Profile: High School for 'Reluctant Learners'

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Sakura-ga Oka (Cherry Hill) High School in Tokuyama is a place for the students nobody else wants.

A private school, Cherry Hill enrolls a handful of bright pupils who fail the entrance examinations of the better public high schools in the region, but most of its students come from the bottom tier of junior-high graduates in Tokuyama and Kudamatsu.

"Reluctant learners" is the term Nobuhisa Kawamura uses to describe his students. A teacher of Japanese at Cherry Hill, he is among the many Japanese educators who say the attitudinal problems and academic failures of such students are an indication of what can happen to children who, for many reasons, get lost in the Japanese education system.

Many of his students have learning problems stemming from the inadequate attention paid them in elementary and junior high school, Mr. Kawamura says. "If they didn't give so much content in elementary school and the number of students were cut down, schools could oversee special problems. But the size of classes, the difficulty of the curriculum, and the fact that students are routinely passed from one grade to the next without being held back cause students to drop out later."

An Aversion to Reading

Official statistics put the country's literacy rate within a fraction of a percentage point of the universal mark. But Mr. Kawamura says that six or seven students in each of his classes cannot read kanji--the Chinese characters that are the basis of written Japanese--in the newspaper and have mathematics abilities on the 4th- to 6th-grade level.

"They prefer watching or seeing to reading," he says. "They like television and comic books." So great is their aversion to the written word, he says, that even after he used special funds to buy them a set of books based on popular television dramas, "nobody picked the books up."

Mr. Kawamura's frustrations are shared by educators elsewhere as well. Every city has its vocational high schools, its lowest-rated public school, and its private schools catering to the bottom-most academic tier. Because there is no remediation in Japanese education--no way to hold a weak student back or slow down the standardized progression of the curriculum for the late bloomer--students at this level of the system are often poorly motivated and suffer from serious academic deficiencies.

But some educators say that even high schools farther up the ranking scale see evidence of poor academic preparation in a portion of their student body.

The educational sociologist Hidenori Fujita says that some school critics use the children's rhyme "Shi-Go-San" to describe the problems caused by the pace and "density" of the formal curriculum. The rhyme describes "a gala day for children 3, 5, and 7 years of age," he says, but in the critics' loose translation, he says, it means that "students who understand the subjects are 70 percent in elementary school, 50 percent in junior high school, and 30 percent in senior high school."

That, says Mr. Fujita, is certainly an exaggeration. But large classes and the lack of flexibility within the curriculum do make it difficult for some students to keep up with their peers, he adds. And high school--the noncompulsory part of what more and more Japanese consider a basic education--is the point at which these students' difficulties stress the system.

Unmet Expectations

As high-school enrollments expanded during the 1960's and 70's (rising from 57.7 percent of junior-high graduates in 1960 to about 94 percent of such students today), the schools had to take in more students without the high standard of preparation typical in the more selective high-school system 20 years ago.

Now, says Tomio Fujibayashi, an English teacher at Kyoto's Rakuhoku High School, "70 percent of students enter high school without having mastered fundamental skills." Learning problems, he says, are often ''overlooked" in large junior-high-school classes, with teachers routinely promoting students from grade to grade regardless of achievement.

The rising interest in going to college, he says, has compounded the problem, as many schools reserve their special efforts for the college-bound, neglecting marginal students.

"It's only in the last five years that teachers have discovered bad students," Cherry Hill's Mr. Kawamura says. "Most teachers at public schools haven't been prepared to deal with them. Teacher training, until only recently, was devoted to model programs and good students."

Biding Time

Some of Japan's marginal achievers have no special learning problems, however. They simply don't like school and are biding time until graduation, when they will enter the workforce. Many others, says Mr. Kawamura, don't learn because they have problems at home.

Megumi Yamagata, for example, ranks 37th in her class of 40 at Cherry Hill. Her relatives claim she is failing deliberately, using a poor school record to "get even" with her parents, who are going through a long and difficult divorce.

"I hate school," she says. "I only come because my mother insists that I finish." When asked what, specifically, about school she dislikes, Megumi says, "There aren't any good boys. But that's understandable given the fact that I'm not a good girl."

What she likes best about school, says the troubled teen-ager, is "eating lunch."

Unlike the academic high schools' students, who may study at home for three or four hours a night and attend private cram schools after regular classes, the students at Cherry Hill say they don't study at home at all. Some--like Toshitsugu Arima, the second baseman on the school's baseball team and an aspiring professional ballplayer--are busy with sports and complete their schoolwork during free time between classes. Others, like Megumi Yamagata, never look at their books, either at home or in class.

The students' attention span in class is often marginal, too. In one recent Cherry Hill math class, for example, as the teacher stood at the blackboard reviewing trigonometry problems, the front half of the class paid careful attention and took notes. Those in the rear, meanwhile, turned their backs to the teacher and chatted about other matters.

Few Special Personalities

Teaching--and motivating students--at Cherry Hill is a challenge, says Mr. Kawamura. "There's no problem with the kids who have some special personality," he says--the artists, athletes, and top students who are college-bound and want to prove that other schools made a mistake by not accepting them. "If I see a student always drawing a picture, I won't scold him. We say, 'This one is bound for art school. Let him develop his skills."'

What is frustrating, he says, is dealing with those students who have no special interests, abilities, or talents--and these, he notes, constitute 50 to 60 percent of the enrollment. "They don't like school, have no special ability at sports. They like to do nothing, and the teachers, as hard as we try, can provide little for them."

"The incentives are no longer there," Mr. Kawamura explains. "Good students can study for exams and go to college. Even for the bad students who want to go to college or university, I can find some college where they can go."

But for those who have given up ambition, the teacher says, motivation is further dampened by a problem common to many at the school: a sense of inferiority. No student chooses to come to Cherry Hill, he adds. They come because they failed an exam.

Vol. 04, Issue 23, Page 15

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