Lynette and I have been debating the American education system for nyon 2 years. She went to Japan a few months back on a Fullbright. These are her observations.
After reading your email on free education in the United States, I felt I could shed little light on the Japanese. What better place than this BLOG I’ve heard so much about? I wasn’t sure how to post this officially, so I’ve emailed it to you, and you can post it on my behalf.
I’ve been back for nearly three months, and I have to admit, I haven’t really discussed the ramifications of what we learned with anyone outside of the Fulbright experience. I think we all feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Japanese government for giving us the opportunity, and anything negative we might say in regards to their system would be considered disrespectful. This program provided a rare, insightful view into their culture. The people we met (from the Ministry of Education down) were open and honest with us -- a complete contrast of what is regarded and revered by the Japanese people.
After I read your email, I had to smile. Like most Americans, you are impressed with Japan’s math scores. Internationally, the United States ranks poorly in the areas of science and math. What are we doing wrong? What is Japan’s secret to success? These were the prevalent questions on my own mind as I entered into the whole experience.
Since we all know that politics and economics drive educational systems in the US, you won’t be surprised to learn it is the same in Japan. They have the same concerns: how to educate the people in a way that will maintain and promote a quality of life that is valued by all. They call it, "Zest for Life".
What you may not know is that Japan is having a population growth problem. Members of the Diet (their Legislative body) reported to us that if something did not change soon, the expected population by the year 2050 would be nearly one half of their present day figures. Since everyone from office workers to teachers are expected to work until at least seven at night, it’s no wonder. Lawmakers are seeking options for sending workers home earlier with financial incentives to the companies that comply. Most of our host families were led by men who commuted to work on Monday and returned home on Friday. Mothers now tell their daughters to find careers before having children. Schools are merging and closing in response to the phenomenon. They constantly analyze their own growth in comparison to China and Korea’s, and the findings don’t look good. All in all, most are dumbfounded on this issue.
Financially, the country survived the bursting of the "dot.com bubble" in the early nineties with flying colors. The reason? Japan is a country made of cash. You’ll find no talk of 401Ks or mutual funds. The average guy has no interest in the stock market, and most still save money the old fashioned way -- in the Japanese versions of piggy banks and under futon mattresses. More impressive, Japanese corporations own an admirable percent of our own stock market, and we were surprised to learn they are becoming a growing investment giant in land purchases in the United States.
Japan is a country that is still experiencing great shame and confusion after their defeat in 1945. What they do have, the United States helped build. The reason they spent so much money on the Fulbrighters (we figured almost $30,000 per participant) is their profound need to pay back a debt. At the end of WWII, the US placed thousands of Japanese into American universities to be educated as leaders in every industry -- engineering, communications, finances, and yes, education. Most everything we heard, from the politicians to the classroom students, were words of gratitude and admiration. No one we came across (administrators, teachers, and parents) could understand why WE would want to study THEM. Their questions touched us deeply, "Why do you want to study us when you have a far superior system?" Talk about surprise! They are taught at a very young age that the United States is their friend.
But the winds of change are upon them. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has held power since the 50’s. Don’t let the name fool you. They are more conservative than the most right-winged faction in our own country. They are made up of the oldest generation - some Representatives in their early eighties. The Democratic Reform Party (formed in the late nineties from smaller reform parties that were looking for ways to kick the door down) is nipping at their heels, and they were outraged at Japan’s decision to commit troops to Iraq. The DRP (we quickly learned that the Japanese love acronyms) smacks of the Democratic Party in the US with strong interests in the environment, social programs, and yes, avoiding war. In most meetings, I had to hold back my own conservative thoughts, as John Kerry’s name was hailed as the savior of the world (even from my own group -- of the 20 administrators and educators from the United States, only three were Republicans).
So, what about the schools? The country of Japan is 87% Japanese. Any comparison to our own, or any other country’s system for that matter, is nearly impossible. When asked, "Is teenage pregnancy a problem in your country?" A senator from the House of Counselors replied, "Yes, of course." As a nosy American, the teacher pressed. "Well, how is this problem dealt with?" Without reviewing her political correctness or even questioning the uproar she was about to create, she answered, "Abortion. But, this is not something that is discussed."
It is answers such as this that foreshadowed what we were to learn about Japan. What is not discussed as a problem is still a problem.
The United States reflects a poor education of students in the areas of math and science. We know this, because oddly enough, our country is able to do something the Japanese cannot: admit there is a problem. Our figures reflect every Latino, African-American, Eastern European, Back Woods Redneck, and Middle Eastern immigrant that goes to school. We would learn the same is not true for them.
