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Looking For Answers: Japanese Students Attend Jukus To Prepare For Exams

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As NY1 looks at education in Tokyo this week, one of the major issues they face will sound very familiar to parents and teachers here in New York: concerns over test prep. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed the following report.

TOKYO - It's 10 p.m., and many Tokyo parents know exactly where their children are: juku, or "cram school."

Students in Tokyo actually face fewer high-stakes standardized tests than students in New York. There are no annual exams that determine who moves on to the next grade. Promotion is automatic, even if students don't come to school. But as Naoki Inose, the governor of Tokyo, explained, there are three exams that matter a lot.

"Currently, when students finish elementary school, they face entrance exams for the good junior high schools," Inose said through an interpreter. "Then, they repeat that process for the good senior high schools, and again for the good colleges."

Students feel serious pressure to perform well. There are 13 million people in Tokyo, and competition for good, stable jobs is intense. Juku is considered a key part of the process.

"I really want to go to a certain school, so I don't mind studying so hard," one student said through an interpreter.

"There are days when I'm not in the mood to come here," another student said through an interpreter. "But even after my club activities, I force myself for the sake of getting into my dream high school."

The governor, though, says that all the time students are spending on test prep is getting in the way of actual learning. So he told NY1 that he's proposing a major reform: linking public schools from first through 12th grade so students don't have to keep preparing for the next admissions application.

"Students will no longer waste time preparing for entrance exams, and education can be more effective and well-rounded," Inose said.

Many parents say they worry about the same thing. Reina Fukuhara remembers test prep dominating her own childhood.

"During that impressionable period from age 13 to 18, I'd like to give my children time to search for themselves without pressure," Fukuhara said through an interpreter. "If there's an exam imposed on them for senior high school, it will be hard for them to focus on finding themselves."

Ironically, in a country where 40 students per class is the norm, juku has become the place where Japanese students get individual attention.

"This class has six or seven students, so it's possible to learn in more personalized ways and get better explanations," one student said through an interpreter.

And while in most Japanese schools, the teachers deliver information to the students, jukus say they actually push students to think critically.

"We don't teach unilaterally, from teacher down to students," Masae Tanaka, a juku teacher, said through an interpreter. "We encourage students to ask and ask, then build class around their questions."

"We know students come here so they can pass the exams, but we like think of that as just a starting point," Hiroaki Miyatani, a juku manager, said through an interpreter. "Our juku teaches students to think independently."

So even if exams are abolished, juku may still find a place within the Japanese education system.

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