Category Archives: Press and Media

Supplementary Education in Vancouver

Some years ago, I coordinated a mini-census of supplementary education institutions in Metro Vancouver. I reported on this project in an article in Education Canada in 2008. I have continued to keep an eye out for the appearance and growth of supplementary education in Vancouver since then. (See the appropriate Canada/Vancouver category in Jukupedia).

In June 2012, Janet Steffenhagen, the education reporter for the Vancouver Sun has written a nice piece on supplementary education in Vancouver.

Ms Steffenhagen reports on her visits to two supplementary education schools in Vancouver. She draws on my research on Japan in looking at the possible factors not just in the global growth of supplementary education, but also in the motivations for students/parents in Vancouver to begin to avail themselves of supplementary education.

If you’ve been reading other entries in the Jukupedia, you will not be surprised that I disagree with some of the implications of an explanation for participation in supplementary education in Canada as rooted in “cultural” preferences, as one interview in this article with a Vancouver Sylvan Learning Centre director notes. There are many institutional and structural reasons for the growth of supplementary education and any explanations that emphasize culture (by which most people seem to mean, national origin, coupled with some kind of immutable preferences for certain social interactions over others) neglect the mediation of any cultural preferences by the institutional conditions of schooling.

Yet, even a more complex understanding of cultural factors as they play into more general institutional conditions, would note that there are real differences in expectations of education across demographic categories, including ethnic communities and origin-of-immigration. As the BC government is considering revisions to the BC curriculum through the BC Ed Plan, it would be well worth considering the impact that such revisions could have on schools (public and private) via supplementary education businesses.

The センター試験 as the Linchpin of Educational Reform

An edited and more concise version of this post appeared as an editorial in the Japan Times on Friday, February 3, 2012, entitled “Stocking up on useless facts to pass an exam“.

I have been studying 学習塾 for over six years and have visited more than 50 individually-operated throughout Japan. I have been thrilled by the dedication of charismatic educators, and dismayed by the relentless focus on standardized test results and by the lack of a diversity of offerings beyond the narrow confines of the curriculum in an era of hypereducation.

Recently, thousands of students sat for the central university entrance examination (センター試験, see National Center for University Entrance Examinations). For ambitious students, the exam is merely a requirement to check off on their way to the entrance examinations for specific fields of study that follow later. For others, the exam is a convenient way to avoid multiple examinations if they are not opting for entrance to university via the increasingly common recommendation route (推薦). The exam is one of the ultimate goals that supplementary education through primary and secondary schooling focuses on.

When I read the exam questions that were reprinted in newspapers last week, I felt great dismay and a concern for Japan’s future. Despite the tremendous resources that the state, students, and parents invest in education, the linchpin of the education system tests knowledge that I – as a university professor – am not looking for in my students and that is unlikely to serve the Japanese nation and Japanese businesses in the postindustrial era.

Yes, for a student who will go on to a doctorate in literature, it is important to know whether Erasmus wrote before or after Cervantes and Petrarch (Q9 in the World History B portion of this year’s test). But this knowledge is only relevant in rare circumstances and does not speak to any kind of skill. The very nature of the exam – short answers selected from a list of options – pushes the education system towards a pursuit of only variously useful factual knowledge that is rarely linked to any communication and analysis skills. It is one of the great strengths of juku that they seem to prepare students well for this kind of exam. This may also be at the root of the consistently high ranking of Japanese students in international comparisons of educational achievement like PISA.

To make education more relevant to the skills of the 21st century, the core of its content has to be reformed. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) should initiate an experiment with a limited essay format that requires students in social studies’ subjects, Japanese, and English to provide an analysis of a topic discussed in a short reading or through the presentation of specific data. This experiment should be announced ahead of its implementation initially without an impact on students’ results in the first two years.

During this period of experimentation, MEXT and the National Center for University Entrance Examinations might also consider various options to provide the labour to mark essays, a process that is highly labour intensive, even for a short essay. Given the number of out-of-work PhDs, perhaps there could be a system of fellowships at participating universities that required fellows to participate in the marking of the central examination. It should be noted that many universities already provide the labour to grade the university-specific entrance examinations that come after the central exam, and these often include essay formats.

