The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Japan is overhauling its elementary-secondary education system. According to the Education Ministry, explains Craig Coley, "in place of 'overemphasizing intellectual education' schools will teach more 'zest for living.' The curriculum will stress creativity and independent thinking."

This is great news for America and bad news for Japan. Just as the U.S. shows signs of recovering from the excesses of progressivism, Japan plunges in. Perhaps its children can now look forward to an overdose of "relevance," encouragement to learn whatever they like, teachers who see their roles as "guides on the side," and nobody held responsible for meeting external academic standards.

When that day dawns, we'll no longer feel that Japan has superior schools. U.S. children will surpass their Japanese age mates on international assessments of math and science. And Japan will ooze deeper into the fever swamps of goofy education ideas.

Perhaps I exaggerate. It's difficult to imagine a land as top-down, buttoned-down, homogenized and precise as Japan ever turning its kids loose to learn whatever tickles their fancies. Not, in any case, until Japanese trains stop arriving at the precise moment and place that the timetable dictates.

Still, the Education Ministry's Rainbow Plan, aka Education Reform Plan for the 21st Century, indicates that Japan is headed in the direction we are emerging from. (You can see an English language summary at

Based on a commission's recommendations, the seven-part plan includes such gems as "foster youth into becoming open and warm-hearted Japanese" and "improve learning environment to one which is enjoyable and free of worries." It also includes more conventional reform goals such as reducing class size (to 20), dealing with "problematic behaviors among children" and "promot(ing) the establishment of new types of schools to fit the needs of the different communities."

Why is this happening now, asks the Journal's Coley? Because Japan's leaders have persuaded themselves that it's an economic necessity. "Japanese acknowledge the country's 'economic miracle' relied on a workforce with a high average competence in language, math and science. But for as long as 30 years, some business leaders...have been calling for graduates with creativity and diverse skills. Catching up with the West required diligent, proficient workers; surpassing the West, they reasoned, demanded innovators instead of followers." Yet the old system was so entrenched that no reform consensus formed as long as the economy was booming. It took a decade-long recession to precipitate action in this direction.

But what a huge gamble they're taking. Suppose that, in pushing their schools to foster creativity and diversity they eradicate the high uniform level of basic skills, knowledge and work habits that the world has come to expect from Japan's education system? I've long seen Japan as the place that proves that indeed "all children can learn" to a relatively high standard and that no child need be left behind. The price, I believed - and still believe - of that kind of attainment was considerable uniformity with respect to standards, curriculum and school organization, as well as highly skilled teachers in essentially every classroom. That's what Japan has. How much of it will they now throw away?

When I arrived at the U.S. Education Department back in 1985 I inherited a bilateral study that Japan and the U.S. had embarked upon. The American team wrote a good analysis of Japanese education, making no secret of our envy of its high standards and performance. The Japanese team wrote an adequate review of U.S. education, making much of our emphasis on freedom, initiative, creativity and critical thinking. It occurred to me then that each country defined "reform" as becoming more like the other already was. It also struck me that the two lands' reform movements might cross like ships heading in opposite directions in the night. Maybe that's now finally happening.

The Journal's reporter does not, however, expect this kind of reform to cause Japan's universities to forsake their exam-based admissions policies and the considerable ripple effects that follow. "The subject matter tested by [those] exams," he notes, "is Japan's de facto national curriculum" and if the "public schools don't teach it, private schools and tutors will." Thus he predicts that one likely outcome of the Rainbow Plan will be even more business for Japan's legion of for-profit cram schools ("juku").

One more observation: I've visited maybe a dozen Japanese schools. At least at the elementary level, their supposed uniformity is greatly exaggerated, both in the western press and by Japan's own reformers. I've seldom seen happier or more cheerful children, engaged in sundry activities under the watchful eye of a caring (and seemingly competent) teacher. These classrooms do not consist of rows of little robots. To my eye, they already embody the best of progressive education. Will they now embrace its excesses, too? 

"Still Stuck in Exam Hell?" by Craig Coley, The Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2001

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