Published Online: August 7, 2002
Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Japanese Schoolchildren 'Cram' To Boost Achievement

Japanese Schoolchildren 'Cram' To Boost Achievement

Among the throngs of weary commuters packed into trains arriving here are hundreds of schoolchildren from nearby Tokyo and surrounding suburbs. Toting blue backpacks with reflective trim, they head for their second shift of studying. They spend up to three hours, three nights a week in a Spartan, hot, windowless classroom in a converted storefront taking additional lessons in mathematics, science, or Japanese language and writing. On Saturdays, they return for a test to gauge what they've learned during the week.

The Nichinoken juku, or "cram school," is one of Japan's largest after- school programs. It serves more than 37,000 elementary pupils in 84 locations throughout the country. Such supplemental and test-preparation programs have been popular in Japan for nearly four decades as an academic leg up for students striving to get into the top high schools and universities. More recently, though, they have catered to elementary children angling for a spot in a private junior high school.

Now, experts and other observers are predicting a rise in juku participation at every grade level as a result of curriculum changes that have heightened concerns among many education- conscious Japanese parents over their children's academic prospects.

Parental Anxiety

"We've had an increase in students as a result of parents' fears of the education reform," said Mikio Takagi, the president of Nichinoken, the school founded nearly 50 years ago by his father, for whom he was named. "The parents who feel instability about their child's education are always trying to find something [to supplement their schooling]. We have to fill the void."

Japan's revised national course of study, which went into effect for elementary and junior high school students this past spring and will kick in for those in senior high next year, has been reduced by as much as 30 percent to make room for more hands-on learning and student- guided projects. Education officials here hope the new approach to schooling will better equip students with the problem-solving skills many educators say are essential in a knowledge-based economy.

At the same time, the entrance exams that determine admissions to secondary and postsecondary schools have not changed. Many parents, scholars, and business leaders now worry that the quality of Japan's education system—often viewed as an international model—will decline.

In anticipation, parents are expected to open their wallets even wider to pay for private educational services.

By most accounts, business has been thriving, despite a declining school-age population. Though somewhat less vibrant than during Japan's economic boom of the 1980s, more than 50,000 private cram schools are taking in some $12 billion a year by some estimates.

Nichinoken has already seen a 6 percent increase in enrollments for the school year, which began April 1, roughly double its average annual growth. The program for 3rd through 6th graders costs up to $5,000 a year.

Last year, the nation's largest juku, Kumon Educational Institute—which serves 1.5 million students in Japan and almost equal numbers overseas, including in the United States—boasted nearly $500 million in sales.

More than 70 percent of Japan's 15 million schoolchildren will seek some sort of private tutoring by the time they enter high school, according to national statistics. At any one time, it is estimated, more than 6.5 million students attend cram schools, ranging from large incorporated programs to those offered in private homes.

"The juku are a fixture in the Japanese education scene," Nancy Ukai Russell, an independent researcher, said in a recent interview.

In her chapter in National Standards and School Reform in Japan and the United States, a book released by Teachers College Press this year, Ms. Russell writes that juku is the norm for middle- and upper-middle-class children.

Many students from lower-income families, particularly those in urban areas, also attend tutoring programs, according to Ms. Russell. Many of those programs, she said, report improved academic achievement among their students; those that are less effective tend to be weeded out by the free market.

One-fourth to one-half of Nichinoken graduates have done well enough on entrance exams to qualify for the top three private junior high schools in the Tokyo metropolitan area, according to company marketing materials.

Love-Hate Relationship

The Japanese public and academia, however, have a mixed view of the role of juku in education. For many parents and students, it seems, they are a necessary part of life. The cram schools are marketed, Ms. Russell said, in a way that plays on parents' fears that the public school curriculum will not help their children reach their academic potential.

And, some critics argue that the schools fuel "examination hell," a testing system so intense it is often blamed for increased student stress, high rates of youth suicide, and school violence. Moreover, some say, the juku undermine the public education system.

"By purchasing private lessons to help raise their children's scores on high-stakes tests, parents demonstrate that the public system and its standards are, on their own, inadequate preparation for the reality of entrance examinations," Ms. Russell writes.

The Ministry of Education has also viewed juku as a threat to public education. Officials have tried over the years to reduce the cram schools' numbers or abolish them altogether. But as private institutions, the largest of which are traded on the Japanese stock exchanges, they are not bound by education law or the rules set forth by education officials. Only recently has the ministry, or Monbusho, recognized the contributions of cram schools to high academic achievement.

Those who advocate increased privatization of education claim the juku are valued partners of the school system and can help push students beyond the minimum standards many schools settle for. When students graduate from Nichinoken in 6th grade, they have already reached or exceeded what is required in a given subject in junior high school, Mr. Takagi said. The program, he said, gives students more individualized attention than is possible in their regular classrooms.

In a class here in Yokohama recently, 28 students sat in cramped rows for a 70-minute lesson in Japanese writing, a complex system of more than 2,000 commonly used characters, each representing a word, sound, or concept. The textbook, custom-made for Nichinoken students, will take them through increasingly difficult exercises that will likely exceed those covered in their regular schools.

In this lesson, they are asked to read passages, some containing more difficult characters than they encounter regularly. Children in the front of the class— they move forward in the rows after they ace a weekly test—raise hands quickly. Some call out answers; others make jokes. The teacher, who has gone through a yearlong training program to help him master teaching the "Nichinoken way," uses subtle body language—a tap on a desk, a wave of his hand—to keep the students focused.

Quality Concerns

The students are lively and enthusiastic in answering the teacher's questions. They appear to enjoy the class. After a dinner break catered by parents, the students return for a second class in math or another subject before starting for home around 8:30 p.m., some 12 hours after their school day began.

The students generally work their way through three levels of lessons here until they graduate in 6th grade.

While Mr. Takagi is pleased with the rise in business for his company, he, too, worries that the quality of the public education system could slip too far.

"The education system and the juku market are well-balanced right now," he said. "But we have a maximum capacity, and if we go beyond it, the quality of our program could decline.

"It is a challenge for us to meet the individual needs of students," he added. "We're not like McDonald's, where the more people are served, the better."

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 8

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