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Profile: Will Competition Spoil Rakuhoku High?

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When the new school term begins in April, Rakuhoku High School will have a new look. Along with the usual new faces, the Kyoto school will have a new program, a new goal, and a new competitive spirit.

But not everyone at Rakuhoku is eager for the transformation. Most, like the principal, Katsuhei Yoshiyama, are a little apprehensive. For the first time since he assumed stewardship of this friendly neighborhood school, Mr. Yoshiyama says he doesn't know precisely what--or whom--to expect.

Starting next term, Kyoto's public-high-school students will no longer go automatically to the school nearest their home. A new tracking system that differentiates students by ability and aptitude is being initiated, giving some 30 percent of the district's teen-agers a choice from among five local schools.

The high schools have also been differentiated by specialty area--Rakuhoku's will be arts, calligraphy, and physical education--and will offer advanced courses to students interested in these subjects. To round out this new specialized orientation, the Kyoto prefecture plans to build a commercial high school for vocational students and a special center for student guidance.

A Move To Diversify

Some call the changes Rakuhoku High will undergo this year a move toward "diversification"--an effort by the Kyoto prefecture to find the right school structure to produce the range of abilities and talents in its graduates that Japanese industry says it needs for innovation.

Akio Nakajima, a top Ministry of Education official who until September served as director of secondary education, says that in only a few years the number of Japanese high schools teaching by ability group has increased from about 15 percent to 42 percent as part of what he calls the national "campaign for diversification." The effort now, he says, is to put more emphasis on student guidance, to help individuals find the best place in the system for their particular skills and aptitudes.

But others say that neighborhood high schools like Rakuhoku, by mixing students of different backgrounds, abilities, and interests, are already the country's most diversified. These critics charge that changes in the Kyoto system are merely a way for the district's schools to gear up more effectively for the college-entrance examinations, putting the best college-bound students together for test-slanted instruction and a taste of competition.

But Mr. Yoshiyama doesn't talk about the politics of the change. He just wonders what caliber of student his school will draw from other areas--and hopes for the best.

"The fact that there will be advanced courses should encourage more good students to come," he muses, noting that in recent years the public schools have lost many of the brightest local students to the more competitive private schools.

But he sees trouble ahead in the prestige rankings that now will inevitably come to the city's public schools with ability grouping. Differences among the schools will be exaggerated, he says. If one school has only a few more seniors who score well on a university entrance exam, parents will demand that their children go to that school.

Most of all, though, the principal worries about atmosphere--the tone and tenor of the learning environment. What will ranking and competition do to the harmony of Rakuhoku High, he wonders?

Warring Viewpoints

Katsuhei Yoshiyama is not alone in his concerns. Other educators call this alteration in the Kyoto school system an important development in Japanese education--one that may signal the growing primacy of selectivity over equity in the nation's high schools.

Rakuhoku High School, they say, will be changing because what it does best--provide equality of opportunity to students of widely varying abilities in a noncompetitive atmosphere--is not good enough.

The school may have offered good teaching, camaraderie, and a broad social perspective, but its senior class of 380 produced only 10 acceptances last year at top national universities. And to ambitious Kyoto parents, those acceptances are the bottom line for secondary education.

After years of slipping college-acceptance rates, Kyoto parents took a step most of them had hoped to avoid--they demanded a high-school system more in line with those of other regions. "Not every parent is rich enough to send their kids to private school," says Kiyoshi Masuda, an official in the Kyoto education office in charge of developing and implementing the reforms, but all want some of the diverse benefits that the private schools offer--particularly more rigorous preparation for examinations.

Light-Years Apart

Kyoto's neighborhood-school concept had represented one extreme in the war of viewpoints in Japan on what the high-school experience should be. Osaka's school system--perhaps the most rank-conscious in the country--represented the other extreme.

The two cities are less than 20 minutes apart by car, but light-years separate their collective temperaments. Kyoto is the cultural center of the country, Osaka the banking center. Life is deliberate and thoughtful in Kyoto; in Osaka, businessmen have a standard greeting that translates as, "Made much money lately?"

One would expect such disparate environments to produce differing school systems, and they do. Kyoto's pleasant neighborhood schools emphasizing equality and diversity have for years been the mirror-image of Osaka's tightly-ranked system, where ability and selectivity are paramount.

In Osaka, the score a student makes on his high-school examination automatically places him in a particular school. The schools have a rigid official ranking--from best to worst--based on the performance level of their students on university entrance examinations. Thus, Osaka's junior-high students who score highest on their high-school entrance exams get to go to the schools best able to prepare them for college-entrance exams.

Middle Ground

About three hours away from Osaka by the "Bullet Train," the Hiroshima prefecture represents a middle ground. Here, a partially selective system is in use. High-school places are allotted by students' test scores, but ability levels are carefully mixed to create six high schools of equal rank.

Like other cities with large public universities, Hiroshima also has two so-called "national" high schools operated by the Hiroshima University education school as an adjunct to teacher training. The schools offer high-caliber instruction to students of selectively mixed abilities.

But most districts, while perhaps not as rigidly competitive as the Osaka prefecture, use some form of prestige ranking by test scores to structure their high-school system. And though many educators wish it were not so, the locations that have tried to loosen this structure usually have found their cumulative examination records slipping.

Mixed Reactions

That is why Kyoto's young people have mixed reactions to the changeover in their high schools.

Masahumi Kizu, now a sophomore at Kyoto University studying engineering, says that the lack of competition in his high school was "a major disadvantage" in preparing for his entrance examination. "I enjoyed high school in the first two years and had many friends," he says. But when the reality of approaching college exams hit, he adds, he had to close off and and find a way to get the test preparation he had missed. "I had to be completely self-motivated," says Masahumi.

Kumi Somura, a senior at Rakuhoku High, studies four hours a night for her entrance examination, but she says she is certain that going to a high school that refused to pit students against one another will be a plus in her life.

Another Kyoto resident--who went to a highly competitive private high school but wishes he had gone to Rakuhoku--is disappointed by the school board's decision to change the tone and emphasis of the area's public schools.

"They say that the changes are to provide diversity," says Takehisa Kishimoto, "but what they will be doing is providing separate courses. The academic courses will draw all the bright students; the general and the arts and physical-education program will be for the others. Competition will increase--and so will the number of those left with nothing."

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