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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001


'Comfort' education at expense of standards?

Earlier this year, the Education Ministry announced a set of guidelines for public schools that go into effect next April. These changes include reduction of the school week to five days, a 30 percent cut in "academic content" and the development of "general studies," the gist of which remains vague but that will nevertheless amount to between 70 and 130 hours a year. In addition, the ministry has directed each local board of education to expand "optional" subjects, which have been interpreted as community volunteer activities and the like.

These changes are being referred to as a shift toward yutori (comfortable) learning in the face of increased gakko hokai (classroom breakdown) and a steep rise in truancy, not to mention the age-old bullying problem, which is mostly confined to public schools. The general population's opinion, however, is that the new guidelines will lead to a lowering of standards and achievement.

As a result, parents with the means have increasingly said that they plan to send their children to private schools, where, it is believed, the standards are higher. These parents are afraid that reduced academic content will make their children less competitive in the long run.

Competitiveness is the key. Parents clamor for quality education without really knowing what they mean by the term quality education. They forget that the 12-year system of elementary and secondary education is a relatively recent invention, and not just in Japan. The word "teenager," for example, was coined in the '40s in America to describe a demographic phenomenon that didn't previously exist. Prior to World War II, secondary school was not the norm but rather an option that many youngsters didn't -- or couldn't -- take advantage of.

Japan's postwar economic expansion required an educated workforce. The system that developed -- nine years of compulsory education, three years of optional secondary education -- made sense for the economy. Children learned basic skills by the time they graduated from junior high school, and those who wanted to go farther had to take tests.

The economic landscape has changed considerably in the past 20 years, but the educational system hasn't kept up. Ninety-eight percent of all junior high school graduates go on to high school. Economically speaking, secondary school students represent redundant labor. And since there are not enough high-level jobs for all of them in the long run, testing is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, a process that renders enlightenment through education -- i.e., the gaining of knowledge for its own sake -- meaningless.

The weekly magazine Aera is currently carrying out an "interactive" dialogue with parents on the subject of private vs. public schooling at its Web site. The results are published in the magazine.

Among the questions: Do you think children should take tests to enter private elementary and junior high schools? Would you send your child to a school that had a continuous junior high and high school system (meaning no tests to enter high school)? Would you lower your living standard for the sake of your children's education? Does "aiming toward a brand-name university" have an effect on a child's future?

Eighty percent of the respondents said they preferred sending their children to private elementary and junior high schools. The journalist who came up with the interactive survey says that he wishes more people "believed" in public schools. Actually, these parents want to believe in public education, but, forced to make a choice for their own kids right now, they opt for private school. The word that appears most in the comments is gakuryoku -- scholastic ability -- which parents fear their children will lose if they remain in public schools.

These parents are acutely aware that they belong to a different class than the parents who send their kids to public school. "All of our friends and associates went to private schools, like us," says one mother. "We get along very well because our backgrounds are similar, and because we are all professionals, people with responsibilities."

Another mother writes that she "went to private schools and hated it, but society emphasizes academic records, and from that perspective private schools are more helpful." This statement exemplifies the idea that the present academic environment, whether public or private, breeds disaffection among students -- a situation the new guidelines are meant to address -- but that economic and social competitiveness remains paramount in parents' minds. "The main reason our children go to public school is that we don't have enough money," says one respondent.

As in the United States, Japanese private schools are gaining ground by default, since parents have come to believe that public schools are not doing their job properly. And that job isn't limited to education. After the new guidelines go into effect, a child who attends a public junior high school will, over the course of three years, be in class an average of 530 hours less than a child who attends a private school. Baby sitters cost money.

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