Category Archives: Diversity of Offerings

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…

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.

Previous Exchange on the Absence of Single-Sex Juku

In 2008, I had posted a version of my “why are there no girls’ juku” puzzle to SSJ-Forum and received some replies.

For example, Ron Stewart (Prefectural University of Hiroshima) wrote:

I think you will find there are no single-sex hagwon(juku) in Korea either. […]

Evidence that choice of university in Japan is not purely driven by university rankings, can be seen in the in the rise and falls in enrollments in various university departments. It can also be seen in the seemingly endless reshuffling of old departments and creation of new courses, majors and faculties at Japanese universities in order to attract students.

“Humanities (which have for a long time been the focus of womens universities’ curriculums (the idea of refinement through arts) are losing appeal in favour of vocational training (once the realm of senmon gakko and tandai) and some more ‘unrefined’ and ‘masculine’ areas such as rikei. I think this change is across most of tertiary education here in Japan.


Another example is the rush in recent years by many Japanese universities to create, nursing, welfare, health and pharmacology courses and departments, geared towards giving students qualifications for an ever expanding health and old age care sector. So I think the attraction to traditional womens universities curriculums (literature, art, music, culture, and language) is being erroded these days. Some public womens universities are being phased out through a need to expand through mergers, to offer more options and services to students and put them on more sound financial footing, as they are being forced to become public foundations these days (koritsu hojin). […]

As many womens universities here are Christian (there are examples in Tokyo, Okayama, Nagoya, Hiroshima and other places), they may well stick to ideas of women being able to study more effectively away from the ‘immoral temptations’ or ‘moral corruption’ of having males in close proximity, and stick to ideas of being a primary socializer and producer of ‘refined’ ‘feminine’ women. Maybe reading these universities’ rationales on there homepages and comparing them to those of juku may offer some clues as to with both exist and how they differ in worldview/ideology.

Merry White (Boston University) responded:

Some time ago when I looked at juku I found that there were, effectively, boys’ juku – by economic selection.
That is parents were more willing then to spend extra money for a son’s educational enhancements than for a daughter’s; the investment in her future wouldn’t have the same payback, or wouldn’t be needed through juku.

And for top, high-standard juku the effect seemed even greater. I think, though I am not sure, that the gender-based investment strategy no longer holds as couples have fewer children and invest in their educational futures in a gender-neutral way. Juku by the way used to refer to all kinds of classes – including music lessons. We are talking here about academic advancement juku, yes?

No Niches in Education Markets? Really?

This is continuing an exchange with “HeritageOfJapan” and now “japanexplorer” on the Education in Japan Community Blog that refers in part back to my previous posts (1 | 2 | 3) on the puzzle of the absence of single-sex options in the Japanese supplementary education industry.

In a further comment, “japanexplorer” writes,

The news trend in recent years on juku stability and profitability suggests that it is getting more competitive and that many juku branches face closure, hence the huge number of mergers seen in recent years.

Yes, I agree entirely. This is a trend that I will certainly be commenting about in the future on this blog. Briefly, kojinjuku are being squeezed geographically by the outward expansion of chains in metropolitan areas, and by the lack of children and the lack of competition for entry into higher education institutions in rural areas. They also face a very serious successor problem as many of the original founders of the first juku boom are retiring. Finally, they are facing a competitive squeeze from chains based on ICTs innovations and investments. At the same time, the supplementary education market is clearly also consolidating at the corporate end.

Yes, in a few cosmopolitan centres, juku attendance remain strong, but all round the figures suggest with falling numbers of student population, any strategic moves must be cost-effective for the entire chain.

But note that juku of all kinds are pushing hard into smaller and smaller groups of instruction suggesting significantly higher per-student revenue than even five years ago.

I am still convinced that juku operators will not divide the classes on the basis of sex. That is not to say if parents overwhelmingly demand for it and UNLESS some juku’s president someday decides single-sex edu will be a great competitive marketing strategy(this is not unconceivable).

