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Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007

Why test just the teachers?

Medical doctors, pharmacists, nurses, jurists and certified public accountants are among the professionals who have had to pass national licensing examinations to get started. As professionals, they must have specialized knowledge and skills.

To become an elementary, middle or high school teacher, one must obtain a teaching license by studying required subjects at a university and undergoing practice teaching. Of late, there have been increasing calls for a mandatory system of periodic license renewal to prevent teachers' skills from deteriorating. Proponents say license renewal would help teachers maintain their aptitudes and improve their expertise.

Teaching aptitude primarily depends on one's personality. It should be tested when one applies for a license. If a teacher's aptitude was not evaluated by a school principal or parents until five years after he or she obtained a license, irrecoverable damage could be done to students during the period if the teacher was inept.

On the other hand, if license renewal is aimed at improving teachers' expertise, the process will serve as an incentive to try to improve their skills. But setting standards for renewing a teacher's license won't be easy. It will be also difficult to test teaching expertise; mere interviews won't work.

Renewal of a teaching license on the condition that the teacher take a short training course is too easy. It's difficult for a school principal or parents to rate a teacher's expertise.

Since the content of elementary, middle and high school education is unlikely to become more complicated over the years, a teaching license is among the professional licenses least likely to become obsolete. So what purpose would the renewal of teaching licenses serve?

Following a spate of scandals over falsification of earthquake-resistance data in building designs, it was suggested that architects be subject to periodic license renewal. Strangely, however, there have been no discussions on renewing licenses for medical doctors, lawyers, CPAs and other professions. Aren't aptitudes and improved skills essential for these people?

License renewal would seem far more important for medical doctors — whose job is to protect human lives — than for teachers. Still, a question arises as to what standards would be used. A license renewal system for doctors, even if adopted, would probably not be effective. And depriving professionals of licenses because of their failure to keep up with the latest knowledge or skills, or their incompetence, would infringe on vested interests and stir strong opposition among professional groups.

A friend of mine visited an ophthalmological clinic in China, where a dozen nameplates of doctors and their fees were displayed. The most expensive doctor charged 10 times more than the least expensive. The idea is the more skilled the doctor, the higher the fee.

In China, a socialist market economy, doctors are subjected to severe evaluations, and information about a doctor's skills is reflected in the fee. Incompetent doctors must accept low incomes and are eventually forced out of the market.

In Japan, patients have no way of knowing hospital doctors' abilities. Information about a general practitioner's skills spreads through the grapevine. Some clinics are full of patients, others are almost deserted. At a large hospital, it may be a matter of sheer luck for a patient to encounter a skilled doctor.

The Japanese public medical insurance system does not permit doctors to charge different fees on the basis of competence. However, the rising number of lawyers is likely to help weed out incompetent doctors in coming years.

Although lawyers in Japan are unlikely to become as common as in the United States, they are able to create work for themselves (in contrast to doctors who cannot create diseases). As lawyers find medical malpractice suits a lucrative line of work, an increase in such litigation will force doctors to improve their skills. Incompetent doctors held liable for massive damage claims risk bankruptcy.

Consequently, expect doctors to divide into general practitioners and specialists. Lower-paid general practitioners — who treat the common cold, lifestyle-based diseases and other relatively easy-to-diagnose ailments — face lower risks of medical malpractice suits. They can send patients in need of more detailed diagnosis or surgery to large hospitals that provide advanced equipment and specialized care.

Needless to say, higher-risk specialists with higher incomes will have to insure themselves against the possibility of huge liability claims.

Depending on competence, wide differences in remuneration exist among lawyers, CPAs and architects, but teachers basically are paid according to seniority and get practically no rewards related to their aptitudes or improved skills. That seems to sum up the argument in favor of license renewal for teachers.

As for university teachers in Japan, their aptitudes are rarely called into question. Even as science makes rapid progress, college teachers who give lessons from the same old rut year after year are seldom criticized. Teaching college in Japan is a strange profession, indeed.

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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