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Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as Is the Grass That Much Greener?

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Is the Grass That Much Greener?

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I had the opportunity recently to serve as an education consultant to the U.S.-Japan 21st Century Committee, a group of distinguished business, political, and academic leaders from each nation that met several times over a two-year period on issues of mutual concern, such as trade, finance, security, and education. The committee's purpose was to bolster an important bilateral relationship. Its meetings were designed to promote candid discussion of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two countries, which together constitute about 40 percent of the world's economy.

The American delegation was led by former U.S. Secretary of Labor William E. Brock, with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown serving as vice chairman. The Japanese delegation included former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Kazuo Inamori, the founder and chairman emeritus of the Kyocera Corp., as well as other luminaries. Committee members from both sides of the Pacific deemed education a salient enough issue to warrant exclusive attention at the final plenary meeting, held in Kyoto last May.

I was asked by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which administered the U.S. activities, to write a background paper on education issues in the United States and to help plan that final meeting. Though I have no particular expertise in the international arena, I did do some extensive reading on Japanese education prior to my trips to Tokyo to help plan the session and then to Kyoto to attend the meeting as a resource person. Thus, the following represents the impressions of an "instant expert" whose reactions might be of interest.

I was somewhat stunned to learn of the growing disaffection of the Japanese with their education system. Like most Americans, I have viewed K-12 education in Japan, perhaps naively, as a model system that incorporates vigorous academic standards and inculcates a high work ethic among students. Indeed, this high-performing elementary-secondary system has been commonly viewed as the engine driving the remarkable post-World War II economic renaissance of Japan. Many reports on Japanese education have been uncritically laudatory. The system has been held up and idealized as a model for troubled, low-achieving American schools to emulate.

The conventional wisdom is that only American schools are in deep trouble and that we have much to learn from Japan, where there are high academic standards and expectations of students, rigorous social discipline, and high teacher status. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Japanese education was not Nirvana and was being subjected to increasingly severe criticism by political and business leaders, as well as the general public. In fact, one might reasonably predict that deteriorating economic conditions in Japan may well make their schools a scapegoat for larger societal problems in much the same way as schools here were blamed for adverse economic conditions in the 1970s and 1980s.

In essence, the rather harsh criticism I heard of the Japanese system sounded very much like the condemnations of our system. Japanese schools are being criticized, for example, for not adapting sufficiently to ever-changing workforce needs in an increasingly competitive global economy. The debate now raging in Japan is somewhat analogous to the debate here. Old pedagogical methodologies are not working in either nation and, somewhat paradoxically, the Japanese envy some of the characteristics of our system that are so roundly excoriated here.

It is important for me to stress parenthetically (before discussing criticisms being articulated about their system by the Japanese themselves) that this essay is not written as an apologia for American schools, many of which desperately need higher academic standards, more-rigorous expectations of students, and greater accountability. My primary objective is to convince readers that all nations face serious educational issues and are not certain of what to do in our contemporary world, where change is the only constant. Education systems must fit into the unique history, culture, and traditions of their own nations, and we all have much to learn from each other in a world in ferment. No one has all the answers.

The Japanese criticize their system for stressing rote learning rather than encouraging creative thinking and innovation. Japanese youngsters, it is said, do not take risks in a highly bureaucratized, top-down structure that must be decentralized and deregulated. There is perceived to be too much pressure placed on youngsters from the time they enter nursery school, through the "juku" cram schools, and ultimately the "exam hell" which so largely predetermines their later success. In fact, plans to alleviate some of these pressures include a reduction in the school week to five days.

Critics bemoan the lack of independence, spontaneity, and individuality among youngsters in a closed, homogeneous, group-oriented society. American education, rightly or wrongly, is admired for its creativity and flexibility by critics who acknowledge that too frequently in Japan "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." In other words, the very characteristics that critics of American education deplore are admired by the Japanese; the grass does seem to be greener in the other yard.

