Shoko Okuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series, which is examining cram schools. This installment, the first of four parts, focuses on a type of class that most of the major cram schools offer. In these classes, the students are taught higher grades’ subjects in advance.
On July 26, just after primary schools entered summer recess, the Sapix cram school in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, was beginning its courses for sixth graders. An instructor told students, “Only six months remain until your [middle school] entrance exams. Brace yourselves and don’t be overcome by the hot weather.” The children nodded, their faces serious.
The Sapix’s primary school division specializes in middle school entrance exam preparation. It has a reputation for helping students pass the highly competitive tests of the prestigious Kaisei, Azabu and Oin schools, as well as three others in each of the “top three schools for boys and girls.”
Sapix’s primary school division consists of 41 facilities in Tokyo and the neighboring three prefectures.
Though the recent economic slump has seen some parents cut back on educational spending, the chain says places always have been filled since its first school opened in 1989.
At Sapix and other schools that help students prepare for the more difficult entrance exams of top-notch middle schools, students are taught higher grades’ subjects in advance, before actually reaching that grade at school.
Sapix students use original textbooks and complete all primary school course units when they are fourth or fifth graders.
The sixth graders concentrate on preparing for the middle school entrance exams, focusing on questions asked in previous entrance exams. The school offers three 80-minute classes between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. two days a week, and four 75-minute classes between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturdays. From September, classes also are offered on Sundays.
Masaaki Hirono, 43, chief of Sapix’s primary school division education information center, said, “Questions asked in the middle schools’ entrance exams cover material not learned in primary schools.
“It is essential, especially for those wishing to enter the highly prestigious schools, to brush up on logical thinking, writing skills and the ability to express oneself.
“These skills can be achieved through repeated attempts to answer difficult questions [found in the entrance exams] from very early stages. As we place importance on studying at home, our curriculum is less stressful compared with other cram school chains.”
However, some educational experts hold strong beliefs that such methods negatively affect learning at primary schools.
Prof. Makoto Yuki, 65, of Hakuoh University and an expert on cram school education, said, “Questions and the excitement students feel when they learn something new can make studying more pleasant. If students learn things in advance at cram schools, they won’t learn anything fresh during primary school and this may lower their motivation.”
Prof. Hatsuo Mitsuishi of Tokyo Gakugei University also voiced concern. “I place importance on students learning principles and mechanisms, such as the reason why they should reduce fractions in mathematics,” he said.
“If students memorize these at cram school, it’s possible that their long-term attitude and interest toward continuing their studies may wane,” Mitsuishi said.
Another cram school, Nichinoken, says the percentage of sixth-year primary school students taking middle school entrance exams in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures fell 0.9 percentage point from 2009 to 20.3 percent this year.
Despite this, Nichinoken says demand from parents wanting to enroll their children in schools integrating the middle and high school stages is continuing. Parents’ fears about the government’s stress-free school education policy have increased the popularity of cram schools, and the 2010 figure is in contrast to overall increases in cram school enrollments since 2000, when the rate stood at 13 percent.
(Sep. 23, 2010)