After some tweaking of the essay format, this critical thinking skills portion of the exam could be gradually expanded to take its place alongside the current focus on knowledge acquisition. The English portion of the exam should be shifted from testing arcane grammatical knowledge (受験英語) to an emphasis on communication paralleling the introduction of an essay format. With a long-term plan in hand, current elementary students could be told that the central exam will have changed by the time they will sit for it and this will allow them, parents, teachers and even juku teachers to adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Through such a gradual transition, the central exam as the linchpin of an exam-oriented Japanese educational system could be transformed from its current role as an enforcer of test-taking English, arcane knowledge, and cramming strategies into a meaningful test of relevant skills and knowledge.

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.

The Economist on Supplementary Education

The week, The Economist’s Kenneth Cukier published an article entitled “Japan’s cramming schools – Testing times: A controversial institution has some surprising merits”. I was thrilled, of course, that he quoted me in the article as a “rare expert on juku”.

Great to see the 塾 character in the accompanying cartoon as well.

As is almost always the case with press and media accounts, the article is relatively short and thus has to gloss over some of the complexities of the phenomenon of supplementary education in Japan and elsewhere. I’ve been struggling with this myself all along in that there are some relatively simple (and thus short) messages I like to offer as conclusions from my research on 塾, but even these are necessarily simplifications (see the categories on the right to explore some of my research on hypereducation in Japan). The Economist’s Japan correspondent also picked up on some of these message, for example by referring to the variety of different juku that exist. While this is not the kind of variety that proponents of the privatization or liberalization often expect (i.e. a flowering of pedagogies and pedagogical innovations), some of the “immobilist politics” in Japanese educational policy (Len Shoppa of the Univ of Virginia used this term in a book on Nakasone educational reforms) is being unsettled by innovations in the supplementary education industry.

The scene Kenn recalls from Seiran Gakuin in his article is one that I have witnessed in many of the almost 50 juku that I’ve visited in Japan. Seiran Gakuin happens to be one of my favourites and is led by  林 政夫 who is one of the great examples of charismatic educators in the juku world.

When Kenn refers to surveys in Japan that attribute juku attendance to shortcomings in education systems (an element of the article that has been picked up by some Twitter reactions to it already), I would offer a qualification – an important qualification, I think – that it is perceptions of shortcomings in Japanese education that seem to be driving parents and students to juku. Whether such shortcomings exist in an empirically demonstrable way is much less clear, and it is always interesting to note that it is not only perceived shortcomings in public education, but in private schools as well. Private school students in Japan also attend juku in large numbers after all.

The Economist on hagwon

Note that The Economist ran an article about supplementary education in Korea in its Christmas special. I have previously written about South Korea as the paragon of hypereducation.

Much of what this article writes about Korea is also true of Japan, of course.

Japan is also a “one-shot” society in that there are few alternative educational or career transition tracks other than graduate from high school, sit entrance examinations, repeat with intensive preparatory study if necessary, graduate from university, apply for jobs during recruitment season, live happily ever after.

While the school-to-work transition is not as smooth as it was in high-flying economic times (I’m currently reading Mary Brinton’s “Lost in Transition” on just this topic), there still are very few re-entry students or alternative routes to higher education in Japan.

The discussion about the costs of the university entrance exam focus in Korea are mirrored more or less in Japan, though the concern with equity via for-profit supplementary education (hagwon) has historically been much greater in South Korea. Unlike the article on Japan (which ends with a note about broken government systems), the article on Korea ends on a more hopeful note focusing on young Koreans as a generation that might bring about/force change. There is little of such a dynamic visible in Japan…

Shanghai PISA Results

In today’s Globe and Mail Mark Mackinnon had a folio about primary and secondary education in Shanghai. This piece basically started with last year’s PISA results where Shanghai students scored highest among comparison “countries” to tell a story of a narrow focus on exams and test-taking. While the article describes the situation in Shanghai well and fills this description out with some interested quotes from officials, the situation in Shanghai as it is described will be quite familiar to readers from other hypereducation societies.

This also confirms my long-standing prediction that China is quickly headed to hypereducation on a national and thus massive scale.