Japan's schools increasingly are viewed in this time of severe financial stress as being part of the problem and not the solution.

The Japanese also share with Americans growing concern about the breakdown of children's support systems. Greater discipline problems seem to be emerging among Japanese youngsters. More kids spend their time "malling," or hanging out in shopping areas. Drug use and teenage crime are more common. Dennis Rodman-style hair colors are more prevalent, and growing numbers of kids in Japan, like their counterparts in the United States, are perceived to be anti-intellectual and unaware of or indifferent to their history, culture, and international affairs. Japanese teenagers, like ours, are accused of lacking social awareness and cultural and artistic sensibility.

The commonalities between our problems are striking. The Japanese, like us, decry the lack of parental involvement in the lives of their youngsters, as schools are being asked to assume responsibilities that were customarily parental. The schools purportedly are "closed" to the outside world and interact inadequately with business and other sectors. Schools are being urged to collaborate more and become more relevant to the job market and to the dramatically changing needs of the larger society.

Other parallels exist. The Japanese share our concerns about adequately financing education and have particular apprehensions about a rapidly aging population and a low birthrate. School administrators in Japan, as in the United States, are charged with providing inadequate leadership. Vocational education is stigmatized, as it is here, and Japanese schools are accused of paying too little attention to the burgeoning communications-technology revolution that is so rapidly and profoundly transforming the knowledge/information industries.

The continued deterioration of the Japanese economy will in all probability exacerbate the pressure on the schools. Until now, the traditional internal cohesion and homogeneous culture have been important assets to a nation that, in Japan scholar Merry White's words, has had a historical sense of "precarious deficiency" due to its lack of natural resources, its geographical isolation, and its vulnerability to the forces of nature. These factors, of course, also have served to isolate the Japanese from the larger world and made them less receptive to new or outside ideas.

Children in Japan have traditionally been viewed as "scarce resources" whose academic success is of critical importance to a nation dependent on human capital. The collective commitment to academic success has been pervasive throughout Japanese society and has engendered an admirable work ethic. As many have noted, academic success in Japan is not viewed as being dependent on innate intellectual ability--as it often is in the United States--but on hard work and intensive study.

Today, however, there is a disturbing sense that the strong emotional bonds many Japanese have by custom felt for their schools may be breaking down. The schools increasingly are viewed in this time of severe financial stress as being part of the problem and not the solution to Japan's serious economic, social, and political problems.

Despite the surprising number of common problems confronting our two nations' schools, there are some fundamental differences as well. In the United States, the issue is not only to improve the basics for large segments of the population, but to raise the level of academic standards for all students. Our education system has not consistently had the ability to make the poorest students competent. In fact, American society faces the dangers of growing polarization between its best and poorest students, as well as its wealthiest and poorest citizens. The strengths of the American system, at least as they are perceived by the admiring Japanese, lie in its adaptability to local conditions, its openness to new ideas, its fostering of creativity, and a higher education system that (deservedly or not) is the envy of the world. Thus, both nations confront complicated educational problems that are inextricably connected to the interrelated social, political, and economic issues confronting their respective societies. The major issue in Japan is how to generate change and innovation in an education system that has enshrined uniformity. The Japanese, however, have succeeded (in ways that we certainly have not) in accomplishing the educational objective of bringing almost all citizens to a basic level of functional competence so that they can become contributing members of society. In other words, Japan has been effective in making the poorest students competent, while not being particularly effective in fostering creativity and individuality.

The reality is that both the Japanese and American education systems need improvement in rather different ways. They have much to learn from each other's respective strengths and weaknesses. Blind emulation of schools embedded in the "warp and woof" of a vastly different culture makes little sense. We can be helpful to the Japanese in "loosening up" their highly centralized system. But at the same time we have much to learn from our Asian friends in "tightening up" academic standards in our underperforming schools.


Michael D. Usdan is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, based in Washington.

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 35-36

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