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'I'm Not Very Optimistic About Change'

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Nobuo K. Shimahara is a professor of educational anthropology in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education, where he is participating in the Japan-America collaborative study initiated by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. Mr. Shimahara is the author of Adaptation and Education in Japan. He talked with Sheppard Ranbom last month about education-reform issues in Japan and the United States.

Q. Last March, the Prime Minister's Conference on Culture and Education said, 'Japanese education is enveloped in a gloomy atmosphere ... and is losing lively vigor.' Do you feel that is accurate?

A. There has been a great deal of pressure exerted on students for entrance examinations--from middle school into high school and from high school to college. These examinations ... seem to impede the personal and social growth of adolescents, who are expected to sacrifice themselves to achieve their future goals. There is a kind of moratorium imposed upon [youths]. In this sense, I think the Prime Minister's concern with Japanese education reflects the concerns of the public to a significant extent. On the other hand, the current system, which is nationally controlled and also examination-oriented, helps drive Japanese adolescents more toward achieving their educational and future goals than do the systems of other Western countries.

Q. How has the homogeneity of the Japanese and the diversity of the Americans affected the orientation of schooling in the U.S. and Japan?

A. The idea of homogeneity is certainly central to understanding Japanese education and culture. When you have a homogeneous population, you tend to develop a broad [and] equal footing for education and the kind of footing that is necessary to achieve great equality of cognitive achievement.

In contrast, we have in the U.S. a heterogeneous population consisting of different ethnic groups and groups of people with greatly differing socioeconomic backgrounds. Given that population, it is extremely difficult to impose a common set of standards, and to help the population respond to common goals, you have to provide all kinds of programs that would assist them to improve their footing in one way or another. Hence, Americans generate a lot of federal and state programs (such as compensatory education), which you don't find as much in Japan.

Q. Some people are arguing that Japan's schools must change if it is to remain an industrial leader. Do you see that as a motivating factor in reform?

A. Yes. If business people and policymakers see the need for diversity, I think that is likely to be implemented to a certain extent. But let me point out to you one thing that is very significant here. The vice chairman of the National Council for Educational Reform stated that he is opposed to liberalizing regulations that control schooling. He made that statement in response to the suggestion that regulations governing schooling ought to be liberalized so that individuals may take a greater degree of initiative in establishing various kinds of schools. His attitude toward this idea was that the Japanese cannot afford to let individuals and groups do that because we have to maintain high standards.

Q. Do corporate and government hiring practices have to change before schools can change?

A. Indeed. First, the pattern of mobility and lifetime employment has to change. The first job that college graduates take is viewed as most crucial to their career. In Japan's lifetime-employment system, [workers are vertically mobile within a corporation] rather than horizontally mobile between corporations. Hence, the first job tends to determine the kind of social status that you can get and social prestige that you can attain.

Now, if you have that kind of rigid system, you are likely to go to the best college you can enter--even if you have to spend two or three years after graduating from high school preparing to get in. Once you get into the school that you desire to enter, access to the corporation you want to go to is more or less guaranteed. If that path of employment and mobility tends to continue, then the whole question of diversity and creativity would not make as much sense as it should.

Q. Do you see any sign that the Japanese will back away from the entrance- examination system?

A. I am not very optimistic about seeing any significant change. Again, the basic question we have to address here is how to select qualified people for jobs. What are the alternatives available in Japan? As long as the current patterns of mobility and employment continue, then the examination system will not radically change. The policymakers have to address themselves to the problems generated from the systems. I am not sure if they are doing that.

Q. Could education lead the way to alter the meritocratic system?

A. If history is correct, I think schooling and its various functions are the result of cultural and social systems. It is these systems that have to pave the way to educational change.

Q. That seems contrary to the view held by some in the U.S. that schools are a socializing force that can change society.

