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Allegedly, Tom Cruise is here. This I hear whispered as I stroll past the waterfall and koi ponds of the New Otani—one of Tokyo’s premier hotels—in October 2004. Judging from the upscale surroundings, it’s not surprising that Cruise might be here. What’s incredible is that I am: an 8th grade teacher from northern New York state, guest of the Japanese government and participant in the Fulbright Memorial Fund teacher program. As an American educator who’s never before been afforded this level of respect—having had to balance the casual indifference of my students with the competing demands of federal and state accountability—I had, sadly, begun to believe in the self-deprecating comments of my colleagues. Teachers in the United States are not so much respected as they are tolerated. As I watch the finning carp, I begin to suspect that our status and the effectiveness of our schools are inextricably linked.
The FMF program is sponsored by the Japanese government and enables teachers like me to participate in a three-week study tour. We then bring back what’s learned about Japanese culture and education to the states. Earlier today, a Tokyo chemistry teacher asked me if it was true that American educators are held accountable for what students learn. He asked the question as if he didn’t believe this could be the case. Isn’t it—he seemed to be politely suggesting—a student’s responsibility to learn the material?
But how do you explain—through a translator, no less—that U.S. teachers don’t enjoy the same status as Japanese teachers, and as a result U.S. policymakers are inclined to place the responsibility for what’s learned in classrooms on the teacher, not the student? This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be held partially accountable, only that this suspicion of American educators has resulted in an inordinate amount of attention directed toward the teacher’s role as opposed to that of the student.
The American testing explosion does not, for the most part, affect students. It does, however, affect teachers. For my students, there are few consequences associated with mandatory testing. My 8th graders face exams in science, social studies, math, English, technology, and a foreign language. While the results appear on the school’s report card—determining whether we, as a school, and therefore as teachers, have passed or failed—the scores have little relevance to students’ lives. They do not affect their final average, whether they’re promoted or retained, or if they go to summer school. For the kids, these tests are simply an annoyance; they sit for the requisite number of hours, scratching away until at last someone tells them that it’s time to leave.
But in Japan, tests taken at the end of middle school determine which high school they will attend and which track they’ll be placed on in life. These are tests that reward hard work—tests that mean something. Amazingly, some of my students have told me that they wish there was more at stake for all the hours they spend in those hard wooden seats.
While here in Tokyo, I’ve learned that, unlike their average American counterparts, Japanese schools do not seem obsessed with testing—no doubt because the pressure is on the student, not the district, to perform. As a result, Japanese teachers are much less likely than Americans to perform, entertain, or embrace new pedagogical fads. But their schools are some of the most effective in the world, even though class sizes are huge (up to 40 students), special education is virtually nonexistent (except for the severely handicapped), and the lessons are very teacher-centered (the concept of student-centered instruction being anathema in a country that emphasizes the group more than the individual).
But the Japanese stress something that’s no longer fashionable in American education: personal responsibility. We rarely reward students with responsibility because we’ve created a system in which adults bear nearly all of the responsibility and students almost none. We’ve removed this burden from children, and with it the freedoms that come with responsibility. Without meaningful amounts of responsibility in their lives, many students will never develop the confidence and character needed to become independent learners.
I was shocked at the amount of responsibility children were given in Japan. Primary-grade students were left nearly unsupervised during recess, with only one elderly monitor watching a playground of hundreds at Asahigaoka Elementary. In the afternoon, the kids spent 20 minutes sweeping and scrubbing their schools. After school, athletes raked fields and ran practices: stretching, running, batting, and fielding with no coaches in sight. Between classes, children played unattended. When a boy playing duck-duck-goose fell and smacked his head, sending a desk toppling, I looked around to discover that I was the only adult present. Astonished, I later asked our translator if this was unusual—the lack of supervision.
“Not at all,” she said. “Giving students time to play on their own helps them become responsible. The boy who hit his head has learned something. His parents will not blame the school. It’s his own fault.”
Until we begin to invent better ways to hold American students accountable, they will—despite smaller classes, mounds of technology, and individualized education plans—fail to thrive in the ways that Japanese students do. In fact, the focus in American education on the individual may very well foster a growing sense of entitlement among students and their parents, making them less likely to embrace the most effective educational technique ever employed: hard work.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Asian Studies