The Lessons of Japanese Productivity

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Education? Not quality circles, the art of Japanese management, the practice of "Theory Z," or the partnership between government and business? No, he insisted, whatever those factors may contribute, the key factor is the schools. He pointed out that a similar view is held by no less an authority than Harvard University Professor Edwin O. Reischauer, former Ambassador to Japan and author of numerous books about that country. Mr. Reischauer writes in his most recent book, The Japanese, that "Nothing, in fact, is more central in Japanese society or more basic to Japan's success than is its educational system."

Whether it is correct to say that the Japanese schools are the key to their productivity performance, few can doubt that the schools play an important role.

Consider that during Japan's postwar economic miracle there was a concomitant revolution going on in the schooling of its people. After the war, the Japanese government vigorously pursued the goal of universal high-school education. In 1950, 43 percent of all 15 year olds were going on to high school; this figure increased steadily until it surpassed 90 percent by 1975 and 95 percent by 1980. Over the same period, among younger age groups, enrollment in nursery school and kindergarten increased from a small minority to the overwhelming majority of all four and five year olds. The addition of the first two years of schooling is significant, since it is there that Japanese children learn how to read.

Japanese born from 1910 to 1945 tested at an average I.Q. of 102 to 105, while subsequent tests showed an average of 108 to 115 among Japanese born from 1946 to 1969. At least some of this significant increase in mental ability must be attributable to the increase in the general level of education--and that, in turn, must partially explain the extraordinary growth in productivity over this same period.

Inter-country comparisons provide further evidence of the connection between education and productivity in Japan: With one of the highest rates of productivity growth in the world, the Japanese people are among the best educated. For instance, compare Japan with the U.S., where productivity growth has been much lower.

Approximately 95 percent of Japanese teenagers now graduate from high school, compared with approximately 74 percent in the U.S. Japan's schools are in session five-and-a-half days a week, with more weeks to the school year than U.S. schools. The result is that a graduate of a Japanese high school has the equivalent of approximately four more full years of schooling than a U.S. high-school graduate. International surveys of educational achievement show that in both mathematics and science, the mean scores of schoolchildren in Japan are higher than in any other country, and far higher than in the U.S. Also, among Japanese the degree of variability around the mean is one of the lowest--which demonstrates that educational achievement in Japan is widespread.

The success of the Japanese school system in reaching the broad masses of people is a recurrent theme among students of the subject. Thomas P. Rohlen, in his study of Japanese high schools, writes:

"The great accomplishment of Japanese primary and secondary education lies not in its creation of a brilliant elite ... but in its generation of such a high average level of capability. The profoundly impressive fact is that it is shaping a whole population, workers as well as managers, to a standard inconceivable in the United States, where we are still trying to implement high-school graduate competency tests that measure only minimal reading and computing skills."

As Mr. Rohlen implies, to discuss the performance of the U.S. and Japanese school systems in the same context is like attempting to compare two unlike objects. In the U.S., the role of the schools in affecting productivity may loom even larger than in Japan--but more as a brake than as an accelerator. The regrettable fact is that many of our people are poorly prepared even for the minimal requirements of the workplace.

To appreciate the magnitude of the problem, consider the recent findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which surveys the knowledge and the skills of elementary- and secondary-school students. In a November 1981 study, the Assessment showed that: 13 percent of the high-school students surveyed could not perform reading tasks designated as "functional," 28 percent could not answer questions testing "literal comprehension" of what they read, and almost 10 percent could not write prose deemed marginally acceptable.

The results were much worse with regard to anything beyond basic skills. Fifty-three percent, for example, could not write a letter correcting a billing error, and 43 percent could not handle even the simplest problems involving applied mathematics. Bear in mind that these results were restricted to high-school students. Had the survey included the approximately 26 percent of the young people who drop out of school, then the proportion of those performing poorly undoubtedly would have been much higher.

In case there is any doubt about the validity of these findings, consider the results of the Adult Performance Level Study, published by the University of Texas in 1975. Based on a representative sample of the U.S. population, the study found that approximately one in five adults is unable to handle such tasks as completing an employment application, balancing a checkbook, interpreting a calorie chart, properly addressing an envelope, and applying for a loan. On that basis, the study concludes that 20 percent of U.S. adults are "functionally incompetent."

The Japanese example reminds us that a productive society requires an educated workforce. It also reminds us of some of the things we need to restore the effectiveness of our schools: a return to basics, persistent standards applied to the teaching of those basics, and a strong community consensus supporting those standards.