One element in Mark’s article that I noticed was that he wrote that “In faraway North America, there was the usual handwringing that children there are falling further behind studious (and numerous) Asian kids.” I would contend that at least for Canada there was relatively little of that handwringing in part because participating Canadian provinces consistently do well on PISA and similar comparative standardized tests. This seems to have given the Canadian public a certain self-confidence that borders on the self-satisfied when it comes to the discussion of education elsewhere.

The other element I noticed in the article was that Mark didn’t mention the doubts about the results from Shanghai in last year’s PISA. PISA results have been subject to extensive methodological scrutiny in almost all participating jurisdictions. Some commentators suspect that some of the test-to-test improvements in students’ achievement are primarily the result of gaming the test system on the part of education authorities rather than of substantive improvements, especially when no policy changes have been implemented between test iterations.

One obvious methodological challenge with the Shanghai results is that these compare students in a single city (and one that can be assumed to be particularly resource-rich and filled with ambitious parents compared to the national Chinese average) to entire countries. This is also true of Hong Kong and Singapore results, of course, but brings with many fewer sources of variation in achievement through rural-urban inequalities, etc.

The Shanghai results in some ways seem so outlandish that it’s difficult not to doubt their veracity. 600 on math when the next closest score is 562 (Singapore) and other point differentials tend to be in the single digits between countries? Hm…

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that Mark repeated the OECD’s claim that 80% of Shanghai students attend supplementary education. Little further information has emerged about this claim, though I suspect that most of it is in the form of private, one-on-one tutoring, but there have been numerous discussions about the pressure that this exerts on all Shanghai students. This, of course, will once again be familiar to parents and observers of many other hypereducation societies.

Recurring Concerns about Tutoring in Germany

Yesterday I had a chance to meet Steve Entrich, a doctoral candidate at the Univ of Potsdam near Berlin. Steve is planning to write a dissertation that will compare aspects of shadow education in Japan and Germany.

Steve presented his plans for his dissertation. In the discussion, including discussions with his supervisor, Wolfgang Lauterbach, it was clear that research on supplementary education and tutoring in Germany is going through the same development that many of us are experiencing elsewhere, i.e. suffering from the fact that our research interest seems to fall between institutional cracks, particularly in Faculties or Schools of Education where supplementary education fits neither with K-12 education (focused exclusively on formal, state-recognized schools), nor with adult education (focused on, er, adults).

However, I also learned that Nachhilfe (remedial tutoring) does attract a fair bit of periodic attention in the German press where it is largely perceived as a growing “problem”. One of the main concerns is with equity and class-specific access to educational resources. A focus on the inequality that is – at least on the surface – inherent in for-profit, fee-based supplementary education, seems to be an important “hook” to motivate this kind of research in academic contexts with a strong focus on inequality (continental European sociology, Korea, etc.)

While Nachhilfe thus shows up periodically in the German press, there is no sustained attention to this issue, nor has it become a focus for any research projects.

The discussions in Potsdam reinforced my sense that there is a great need for more exchanges among researchers with an interest in supplementary education.

Curious Opposition to Tutoring among Exam Setters

I mentioned a NYT article about widespread tutoring in Manhattan previously.

Very early on the article notes that “Riverdale discourages […] tutoring” referring to Riverdale Country School, apparently a fancy private school in NYC.  This school requires the SSAT or ISEE test for admission, both SAT-like tests for younger children (for entry to middle and high school).

This appears to be a common pattern among institutions who administer admission tests, i.e. they like to discourage tutoring for these tests. Whether it is based on an argument (this seems to be quite transparently false) that these are “aptitude” tests and thus can’t be prepped for, or on an equally spurious argument that prepping is undesirable and not conducive to the development of students.

Even in a hypereducation system like Japan, officials at schools that require entrance examinations often stick to the line that their test can be mastered (i.e. passed with a very high score) without any particular coaching. This would have to mean that a high score can be achieved on the basis of school attendance only. Or so, some of the exam setters claim. Most parents seem to disagree.

Why I understand that no exam setters wants exam takers to be able to “game” the exam, I am less certain where this allergy against test preparation among exam setters comes from. I suspect, however, that it is an element of embarrassment as the perceived need for tutoring exposes the fact that such tests do offer greater chances at higher scores to exam takers who devote resources (time and money) to exam preparation; resources that are obviously limited and distributed unevenly among the potential test-taking population.

