Japanese education reform redux

Amid all the recent furor over Japan's new school textbooks, whose whitewashing of World War II atrocities fed outrage in Korea and massive government-sanctioned demonstrations in China, few outside Japan are paying much attention to the lackluster results of its latest round of education reforms and the rethinking that is now underway within that country.

Three years ago, after an education reform conference in Tokyo, I wrote in this space (see here) that Japan's then-new "rainbow plan" (yutori ky??iku ) for revitalizing elementary-secondary education might strengthen America's prospects for besting the Chrysanthemum Kingdom in the next round of international assessments. Among that plan's seven elements were steps to lighten curriculum content by an estimated 30 percent and shorten Japan's famously long school year. (You can read more here.)

The rationale at the time, of course, was that stagnation in Japan's long-vibrant economy meant that the country needed new forms of human capital, people who were more creative and flexible, less robotic, and more concerned about others. There was talk of making "the learning environment . . . enjoyable and free of worries." It was said that "integrated studies" would foster a greater "zest for living" via "hands-on activities."

My hunch was that such easing up would likely prove bad rather than good for Japan's international competitiveness. While one hates to say "I told you so"...Or is it Schadenfreude? In any case, we now glimpse early signs that Japanese student achievement is declining relative to other nations, at least if recent rounds of PISA and TIMSS tests are to be believed.

Professor Kondo Motohiro of Nihon University wrote in Japan Echo last month that "In science, eighth-graders dropped from fourth place in the 1999 TIMSS to sixth place in 2003. The average mathematics score fell for both eighth-graders and fourth-graders, and the average science score fell for fourth-graders, indicating a clear decline in basic academic skills." Motohiro adds that this handwriting had been on the wall for some time:

Various national surveys had shown not only a drop in achievement but also an increase in the number of unmotivated children and a decline in the amount of time spent on homework. In short, the verdict has been in on yutori ky??iku for some time now. However, it was not until January 2005 that Education Minister Nakayama Nariaki publicly expressed his misgivings about the 'room to grow' policy and announced his intention to carry out yet another comprehensive curriculum review (see here).

Given the curricular changes that have been underway in Japan, it's no surprise that objective test scores would in time falter: "Sets and probability disappeared from the elementary math curriculum in 1992," Motohiro writes, "and children were taught that the value of pi was 'about 3' (although the number 3.14 did appear in textbooks). Traditional science and social studies classes were eliminated for first- and second-graders and replaced by 'everyday life' classes, which included such hands-on activities as growing vegetables."

It could be coincidence, but Japanese schools have also been suffering mightily of late from a breakdown in classroom discipline and student behavior.

So now, it seems, the Koizumi government is setting out to reform Japanese education all over again. That's a very protracted process. Despite (or perhaps because of) its highly centralized national education system, Japan's notoriously controlling bureaucracy is very slow to move. "At least three years are bound to elapse," Motohiro says, "between the time the Education Ministry identifies the problem and the implementation of a solution.....The result is that the country's education system is always several years behind in responding to change."

It first struck me almost twenty years ago when, at the U.S. Department of Education, I presided over the American side of a joint U.S.-Japanese bilateral education policy study (see here), that it was remarkable to see Japanese reformers in search of progressivism at the very same time the U.S. was commencing its long march "back to the basics." Our march continues. Could Japan, finally, be heading in the same direction?


Bush high school reform: R.I.P.

It's more or less official now. The 109th Congress is not going near high school reform, despite that being top priority on the Bush administration's education agenda this year.

In January, the White House, you may recall, offered up an ambitious set of proposals that would, in effect, extend the NCLB umbrella to cover high schools. (You can see a summary here.) The $1.5 billion price tag was to be funded by redeploying vocational ed dollars into high school reform.

This turned out to be a non-starter, both because Congress is (inexplicably) devoted to vocational education and because members are loath to widen the reach of NCLB, which seems contentious enough on its present scale.

Hence a Perkins Act reauthorization bill (H.R. 366) recently cleared the House and landed in the Senate, where some version of it will surely pass. And in remarks the other day, House education committee chairman John Boehner courteously informed the world that, while he's much in favor of high school reform and hugely appreciates the President's leadership, in fact he has no intention of pressing for this to occur at the behest of Uncle Sam. "I think we need to take a look at what states and communities are already doing proactively to transform high schools," quoth the chairman, "and ask whether additional federal requirements are even justified" (see here).

Hence the action now moves to governors and legislators, to groups like NGA and Achieve, to funders like Gates, and to innumerable agitators and advocates.

Troubled as the U.S. high school scene is - with far too many dropouts and far too little learning among most of those who make it through - decentralized pluralism is probably the right formulation for now. Washington has its hands full and should figure out how to succeed with NCLB before trying to do still more.

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