Attitude Is the Main Reason For Japanese Schools' Success

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Increasingly, friends as well as foes of the public schools are turning to the Japanese educational system as a model for reform. But after having spent three weeks observing that system recently, I see some irony in this move to transport successful schooling across the Pacific.

To a great degree, the organization and goals of Japanese schools mirror those of American classrooms. Kindergartners go on to elementary schools, continue with three years of junior high (lower secondary) and another three years of high school. There are boards of education and superintendents, parent-teacher associations, principals, and teachers' unions.

The works of John Dewey and Alvin Toffler have molded Japanese education. The young people in Japan study the "three R's" as well as science, history, languages, and the arts. In fact, apart from the school uniforms students are required to wear, Japanese classrooms bear a striking resemblance, at least on the surface, to classrooms in Washington, D.C., Iowa, or Oregon.

On the other hand, 97 percent of Japan's young people graduate from high school, compared to 75 percent in the United States. Discipline problems and student absenteeism are less troublesome and student-achievement levels are among the highest in the world.

Perhaps surprisingly, differences in curricula are not the primary reason that Japanese students may be academically out-distancing their American counterparts.

Japanese youths are not seated before computer terminals for hours of study on end, as one naïvely might expect from a world leader in the field of electronic technology. The truth is that Japan, like the United States, is only beginning to explore the use of computers in the classroom.

Furthermore, the few instructional disparities that do exist between the two educational systems are in areas that American educators already recognize as their trouble spots: mathematics and science, foreign languages, and the skills needed for successful transition from school to work. The basis for the strength of the Japanese educational system lies in a much less tangible, yet ever-present, Japanese belief that education is a priority of the nation and every citizen within it. This commitment can be measured in several ways.

For one thing, the national government provides 50 percent of elementary- and secondary-school funding. Prefectures (roughly equivalent to our states) supply another 25 percent.

Communities also support education in a variety of novel ways. One holds public boat races, a popular sport, three times a month and gives 80 of the proceeds to its schools.

But money is only one sign of Japan's fervent support of education.

Teachers are held in the highest professional regard and are continuously trained and retrained at local school-system sponsored teacher centers. Parents visit their children's schools monthly, spending the entire day observing and participating in classroom activities. Students spend longer days in school and attend classes for a half-day on Saturdays.

Moreover, businesses work closely with schools to match students' skills with available, guaranteed jobs after graduation. And the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture is one of the most important and powerful cabinet posts in the national government.

This is not to imply that Japan's schools are without problems. The educational system is rigid, with a national curriculum requiring an almost lock-step prescription for learning and fiercely competitive college-entrance examinations that foster an extraordinarily intense and stressful atmosphere among teens; the buoyant, cheerful outlook of younger children often fades into a reserved, anxious demeanor in the high-school years.

The Japanese admit that they allow for only a narrow margin of error and find untried paths very harrowing. In contrast, it is creativity--and the risk-taking, willingness to chance failure, and the large measure of flexibility that define it--that brought America the development of a free public-education system in the first place.

Our schools would do well to take a lesson from Japan: We must continue that tradition of creating, risking setbacks, and remaining flexible in the quest for a better means of educating our young people. Japan demonstrates, by its actions and in its words, that education is central to its peoples' lifelong success and to the preservation of its culture. Such a belief can be no less true for this nation and its people.

Vol. 02, Issue 21, Page 20

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