June 2010 Asahi Editorial: Education Reform from Below

Last year (2010/06/16) I wrote an editorial for the on-line English edition of the Asahi:

POINT OF VIEW: While Policymakers are looking elsewhere, Japanese education is being reformed from below

Japanese elementary and high school education seems to have been lurching from one crisis to the next over the past 10 years.

From fears during the dot-com era that Japanese children were not being prepared for a post-industrial economy, to the apparent disaster caused by the implementation of “yutori” education, to the steady stream of social ills discovered in the nation’s schools–“ijime” (bullying); “gakyu hokai” (dysfunctional classrooms); “gakuryoku teika” (declining academic ability); and “futoko” (refusal to attend school)–politicians and the media continue to identify aspects of the decline of Japanese education.

By contrast, foreign observers might point to near-universal high school graduation, literacy and numeracy, as well as high rates of participation in higher education, as characteristics of the education system that call claims about a long-term decline into question.

Regardless of the empirical reality of a decline, the solutions to this decline are constantly sought outside of Japan.

Over the past five years, a number of models have been discussed at near-obsessive levels. From Indian arithmetic to the Finnish and Dutch education systems, pundits, academics and politicians seem to be travelling the world to find solutions to perceived Japanese problems at the national level.

Yet, few conclusions from these travels seem to get serious consideration by the apparently paralyzed Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Few politicians have the substantive expertise on education or the interest that would be necessary to evaluate claims of decline or alternative models to the extent that they could be implemented.

While a general sense of malaise permeates national discussions of education, local boards of education and schools are beginning to experiment with some very significant changes to public education, especially in Tokyo. Given the rarity with which political reforms in Japan bubble up from grass-roots experimentation, such efforts ought to be recognized, publicized, and considered for scalability to the national education system.

One of the areas of greatest experimentation has been emerging public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the schools of Tokyo’s wards. Originally pursued in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, PPPs strive to harness private investments in public (infrastructure) projects and constitute an element in the so-called third sector. Toll roads are the paradigmatic examples of infrastructure PPPs. In Japanese education, PPPs are emerging where ward boards of education are signing contracts with supplementary education businesses (juku) to provide additional instruction to public school students on school premises in the afternoons and on weekends.

These “konai juku” are a daring experiment in that they are breaking with a decades-old attitude of confrontation between formal education and the shadow education world of juku and “yobiko.” The opposition to the existence of the juku system has been one of the few areas of policymaking where the formerly powerful Japanese Teachers Union (Nikkyoso) found itself in agreement with education ministry bureaucrats.

However, as the perception of significant shortcomings in public education has spread, local officials have increasingly looked to the supplementary education industry as a possible source for solutions.

Education PPPs now operate in all wards of metropolitan Tokyo. They have been created in the context of school choice that has been pushed down to the elementary school-level and encourage principals to seek distinguishing features for their schools that might stem the tide to private education in the capital. Coincidentally, the introduction of school choice has also been spearheaded by local efforts, most notably in Shinagawa Ward.

These PPPs take many different forms, some specifically targeting students who are underperforming, some aiming at the average students who have been somewhat neglected in public discourse, while others are providing the accelerated education and exam preparation for which some of the larger juku schools are famous.

Activities span from test-taking services, to classroom or individualized instruction, to teacher education seminars. While teachers and union officials are opposing these experiments in some schools, others are welcoming juku into the school for what they offer at the moment, a constructive experiment. One of the ironies of the entry of juku into publicly-run schools is that this signifies the re-introduction of Saturday school by stealth.

Juku are clearly not the panacea to end all educational ills that some proponents make them out to be. The scarcity of any research on juku means that claims of their efficacy and superior ability to tailor educational content to individuals and their learning needs, remain just that, claims. Whether or not one accepts the pessimistic view of contemporary Japanese education, however, experimentation with alternatives is an element that has long been missing in the highly-centralized education system, and these grass-roots efforts should be encouraged, nurtured and taken seriously.

While experimentation is to be welcomed, it should also be supervised and held accountable. Obviously, long-term contracts between private education providers and schools or boards of education have significant fiscal implications. They also bear the potential for creeping privatization of public education.

Boards of education should monitor these experiments very carefully and should themselves be held accountable for their experimentation.

I’ve written about the shift of power to grass-roots level in Japan on this blog as well.

