. They have been attending an abacus school here since September, going once a week. A very good friend of ours mentioned that her daughters were going to abacus and given my past experience with abacus schools in Japan, we were eager to try this out for our girls, especially the older one who is very keen on math.

They’ve taken to it like fish to water and go with great anticipation.

When I told my good friend in Japan who is quite involved in abacus education that the girls were going, he sent two “one-touch” abacus for the girls so that they’re all equipped now.

The school that they attend was recently at the centre of a story in the Globe & Mail.

Some of the things that I find fascinating largely based on my research on juku in Japan:

  • most of the students at the location that our girls attend are Japanese or Japanese-Canadian
  • they range in age from 4 to their teens with a concentration in the early primary grades (just as in Japan)
  • the classroom  works just like juku classrooms that I’ve seen so often by now: There’s a head teacher who circulates and is assisted by a couple of younger teachers. One of the main activities that they undertake is まるつけ, i.e. the circling of correct answers, usually in red. When students missed a problem, they do it over until it is circled in red. This circling/correction is sometimes an occasion for instruction or explanation.
  • Instruction is always one-on-one (either by the main teacher or one of the assistants) allowing for a mixed classroom of beginners and more advanced students.
  • students progress on the basis of worksheets that require increasingly more difficult calculations, beginning with plus and minus, first single-digit numbers, then moving on to larger and more numbers to calculate.
  • some of the socialization roles that juku take on in Japan are also an element in the abacus juku. For example, some of the Japanese parents will remind their children to greet the teacher properly, to thank her and say good bye at the end of the lesson.

Interestingly, our teacher is the daughter of an abacus teacher. When I was doing research on juku in post-disaster Tohoku last week and mentioned that my girls were in abacus juku, some questions led to the observation that my interlocutor knows (of) our abacus teacher’s father. Small world.

An abacus juku that I visited in Sendai was a reminder of how astonishing abacus skills can be. Students there were doing something called “フラッシュ穴算”, i.e. flash calculations in their head. This is computer based and the program is pre-set to different levels of difficulty in the computations. A student will sit down and the program will flash a succession of numbers on the screen that the student adds, subtracts, multiplies or divides. For the younger students a series of four single-digit numbers might flash for a second each, while older students will be shown series of 10 3-digit numbers  over a short time span. Amazing!

In her abacus article for the Globe and Mail, education reporter Kate Hammer picked up quite nicely on the amazing calculations, but also on the almost physical learning that the manipulation of beads seems to foster. I have found this a fascinating aspect of instruction in juku for some time and it is something that the correspondent for The Economist also picked up on in describing the rhythmic chanting of chemical elements at a juku he visited.


Juku: It’s All About Perceptions

One of the most frequent question that is posed to me when I present my research on juku is: does supplementary education work? My two answers are: we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter for educational policy.

No Evidence of Efficacy of Supplementary Education

As to the first answer, we simply do not know whether various forms of supplementary education have any impact at all. There has been no careful and sustained research on this question that employs a credible scheme at controlling selection effects and we thus literally do not have an empirical clue.

Supplementary education advocates, especially if they are of the mind-set that the market and the introduction of market mechanisms “fix everything”, will respond that for-profit, fee-based supplementary education would not exist/continue to operate if it didn’t work.

That is not true, of course, and we might simply point to the large number of  herbal and pharmaceutical remedies that lead a happy and profitable existence in the market place without any credible hints at their efficacy.

Just like health remedies, measurements of supplementary education generally only come after the fact. In the case of accelerated instruction, supplementary education is only tested at its very end point, often the sitting of a standardized examination. At that point in time, however, it is impossible to consider not having participated in supplementary education.

All the same arguments apply for specific tools, teaching aids, and pedagogies. While many of these are intuitively plausible (e.g., yes, I suspect that an engaged student learns more and faster, and retains more of the learned knowledge/skills), there is very limited research that employs control groups or proxies thereof in formal education research either.

Beyond the ethical questions of interventions in children’s education based on a randomized trial, the greatest hurdle would be that we consider so many different factors important in shaping education outcomes, that we would need very large samples that would be subject to very specific and well-defined supplementary education interventions to establish the beginning of a causal relationship.