A. U.S. education history shows a similar type of pattern: The schools serve cultural needs. [If what you say is true, when] schooling takes initiative to change social structure, then its emphasis--on equality, for example--should affect the society. But that is not the case. Schools differentiate students. In that sense, schools are agents of the class system. Upper-class or upper-middle-class people can send their children to expensive private schools, whereas the poor have to stay in the slums, and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, Japanese schools have done a remarkable thing. In the 1960's, for example, the economy and social structure expanded very fast and personal income quadrupled. To meet the needs of the 1960's, industry had to call on schools to supply resources. School systems expanded and institutions of higher education expanded. So schools are able to respond to these social and political needs. Here in the United States, schools can contribute to integrating people from various places by socializing them within the American cultural framework.

Q. Is there pressure on the structure of Japanese higher education to change?

A. If you ask this question to a typical administrator, he will say, 'Yes, there is.' But that pressure doesn't have substance, as far as I can see. I don't think the nation has any agreement as to what can be done about the lack of balance in quality of colleges. Indeed, if you look at the literature, you find authors like [former education minister] Michio Nagai who talked 15 years ago about not just one Tokyo University but seven or eight Tokyo Universities throughout Japan. But that has never materialized.

When you look at the allocation of the national budget to various universities, there is a big difference in the budget that the top national university receives and that which other national universities receive. If you want to improve lesser universities, you have to provide them with better personnel. It is simply the responsibility of the nation to do that.

Q. To be on the cutting edge of industrial research and innovation, doesn't the government have to put more support and emphasis on graduate education, too?

A. Japan is now trying to develop graduate programs. However, if you look at the number of Ph.D.'s that are graduated every year, it is fewer than 7,000 altogether. That is a very small fraction of what is produced in the U.S. In the past, there was the assumption that Ph.D. programs were for training scholars rather than specialists in industry, but now the assumption has changed. Ph.D.'s in various fields are needed in industry, in society at large, as well as in academia. This change is making a big difference in the government efforts to provide graduate programs and train Ph.D.'s.

Q. What do those efforts involve?

A. The government has established graduate programs at various national institutions, including new programs in the field of education. There are a half dozen graduate institutions of education where teachers who have several years of experience or longer have opportunities to get their master's degrees. I think this is a new horizon.

In science and technology, the situation is much more articulated in terms of the needs for graduate programs, so you find that there is more effort in this area at national universities ... As far as shifting research funds away from Tokyo University, the government is aware that this needs to be done. And yet they seem to perpetuate the same traditional model decade after decade. But because of extensive urbanization and industrialization and the need to localize universities, they are establishing new research centers in local areas--Tsukuba Science City is one case.

And yet you see rather clearly that whatever the Japanese do tends to display a high degree of centripitality rather than centrifugality, which is to say that things converge toward Tokyo where government and finance matters are controlled.

Q. Do you foresee any changes in the way high schools are structured?

A. In the past, no matter how they concocted high-school systems, the consequences seemed to be the same. When Kyoto had a system whereby students attended high schools and the quality of students was equally allocated among high schools, the best students decided not to go to such high schools. Parents were not interested in sending their children to such high schools. Whereas private high schools there and in Kobe and Osaka are very competitive and attract a lot of applicants.

This is exactly what happened in Tokyo. Hibiya High School was the most prestigious public high school in Japan, sending 150 students to Todai [Tokyo University] each year. Now, it sends 25 to 30 students or less. Private high schools in turn became popular, they concentrated on drilling, and they have been successful in sending students to prestigious universities.

It is a kind of a seesaw game that has taken place. We have to look at the structure of Japanese society and the structure of social mobility. What is important for social mobility? Credentials. And these credentials are very important at the time when youngsters get a job in the early 20's. As long as that kind of cultural expectation persists, forming the dominant principle of success, then educational reform will not be as successful as it might be.

