Almost 30 years after Sputnik set off a national frenzy to ``catch up'' in science, the trade deficit with Japan is beginning to have a similar effect. ``Like Japan's manufacturing system and its industrial policy, her education has also become a `challenge,' even a `model,' for America,'' wrote Thomas Rohlen, a visiting professor at Harvard University, in the winter issue of the American Scholar.
Professor Rohlen, whose earlier work includes a book called ``Japan's High Schools,'' has spent much of the last decade studying the schools in that country and thinking about what America should learn from them. The basic message of his recent article is that while Japanese educators face challenges of their own, their schools do provide some clues for reforming those in America. The prime beneficiaries, moreover, would not be top students, but those closer to the bottom.
There is no denying the prodigious academic achievement in Japan. The ``upper half of Japan's graduating high school students'' have reached the level of the ``average American graduate from college,'' Rohlen says. Japanese students spend a great deal more time in school than do their counterparts in the United States, and take roughly three times the foreign languages (mainly English) and math.
The roots of this achievement go much deeper than institutions of learning. Name the problem that has beset American schools -- from racial strife to teen pregnancies to drugs -- and Japan pretty much doesn't have it. Social discipline, order, and the traditional Japanese view ``that diligence in school is a path to greatness,'' play a much larger role in Japan than they do in the US. Merry White, a colleague of Rohlen's at Harvard, pointed out in a recent issue of The Public Interest that virtually every Japanese home has a special study desk for the children with built-in light, clock, electric pencil sharpener, and calculator.
In addition, Japanese parents show a deference to teachers that American educators could only envy. ``They say, `Please discipline my child. You know best,' '' Rohlen told the Monitor.
At the same time, Rohlen suggests that the US wouldn't want to adopt everything that keeps Japan's educational engine turning. An example is the pervasive and much-publicized examination system, which determines -- completely -- who gets into the best high schools and colleges. The exams, Rohlen observes, contribute to an ``educational pressure-cooker of the first order,'' complete with special schools called ``juku,'' which a large percentage of schoolchildren attend to boost their scores. There are even ``mamajuku'' for anxious mothers, where they prepare to help their children prepare. (It would be tempting to chuckle at such obsessiveness, if only the Scholastic Aptitude Test were not the focus of similar -- if lesser -- concern in the US.)
Japan's examination system puts a premium on rote learning and ``useless cramming,'' Rohlen says. While average achievement levels are much higher in Japan, educators there admire the originality and creativity that America encourages in its best students.
The Japanese model is not likely to comfort the ideologues of education reform. ``Many of the most fashionable ideas for reforming American education gain little support from the Japanese example,'' Rohlen concludes.
Conservatives, for example, may seize upon the discipline and order of Japanese schools, and the basic curriculum which all students must take. But then, Rohlen points out, what will they say about the astonishing job security for teachers -- tenure from the first day -- and the regular pay increases based solely on seniority? Conservatives generally favor economic lures such as ``merit pay'' to try to goad teachers to do better.
By the same token, liberals may cite the the strong Japanese teachers union, and the high degree of central financing and direction. But what will they make of the large classes -- 45 to 55 students is common -- dominated by teachers, and the marked lack of what Westerners call ``self expression'' and individual choice in courses?
Sorting this all out, Rohlen cites four strengths of Japan's system that could be adapted to the US:
The status of teachers. Japan actually spends less of its national resources on education than the US. But where America goes in for impressive buildings, special programs, and counselors galore, the Japanese spend their money on teachers. As a result, the profession attracts students from the very best colleges, and is ``solidly middle class.'' America has the opportunity to shift in that direction, Rohlen says, because, at this point, ``we don't have to spend more on bricks and mortar.''
National graduation standards. Minimum standards for eighth grade and high school would primarily help the bottom 25 percent of students by assuring that they left high school with certain basic skills, Rohlen says.
Emphasis on behavior in early grades. Where America pushes intellectual development, the Japanese want children to learn first of all how to get along in the group. This leads to better discipline, and more learning, later on. ``They make [children] feel very good to be well-behaved,'' Rohlen explains. ``I've seen American kids in Japanese kindergartens and they get modeled beautifully.''
Use of goals to inspire achievement. For all its excesses, says Rohlen, the Japanese examination system does serve one useful function: It makes students care about their studies. America could achieve the same result, he says, through prestigious and selective public high schools -- such as the Bronx High School of Science and the Academy of Aeronautics at LaGuardia Airport -- that give students in the lower grades a goal to aim for. It's especially important that we create such ``status ladders'' in vocational education, he says, which presently is seen as a dumping ground for those who don't measure up academically.
One beauty of this latter idea is that it could mesh so well with the economic life of cities. There could be, for example, a baking school leading to jobs in restaurants and hotels, where students would feel, ``this is the best baking school in the country.''