Japan’s education system has long been viewed as a model because of its strong performance on international-comparison tests and its celebrated mathematics curriculum.
But among its citizens, schooling in the nation is seen as inadequate, a sentiment that has led to significant changes over the past two decades. The insecurity has been driven more recently by a protracted economic downturn and increasing social problems among Japanese youths.
In 2002, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology rolled out the Rainbow Plan. Among its priorities are several designed to soften the harsh reputation of the exam-driven system, which had increasingly been blamed for rises in bullying, truancy, and student stress. The plan sought to improve basic academic proficiency in “easy-to-understand classes,” nurture students’ warmhearted tendencies toward community, and create a learning environment that is “enjoyable and free of worries.”
Japanese officials were also hoping to foster some qualities they admire in Americans, particularly those deemed essential in the global economy: critical thinking, innovation, and the ability to adapt knowledge to a variety of tasks.
A new course of study was introduced to direct the changes. It called for a 30 percent reduction in curriculum content, the elimination of Saturday school, and the addition of an integrated course that relied on hands-on and student-directed lessons. At the same time, more control in the country’s centralized system is shifting to local boards, school administrators, and teachers.
The reform program produced a backlash within a few years, after a drop in test scores and amid complaints that children were not achieving to the high levels that had earned Japan its international reputation for educational excellence.
Curriculum: National standards and the school curriculum, or course of study, are set by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. The curriculum includes Japanese language and writing, mathematics, geography and history, science, moral education, the arts, physical education and health, home economics, foreign language, civics, and integrated studies. The course of study is revised about every decade. Private schools follow the same curriculum as public schools. Compulsory schooling spans six years of elementary school and three years of lower secondary. Nearly all students who complete the junior high program go on to upper-secondary programs. There are three upper-secondary tracks, including general (or college-prep), vocational, or integrated.
Testing: No formal assessments are given in elementary school, and promotion to the next grade is considered automatic. Local jurisdictions, or prefectures, may conduct tests of students’ knowledge as they complete junior high school. Students take entrance exams for placement in senior high schools, some of which are highly competitive. The upper-secondary level offers three-year programs. Universities and colleges set their own admissions criteria, which usually consist of national-exam results, upper-secondary transcripts, essays, and interviews.
Spending: Japan’s spending on precollegiate education was just under 3 percent of its $4 trillion gross domestic product in 2004, slightly less than its expenditure in 1995.
Workload: The school year stretches to more than 200 days, although mandatory Saturday classes were eliminated several years ago. Many students attend cram schools, or juku, in the evenings for additional lessons in math, Japanese language and writing, science, and English.
A new course of study, which will take effect in 2011, is expected to restore some of the content that was removed from the curriculum guidelines in 2002, particularly in math and science.
Schooling in Japan is compulsory through the 9th grade, but 97 percent of junior high school graduates continue to the upper-secondary level, according to Ryo Watanabe, the director of international research and cooperation for the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, based in Tokyo.
Japan’s math curriculum has been held up as a model for its rigor, coherence, depth, efficient coverage of topics, and effective melding of math concepts throughout the grade levels.
From 1994 to 2003, the course of study required students to complete 80 credits over three years, and many high schools required an extra five credits, according to the International Review of Curriculum and Assessment, an Internet archive service run by the National Foundation for Educational Research, a government agency in England. In 2003, the graduation requirement was reduced to 74 credits, although the new course of study for upper-secondary students, now being devised, could restore the higher number of credits.
Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Japan Continues Search For Academic Triumph