You’ve probably heard about the suicides and tremendous pressure put on Japanese children to succeed in school. At every temple we visited, hundreds of prayers were hung asking for help with exams and entrance into the best schools. (We found this to be quite odd, as most Japanese are not religious -- another fallout from WWII). Their central government runs ALL of the public schools in Japan. Like the missals of the Catholic Church, you can expect to find identical units, textbooks, lessons, and even page numbers being covered from one end of the country to the other. Japan offers every child a free compulsory education through grade nine.
After that, it costs money -- a lot of money. If your child tests into the BEST high school, the government may subsidize, but should you not be so lucky, you can find yourself paying BIG money to keep your kid in a high school that is substandard (faculty and facilities). If your family can’t afford to send you to high school, you are done (at age 15). That is a LIFETIME of pushing people onto subway trains or promoting perfume scents at Tokyo Hands. In Japan, there is no such thing as a career change, and you cannot go back and "get your degree." There’s a lot of disgrace and embarrassment attached to these factors, but again, these problems are not discussed.
The high school we visited (an institution of average quality) was filled with kids who slept through class, never complied with the instructor‘s instructions, and in one class, the girls were using a curling iron during class. When we returned to Tokyo and met with teachers who had visited other prefectures, the reports were the same. We were in shock!
Japanese teachers told us that it was impossible to kick a student out of class (parents would never allow such a thing) and because parents rarely disciplined their children at home (they want to keep them from the sadness of being an adult for as long as possible), they are increasingly faced with teens who are (in American terms) "oppositionally defiant". Most go to "cram school" till 9:30 at night (as early as the third grade) two to five days a week to memorize formulas and definitions for the national exams, so school becomes a place they must go to get good recommendations.
WHAT??? Where were the superior math students? Well, again, look at the culture. Most shops do not use cash registers or computers. Kids are taught to count and multiply numbers with an abacus, and in every high school math class from Pre-Algebra to the highest Calculus, they are discouraged from using calculators. (also, girls are not expected to do as well in math -- but, that’s another story). From the days of the Samurai, the Japanese have used math games in everyday life, and often temple walls were filled with riddles that required logic and reasoning to solve. As Dave Bosso (our group leader and AP teacher from Connecticut put it, "All we’d need is 2000 years of cultural reform, and we too can be this good at math.")
Science is taught from a book, and again, those concepts are largely MEMORIZED in cram school. Most teachers agreed that students would have trouble knowing when to apply scientific theories or concepts -- a skill that would be taught in the university or the corporation for a very specific need. I had to wonder, could the average Japanese student pass the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test), a test based on higher level thinking skills?
Those math and science scores you read about do not reflect nearly 1/4 of the students (we could only estimate with the absence of firm figures on this issue) in Japan who either never enter high school or do not pass their college entrance exams. We were confident that if we reflected similar statistics, we could easily compete with scores from high school graduates who applied to MIT or Yale.
Are they far superior in math and science -- absolutely. Are we hearing the entire truth? Absolutely not.
Here’s my prediction: Japan is on the verge of their own cultural reform. I figure they are where we were in the late 60’s, early 70’s. The young college graduate is getting angry that he worked so hard to pass exams, get into the best university, and he still can’t get a job with a "corporation" -- the driving force for most workers in that country. My own host family has an eldest daughter who did pass her exams and attends Sophia University in Tokyo. She wants to work for a corporation alright, Phizer, in America. She and her best friend are visiting us this summer -- they both want to go to New York to see a Broadway play.
The young are discovering music, art, and drama that are not found in Japanese history books. Since the language demands students to memorize some 10,000 Kanji characters before high school, students have no time to read for pleasure (unless you count anime). Literature is NOT part of any compulsory curriculum, and we met so many young people, instructors, and professors who were discovering titles like To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of Shakespeare. The country is vehement about peace and harmony, so I’m not sure whether to be thrilled or horrified for them. It will cause a great uproar if it happens.
There is an ancient Japanese proverb "The nail that sticks up must be hammered down." Trust me. That is personified in every aspect of the culture. We cannot compare ourselves to them because we are infinitely different. The last thing they need is to model themselves after us, and we can’t begin to solve our own problems with what works for them. The best we can both do is maintain a healthy respect for one another and call it a draw. (Well, that AND order Sake #12!)
P.S. - Thank you for taking the time on the DOE issue. It does give me a lot to think about.