Another Article on Hypereducation in Exotic Manhattan

As a Japan researcher, I am perfectly accustomed to the exoticization of all things linked to Japan in most journalistic accounts. That includes the rare articles on juku, of course. But the cherry blossoms, “Fujiyama”, geisha, etc. articles and motifs have nothing on the extent to which I am accustomed to the exoticization of Manhattan as a supplementary education researcher.

This week, Jenny Anderson had an article on tutors hired by parents of selective Manhattan schools. While the article (and the comments on it) contain a lot of interesting information and discussion, it’s hard not to read this information with an easy “ts, ts, ts, these überrich Manhattanites” reaction.

That kind of reaction misses the reality of the Manhattan situation for many parents around the world. For the U.S., hypereducation may be limited to the always-exotic island of Manhattan (minus palm trees and jungle), but in countries like Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Turkey, among others, it is a pervasive reality.

Exam Success Qualifies Teachers and Consultants

In today’s Globe & Mail, Tralee Pearce wrote an article that reports on efforts by Toronto parents to seek advice on school admission. This is a nice contrast to a Manhattan-focused article on Kumon in the NYT some weeks ago.

The first thing I noticed that even the most anxious Toronto parents are positively serene in their attitude compared to Manhattan parents. No big surprise there.

What’s more interesting in a general way and as a lens on Japanese supplementary education, is that the article discusses the status of past entrance exam takers in imparting wisdom on the entrance exam. This personal experience is something that is valued very highly in the juku world as well.

While not all juku-cho are graduates of the most prestigious universities (remember that this is a clear and nearly universally-agreed upon category in Japan), many of them are.

In part, this educational background is rooted in the fact that one of the trajectories that has led individuals to become supplementary education entrepreneurs is their role as tutors (家庭教師) during their university years. For some individuals, success in this role and requests from parents to also tutor younger siblings, for example, then led to the foundation of a juku.

In hiring tutors Japanese parents clearly seem to prefer students at prestigious universities, though I’m not sure whether there is any data to corroborate this suspicion. While it seems relatively unimportant to parents whether a tutor or juku instructor has any pedagogical qualifications (formal in the form of a teaching license, or informal in the sense of a talent), subject-specific knowledge, or rapport with students. Instead past experience and success in entrance exams seems to trump many of these other possible considerations.

There are a number of aspects of this preference that I find odd. On the one hand, it suggests a strong belief in the uniformity of learning styles. A students’ individual strengths and abilities are not considered when any past exam taker is seen as an expert independent of whether this student was largely self-motivated or needed a highly regimented study regime, for example.This belief in the uniformity of learners is closely linked to a strong belief in the efficacy of effort in educational success. Adages such as “four hours success – five hours failure” (referring to the hours of sleep during exam preparation, I’ll have to dig up the Japanese original for this some time) are indicative of this belief in effort rather than aptitude.

Contrast this belief in homogeneous learners with the equally strong perception of differences between entrance examinations. This has long puzzled me when looking at the large number of how-to manuals that describe entrance examinations for particular schools (whether at the lower or upper secondary, or the higher education level). For secondary education at least, most of the entrance examinations are based on the school curriculum. While there have been some departures from that in the 2002-2011 yutori years (some private schools basing exams on pre-yutori curricula, one of the rare departures from the official curriculum in juku coverage as well), the subject matter of entrance exams is generally the subject matter of school textbooks and lessons which in turn is the subject matter of all educational aids used in juku (教材).

Given the curriculum as a basis, why is there specific advice for how to take the exam for school A vs. school B? The advice often focuses on a preference for a specific type of question (this is particularly true for university entrance exams where volumes of past exams are analyzed and available for practice tests), yet it would seem to me that at a certain level a student who is well-versed in the school curriculum (with some strategic extensions) ought to be well-prepared for entrance examinations at a large number of institutions. Yet, the strong belief in some kind of insider knowledge from having successful taken an exam persists.

The one area where I do see advice from past test-takers (though successful or not wouldn’t matter) as useful is on the format of the exam. This also holds for interviews and other non-exam-based forms of admission, of course. From my own experiences with the TOEFL, SAT, and GRE (granted, many years ago), I would agree that a degree of familiarity with the format of a test can be very useful in reducing anxiety and also improving results.