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The School in the Shadows – What private tutoring in Japan and elsewhere can and can’t do

Dr. Steve Entrich. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Dr. Steve Entrich. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Private lessons, tutoring, cram schools – extracurricular learning opportunities are on the upswing, especially in countries where schools are perceived to be failing. In Japan, for instance, a second educational system has established itself outside regular schools. This “shadow education” system is seen by some parents as helping students achieve the success that schools can no longer guarantee. Educational sociologist Steve Entrich has looked into whether the shadow system reinforces inequalities in Japanese society or whether it offers opportunities to overcome them. In a nutshell: Yes and yes, but …

Children learn not only at school – this is nothing new. That more and more children are attending extracurricular tutoring is, however. Private tutoring is a global phenomenon – and is gaining momentum. In 2003, some 27% of 17 year olds in Germany had attended paid private tutoring at least once; by 2013 it was 47%. In the US and Canada, too, the number of children attending extracurricular tutoring has doubled or even tripled compared to the 1990s. “And yet this booming tutoring has hardly been researched,” Entrich says, “even though it is closely linked to the respective educational systems, and researching it could offer insight into them. For instance, it is assumed that tutoring tends to aggravate social inequalities.”

The privatization of the educational system is increasing competition 

This is one of the theses explored by Entrich in his PhD project. He focused on Japan, where education is of tremendous importance and – as a result of large-scale privatization of the sector – competition has stiffened to a point where the market rules. Primary and lower-secondary schools are still predominantly public, whereas almost a third of upper-secondary schools are private. Those who wish to attend one of the very sought-after schools have to pass extremely difficult entrance exams. The same holds for getting into a university, since almost all of them are private. Exams are exceedingly difficult, a merciless sifting out in the struggle for the best entry-level professional positions. What matters later in life are not the qualifications obtained, but rather the name of the university where they were acquired. Every year, university rankings are published, along with the scores high school graduates need to attain on the entrance exams in order to get into their favorite university.

From shadow education to juku industry 

A professional career, then, becomes almost predictable – and is directly linked to one’s school career. Educational success is primarily considered a result of diligence and the willingness to make sacrifices. “The Japanese educational system sees school children differently than we do in Germany,” Entrich explains. “If children are doing poorly, we seek out the causes, while in Japan they are seen as just not working hard enough,” the researcher says. “Four wins, five loses,” is a well-known Japanese saying, meaning those who sleep only four hours have more time to study and will, therefore, do better in school. “In this sense, five hours of sleep is an hour too many.”
So it is unsurprising that Japanese parents not only choose the school for their children, but literally invest in their education: Nine out of 10 children attend extracurricular tutoring at some point in their school career. This significance of tutoring is also reflected in the number of institutions providing it: While in Germany some 4,500 schools offer private tutoring, Japan has around 50,000 such private schools – known as jukus. “They come in all sizes, from small neighborhood jukus to global, publicly listed joint-stock educational institutions offering all sorts of content,” Entrich says. Every level, differentiation, and element of the Japanese educational system now has a matching juku: Some offer extra classes to improve school performance, like the ones we have here in Germany; some prepare students for entrance examinations at secondary schools or universities, while others offer learning beyond the curriculum – supplementary classes for the best of the best. There are even jukus for children with school phobia as well as ones that coach parents. Together they form a second, supplementary educational system – shadow education.
With $8.7 billion in revenue in 2014 alone, juku schooling is a veritable industry. And it never tires of defending its hard-won territory. “The juku system has since made itself indispensable – and also proven extremely flexible,” Entrich says. It has adapted to the pressure of demographic change as well as attempts by politicians to curb competition through reforms. When the school curriculum was scaled down by 30 percent, the juku industry was there to fill the gap. As a result, more than 90 percent of all school children in Japan still use shadow education at some point in their 12 years at school, often for years.

