Education Opinion

U.S. and Japan Differ on Education-Economy Link

By Walt Gardner — March 21, 2011 2 min read
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One of the persistent assertions made by reformers in the U.S. over the years is that a strong educational system is indispensable for economic prosperity. They maintain that if schools are sub-par the nation can’t possibly compete in the global marketplace. This is a seductive argument, but it vastly understates the role that governmental policies play.

Japan, whose students perform near the top on international tests, sees things far more realistically. In a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal on March 1, Masaaki Shirakawa, governor of the Bank of Japan, not once mentioned schools as a factor in Japan’s protracted recession (“Japan’s Bernanke Hits Out at His Critics in the West”). Instead, he focused exclusively on monetary policies that the BOJ, the equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank in the U.S., undertook to stimulate the moribund economy.

Readers will be quick to respond that such a position is not at all surprising because Shirakawa is an economist - not an educator. Fair enough. But invariably when the debate in the U.S. is about the endless recession here, it almost always includes references to schools and their failure to produce graduates prepared for college or career. It seems that the U.S. is alone in this obsession.

Actually, this is nothing new. As I wrote in an op-ed published in the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 14, 2008 (“The ‘crisis’ of U.S. education”), when Japan’s economy was humming in 1990, critics attributed the robust prosperity to her superior system of education. Yet Japan’s economy shortly thereafter tanked, despite the existence of the same - in their minds - exemplary schools. In contrast, in 1991 the U.S. entered into the longest period of economic growth in its history, despite the existence of the same - in their minds - dreadful schools.

Clearly, something doesn’t compute. Consider the Great Recession. It was not caused by underperforming schools, despite what corporate reformers want taxpayers to believe. In fact, theirs is an old refrain that began in 1983 when “A Nation at Risk” was published, repeated in 1990 in “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages,” and reiterated in 2007 in “Tough Choices or Tough Times.”

This does not mean schools are unimportant in the health of the economy. Rather it means that they should not be assigned inordinate blame. An essay in Time on Mar. 3 underscored this point (“Don’t Bet Against the United States”). “American schools aren’t lagging across the board. Where they struggle is in educating poor immigrant and minority students. Focus on that, and watch the gap close between our test scores and those of less diverse nations.”

Nevertheless, these reports create great anxiety. When people are fearful, they look for scapegoats. Teachers and their unions serve that purpose so well, as evidenced by what is taking place in Wisconsin and in other states. It’s time that we become more sophisticated. We can learn from Japan in this regard.

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.