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Thursday, April 3, 2003

Hope for English advocates in special zones

Cities target uniformity of education system, students' language skills


Staff writer

The public education system has long been criticized for its uniformity as well as, according to academics and business leaders, its inability to improve the overall English-language skills of the Japanese people.

News photo
Students at Katoh Elementary School in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture study arithmetic in English with teacher Maggie Rosales. ERIKO ARITA PHOTO

In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, several local municipalities have announced they want to use special deregulation zones due to be set up by the government to launch schools that prioritize learning English.

Within certain zones, existing regulations governing items such as curricula, textbooks and teacher recruitment will be eased to effect more flexible and diverse educational programs. The process of submitting applications for specific ideas began Tuesday.

The city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, for example, is looking to establish a wide-ranging academic institution in which all classes except Japanese and Japanese history would be conducted in English by native speakers. The institution would cover all grades from elementary to high school.

"It was the brainchild of (Ota) Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu," explained Takaaki Kubota, who works in the city's general policy division. The school would use textbooks translated by the city from those authorized by the education ministry.

Shimizu, who has launched various educational projects, recognizes the importance of enhancing English-language studies, saying that English classes currently pursued at many schools have not led to a marked improvement in students' English-speaking and -comprehension abilities, according to Kubota.

The mayor has sought the cooperation of Katoh Schools, a private academic institution in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Since 1992, Katoh Schools has incorporated an immersion program in which subjects are taught in English, and English versions of authorized textbooks are used as supplementary texts. These measures are allowed under the current system.

"Some mothers telephoned or came to the city office and have asked about the (proposed) school, saying they want their children to attend," Kubota said.

Ota's plan is one of more than 10 proposals thus far aired by municipal governments to establish schools that emphasize English-language education.

Yasuhiro Obata, an administrative reform official in the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, said the ministry plans to allow these local authorities to set up the schools.

Although carrying out Ota's plan under the current ministry framework, which does not require that subjects be taught in Japanese, would not be entirely infeasible, the proposed deregulated zones would remove a lot of red tape.

As Obata explained, schools operating in special zones would be allowed to pursue a different curriculum than that advocated by the ministry. They would also be allowed to use texts that have not been authorized by the ministry as main classroom materials.

In addition, the ministry is aiming to simplify the procedures by which foreigners looking to teach in the deregulated zones can earn teaching certificates, he said.

"I hope local governments make use of the new systems, as well as flexible applications of current systems, to realize their ideas of setting up schools with a unique character," Obata said.

While efforts to improve English-language education have been undertaken in the past, they would be enhanced within these deregulated zones, proponents said.

In a challenge to the limits of the current system, the city of Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, plans to provide English conversation as a subject at all of its public elementary and junior high schools.

Many public elementary schools have already introduced "English activity" as part of an international understanding program in "comprehensive studies classes."

But the ministry has decided that students should not be obliged to remember the spelling of words or to study grammar, as the aim of the lessons is to foster familiarization with languages and cultures of other countries.

"We wanted to set English conversation up as an independent subject," said Toru Saito, a Niiza board of education official. Saito believes the introduction of conversation classes as a proper subject at elementary and junior high schools can improve English communication ability.

Deregulation does not necessarily just entail greater freedom in curricula. In Tokyo's Minato Ward, special zone status would pave the way for more leeway in hiring teachers, who are usually chosen by prefectural boards of education.

The ward has proposed the establishment of a public academic institution covering students of elementary and junior high school age that prioritizes English fluency. Yasuhiro Ito, head of the ward's board of education, said the ward plans to create an international learning environment by encouraging local foreign residents' children to attend the institution.

In addition, the ward, which is home to more than 60 embassies, plans to exploit its international trappings by recruiting residents who have teaching certificates in other countries to teach at the school, he said.

"(Such leeway in recruitment) would make it easier for us to provide diverse options in education," Ito said.

While the deregulated zones may pave the way for diverse education programs, many experts cite the difficulties likely to be faced by local governments looking to operate schools of this kind.

Katsuaki Togo, a professor of English at Waseda University, said that although the privately run Katoh Schools has been successful in enhancing the English competency of its students, limited resources, including funds, will make it difficult for municipalities to achieve the same results.

Togo, while acknowledging the importance of learning English, also questions the principal emphasis on a foreign language, rather than on the students' mother tongue.

Ryoichi Takano, a professor of education at Hosei University, said the education ministry has been implementing deregulatory measures since the 1990s, with municipalities and individuals having questioned the unilateral education model overseen by the ministry and having come to realize the need for more diverse educational values and school systems.

The special zones would likely accelerate these maneuvers, allowing municipalities and third-sector entities such as nonprofit organizations to conduct various educational experiments, he said.

"The projects of special deregulation zones have the potential to change the overall school system in the future," Takano said.

He warned, however, that municipalities should be made accountable for their management of these schools.

"They should prepare safety nets for students by allowing them to transfer to another school in case of a school's failure or if they cannot fit in," he said.



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