Japan's schools: now too lenient?

After years of trying to make its classrooms more lenient places of learning, Japanese policymakers are wondering whether to beef up the nation's school curriculums because of concerns about academic performance.

A fierce debate over the direction of the nation's education system has been thrown into disarray by conflicting studies related to whether Japanese students are performing better or worse than in the past.

Recent international studies that show a fall in national ranking for Japanese students have added weight to the arguments of conservative politicians and influential business groups that Japan risks losing competitiveness on the world stage due to its dangerous experiment with a more open and lenient educational system.

A survey by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in December showed a drop in reading ability of Japanese high school students in 2003 from three years before, while another international organization's poll showed Japanese eighth-graders had slipped from fourth to sixth in science rankings. These results were trumpeted in the local media as evidence that recent reforms to make curriculums more lenient were shortchanging children and putting Japan's future prosperity in jeopardy. The Japanese public has overwhelmingly agreed, with 78 percent giving current school curriculum a failing grade, according to a major newspaper opinion poll in March.

"Conservative academics and lawmakers are concerned about Japan's national strength on the back of falling academic ability, while those on the left point to a growing polarization between top students and underachievers," says Yuki Honda, an assistant professor specializing in alternative education systems at the University of Tokyo.

Japan's education system currently aims to promote flexibility in the classroom and provide more leeway in learning styles. Known as yutori kyoiku, the system is based on education guidelines from the 1970s. Back then, long lesson hours and the voluminous amount of material covered were reduced in an effort to make school more enjoyable. The policy was also partly a response to increasing truancy, vandalism, and other juvenile crimes that were seen as fallout from strict teaching methods.

From 1980, curriculums moved away from rote learning, and toward the development of creativity and problem solving skills. But two changes in 2002 proved to be a lightning rod for critics: the six-day school week was replaced permanently with a five-day week, and the introduction of a cross-disciplinary class designed to teach children to apply a wider knowledge base when approaching problems.

The five-day week, implemented in stages since 1992, has reduced total class time over the first nine years of a child's education from 6,964 hours to 6,475 hours, while the cross-disciplinary class resulted in another 30 percent drop in regular lesson time.

After years of criticism that Japan was going soft on its students, the OECD poll appeared to have convinced the Ministry of Education that the system wasn't working. Senior ministry officials indicated earlier this year that they were ready to bow to broad-based political pressure and hammer out a new direction for education policy by October, while more recently there have been signs that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to focus more on education. Changes on the drawing board include increasing lesson time for science and math, reintroducing Saturday classes, and shortening vacation periods.

But while the push for a longer learning schedule was gaining momentum, the ministry released results of the first aptitude tests since the 2002 reforms. Conducted in January and February of 2004, fifth and sixth grade elementary school students scored better than their predecessors in 2002 on 43 percent of questions. When the results for the three years of junior high school are included, average scores were higher for all grades in all 23 subjects tested with the exception of first year junior high social studies and math.

"It is obvious the assumption that the lenient curriculum is causing a decline in academic ability is unfounded," says Hisashi Fusegi, a professor of education at Shinshu University in central Japan.

Proponents of yutori kyoiku say the debate over declining academic ability has been significantly influenced by elite corporations as well as some university teachers who want to ensure a steady supply of high achievers. Opponents of the so-called lenient curriculum argue that education should respond to market forces whereby schools are accountable for students' results.

"This thinking holds that if lenient education doesn't result in higher grades, then results-based [teaching] should take priority," Mr. Fusegi says.

Parents in particular have been vocal opponents of the five-day school week. Some parents simply don't want to look after their kids for one extra day as it means a loss of time at the workplace. Many more are concerned their children aren't getting enough learning time. "I would prefer that they have classes on Saturdays," says Yuriko Kano, a mother of two children. "Otherwise, we have to send our kids to expensive cram schools to keep up."

Indeed, surveys show that half of parents think their children need extra education outside of regular school as long as the lenient education policy remains. Some polls even suggest that the gap in scholastic ability is widening between children from wealthy households, which can afford to send their children to private schools as well as pay high cram-school fees, and their peers who attend regular public schools.

The Ministry of Education says parental attitudes are partly to blame for the rough ride the lenient education system has had. "Parents ought to be more cooperative and not leave the entire responsibility for educating their children to schools," says Tatsuya Otsuki, a section chief at the ministry working on junior high school curriculums.

Schools have tried to compensate for the loss of teaching hours on Saturday by increasing classroom time on weekdays. Last year, 90 percent of elementary schools taught longer hours than required under ministry guidelines, and when the new school year kicked off in May, surveys showed that elementary and junior high schools were increasing classroom time by another 12 percent.

But this step has backfired in some cases. "In his first year at elementary school, my son had five hours a day in formal classes because there was no Saturday teaching time - his social contact time with friends suffered as a result," says another mother, Mayuko Kijima.

"It's so boring," her 6-year-old son complains.

Many teachers also say life was easier under the old system. "While working hours have decreased for teachers now that Saturday is a holiday, some say that classroom time during weekdays has in fact become less lenient ... and that having the extra day to teach was actually more relaxing," says Fusegi.

Nevertheless, reversing the yutori kyoiku system only three years after its full introduction would be premature, say some observers. Japan's population is expected to begin shrinking in a few years and some lawmakers hope that a plan to reduce class sizes to 30 students from the current 40 will let teachers focus more on the learning style of individual students and help boost overall results.

Supporters of the system point to its successes outside the narrow terms of scholastic ability. The Ministry of Education's own studies show that the decrease in textbook-based learning and classroom competitiveness has helped students develop the will to learn beyond simply studying for exams. It has also become easier for children at risk of dropping out to survive in school, says Mr. Fusegi. Some parents have observed a change for the better in their kids' demeanor - they say their children appear more engaged and have a more positive attitude since Saturday schooling ended.

"I think it's good that Saturday is a holiday. Our kids can recover their energy for study and school club activities by enjoying themselves on the weekends," says Masumi Kodanagi, a mother of two schoolchildren.

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