Monday is the release date for the fourth- and eighth-grade results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a set of exams given to students from dozens of countries all over the world. Here is the news we’re likely to hear: Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong will be clustered at the top of the international heap. U.S. fourth-grade students will perform at about the average for industrialized nations, while U.S. eighth-grade students will be below the average for industrialized nations — possibly far below it. If U.S. high school seniors had been tested, they probably would be near the bottom of the heap.
The well-established academic excellence of the Asian nations listed above is usually attributed to a combination of well-designed public school curricula and education-friendly cultures. Both play important roles, leading to outstanding science and math textbooks and an emphasis on hard work in academics.
But perhaps the most decisive factor of all in Asia’s educational excellence is seldom discussed in America: the region’s enormous consumption of private, parent-funded tutoring.
Japan is a classic example. By the time Japanese students enter the 9th grade, more than 70 percent of them have spent time in tutoring schools called "juku." In urban centers like Tokyo, the figure is closer to 90 percent, according to education researcher Delwyn Harnisch. More than 6.5 million students were enrolled in one of the nation’s 50,000 juku in 2002. Tutoring sessions typically range from 7 to 15 hours per week.
Juku are often dismissed as "cram schools" because many focus on preparing students for Japanese college and high school entrance exams that typically represent the overwhelming factor in admissions decisions. The crushing pressure to perform well on these tests has undeniably fueled the expansion of the $12 billion-per-year juku industry.
But the diversity and effectiveness of academic juku are grossly underestimated in the West. Most juku fulfill a broader mission than simple test preparation: They compensate for the unforgiving rigidity of the nation’s government schools.
Japan has a single nationwide public school curriculum for all students. Inevitably, some children find the pace too fast; others, too slow. Some children fall into both categories in different subjects.
To compensate, juku offer both remedial instruction and advanced lessons in every field imaginable. Students in juku are grouped based on their performance in each subject, rather than being arbitrarily lumped together by age as they are in public schools. When they master the material in one class, they are promoted to the next. Each child’s individual needs are identified and addressed.
Juku are also totally unregulated. Quality is assured through the age-old combination of competition and consumer choice. According to Nancy Ukai Russell, a researcher and journalist who lived in Japan for 14 years, less effective juku are weeded out of the market through competition.
Just how effective are the juku that survive? Summarizing the view of Waseda University Prof. Kazuyuki Kitamura, Harnisch observed, "The quality of the Japanese primary and secondary educational system cannot be maintained without the support of a [supplemental] educational system, such as juku, which compensates for the inflexibility of the formal system." Two other Japanese researchers cited by Harnisch studied the effects of juku instruction and concluded that without it, Japan’s academic prowess would be "unthinkable."
The popularity and success of private supplemental schooling is not limited to Japan. All of the other top-scoring Asian nations have large, parent-funded tutoring industries. So while Americans fuss over minuscule, half-hearted "school-choice" programs, the Asian Tigers are reaping the rewards of widespread free-market education — at least in their tutoring sectors.
And that caveat presents an enormous opportunity for America. Thus far, Asian nations have failed to harness the market’s full potential, relegating it to an after-school niche, while clinging to their state school monopolies and nursing an idealized notion that uniform government schooling is essential to fairness.
But is it? Which is more fair, a government mandate that all children be taught the same things at the same time, or a marketplace in which schools strive to fulfill each child’s individual needs?
The United States will never fully emulate the Asian model. We lack ultra-high-stakes entrance exams and a willingness to stress our children with 10 or 11 hours of combined schooling and tutoring each day.
What we Americans can do is leapfrog the Asian model and liberalize our entire education system. We can allow all parents to choose their children’s schools, public or private, and ensure that financial assistance is available so that everyone can participate in the education marketplace.
Alternatively, we can keep doing what we’re doing and continue to watch our children rise through the grades of their public schools, falling farther and farther behind their foreign peers.
Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow for education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.