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Education Reform
Origins, concerns, and nature of current reform effort
National Council on Educational Reform
Council's diagnosis of education problems
Council's recommendations
Concluding observations

Education Reform
Japan is now engaged in a major education reform movement. Its scope is such that if most of the major proposals under consideration are adopted and implemented, the resulting level of change would rank with the two previous watersheds in Japanese education history--the Meiji and Occupation reforms. The continuing dynamic relationship between education and national need is apparent in the reform debate. Problems are being faced openly in public debate and political action, reflecting the impressive self-corrective potential of a parliamentary democracy in action.

Origins, concerns, and nature of current reform effort

The current effort can be traced back some 15 years through a number of often critical reports, some government initiated and some not. Separately and cumulatively, they have sparked much public debate. For example. in the late 1960's the Central Council for Education called for eliminating uniformity and promoting diversity in education. In 1970, the Japanese government called upon the 24-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for an outside review of its education policies. The international experts provided by OECD lauded Japan's considerable accomplishments in education, but were critical of a number of policies and practices, including the extent of centralized control, standardization, conformity, institutional hierarchy, and the emphasis on university entrance examinations. [1]

Several subsequent reports, including one from the Japan Teachers Union in 1975, added impetus to the reform movement. Reports from various business groups, including one from the Japan Committee for Economic Development in 1979, urged greater creativity, diversity, and internationalism in education.

The reform movement has developed considerable momentum over the past few years and education reform is now a major national issue. Political and business leaders believe that Japan is moving into a complex stage of economic and technological development that will require greater individual imagination, creativity, and sensitivity to international dimensions. Hence, current and future generations of youth must be prepared appropriately. Many Japanese also believe that education has been partly to blame for some deterioration in the nation's social fabric in the 1970s and '80s. Yet it is understood that social tensions and labor market changes affect education. For example, some believe that home support for education has declined as a result of the increase in children from broken homes and families where both parents are employed away from home. The decline in student motivation for sustained effort on the examination treadmill is manifested in part in an increase in anti-social behavior in schools and the dropout rate.

Other concerns are turning up as well. In 1981-82, the Second International Survey of Mathematics Achievement was conducted in 24 countries under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). As in the first survey in 1964. Japanese 13-year-olds and high school seniors ranked first or second in almost every area of mathematics skills tested. (The performance of American students was well below the international average.) However, in this latest survey, the average achievement of the Japanese 13-year-olds was somewhat lower than their predecessors in the 1964 survey. This is not the only sign of some educational decline. According to Kazuyuki Kitamura, other indicators include "the increasing number of low achievers in primary and secondary schools; increased school violence, especially at junior high schools; and the emerging phenomenon of voluntary dropouts from senior high schools." [2]

For these and other reasons, opinion polls have been reporting reduced public confidence in the education system. Some key findings from a May 1984 survey by a major Japanese newspaper include:

...more than half (55 percent) of the adult respondents felt "unsatisfied" with the primary and junior high schools, whereas only 24 percent were "satisfied." (In a similar survey conducted in 1977, 49 percent of the respondents had been "satisfied". . . only 22 percent "unsatisfied.") . . . to the question, "Do you think school education has become better or worse when you compare it with your school days?" 32 percent of adults surveyed in 1984 answered "better," while 47 percent considered it "worse." (In 1977, 44 percent had said "better" and 32 percent. . . "worse.") [3]

Reformers are focusing on such issues as the enforced uniformity of schooling at elementary and secondary levels that is believed to stifle individuality, create frustrations and contribute to disorder in schools, and the heavy emphasis on university entrance examinations which is believed to hinder personal and intellectual development. Some problems, such as those stemming from standardization in compulsory education, are recognized as the other side of the coin of success in school achievement during the compulsory school years.

There has been considerable continuity in both debate and membership of various reform bodies over the past decade and a half. While heir to various concerns and debate since 1970, the present reform effort differs in two respects. It cuts nearer the core of Japanese education practice and challenges some basic principles that have governed the present system for the past 35 years. It has also had the advantage of strong political leadership from Prime Minister Nakasone himself.

The Prime Minister became actively involved in education reform during the 1983 election campaign for the lower house of the Diet. The extent of voter dissatisfaction with the education system led him to make reform of education one of three issues which he believes need priority national attention now and into the 21st century. (The other two are financial and administrative reform of government.)

