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Monday, Jan. 1, 2007

Unwise gantlet for teachers

Certain professionals must pass state examinations to obtain licenses for their jobs. They include medical doctors, dentists, jurists, certified public accountants, architects, pharmacists and registered nurses, as well as primary, middle and high school teachers. Amid the severe employment situation, it is becoming harder for students to pass university entrance examinations for medical and law departments that provide education for aspiring licensed professionals.

The government-commissioned Education Resuscitation Council (ERC), created under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's initiatives, is discussing, among other things, periodic renewal of teaching licenses. My reaction to that is, why only teachers?

Courses of study taught at primary, middle and high schools do not change much over the years. As time goes on, their content tends to become easier rather than more difficult. Thus these teachers are among the rare professionals whose qualifications are most likely to remain valid even if their licenses were obtained many years earlier.

By contrast, medical technology is making fast advances, increasing the necessity for medical license renewal.

Strangely, university teachers in Japan do not need licenses for their jobs. To become a professor, one must have a doctorate -- or "its equivalent."

In hiring a university teacher, the most important factor is gyoseki (academic achievement). The word gyoseki was coined by the novelist, critic and army doctor Ogai Mori (1862-1922). The narrow meaning of gyoseki is to have had one's research papers or books published. These days, however, television appearances, memberships in government committees and other social activities are often regarded as part of academic achievements.

For the sake of publicity, many universities hire famous personalities as professors, based on the expanded interpretations of academic achievement.

In my opinion, university teachers must be professionals in education and research. Former bureaucrats, news commentators and journalists hardly qualify for such posts.

Abe is pushing a plan to expel unqualified teachers from primary, middle and high schools to improve the quality of education. The majority of ERC members reportedly agree that teaching licenses should be renewed every five years and that the probationary period for new teachers should be extended to three years from the present one year.

One big question is: What criteria should be used for license renewal?

According to news reports, ratings by outside people such as parents as well as ratings by principals will be decisive. The proposed extension of the probationary period seems to reflect the view that to improve the quality of teachers, new recruits should be subject to close, extended scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the council has reportedly agreed that 20 percent of newly recruited teachers should be from among nonteachers. The council is thinking of using the current system under which prefectural boards of education can grant teaching licenses to nonteachers with expert knowledge on the basis of written examinations or recommendations by outsiders. As of last April, only 195 applicants had been granted licenses under this system.

Some members of the council reportedly have argued that half of all newly recruited teachers should be from the noneducational sector.

I oppose the recruitment of people from the noneducational sector as schoolteachers for the same reason I'm against employing people from the nonacademic field as university teachers.

At U.S. universities, a Ph.D. is required for university teachers. Assistant professors are hired for an initial term of several years -- the equivalent of the probationary period for Japanese school teachers proposed by the ERC. After serving the probationary period, one may be promoted to a tenured associate professor on the basis of the number and quality of academic papers published by him or her.

Scholars with good achievements are likely to receive offers of teaching positions from higher-ranked institutions; those with poor records must take offers from lower-ranked schools.

All universities have a probationary period for assistant professors, who can expect to take appropriate posts for associate professor or researcher, depending on their achievements. Even scholars with mediocre achievements are unlikely to go jobless.

As for the probationary period for teachers at Japanese primary, middle and high schools, extending the period to three years could create a new problem: What to do with teachers who were judged unfit for the teaching profession? Such people will have difficulty finding employment outside school in light of their age.

In Japan's rigid employment environment, a system of dismissing teachers judged unfit for the profession after three years would be too severe and would not function properly.

I believe that more caution should be exercised in employing new teachers in the first place. Whether a recruit is fit for the profession should become clear in a year, so the probationary period should remain unchanged at one year.

What to do about the renewal of teaching licenses poses another problem. Rating by outsiders such as parents is easier said than done. What happens when disagreement arises among examiners on the fitness of certain teachers? Should renewal be subject to consensus or to approval by a simple or two-thirds majority? What do you do with a teacher who loses a license at the age of 28? Many questions remain unanswered.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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