Q. What do parents think as they watch their children go through "examination hell?"

A. Many parents tend to take this as a temporary thing. When the examinations are overcome, the future is open ... [and there is ultimately] a significant degree of security. [In the workforce,] there is no competition amongst each other. The competition takes place between groups. As long as you maintain a sense of loyalty and work hard, your status in your organization and your future is protected. You feel pretty comfortable. There is the attitude that compensates for the tension that children have. The culture seems to be saying, 'Examination hell is an initiation period. You must suffer. But later on, you can reap rewards.'

 Q. How does the Japanese college experience differ from, say Rutgers, where you've taught for the past 17 years?

A. In medicine, engineering, natural science (including physics and chemistry), and law, Japanese students have to work very hard. In other fields, students tend to take advantage of freedom available to them. The attitude toward college is different. In the U.S., there is a gradual progression of pressure exerted on our youth. You start schooling, graduate from high school. Then it is time for you to take education seriously. In Japan, the situation is the opposite.

Q. Some say the fact that Americans don't take education seriously until later is what is causing the need for remediation in college.

A. If the progression is smooth and disciplined, I think the American model is a good one. When the progression is not smooth, high-school students take advantage of school too much and they don't take a disciplined attitude toward their work. When they go to college, they suffer.

Q. You have written recently that Americans and their schools can do more to develop work habits that are conducive to learning--concentration, attention to detail, quick anticipation, order, and diligence. How are these work habits transmitted to students in Japan and how do you suggest that American educators go about instilling them in students?

A. There are two areas in which these attitudes are formed and the behavioral attributes are developed. One is the family and the other is the school. Japanese mothers tend to emphasize these attributes, and I think it is that process of socialization that is quite important.

The schools enforce the development of these attitudes by stressing the significance of efforts. Japanese schools tend to stress effort more than native ability, with the assumption that effort leads to greater achievement. Children are encouraged to develop daily work habits. The notion that daily work habits lead to success is a kind of credo. Even average students are encouraged to strive harder.

But over here, we tend to determine children's competence and ability in early years of their life and let them do their work at the level determined for that. There is less encouragement for children to challenge what they have not done in the past. It is that difference that leads to different patterns of schoolwork on the part of American and Japanese children.

Can we in the U.S. foster these attitudinal patterns? I think certainly we can. Teachers play a very important role if we are interested in formation of work habits. Teachers have to encourage students to exert more effort and pay more attention to detail, and so on and so forth.

The fact that here in the U.S. we don't emphasize good work habits is reflected [in the workplace]. I have observed various factories and people. Of course, we have really competent, able people. On the other hand, when we talk about average people, their work habits tend to be sloppy. And I think this is a reflection of socialization at school and at home that can be changed. But we have to have an awareness that it can be changed.

Q. How is that pattern reflected in U.S. schools?

A. A doctoral student of mine studied how differentiation takes place in the first grade. She was surprised to find that differentiation among students takes place at that level. And some students tend to give up what they could achieve in the future because they tend to develop their own expectations of what they can do and what is appropriate for them and not appropriate for them. I think teacher strategies make an important difference.

Q. You have suggested that America can learn from the Japanese in providing a more uniform curriculum for all. Is there any way to do it, short of strong centralization?

A. As we all know, any suggestion to centralize education or any suggestion to unify our efforts tends to be seen as anathema, as something that is detrimental to local initiative and local control. That is quite understandable. From the time of Jefferson, that ideology has persisted. People have fear about any federal or national control. But I think the fear has to be examined and reflected upon a little bit.

Let's look at what happens in industry and national defense. National defense is a national effort. It is a collective effort and requires our individual sacrifice. We accept that. We need a defense. The same is true with education. We need a strong and effective educational system. I think we can develop a national agenda without killing local initiative. If we can do that, we can establish common expectations to drive us to make a more concerted effort. We waste a lot of money, time, and talent when we have hundreds of different curricula and criteria.

If you look at industry, there we have to have a set of nationally controlled criteria. We have international trade and industry that produces standard parts, standard things. When you have automobiles, parts are exchangeable from one to another--here, standardization is very useful. So, given the fact that we are encouraged to be mobile--socially, physically, and psychologically--we have to help our youngsters develop competencies that are universal, that can be carried to various states. A competence that meets the needs of the nation.