A recent study group with special significance for Prime Minister Nakasone's subsequent initiatives in education reform was the Conference on Culture and Education. This special advisory commission was established by the Prime Minister in June 1983. As chairman, the Prime Minister appointed the distinguished founder (now honorary board chairman) of the Sony Corporation, Masaru Ibuka, long a strong advocate of educational innovation, particularly in early childhood education. The group reported on a number of topics that remain matters of concern, including moral education, the emphasis on credentialism, university admissions policies, teacher education, and internationalism in Japanese education. The group hit especially hard at "the evil of uniform education" and concluded that the Japanese education system "must undergo a major reform so that every Japanese will grow more at ease with himself and able to cope with the future independently." [4]

On the eve of the general election of December 1983, the Prime Minister released a seven-point plan for reform that drew widespread media attention. Among other things, he proposed reform of the university entrance examination system and a reassessment of the 6-3-3 school organization. The Prime Minister's concern with education extended beyond schooling, as he made clear in a February 1984 speech to the Diet:

It seems to me that postwar education has been heavily and exclusively dependent upon the schools, and we have tended to neglect the importance of comprehensive education from the broader perspective encompassing family education, social education and other educational forms, and that this imbalance lies behind the explosive increase in violence in the schools, juvenile delinquency and other contemporary problems....I believe that the time has come to institute sweeping reforms across the entire educational spectrum in preparation for the 21st century. [5]

National Council on Educational Reform

The following month, Prime Minister Nakasone proposed to the Diet that an ad hoc council on education reform be established under his direct control. After extensive debate, such a body was established in August with a 3-year mandate to make a comprehensive study of various government policies and practices in education and related areas and to present recommendations for reform of the education system. The name was changed in April 1986 to National Council on Educational Reform.

The National Council reports directly to the Prime Minister, not to Monbusho. Vesting such responsibility in a body other than the Ministry of Education is a major change from standard Japanese practice. Because of the Council's direct link to the Prime Minister, one leading Japanese scholar considers it to be the most powerful education advisory body since the postwar Reform Committee. [6]

Prime Minister Nakasone's vision for the Council was set forth in his brief speech at the Council's first meeting:

Today we are facing dramatic changes in our circumstances, both domestic and overseas, as well as great changes in the times. I am convinced that the time has come to develop new policies for implementing the necessary reforms in political, economic, social, educational, cultural and other fields so as to adequately cope with these changes and thus safeguard the future of our nation. To this end, it is necessary for us I believe, to reform our educational system with a long-term perspective and make this a responsibility of the entire Government. . .

. . . It is my belief that educational reform should aim to preserve and further develop the traditional Japanese culture which we have inherited and to cultivate in children lofty ideals, sound physical strength, well-balanced personalities and creative power, as well as such moral and behavioral standards as are universally accepted in human society, so that these future Japanese citizens may be able to contribute to the international community with a Japanese consciousness....

Finally I should like to add that educational reform involves more than the reform of education alone. It will inevitably lead to reform of Japanese society itself. Bearing this in mind, I should like to ask you, Mr. Chairman and all members of your Council, to deliberate on educational reform so as to respond to the expectations of all segments of our population and take into account their opinions to the greatest extent possible. [7]

The Council has 25 general members and 20 specialist members, including representatives from elementary and secondary education, higher education, organized labor, and business and industry. All are proponents of education reform of one sort or another. The Council is chaired by the former president of Kyoto University, a longtime personal friend of the Prime Minister. The two vice-chairmen are the president of Keio University and a senior consultant for the Industrial Bank of Japan. Two-thirds of the group are graduates of national universities. Ten of the 25 members are alumni of Tokyo University. [8]

The Council identified the eight major issues to be considered:

  1. Basic Requirements for an Education Relevant to the 21st Century (Aims of education; analysis of the past and present of education; and future prospects for education.)
  2. Organization and Systematization of Lifelong Learning and the Correction of the Adverse Effects of Undue Emphasis on the Educational Background of Individuals (Correction of the adverse effects of undue emphasis of the educational background of individuals; development of a lifelong learning system; vitalization of formal education; and vitalization of educational functions of family and community.)
  3. Enhancement of Higher Education and Individualization of Higher Education Institutions (Diversification and individualization of higher education institutions; scientific research and graduate schools; and the organization and management of institutions of higher education.)
  4. Enrichment and Diversification of Elementary and Secondary Education (Basic direction of the substance of education; structure of the school system; moral education; health education; education of the handicapped; and class size and other educational conditions.)
  5. Improvement of the Quality of Teachers
  6. Coping with Internationalization
  7. Coping with the Information Age
  8. Review of Educational Administration and Finance (Distribution of functions between governments and nongovernmental bodies; responsibilities of the national and local governments and the distribution of functions between different levels of government; school administration and management; and educational costs and financing of education.) [9]

The Council identified these concepts in considering all the issues: emphasis on individuality, fundamentals, creativity, expansion of choice, humanization of the education environment, lifelong learning, internationalism, and dealing with the information age. Emphasis on individuality is considered the fundamental guiding principle. [10]

The Council has organized itself into four committees. Work is done in plenary sessions, too; and two dozen of these were held in the first year alone. The Council is taking the Prime Minister's charge to consider public expectations and opinions seriously. It has conducted public hearings in several prefectures throughout Japan, and has held special hearings to which key organizations were invited to express their views on education reform. The Council received written proposals and comments from approximately 100 organizations before the end of the first year of its work.