Okay, so why hasn’t some jukucho decided to adopt this as a competitive marketing strategy? That is precisely my argument in trying to understand my original puzzle better.

Theoretically, it makes no sense in my mind to argue that operators shouldn’t divide their potential customers and exclude some. Businesses do this all the time, whether they are geographically rooted or not. And if anything, Japanese managers are well-known for pursuing niche strategies in a number of consumer markets. Anyone remember the Nissan Figaro, for example? Take another example: hair stylists seem to include single-sex as well men’s and women’s salons. Someone who is setting up a women’s salon is also given up on 50% of the customer population, but that seems obvious, even though there are no physiological differences between male and female hair (I assume).

Given the nature of the juku industry as really approximating an unfettered consumer market (at least in the big cities), there is no reason to think (at least none that comes to my mind) that nice strategies shouldn’t work.

Empirically as well, this argument doesn’t convince me. Juku operators are pursuing lots of niche strategies that are excluding a much greater proportion of the potential market than the 50% that a single-sex strategy would suggest.

Many juku thus specialize (sometimes even exclusively) on specific grades. If the argument about the lack of a viable niche strategy were true, this niche shouldn’t exist. Likewise, I’ve interviewed the operator of a fax-based juku. Not only did this strike me as somewhat quaint (even recognizing the greater penetration of the fax machine in Japan), but it is clearly a relatively small niche of parents/students who would be willing to communicate by fax.

I’ve also visited a juku that deliberately capped the number of its students at 24. In this case, this was obviously a very high-end strategy, but it also is a viable niche.

In fact, many kojinjuku cap the number of students, generally at about half of their historical maximum enrollment which typically came in the early 1990s.

Even the chain juku stratify students within grades on a fairly minute achievement/test result basis.

So, a niche strategy is not viable? I am not convinced.

As “japanexplorer” him/herself acknowledges, “Whatever the large juku operators that you are talking about may say, the nature of the juku market is niche-marketing.” Precisely, so why no single-sex juku?

What each juku chain sells is the reputation of its methodology or material/curriculum package that has a proven track record or that has worked with parents themselves.

Note that it is reputation not “proven track record”, as the only evidence of a track record offered is usually the number of “graduates” who succeeded in entrance examinations. There’s no attempt, nor do parents seem to demand, any kind of value-added evidence that would actually isolate the impact that a juku and/or its teaching methodology had on entrance examination success. Likewise with grade improvement for juku that are focused more on remedial instruction (another way in which the market is stratified, BTW).

Secondly, many of the jukus cater largely to parents who cannot afford the private schooling route, and who therefore have already in fact decided to forego the ‘luxury’ factor of the better schooling environment/atmosphere (both physical and social), to make-do with the barebones goal of academic achievement.

While this is certainly true for some segments of the juku market, I would doubt the “many” characterization. There are no statistics to my knowledge that would allow us to quantify such a portion of the market. Many students at private schools attend juku as well and there are plenty of relatively low-cost juku options, especially when you take into account that juku attendance is also a form of child care.

Re your other comments: earlier in my survey of private schools and in putting together the pte school directory, I came across news articles in which schools like Kaiyo Academy and other new ones, suggestions that the singe-sex environment was a key consideration.

That is very interesting as it contradicts the sense I had gained so far of the absence of pedagogical motivations. Any pointers for where to look for this information?

In my mind the debate continues and I welcome all further contributions.

Some Explanations for the Absence of Single-Sex Juku

Earlier today, I responded to a post on the “Education in Japan Community Blog” that addressed motivations for choosing single-sex education. “Heritageofjapan” (no name offered) had a couple of replies to my comment:

1. “Jukus are run as small, lean, profit-oriented commercial entreprises and in localized areas where competition from other jukus is likely and the number of students they can draw upon is limited … and due to high rentals and precious space resources, (single-sex edu would require the doubling of classrooms and teachers) it simply would not be cost-effective for them to split their classrooms into single-sex rooms.

