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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2001

Teacher upbeat on proposals of education reform panel


Staff writer

When Ryoichi Kawakami, a 34-year veteran schoolteacher in Saitama Prefecture, was appointed to the National Commission on Educational Reform in March, he was skeptical about whether his input could help solve the problem of "classroom collapse."

Classroom collapse is a term commonly used to describe the situation where classes do not function because of unruly students. The expression was coined after Kawakami, a 57-year-old teacher at Kawagoe Municipal Jyonan Junior High School, wrote the book "School Collapse" in 1999.

Kawakami now appears to be satisfied with his participation on the nation's top educational panel because the opinions he offered on how to improve classroom environments were woven into the panel's final report submitted to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in late December.

"Many members of the council stressed reforming the education system to make it one that will train people to be capable future leaders of Japan," he said.

"But my priority as a schoolteacher was on solving more urgent problems facing children, such as truancy and violence, and I urged them to discuss the more basic issue of how to prepare children to be self-reliant in society by the time they finish compulsory junior high education at the age of 15."

Kawakami believes in the importance of rearing both at home and at school. He also supports the panel's proposal that schoolteachers should not hesitate to teach morals.

Kawakami believes problems at Japanese schools became serious because the country has failed to reassess what kind of education is needed for children -- at home, within the community and at school -- in the past half-century, while economic conditions, people's lifestyles and values have undergone drastic changes.

The late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi launched the council, calling on it to reform the educational system so that it serves to develop creativity in the new century. The government apparently viewed education as a key factor behind the rise and fall of the nation in the international community.

The panel consisted of 26 people from various fields, including scholars and businesspeople, and was chaired by Reona (Leo) Esaki, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics. Kawakami was the sole junior high school teacher among them.

Among its proposals, the panel stressed that the higher education system should be drastically reformed. The age requirement that prevents people from entering a university before 18 should be abolished so that bright students can go to college sooner, it proposed.

But the most controversial proposal the panel made was that elementary school pupils spend two weeks performing community service and junior high schoolers also put in two weeks of service, while high school students donate a month to such activities.

It also proposed that the government consider calling on people aged 18 or older to engage in such activities for an unspecified period of time.

These proposals, made in accordance with discussions on current school problems, were provided as an antithesis of postwar education, which has focused too much on academic achievements, Kawakami said.

"Children today have fewer experiences in working for others and communal living. We (panel members) have proposed that more opportunities to gain such experiences be included in school curricula."

In its interim report, the panel said the nation should consider requiring every 18-year-old Japanese to perform community service for one year. But the proposal was dropped after the age requirement was criticized at public hearings.

"It was good that the drastic proposal led the public to debate educational matters," said Kawakami, who stresses the need for Japan to keep discussing education in this era and overhaul the role of schools in the society if the need arises.

The latest survey by the Education Ministry showed a record 130,000 elementary and junior high school students refused to go to school more than 30 days in the 1999 school year. At present, the government has no specific measures to address this problem.

Kawakami said Japan may need several different kinds of public educational institutions -- such as facilities designed especially for children who refuse to go to school.

The government, drawing on the panel's report, plans to submit reform bills to the ordinary Diet session that begins later this month.

"Now that we have made policy proposals, how they are acted upon is in the hands of politicians and the public," Kawakami said.



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The Japan Times

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