The Council has already produced two reports, the First Report on Educational Reform, presented to the Prime Minister in June 1985, and the Second Report on Educational Reform, submitted in April 1986. A third report is expected in 1987.

The first two reports provide an unusually candid summary of Japan's education problems as perceived by many leading Japanese. Many of the concerns will seem exaggerated to American readers, given the greater extent and severity of some related problems in the United States. However, the Japanese do consider their problems to be serious. This is clear from the urgent tone of these documents, the vigor of the ongoing debate, and the heavy attention that the mass media now give reform matters. The evidence makes a persuasive case that the Japanese believe their education system needs more than a simple tuneup, and that the prospect for some fundamental change is greater than it has been at any time since the war.

Council's diagnosis of education problems

The Council's First Report discussed the Japanese tendency to attach too much importance to the educational background of an individual, especially to graduation from certain prestigious institutions, and on excessive and prolonged competition in entrance examinations. Under the heading, "An educational wasteland," the Council's Second Report speaks of a "state of desolation" in Japanese education. It is conceivable that this phrase will become the Japanese equivalent of the "rising tide of mediocrity" metaphor that helped galvanize education reform in the United States.

Three sets of reforms are articulated in the Second Report. The first concerns efforts to "invigorate education and inspire public confidence" in all sectors of the education system. The second centers around "coping with the changes of the times," and reintroduces the topics of internationalism in Japanese education and the "information age." The third area includes educational administration and finance.

The Council avers that the rigidity and uniformity of the system have created problems. It notes such manifestations of the "state of desolation" as bullying, school violence, juvenile delinquency, and the refusal to go to school. These phenomena are viewed as serious, deep rooted, and related to each other and to present conditions of the family, school, and community. The Council asserts that the rigid, uniform school programs, excessive controls on students, and other factors prevent sound character formation, increase pressures on children, and create frustration. Moral education, the Council says, has been downplayed, and there is an imbalance between assertion of rights and awareness of responsibilities.

The Council fears that an excessive emphasis on memorization has produced many conformist people who are unable to think independently and creatively. It also believes that some people do not understand traditional cultural values and lack a Japanese identity. The Council has been concerned about the quality of higher education, as well. Finally, in a thinly veiled reference to the Ministry of Education and the Japan Teachers Union, the Council notes that even within the education sector there is an atmosphere of serious mutual distrust and suspicion that must be rectified if public confidence in education is to be restored.

Council's recommendations

While phrased in general terms, the Council's recommendations to date have dealt with a number of fundamental issues, including diversification, decentralization, and moral education. The recommendations stress the importance of increasing individuality, choice, and flexibility throughout the education system.

The Council has said that centralized control over education should be loosened. National authorities should set minimum standards to maintain and improve the quality of education, but should allow for local innovation. At the elementary and secondary levels, national guidelines should emphasize basic knowledge and skills and moral education, but at the same time encourage development of school programs in accordance with local circumstances. The Council has also asserted that more importance should be attached to the role of private schools with their distinctive aims and principles and that consideration should be given to ways of facilitating the establishment of more private schools for the first nine grades.

The Council recommends further diversification of higher education, with each institution having greater freedom to develop its own programs. Admission to postsecondary institutions should be made more flexible through changes in eligibility requirements and entrance examinations. Regulations should be revised so that students can change institutions and departments more easily. Graduate education and research should be improved, ways of obtaining private sector funds found, and joint industry-government-higher education research expanded.

Among the measures proposed to improve teacher quality, the Council suggests that newly appointed teachers undergo a year of inservice training under the supervision of veteran teachers. In a related recommendation, the Council proposes that the ongoing program to lower the present pupil-teacher ratio in compulsory education should be fully implemented and the staffing situation further improved. The Council also calls for strengthening teacher training in moral education.

The Council recognizes the "bullying" problem as having reached a serious level and believes that all-out efforts are needed to eliminate it. It has encouraged parents to strengthen discipline at home and has stressed that efforts by home, school, and community are all necessary. It has suggested measures to achieve greater internationalization of education, such as steps to facilitate enrollment of foreign students and improve foreign language instruction. It has suggested reforms to cope with the development of information technologies. The Council also stresses the importance of developing a lifelong learning system, reducing the current emphasis on formal education credentials of individuals, giving additional opportunities to adults, and serving an aging population in the future.