This is akin to the argument that Mark Langager’s students at ICU offered which prompted my original post.

Essentially, the argument says that within the small geographic area that small juku draw on, there are not enough customers/students for juku to pursue a specialization strategy.

While this is certainly true for rural areas, it is also certainly not true for metropolitan areas, not just in Tokyo. Many of the small juku that I visit for research, are in fact limiting their intake of students, just not on the basis of gender. This is not a market that is shy about pursuing niches (geographical, delivery methods, etc.).

For large/chain juku the limited number of students argument doesn’t apply at all as they sub0categorize within student groups along other lines as well.

2. “Another reason is that the rationale for single-sex environment is a social/psychological one – jukus lack the socialization element that public or private schools have – the kids who come know that they come with the single-minded purpose of academic prep and competitive “warfare”, and so kids are for the most part streamed or moved along according to their paces/abilities/performance. Socialization considerations almost doesn’t figure at all

This is a line of reasoning that I find much more persuasive. However, it is clearly subject to the caveat I wrote about earlier, namely that many Japanese parents who select single-sex schools don’t to so on pedagogical grounds.

I would continue to argue, however, that juku include a very significant socialization element and that – if anything – this element is growing in significance.

3. “Parents who do care about single-sex education (and there are many) almost invariably seek out private school education for their kids, and I personally know many parents who do choose single-sex schools for the pedagogical benefits. But single-sex are all private schools because public policy that underlines public school education is based on egalitarian and non-discriminatory grounds. And this obviously disqualifies a great many parents who do want single-sex education for their children due to financial reasons.

When I claim that pedagogical reasons are not dominant in Japanese parents’ choices of single-sex education, I am simply reporting the answer I get on this question from juku operators. I would be delighted to see any empirical information on the choice of single-sex education as this would help me think through my puzzle some more.

The anti-egalitarian ethic is also a powerful one in Japan and I’m quite interested in “heritageofjapan”‘s argument in this regard. However, juku are increasingly advertising themselves as the place where that egalitariasism doesn’t dominate, so why no single-sex offerings?

Single-Sex Education Caveats

My previous post raised the question why there are no single-sex juku, even though single-sex conventional schools continue to thrive in Japan.

Just a quick first caveat: There are some single-sex juku that specifically cater to students preparing for entrance examinations to single-sex conventional schools. If a juku thus specializes in preparation for entry into school X where school X is a girls’ school, clearly all the jukusei will be girls. There are examples of such juku, of course.

Here comes the second, more substantive caveat on the question of the predominance of coeducation in juku as it continues to puzzle me. Part of my puzzle is rooted in a North American/European belief in the (conditional) desirability of single-sex education for pedagogical reasons. There clearly is a large (and growing, it appears) literature that investigates whether educational outcomes for girls (and increasingly boys) may be better when the learning occurs primarily in single-sex classrooms. From arguments about inherently different learning styles, to investigations of teacher-student relations and their impact on learning, this literature is interpreted (probably second and third-hand at best) by some parents as supporting a decision to eschew co-education for pedagogical reasons. An example of this kind of reasoning can be found in a recent blog post focused somewhat on Japan as well.

My sense is that the choice of single-sex conventional schools by Japanese parents and students is not primarily rooted in such pedagogical aims.

Some of the juku owner-operators to whom I have posed my question about the absence of single-sex juku have pointed to the social motivations behind the choice of single-sex conventional schools. Of parents themselves may have attended these (primarily private) schools and are thus keen to send their child(ren) to the same school out of alumni loyalty.

Others view single-sex schools as providing a particular social setting that they desire for their child(ren), i.e. more discipline-oriented boys’ schools, or girls’ schools that continue to cater to notions associated with ‘finishing schools’.

