OTHER VOICES: Some Perspectives on Reform
Following are the comments of a broad range of interested parties on how, and whether, the Japanese education system should be changed.
Yutaka Okihara, dean of the faculty of education at Hiroshima University and author of numerous books comparing Japan's education system with that of other nations:
"I think primary-school education is too long and is holding back the achievement and development of many students. We should let able students begin secondary education early and provide more flexibility in junior high and elementary school to encourage students to skip or repeat years.
Entrance to college must be revised-- to allow students of diverse abilities to attend the best schools and to lessen the burden of study during the high-school years. I don't think we can abolish the tests entirely, though, without letting our standards slip. One possible alternative is long-term observation and guidance. In France, for example, students go through four years in which there are monthly evaluations until, finally, the teacher makes a decision about the Lycee.
College standards should also be raised and university programs equalized to remove the hierarchy of schools."
Shinji Yoshikiyo, junior-high-school teacher from Tokuyama:
"Teachers should be able to have their own curriculum, independent from Mombusho. They should have more authority. Class size should be reduced to 40 immediately."
Nobuhisa Kawamura, teacher of Japanese at Cherry Hill High School in Toku "We need to provide the flexibility that will allow students to change their plans. Those who have the motivation to achieve their aims, but find they don't have the ability, cannot now change their goals. It's a mistake to decide at such a young age what a student will do for the rest of his or her life. Every individual has great possibility for change."
Noritake Kobayashi, professor and former director, Graduate School of Business Administration, Keio University, Tokyo:
"There is a need for educators to restructure educational policy and attitudes in order to fulfill the new demands by business and government for more creative minds and independent ways of thinking. Their past emphasis on the development of a strong memory and precision in handling assigned work should be continued, but to a lesser degree. Instead, some method must be found to encourage the development of independent and imaginative thinking. How to reconcile this new need for the development of individualistic qualities with the existing emphasis on the group-oriented approach is a new task and a challenge for future educators."
Herbert Passin, professor of sociology, Columbia University, and author of Society and Education in Japan:
"Basically, I think elementary, middle, and high schools in Japan do such a good job that the changes that need to be made are relatively marginal. Some 90 percent of Japanese schools are as good as the best 1 or 2 percent of American schools. The goal is not to make them better, but to make them easier on the kids.
The schools should and can provide more diversity of curriculum and electives, beginning in junior high school.
Second, I think they could make provisions for unsupervised summer vacation. Most of the programs are school-centered. A schoolteacher is lucky to get 10 days of summer vacation ...
Next, there is the very real problem of tracking in the school system. This needs to be looked at comprehensively, not just on the level of senior high school. The tracking that exists now is based upon academic performance on fixed tests. There are numerous other things not taken into account.
Here, the Japanese could learn not necessarily by looking at American education, but by studying their own examples of alternative methods of selection. There are a number of schools trying to develop a different package of admissions criteria, one in which academic performance constitutes, not 100 percent of the decision, but 60 percent, with other things also factored in ... Today, some 30 percent of schools have a variety of criteria; the percentage should be raised to 50 percent. That's a big jump, and it would mean that most of the changes would have to come in the public schools, which would require a central or prefectural decision. But I think people are getting ready to change their point of view.
The Japanese see the American system as total chaos [creating an overall] inability to teach. They have to be convinced in their own mind that they are making the step [toward reforming schools] without ruining academic standards.
In my judgment, there can be a series of adjustments without sacrificing quality. They can get rid of the excess load of study required of kids. All that juku and outside schooling can be productive--it is not a waste. There are kids studying music and learning what they sometimes can't get in schools. But the problem is not just that these programs cut in to free time and play, but that they also cost money. This introduces a new factor that did not exist until 15 years ago. There has been an intensification of competition, but before there was not a money problem. You really had the situation in which the humble boy could rise from the log cabin to lead. Students could rise from their own own effort. But that has atrophied. Competition becomes worse and worse.
The para-education system is costly and creates inequities. There is also an enormous vested interest [in that system] that only grows each year. If you cut back these programs, you lose jobs.
The Koreans, who also have a strong test-oriented society, have worked to break down the para-education system. They have an 'iron-fist' approach and have specifically outlawed schools and private tutoring, so as not give advantage to wealthier students.
Masaki Murata, principal of Shuyo Elementary School in Tokuyama:
"Students now are so busy studying, they can't afford to think of other people. The focus on testing affects children in every aspect of life. We should make elementary school independent, give children less learning and more hours to play. To make students feel that they can find happiness through learning is to dispense with testing."
Riyoichi Matsumura, head geography teacher, Yamaguchi prefecture:
"There is no need to reform the university entrance exams. Tests are only one phase of a student's life, and they need a hard time. If they pass through the difficulty, they go to paradise. Without competition, there will be no leveling up the quality of human life."
Hiroshi Kida, director general, the National Institute for Educational Research, and former vice minister of education: "That all students develop basic, everyday skills and improve upon them is more important to the nation than developing a small number of geniuses. We will need strong creativity, but the encouragement and nurturing of smaller levels of creativity throughout the population is likely, in the long run, to have better results than trying to focus on improving the strong abilities of a few."
Tetsuya Kobayashi, dean of graduate school of education, Kyoto University: "We have a big teaching body, and, obviously, not everyone is as well trained as everyone else. We need to set up a system that recognizes the hierarchy of ability--a reward system for professional and semiprofessional teachers."
Tomomi Nishimura, high-school student, Kudamatsu:
"There are too many rules over conduct in school and too strong a demand that we master many subjects. If I want to a pursue a few subjects deeper and deeper, I won't be able to study the areas where I must improve."
Isao Amagi, director of the National Center for New Media in Education, special advisor to the minister of education, and former vice minister of education:
"The central government sets up standards nationally. In fact, it should be done more locally, by the prefectures and cities."