EDUCATIONAL RENAISSANCE / Cram schools changing course (Oct.7) http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/features/language/T100930005516.htm

EDUCATIONAL RENAISSANCE / Cram schools changing course

Shoko Okuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The following is the third installment in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s four-part Education Renaissance series examining cram schools. This installment focuses on schools’ efforts to adapt to changes in customer preferences and within the education industry.

“When you attempt a logic-based problem, you should start by drawing a diagram to clarify your thoughts,” an instructor told children taking an exam preparation course at a Tokyo cram school.

At the instructor’s signal, and with a stopwatch ticking, the students set about solving the problems.

The lesson, held in mid-June at the Eikoh Seminar chain’s Nippori branch in Arakawa Ward, was part of a course designed for students hoping to attend the Tokyo metropolitan government-run Koishikawa Secondary Education School.

Koishikawa is an example of the increasingly prominent trend for public schools to offer a unified secondary curriculum–that is, where both a middle school and a high school curriculum are taught at the same institution.

Like many cram school chains, Eikoh Seminar offers lessons to students of all ages from primary school to high school. However, it was a step ahead of most major chains in 2004 when it introduced a special course for fifth- and sixth-grade primary school students wanting to enter schools with a unified secondary curriculum.

Eikoh Seminar launched the course–in response to popular demand from parents–one year before the Tokyo metropolitan government-run Hakuo High School expanded to include a middle school.

Currently, the course is run at about 180 Eikoh Seminar branches, or about 60 percent of the chain’s branches in Tokyo and three adjacent prefectures.

“Part of cram schools’ mission is to promptly meet students’ new requirements. There were more children wanting to attend a course like this than even we anticipated,” Yasumi Yokota, who heads the school’s public relations office, said.

The revised School Education Law, which came into force in 1999, made it possible for public schools to offer a unified secondary curriculum.

As of the start of this fiscal year, there were 96 such public schools in the nation. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, there are 11 such schools in Tokyo and two each in Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures. The average applicant-to-position ratio at 10 of the Tokyo metropolitan government-run schools was 6.83-to-1.

The appearance of such schools apparently caught the imagination of many primary school students’ families, who saw the appeal of getting a good education without paying expensive tuition fees.

“Some children who wouldn’t have otherwise considered taking middle school entrance exams started to set their sights on public schools with a unified secondary curriculum,” said Osamu Inoue, editor of Shingaku Reidaa, a magazine providing information on middle school entrance exams.

“In the Tokyo metropolitan area in particular, this trend added to the recent feeling among parents and children that middle school entrance exams are not really that special,” he said.

Inoue said that few children attend preparatory courses tailored for students wanting to attend unified-curriculum public secondary schools, despite the fact that the entrance exams for such schools take an unorthodox approach to testing students’ abilities.

“It’s impossible to pass the test only by mastering what children are taught at primary school. It’s essential to prepare specifically for the exam,” said Eikoh Seminar employee Atsushi Miyata, who is in charge of the chain’s course.

First, the tests tend to focus heavily on gauging children’s ability to think logically, through reading-, writing- and arithmetic-based tasks–as opposed to checking simple knowledge retention.

In addition, test content varies greatly from school to school, depending on their particular educational philosophies.

Competition for places at unified secondary schools is extremely tough, but Eikoh Seminar’s Yokota said that even if they do not succeed in the test, children will benefit in the future from what they learn during the preparatory course.

“We explain to parents that the academic skills students develop during the course will help them during middle school, and when they take entrance exams for high school,” Yokota said.

Nobuyasu Morigami, who heads a private education research institute, says cram schools are waiting to see whether the popularity of unified secondary curriculums continues.

“The first group of students to attend public schools with unified programs will take university entrance exams next year,” Morigami said. “If they fail to do well in the exams, the popularity of such schools may dwindle. Cram schools seem to be wondering about what’s around the corner.”

(Oct. 7, 2010)