Yet other simply accept the single-sex nature of particular private schools as an element in that school’s profile that they are willing to accept and possibly even embrace because of the school’s academic standing or ranking.

None of these reasons speak to a particular belief in the pedagogical desirability of single-sex education and none of these reasons replicate easily in the juku setting.

Family tradition? Since virtually all contemporary juku were founded since the first 塾ブーム (juku boom) of the early 1970s and would have focused in their exam preparation on (predominantly coeducational) public schools initially, there are no ‘old school’ juku that are single-sex.

The fact that some parents send their children to neighbourhood juku that they attended themselves has been one of the real surprises in my research. One juku in particular enrolls some current students who are the children of one or two parents who attended the juku themselves. The owner-operated at this particular school has mentioned to me that he will finally retire when the first 3rd generation student, i.e. the grandchild of a juku graduate, enrolls.

Yet, the absence of juku that had been founded as single-sex juku (I’ll have to follow up on one of my next research trips to ask whether there had been single-sex juku in the 1970s), means that even a preference for sending children to the juku that parents attended wouldn’t lead to the appearance of such juku today.

While juku clearly involve a very particular social setting for learning and are (increasingly, in my mind) taking on functions of socialization in loco parentis, they are not commonly looked to “officially” to offering such socialization in that more military-style (whatever that means in a postwar Japanese context) boys’ schools are.

Despite thus admitting that part of my puzzle about this issue is misdirected by my assumption that the choice for single-sex education is rooted in pedagogical preferences, the puzzle remains.

Why Are There No Single-Sex Juku?

In his response to an earlier post here, Mark Langager reported that he raised one of my favourite puzzles about juku with undergraduate students at Int’l Christian Univ: why are there no boys’ or girls’ juku?

In some ways, this question neatly sums up one of my theoretical interest in supplementary education.

Educational policy around the world for the past twenty years or so has discovered the market as a cure-all for whatever seems to ill education. The most prominent examples of the introduction of market mechanisms are league tables of schools and universities, various forms of Quality Assessment Exercises, vouchers, charter schools, etc. Where researchers have attempted to assess the impact of this introduction of market mechanisms, the results have generally been mixed. Chris Lubienski at the Univ of Illinois has written extensively about this assessment.

In response, the proponents of the marketization of education have often complained that various implementations – such as vouchers – have not gone far enough in creating ‘real’ markets.

As I have argued elsewhere, juku in metropolitan Japan are pretty close to a real consumer market. Purchase of juku services is entirely voluntary, the juku are run for-profit and would-be consumers have access to a plethora of information about the offers available. Parents and students in metropolitan regions also don’t shy away from long commuting distances. Notably, the supplementary education industry in Japan is entirely unregulated.

Consumers active in this market (aka parents/保護者, students) express their consumer choice by enrolling in single-sex schools in significant numbers at the upper primary and secondary level. Note that this is an expression of consumer preference in the not-so-quite marketized conventional school system.

Yet, despite this expressed consumer preference, the supplementary education industry does not offer single-sex options, i.e. there are no girls’ or boys’ juku.

I will return to this question periodically, I imagine, as I really am puzzled by it.

As Mark Langager mentioned, his students speculated that juku operators would not want to limit their potential customer base by focusing on girls or boys only.

If juku had a very limited geographic area to draw on (this is, of course, true for more and more owner-operated juku in metropolitan regions) or if they generally had very large number of students, I would agree entirely. It thus doesn’t seem plausible for a chain to market itself as a girls-only juku chain, thus excluding a large number of potential customers.

Staying with the example of a very large juku, however, why not offer boys-only classes within the juku? Classes are often subdivided according to academic abilities in such large juku.

On the other hand, in a smaller, owner-operated juku, why not exploit a single-sex focus as a viable market niche, again given the expressed consumer preference for single-sex education?

Interestingly, when I have posed this question to groups of juku operators in the past, they’ve been largely puzzled and have not been able to offer any explanations.

More on this to come…