The Council acknowledges the education problems of Japanese children living abroad as well as those who re-enter schools in Japan. The Council believes that children who return to education in Japan should be seen as an asset because of their experience abroad, and that special selection procedures and placement provisions should be developed to ensure equitable treatment in their admission to high schools and universities.

Concluding observations

In addition to being concerned over the challenge of meeting new national needs in science and technology to remain competitive in a changing world economy, the Japanese are alarmed by what they perceive as a growing sense of student disaffection from the education system. Anti-social attitudes and behavior by students strike at the heart of Japanese culture, attacking such core values as respect for authority and education and social harmony.

The growth of ijime (school bullying) is particularly upsetting to the Japanese because it represents group behavior gone out of control. However small the scale at present, the unwillingness of alienated students to participate constructively in formal education and to observe group norms is seen as a rejection of the larger social system which Japanese leaders and the public believe bodes ill for the future. Ijime is a vexing problem for a society that prizes order, harmony, and predictability. While disaffection appears to be growing in the face of the rigidities of the present system, there is understandable anxiety on the part of the authorities about opening the system to greater diversity and individualism--"liberalization"--because of the uncertainties that would be induced. The debate over "liberalism" and coping with "individuality" is, therefore, heated and earnest.

Although several problems have come into clearer focus for the Japanese, there is not yet consensus on solutions. Considerable opposition to change exists in various quarters. A common concern is that, given the formidable successes of Japanese education, the baby not be thrown out with the bath water. Ken'ichi Koyama, a university professor and Tokyo graduate, summarizes some of the difficulties ahead, including inflexible adherence to the status quo and the national challenge of finding a new balance between group harmony and individuality in Japanese culture:

Implementing educational reform will not be easy. Ironically, this is partly due to the very success Japanese education has had in assisting the catch-up process. As in the case of people who come to a bad end precisely because they were once winners, so successful systems and policies tend to become inflexible and invite disaster by clinging to tried and true methods. Japanese education may be on the verge of this sort of 'tragedy of the winner' ...

Educators are inclined by nature to adopt a negative and passive stance on reform questions. The education system today, however, is suffering from a devastating blight whose symptoms are grueling exam-score competition, juvenile delinquency, and violence in the schools. If the cause of this disease is the uniform modern school system itself, medicine targeted only at the symptoms will have little effect. The responsibility of educators is to diagnose the disease from a long-term and comprehensive perspective and to implement a bold program of treatment. [11]

Broadly speaking, because (apart from higher education) Japan has essentially "caught up" with or surpassed the West in education performance, there are no longer any comprehensive foreign models likely to offer much help. Other nations are struggling with education problems of like complexity, trying to find solutions within their own contexts. The questions Japan is asking itself now are questions of culture as well as pedagogy:

How will Japanese culture, which has traditionally placed paramount importance on the individual's place within the organization, adapt to the coming 'age of the intellect?' How can we achieve a balance among intellectual, moral, and physical education? How can we foster individuality and creativity while at the same time maintaining respect for harmony as part of our culture? These are among the questions that we must address as we face the monumental task of educational reform. [12]

While there may not be packaged solutions for cross-national import or export, there are still many ideas and approaches which nations can share and learn from each other. There are also some interesting analogies. For example, the powerful influence of Japanese higher education on secondary education will remind students of American education history of the battle cry of the late 1930's and the 1940's, "let the colleges set our high schools free!" This will be more difficult in Japan. While the higher education sector is by widespread agreement the weakest part of the Japanese system and not world class in educational terms, it is also the most resistant to change because of its status as the stronghold of tradition and of the national "power structure." Moreover, the American example of higher education reform shows how resistant to change this sector can be.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature for American observers of the current reform movement in Japan is that it is tending to move in the opposite direction from that in the United States. Education reformers in Japan are seeking some decentralization of control, greater diversification of institutions, less uniformity and standardization of curriculum, more flexibility in teaching, and more individualization of instruction.

Americans already have state and local control, great diversity in education programs at elementary and secondary levels, and an open, diversified higher education system. Having gone far toward providing pupil-centered instruction and a inroad array of curricular choice, most serious American reformers are now seeking a greater measure of commonality in the curriculum and higher academic standards for all.

Educators, political leaders, and parents in both countries are more interested now than in the past in comparing educational perspectives, approaches, and achievements and welcome information that enables them to do so. This report by the U.S. Department of Education and the counterpart report on American education prepared by Japan's Ministry of Education are unusual examples of cooperative activity toward mutual understanding in education.

Will the combined effort genuinely assist those seeking better education for the children of the two nations? Will each nation find lessons of value for its own reform needs? Let's look at some possible implications of the Japanese experience for improving American education, as seen by Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett.



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