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Are Cram Schools on the Horizon in U.S.?

It's easy to get carried away by reports about what other countries are doing to maintain the selectivity of their universities. After all, parents in the U.S. are already obsessed with getting their children into marquee-name schools.  But so far nothing quite compares with China's approach ("Inside a Chinese Test-Prep Factory," The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 4).

The sole basis for admission to universities there is the score posted on the gaokao. The test has two parts - one focused on science and the other on humanities - that is administered every June over two or three days. It is the modern version of the 1,300-year-old keju, which is considered the world's oldest standardized test.  More than nine million students take the gaokao each year. Students at the Maotanchang High School put in 17-hour days preparing for the exam, supervised by head teachers with classes of 100 to 170 students.  

I doubt that cram schools like those in China will ever take root here.  But I do see disturbing parallels.  Affluent parents already shell out serious money to give their children a leg up on the SAT and ACT, which are the closest the U.S. has to the gaokao. I grant that American students don't put in 17-hour days cramming for these standardized tests. Yet there is evidence of the psychological damage done to students who view their future totally on their ability to be admitted to elite colleges and universities.

Moreover, the history of the SAT parallels that of the gaokao. In both cases, the tests are promoted as creating meritocracy. The Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was the original name, was created in 1926 as a way of measuring innate intelligence, and was used as a screening device for about a dozen selective colleges throughout the 1930s.  When Stanley Kaplan began offering classes in 1938 that promised higher scores and succeeded for the most part in doing so, the test prep industry was born.  Since then, it has blossomed into a $4.5-billion-a-year industry ("The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul," The New York Times Magazine, Mar. 6, 2014).  

Similarly, coaches in the U.S. who manage to improve their students' SAT scores are often rewarded handsomely by grateful parents after having already spent up to $200 an hour for individual tutoring.  In China, the salaries of the 500 teachers in Maotanchang in eastern Anhui province are two to three times as high as normal public-school wages.  Bonuses can easily double their income. 

Although factors other than scores on the gaokao are being proposed, it's an uphill battle.  Not only is there resistance from the entrenched  bureaucracy, but curiously from many parents as well.  It's the latter group that surprises me.  I assumed that parents would want to reduce the pressure on their children and themselves by according less weight to gaokao scores. For example, it costs about $6,000 in tuition for one year of study in the Maotanchang High School.  Usually, the mother comes to live with the student for the entire year.  Demand has driven up the average rent for one year from $900 to $3,300.  But most parents are adamantly opposed to change because they are obsessively devoted (Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass, 2014).

I hope that cram schools don't take hold in the U.S. because I think they make a mockery of the educational process.  Yes, they will improve test scores, but the price paid is no way justified.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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