Whether or Not Supplementary Education ‘Works’, Policy-Makers Should Take it Into Account

But whether or not supplementary education “works”, the fact of its global growth is based on a wide-spread belief in its efficacy. Japanese parents do not seem to go through much trouble in informing themselves about a particular juku beyond word-of-mouth and trial lessons, as far as I can tell from my interviews with juku operators. Word-of-mouth and trial lessons obviously only provide an indication of efficacy, but no real measure thereof. Nevertheless, parents and their children are clearly willing to take a leap of faith and believe that these kinds of tutoring “work”, or more plausible, they are simply too insecure and nervous to question the perceived efficacy when they see all their neighbours believe in efficacy claims and do not want little Takeshi or Yumiko to fall behind.

The large-scale participation of students in supplementary education clearly has an impact on the education system. Whether this impact is primarily in skewing access to education, a distortion in classroom dynamics, or an introduction of quasi-streaming, the impact is very real in many countries that have entered into an era of hypereducation. For policy-makers who are concerned about the impact that supplementary education is having (and concern can obviously range from outrage to encouragement) the fact that supplementary education may or may not “work” is therefore irrelevant.

New Entrant in Vancouver Supplementary Education Field

A Facebook ad – of all things – recently pointed me toward the website of a seemingly new juku in Vancouver. It’s difficult to reproduce elements of the website without identifying the site itself, but the opening paragraph of the website’s “An Introduction” reads as follows:

Research has shown that life and work have changed, not just technologically, but also in the way we do things. It is no longer enough to have expertise in one skill area; rather, companies expect employees to be knowledgeable and capable in a variety of skills and subject matters. Current educational methods do not meet the needs of either the economy or the children they serve. Children leave school and university lacking the skills they need to be successful and contribute to the growth of Canada’s economy.

This is certainly one of the nicest-looking and most extensive websites for Canadian juku. Pretty, clear design, extensive content including a moderately active blog.

Interestingly, the content and methodology offered is somewhat original – a rarity in the supplementary education field in my experience. The claim at least is that this juku is integrating various subjects around specific themes and offering collaborative learning that parallels BC schools, but focuses on specific themes. It’s not clear at first glance whether this is meant to be remedial, supplementary or accelerated instruction. However, the frequent claim at newness and 21st-century-ness suggests that it is something between supplementary and accelerated instruction.

Unusually for a Vancouver juku, this seems to be neither a tutoring broker, nor is catering specifically to an ESL or immigrant audience. The location is close to Kitsilano Secondary in a neighbourhood that is less dense in juku than many other neighbourhoods.

Further Life of Economist Article

Some of the arguments in the article “Japan’s cramming schools – A controversial institution has some surprising merits” in The Economist are being picked up elsewhere.

Liz Dwyer, education editor for GOOD, in her post asks, “Could ‘Cram Schools’ Be on Their Way to America?” and refers directly back to the article in The Economist.

I posted a reply:

Yes, juku-style “cram schools” are appearing in the U.S. Never mind SAT prep outfits like Kaplan, etc., but NCLB provides funding for tutoring services for students in schools that consistently underperform. It’s too early to tell whether these tutoring services will emerge as large juku corporations (local and state-specific registration seems to prevent this).

Note that supplementary education is not just booming in places where it is long-established (like Japan, but also Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Turkey for non-Asian examples), but in settings like France and Germany where it may be less associated with “cramming”. For now, this boom is focused on remedial tutoring, rather than accelerated instruction.

Note also that reliance on supplementary education is migrating with families.

[Note that I’ve added small parts of my reply that I had to cut to comply with the <1,000 chars req on their website]

I would add that I’ve previously posted about the curious fascination with juku-like institutions in Manhattan and elsewhere in the U.S.

Another place that the article is being commented on is by Roger Soder (apparently) on the “Education and Community” blog. This post takes the original article to task for its – supposedly – too rosy outlook on aspects of juku. While I would generally share the view that The Economist takes too positive a view of for-profit initiatives and the market (no surprise at this assessment and my agreement, I presume), in this case, I believe that this rosiness is due to the brevity of the article not necessarily an editorial stance.

I do always like to stress that juku should not be rejected as mere “cram schools”, but that there are many aspects of teaching in juku that are very attractive (some of the charismatic educators that run some of the smaller juku, for example), while other aspects are much less attractive.