Learning from neighbors

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LIKE a parent wondering aloud at the dinner table why Junior can't do better in school, like the neighbors' children, the United States Department of Education has released a study of Japanese schooling. The message that many American educators might pick up is that Japan's system is to be emulated. We may be in for a period in which ``Japanese education'' becomes a sort of fad, like Japanese management a few years back.

Which would be ironic.

The Japanese, not generally noted for a predisposition to wonder whether the non-Japanese way of doing things might be better, have been discussing the need for reforming their own system - to make it more like American education.

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The strengths of the Japanese system are most apparent in the elementary and middle years, and those of the American system at the college level. As one US official put it, ``We'll be looking at them from the knees down. They'll be looking at us from the shoulders up.''

Of course it is appropriate for different countries to try to learn from their neighbors in the global community. But before educators push American school systems down a path of Japanization, thought should be given to ways in which the two countries differ, and what those differences mean.

Japan is a homogeneous society which values conformity; the US is a hugely diverse society which takes great pride in its diversity. At a more practical level, Japan virtually reveres its teachers, and pays them relatively much more than their American counterparts, among whom ``burnout'' seems all too common.

Japanese schools, the US study found, have done a good job in educating future workers and producing a broadly literate population; no special help is given, however, to those learners whose pace is either slower or faster than the norm. Japanese universities, moreover, were found to be less than ``world class.'' In the US, meanwhile, the best schools and universities are splendid - but average achievement levels remain troubling.

Interestingly, the Japanese have done an official companion study of American education which found no specific aspect of the US system worth emulating.

American schools have been the locus over the years for various national insecurities - in this case, concern whether the US can compete economically in the world.

Learning from neighbors can be useful. US schools might do well, for instance, to strive for the ``orderly learning environment'' and regard for teachers that seem to be important elements of Japanese success. But no two countries are alike, and no two education systems should be expected to be alike, either.

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