The function of tutoring in Germany differs completely from that in Japan

The highly complex shadow education and its societal role are what fascinates Entrich the most. “I have always been interested in the phenomenon of social inequality – and as a researcher in comparative education, I look at what levers society has to counteract.” He had originally planned to compare non-formal education in Germany and Japan given their enormous differences: In Germany, tutoring is mainly for children with below-average results, whereas in Japan a striking number of children with above-average results do so. This illustrates the completely different function extra tutoring has: In Germany, it is meant to help someone catch up quickly, whereas the Japanese invest in juku and other types of tutoring to give their children an advantage over other children. 
“I quickly focused on Japan. For one thing, there is little-to-no data on extracurricular tutoring in Germany,” Entrich explains. “PISA results alone have little meaning here. Since 15 year olds are interviewed only once, we do not know what effect tutoring has.” In Japan, the situation was different, although the PISA results for the country are misleading. So the country was repeatedly at the bottom of the rankings in terms of tutoring and participation in non-formal schooling. In 2012, less than 20% of 10th graders reported having received private tutoring. “I then looked at the questionnaires and found that they had been translated in such a way that Japanese school student could not possibly have understood what was meant,” Entrich explains. The data, therefore, failed to reveal that over 80% of 7th-9th graders use shadow education.
For his research, Entrich was able to rely on a Japanese study in which more than 3,800 students at the end of high school were asked about their extracurricular tutoring. He also conducted his own survey in 2013, for which he interviewed children, teachers, and managers of 20 juku – which wasn’t exactly easy. “You gain access only by recommendation,” he remembers. “But as soon as I was ‘in’, it became easier to get more contacts.” The data helped him to determine which juku are particularly popular at which phase of a school career. For instance, juku preparing students for the various entrance examinations are particularly sought after when transitioning to middle and high school as well as to university. He was also able to get a differentiated picture of the children’s social backgrounds. Above all, Entrich wanted to find out whether the juku industry perpetuates social inequalities or whether it offers opportunities to overcome them. Is educational and, thus, professional success in Japan reserved for those who can invest more in non-formal education? Or are children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds able to move up the social ladder by going to juku? 

Socially disadvantaged children can especially benefit from private tutoring 

To find out more, the researcher looked at who had access to shadow education and how successfully it had been used. “It turned out that shadow education can be both: an instrument of social exclusion and an opportunity for socially disadvantaged children,” Entrich explains. Some juku are more or less inaccessible for lower classes, since they are too expensive; the advantages they confer are reserved for those who can afford them. Those with more money are also able to invest more in tutoring. This confirms the assumption that existing inequalities are more likely to be perpetuated by the system. “But there is a whole range of juku for socially disadvantaged children, too. Those who invest their limited resources properly will benefit from shadow education – even more than others,” the researcher summarizes. This is confirmed by the comparatively large share of educational climbers in Japanese society who – despite poor starting conditions – make it to the best universities and from there to managerial positions. But to best take advantage of shadow education, some conditions need to be met, the researcher knows: As a rule, children must be hard-working and intrinsically ambitious, i.e. have the desire to excel and attain high educational levels. Accordingly, investing in juku courses should have a clear focus, such as entrance examinations to upper secondary school or university. And, last but not least, financial incentives offered by the juku industry – such as discounts or scholarships, especially for the socially disadvantaged – should be fully explored.
Such “niches” have been developed by the juku industry over the past years in larger numbers, as Entrich explains: “The entire system has adapted – to the demographic change as well as to a new set of needs.” Most have become comprehensive education juku. A clear trend towards individualization is also discernible: Personalized curricula have replaced large groups, discount and scholarship systems for high achieving but disadvantaged students were introduced, and self-study rooms allow children to continue studying after their course at no extra charge. “All of this addresses the needs of socially disadvantaged children.”
Even though private tutoring in Japan has been his research focus, Entrich never lost sight of the situation in Germany – in his own interest. In the midterm, he does not, however, expect extracurricular tutoring to become as important in Germany: “The case of Japan shows what could happen.” After all, a number of developments in Germany – including the greater importance attached to rankings and the Bologna reform – point in this direction. “But I think this is the wrong path. On principle, I am critical of the shadow education system – not of the work that is done there but of its very existence. In my view, the government has failed by allowing something to develop that cannot be redressed despite attempts at reform. Germany, therefore, had better think about how much privatization to permit – let alone initiate – in education.”

International data on educational attainment show that children in all participating countries are using non-formal learning. The PISA studies – researching the competencies of 15 year olds – thus also collect data on the extent to which students are attending so-called cram schools or tutoring schools or are hiring private tutors. The results revealed major differences between countries. While in 2012, for instance, only 10% of 15 year olds in the Scandinavian countries (excluding Iceland) attended extracurricular tutoring or cram schools, 40% did so in Germany, about 50% in Poland and Spain, and nearly 60% in Korea and Thailand. Some countries where many school children attend both forms reported even higher percentages – Vietnam (79%), Malaysia (80%), or Indonesia (84%). “Especially in countries with poor educational systems, non-formal learning is used to compensate for deficits,” Entrich says. “In Greece, for instance, up to 90% of one age group attended extracurricular tutoring, while in Turkey 75% of high school graduates use private tutoring to prepare for university entrance.”

The Researcher

Dr. Steve R. Entrich studied history and educational science at the University of Potsdam and Japanese in Berlin before doing his PhD in educational science in Potsdam and multiple exchange visits to Tokyo and Kyoto. Since 2013, he has been a research assistant at the Chair for Social Science Educational Research at the University of Potsdam. In 2017, his dissertation won the advancement award of the Friends and Supporters of the University of Potsdam.

Universität Potsdam
Strukturbereich Bildungswissenschaften
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
E-Mail: entrich@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Matthias Zimmermann
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Marieke Bäumer
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen.