Once again, Japanese-American educational comparisons are under discussion. My ears perk up. There’s very little that I can say I actually know much about, but Japan, and more particularly, Japanese education is one of them. In the last two years of college, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading the field, in both languages, and a month in Japan observing and interviewing students, teachers, administrators and policy wonks in about a dozen schools, as well as ordinary citizens. Here’s my perspective on the current points of debate.
On “Economic Threats”
If the Japanese pose a threat to America’s economy, let the economists decide, not the educationalists. According to most Japanese self-critiques, with which I agree, Japanese education is fantastic at preparing students for tests, terrible for instilling the self-confidence and creative ingenuity required to lead the world economy. The Japanese business-people that I interviewed all expressed frustration with newly employed graduates, even from the most elite schools, essentially labeling them as task-completers incapable of free thought. Japanese self-criticism centers around the inability of Japanese education to create “virtuosos,” whether concert soloists or Nobel prize winners. Much of this stems from an exceedingly weak undergraduate system, a much-unheralded strength of American education. College, even the best of them, is seen as a reward for the hard work of high school. Japanese undergraduates who continue to develop intellectually through their party-school years of college are rare, a time when the majority of American students are really coming into their intellectual own.
On National Standards
Japan’s testing and standards system is NCLB taken to the Nth degree. If you think being able to walk into any 6th grade math class anywhere in the country and find them teaching the same thing as every other 6th grade math class is a good thing, Japanese education is for you. If you think there is merit to differentiated instruction, like most people who know anything about education, keep looking around.
Besides, would anyone really want one committee to decide the textbook adoptions for the entire country? Japan, as a national entity, is unable to appropriately atone for the shames of WWII war crimes because of the politics of its social studies textbook adoptions. We Americans need only look to our headlines and their stories about intelligent design to see why uniform curriculum adoption is not a good idea.
On High Stakes Testing
While rumors of Japan’s test-stress suicides are an exaggeration, the concept behind them is not. I spent most of my time at a Japanese middle school and wrote mostly about the thriving, empowering, and creative extra-curricular culture that tries to make up for the creative wasteland that occurs inside most of the classrooms. However, all extra-curriculars –sports, art, music, student government, service— come to a halt in 9th grade, when students devote their lives to preparing for their high school entrance exams. This occurs again in 12th grade, as students prepare for college entrance exams. Tests dominate the students’ lives, and strip their education of imagination, freedom and joy. Sound familiar?
On Lesson Study
Advocating lesson study as the answer to our problems in teaching quality is much like suggesting that watching and discussing “Perry Mason” for improving the quality of lawyers. The teaching gap is not about professional development. The reason Japan has better teachers than we do is because Japanese teachers are paid much better than ours are and because becoming a teacher in Japan is a very competitive process. As a result, Japanese teachers are able to drive nice cars, send their children to elite high schools, have one-income families, and show all the trappings of success. Consequently, no one ever questions a smart, successful student who says, “I’m going to be a teacher.”
On Cultural Comparison
Japan is not a worthy opposite for comparison to the U.S. Certainly, there are minority groups and under-classes, even issues of illegal immigration and second language acquisition, but on a scale several orders of magnitude smaller than ours. This is outside of my field of knowledge, but I suspect those groups are just as disadvantaged in Japan as they are here and their lack of size leads to even greater marginalization.
On what we should really learn from Japan
Japan is a literate, education-centered society in a way the U.S. has never been and may never be. I’ve read of a brag that Japanese homeless read the newspapers before they sleep in them, and that’d be spot on. Anyone who’s been to a Japanese city knows that it is a “print-rich environment” writ large. More importantly, there is a national priority on learning that is simply not found here. Japan’s high school drop out rate is one-tenth of the United States. This is in a country where high school is not even mandatory. Before we strive to imitate Japanese tests and standards, let’s imitate their belief that teachers are professionals and that education is important.
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