Q. You have also suggested that American schools could learn from Japan to become more "debuatized." This struck me as odd, because from my observations the Japanese schools are far more bureaucratic than anything I've seen in America. Can you explain?

A. Here in America, there is a great deal of role-specific work done by teachers. Having studied American high schools for three or four years, I discovered that the interaction between students and their teachers tends to be relatively little and students don't seem to seek teachers' advice when they have problems, even academic ones. In Japan, a teacher takes a more holistic approach to a student's problems, not merely academic but also personal. When their problem is complicated, the teacher calls on their parents and the parents are expected to come to see the teacher. That kind of setting is much more diffuse and less role-specific. That is the sense in which I talk about relatively less bureaucracy.

Q. How can American educators ease up on bureaucracy to have more time for personal interaction with students?

A. I have a radical proposal to make. I feel that the division we have in schools between the counseling and guidance department on one hand and the academic departments on the other is rather deterimental to a student's work. Students tend to seek comfort and security by going to the counselors without communicating with the academic teachers and vice versa. The relationship between the two has to be redefined.

If teachers were to be involved with students more extensively, we would also have to decrease the teaching load. There is a vast contrast between the teaching load the Japanese teacher has and the teaching load of the American teacher. The Japanese teacher carries about 17 or 18 hours per week, whereas the American high-school teacher has about 25 to 28. I think the public ought to be aware of the excessive burden that high-school teachers carry. They should devote more working hours to other activities that contribute to the development of students' motivation to do academic work.

Q. There seems to be a shift away from vocational courses toward more academic training in Japan. Yet it was the vocational programs that some say created the workers and low-level engineers that helped the Japanese economy take off during the 1960's. Do you sense any concern about the declining role of vocational education?

A. That might be a concern but I think industry has a different notion. They assume that as long as they get people who have developed a disciplined orientation toward society, work, and life and acquire a level of scientific and mathematical confidence, then they can train them in their own factories in their own training programs. It is the expectations of Japanese firms that influence the degree to which the vocational programs at the school level are stressed.

Q. Is school violence such a big problem in Japan or are Japanese politicians, educators, and newspapers blowing the situation out of proportion?

A. The Japanese have to understand the fact that society has changed. But the change is more international--a greater degree of individuation has taken place even if there is a great degree of conformity imposed upon individuals. Japan is not isolated any longer. Parents cannot supervise their children as much as they used to. They are living in a very sophisticated information society in which children can get access to all kinds of information that influences them in one way or another.

This is happening here in the U.S., too. These things do change--the family environment, the home environment, the relationship between home and schools. Given the kinds of pressure that students have, there are a lot of youngsters who are disappointed in their lives, who feel they do not have aspirations anymore. This is extremely dangerous.

Q. What about those marginal students who are lost and don't know what they want to do with their lives? Will their needs be overlooked?

A. This is the million-dollar question. I am not sure to what extent policymakers are looking into it. But my guess is that, in the effort to diversify, the government will develop an educational program to address their individual needs more effectively.

Q. As the U.S. moves to raise standards and become more standardized and Japan moves more in the other direction, are the two countries likely to provide more similar schooling for children?

A. The crisis, if you can call it that, in the U.S. and in Japan will provide tremendous opportunity for the two nations to get together in terms of how we can educate our children. Both nations have the highest standards of living; per-capita income is very high. People are very well educated. Yet we exist in two different cultures. But the trade relationship between the U.S. and Japan and scientific and other kinds of exchange, etc., tend to generate an environment where collaboration is important.

You may have heard a statement that [U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike] Mansfield made about an 'Asian Axis,' an economic structure that is likely to be a very important force in the world. The U.S. will have to pay greater attention to that. It's a new concept. It has never been seen before in that light. It has been always Europe.

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