Some have blamed the shortcomings of our schools on the alleged shortcomings of our young people. If that viewpoint is valid, then we must conclude that nothing can be done until our young people change. To those who persist in this belief we recommend the words of Kenneth Clark, the noted psychologist and social critic:

"I went to school in Harlem and I remember my teachers in Junior High School 139. I knew Miss McGuire insisted that I respect the structure of a sentence and she explained to me what a sentence was. Those teachers had standards that we knew we had to meet. Why is it that that could be done in the late 1920's and the early 1930's and not in the 1970's and 1980's? Why?

"All of them--Mr. Deegan, Miss McGuire, Miss Smith, and Mr. Mitchell--never asked whether I came from a broken home. They weren't social workers; they were teachers."

In effect, Mr. Clark is telling us that there is no excuse for inaction.

All that must be done to reform the schools--and what further we might learn from the example of others, including the Japanese--is a subject that is well beyond the scope of this [essay]. What we want to focus on here is one relatively neglected aspect of this issue: the role that business people could play.

Even in more normal times, there is a strong case to be made for a deepened business involvement in our schools. If the first purpose of our schools is to create good citizens, the second is to create productive people. Business ought to do all it reasonably can to help our schools fulfill that second purpose, even if productivity growth were soaring and our class-rooms were models of effectiveness. Indeed, the more effective our schools become, the more they can benefit from business involvement--and the more the schools can contribute to a productive and prosperous workforce.

Given the circumstances we face now, the need for business involvement in our schools has become particularly acute. And in fact, some measures are being taken already. More than new ideas, we need stepped-up business involvement in those approaches that already have proven to be viable. Here are some of the possibilities:

More businesses might get involved in "adopt-a-school" programs. Say that a corporation decides to adopt a school in its local area. Such a relationship would involve responding to the school's particular needs. Does the school have many students whose mathematics skills are poor and who could benefit from one-to-one tutoring? Employees of the corporations could be trained in mathematics tutoring and provide it to those students who need it.

Are there special curriculum materials required for students who have reading problems? The corporation might provide the funds to purchase those materials. Would the school benefit from offering a course in word processing or from the use of computers as teaching devices? The corporation might provide the school with the use of that equipment.

What incentives would a corporation have to become so involved with a school? We can think of several. To begin with, the involvement could be a part of a company's recruitment process: Students who are helped by the company might eventually become its employees. In that way the company would get the direct benefit of a better skilled labor force. Second, there is the fa-vorable publicity that results from being associated with activities of this sort. And finally, there is the boost to staff morale that results from such deep involvement in the activities of the community, particularly if employees of the company have children attending the school that is receiving this support.

In fact, adopting a school is nothing new. In Los Angeles, for example, there is an "adopt-a-school" program with 105 busi currently participating. As part of the program, the Los Angeles office of the Prudential Insurance Company sends 50 of its employees to a local elementary school to tutor students once a week. More companies and more localities should be involved in this type of activity.

More businesses might open their doors to work-study programs with nearby high schools and colleges. Young people who want to be automobile mechanics, word processors, computer programmers, retail buyers, and office managers could spend a good part of their school time learning these trades on the job. What we are talking about, in other words, is a revival of the apprenticeship system, which was based on the sound premise that many tasks are better learned on the job.

The agreement between master and ap-prentice was one of mutual benefit: The apprentice received training, and the master received the services of an assistant. In this case, businesses and schools could work out similar arrangements. Such programs could go a long way toward boosting the functional competence of young people.

Business could be directly involved with curriculum development of career-education programs, from the elementary school to the college level. Businesspeople could work with curriculum planners to clarify the skills required in the whole range of jobs available in the business sector. Career-education programs also could include businesspeople visiting classrooms and students visiting businesses. Then career training could play a more important role in aiding intelligent career choices.

Businesspeople could meet regularly with educators to provide ideas and information that could increase the effectiveness of the schools. What, for instance, will be the needs of the job market in the next decade? How could the education of young employees be strengthened? What kinds of adult-education programs might the school develop that could supplement the skills of older workers?

If these and other ideas are to have a chance of being adopted, there must first be an effort to raise business's awareness of their stake in the problems the schools face. We must understand that schooling is a long-term investment in human capital, and that productivity suffers when that investment is neglected. The disturbing fact is that even if we were to reverse the neglect tomorrow, we may spend years before we overcome its legacy. The time to begin is now.

Vol. 02, Issue 14, Page 24, 19

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories