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Saturday, Jan. 5, 2002
JET Program doing its job but in need of reform: expert
By ERIKO ARITA
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program has improved English education in Japan and has promoted mutual cultural understanding between Japanese and people from other countries since its inception in 1987, according to the chairman of the program's evaluation committee.
But Tadashi Yamamoto also believes the program is in need of reform.
"The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program has had a significant impact on English education in Japan," Yamamoto told The Japan Times in an interview.
He stressed that the great majority of students here had never listened to "live" English before the JET Program was launched.
The program, operated by local authorities in cooperation with the education, foreign, and home affairs ministries, recruits foreigners mainly from English-speaking countries to teach languages and sports at Japanese public schools. Participants are also involved in promoting mutual cultural exchanges.
Some 6,190 people from 39 countries are currently involved in the program, according to the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, or CLAIR.
This marks a huge increase on the 848 people from just four countries who kicked off the program 15 years ago.
According to the committee, around 70 percent of municipalities across the nation have accepted JET participants, while nearly 90 percent of students of junior high and high schools who responded to a CLAIR survey said that classes featuring JET teachers are fun.
But Yamamoto insists the program must be reformed in order to recruit more high-quality participants to meet burgeoning demand among the nation's municipalities.
At present, about 90 percent of JET participants are assistant language teachers (ALTs), with the great majority of them helping Japanese teachers of English to teach pronunciation and conversation.
They also assist Japanese teachers to prepare teaching materials and plan classes. The ALTs on the program are from 13 countries this year, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, South Africa, Singapore and Jamaica, according to CLAIR.
The demand for ALTs will be further boosted in April, when English education at public elementary schools starts under a new curriculum formulated by the education ministry, Yamamoto said.
Under the new curriculum, public elementary schools will be able to teach English during comprehensive studies classes organized at the discretion of individual schools.
Around 40 percent of public elementary schools have already started English conversation classes on an experimental basis, inviting ALTs from neighboring junior high and high schools to participate, according to the committee.
The committee, which consists of intellectuals and officials of ministries and local governments, has reviewed the tasks of the program and compiled a report featuring proposals to relax the conditions that must be met by applicants and to enhance the performance of program participants.
"The deregulation is meant to recruit participants from a wider range so that more people with high potential can be enrolled," said Yamamoto, who is also president of the Japan Center for International Exchange, a foundation promoting policy-oriented intellectual exchanges.
Prospective ALTs should have excellent pronunciation, writing and grammar skills, and should be interested in working actively with students, according to CLAIR.
They should also be interested in Japan and willing to widen their knowledge and understanding of the country.
"Simply increasing the number (of JET participants by keeping the application conditions as they are) will certainly lead to a deterioration in teaching quality," Yamamoto remarked.
The committee wishes to raise the age limit on participants from the current 34 to 39, and to abolish a condition specifying that those who have stayed in Japan for more than three years over the past decade may not apply.
JET participants can currently stay on the program for a maximum of three years, with contracts up for renewal on an annual basis.
The committee's report proposes that those who achieve excellence in terms of their job performance and Japanese language ability should, however, be allowed to renew their contracts up to four times.
"(When local authorities and schools) find an ALT is excellent, they hope the ALT continues teaching for some more years," Yamamoto said.
In an effort to improve the performance of JET participants, the committee's report proposes a new evaluation system under which JET participants and local authorities discuss and set concrete goals that will be reviewed by both parties at the end of a given contract.
The report also emphasizes the importance of improving the JET participants' support system.
Under the current system, at least two advisers are stationed in each prefecture and major cities. The report proposes that the counseling role of advisers should be expanded to include planning effective activities for JET participants.
"One of the frustrations that JET participants have is that they don't know whether they are serving the purpose (of the program) or not," Yamamoto said.
The ministries and local governments are expected to start initiating the committee's reform proposals in fiscal 2002, which begins in April.
The JET Program has had an impact on Japanese teachers of English and local communities, as well as on students, according to Yamamoto.
"The teachers' English ability and teaching methods have also improved through team teaching with ALTs," he said.
Other than English classes at school, many ALTs have joined community activities such as summer camps and English conversation classes for local residents.
In addition, a number of JET alumni are scholars of studies on Japan and are employed by their home countries' governments and think tanks, he said.
"The program has nurtured people who play the roles of bridges between Japan and other countries. I believe it should be appreciated," Yamamoto said.