Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Examination hell

This is the time of year when Japanese students are neurotic, mothers are nervous wrecks, teachers are worried, and parents in general are secretive. And why all these emotions going at once? Because jr. high school kids are getting ready for the upcoming entrance exams to high school. And it is nothing like entering high school in the States.

In Japan there are public and private high schools. Unlike in the States, high school is not mandatory and so some students will go to work straight out of jr. high. I don't think this is so common in the big cities but in the countryside (where we live) this is not unusual. High school enrollment therefore depends on entrance examinations rather than automatic promotion to the local high school. The private high schools are expensive and not always of better quality. The public school tuition is quite a bit less and pull the better academic students. There is a lot of competition to get into the public schools yet the jr. high schools themselves don't seem to prepare students very well for the entrance exams.

I would say that maybe 90% of jr. high school students will go to a cram school sometime within their three years of jr. high school education. Cram schools are after school classes and courses, and they are quite expensive. Basically they go beyond what the jr. high teaches and the cram schools will train the kids in academics and techniques needed to take high school entrance exams. Many jr. high students will go four or five times a week to a cram school and there are cram schools in private homes as well as major cram school franchises throughout Japan.

Takumi refused to go to a cram school. He opted to study on his own but he didn't get into the public school of his choice (you can only apply to one public high school) but he was accepted into a private high school.

Leiya chose to go to a cram school when she was in her last year of jr. high but I'm afraid we could only afford to send her twice a week for about three months. I forget what the cost was but it was high! There were also intensive courses during vacations that lasted all day, but we couldn't afford those classes at all!

The interesting thing about Leiya's experience at cram school was that she really studied while she was going. She didn't seem to pay much attention in her normal classes but at the cram school she was given specific goals to aim for, specific instructions for studying, competition and class ranking were purposely evident and every student knew what everyone else's scores were in class. Cram schools and teachers are ranked by the number of students they manage to put into the public high schools and so this is great motivation to have interesting, very capable teachers. Leiya turned into a great student while she attended cram school!

The down side though was that on the days that Leiya would go to cram school she would leave the jr. high around 4:30 or so and then would walk directly over to the cram school. She would study at the school alone then go next door to a convenience store to buy a sandwich for dinner and then go back to the school to attend a class until 11:30 at night!!! Yes! The classes went that late! I remember Tetsu would go to pick her up close to midnight.

I really felt I had my head on backwards during Leiya's three months at cram school. Why were we paying all this money and allowing our family life to suffer just so that Leiya might get into a "good" high school? Why wasn't regular jr. high school enough? Weren't we risking Leiya's physical health as well as her mental health? But if students want to rise above their peers to get into the better high schools then these were necessary sacrifices. Leiya quit going to cram school after she made the decision to attend American high school and she never took any of the entrance examinations.

So you can see why students are nervous. Teachers are worried too because they advise students on their chances of getting into certain schools. If the teacher recommends a school that is a bit of a challenge and heaven forbid the student fails the entrance exam then the teacher too is somewhat responsible for the student's future. Mothers are wringing their hands and trying not to nag and they cook nutritious meals to keep the child healthy and clear headed. The whole family tends to tip-toe around the student who is supposedly slaving over his or her books. And the secretiveness comes because it would be too embarrassing to admit that your child was trying for a good high school in case he didn't get in. If he failed entrance into the high powered school, it reflects on the whole family. Better not to tell anyone what the true choice of school is.

I wrote about Japanese high school entrance exams a couple of years ago and and my feelings about this system. I am afraid I am very jaded about the Japanese education system. And there is the very real problem of the high suicide rate for high strung adolescents who fear that the failure to make it into a good high school will ruin their chances for a happy life.

The kids who plan to go to college have to go through this whole process again three years later but maybe they are older and wiser and are able to handle the pressure and discipline a bit better.

Do you wonder why Japan calls this the Examination Hell?


Nancy said...

It sounds hellish indeed.

I'd be interested to know more about Leiya's decision to come to America to go to school -- did she live with your family while she attended high school?

Mrs. Goodneedle said...

This really is a conundrum, why not prepare the students for the high school entrance exams; should they choose to go? Are all the cram schools private and revenue driven? I can see why it's called what it is... Examination Hell; nerve wracking, to put it mildly.

Takumi said...

i would never want to go back to that season again. teachers are always rushing, no friends had time to hangout, and so many things to learn not just about study but also high school informations too. i'm glad it is all over :)

Rae said...

OMG, I didn't realize Japan was in the dark ages when it came to education. It find it quite I remember my kids attending school. Our private schools for the most part offer better teacher/student ratio. The studies are harder, but they still have fun. 90% of the student who attended Lowell High School (Private) were Asian. I thought, gee they really study and are, smart people. Parents really push education, wonderful.. Now I wonder? I can't say much all my kids went to private schools. They weren't sent there to get an education, not be hassled by Gangs etc. Back in the 70's-80's it was rough for kids. Rae Ann

Shasta said...

It does sound like a very stressful time all around.

Callie said...

We home schooled our children. Do families home school in Japan?

quiltmom said...

It sounds like a lot of pressure as well as some large prices for families to pay ( finiancial and family time)
It becomes a challenge to find balance I am sure-
It is interesting to hear about the differences in the education system.

The Calico Quilter said...

I'm flummoxed by the idea that secondary school is non-mandatory in one of the most technologically advanced countries on earth. And it seems that Japanese culture is based on making everything as difficult as possible. Is there actual work for these kids who don't go to high school, jobs at which they can make a decent living? Can they get into trade schools, or appreticeships, and is there work when they finish? It's also strange that higher tuition at private schools doesn't get you as good an education as the public schools. What a crazy, mixed up system! I don't normally make value judgements, but this post forces me to!

Chocolate Cat said...

Oh my goodness!! What a lot of pressure to put kids under.

amanda said...

I taught English at a jr high in Japan through the JET program and my heart really went out to my sannensei at this time of year! You could just see the stress and anxiety in their eyes. Also as an American, it was hard to relate to that kind of pressure because we have so many second chances built into our education system that they just don't have their. Such a tough system for kids.