IT is sometimes said that the Japanese and American educational systems are elitist, effectively serving only a small percentage of their populations.
In Japan, the charge focuses on university entrance examinations and the intense competition that exists for admission to the most prestigious schools.
Criticism of the United States more frequently deals with the neglect of poor children and the plight of minority students.
All educational systems are elitist in that they are hierarchically organized. What differs is the point at which selections are made for each level of the hierarchy. Japanese students are not classified until junior high school. In the US, classification may start in kindergarten.
The Japanese population has become one of the most highly educated of any country. Only in higher education does the system falter. Japanese colleges and universities appear to function in many ways as waiting stations, where students spend four relatively unproductive years, biding their time until they join a company and receive the training necessary for them to function successfully in their jobs.
What about the United States, which has invested heavily in colleges and universities to create a system of higher education whose excellence attracts students from all over the world? As in Japan, one aspect of American education is seriously marred: The typical American elementary or high school student consistently receives scores below the average of peers in developed nations.
Yet despite the fact that approximately 14 percent of US students - compared with around 4 percent in Japan - drop out of high school, 62 percent of white high school graduates went directly from high school to college in 1989. Even minority students entered colleges at a high rate: 48 percent of African Americans and 53 percent of Hispanic Americans.
The reputed elitism of the Japanese and American educational systems is based partly on stereotype and myth. In both countries, the percentages of students who enroll in some type of secondary education are among the world's highest.
Even in Japan, known for the severity of the competitiveness among students for college entrance, 32 percent of high school graduates enroll in some form of higher education and another 30 percent receive vocational education beyond that obtained in high school.
The Japanese Ministry of Education goes to great lengths to provide all elementary-school students with equal opportunities. All schools follow a national curriculum. An effort to equalize opportunity is also evident in the lack of tracking or ability grouping in Japanese elementary schools. Special classes for gifted students do not exist: They would be regarded as displaying unfair favoritism, thus violating the egalitarian philosophy on which the elementary-education system is built. Teaching in Japan is directed at the whole class, with little small-group instruction.
The egalitarian philosophy of education in Japan comes to an abrupt halt when children leave elementary school, however. The most academically capable students are enrolled in the top-ranked high schools; others attend schools of lower rank. Once assigned to a track, a Japanese student has little possibility of switching to the other. Vocational students rarely attend a university.
Here is where the Japanese and American educational systems differ most strikingly. Qualified American applicants have opportunities to gain entrance to some institution of higher education long after graduating from high school.
The two systems also differ in other ways. Whereas the Japanese system involves a rigorously egalitarian approach during the elementary-school years, the American system permits the assignment of children to separate tracks from the time they enter kindergarten. Tracking is rationalized as a humane approach to maximizing each child's potential. Special-education programs seek to compensate for children's deficiencies and programs for gifted students attempt to enhance students' strengths.
Without national guidelines, each school district in the United States defines its own course of study. Not only do curriculums differ, but the financial resources available to schools also differ because of the dependence on local property taxes as the primary source of funds.
Reference is often made to the difficulties faced by American teachers because of the diversity in students' racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic background. But, in fact, a more difficult educational task is encountered in both the United States and Japan: How can the teacher handle the diversity that exists within each classroom in terms of level of academic achievement?
The American solution has typically been to assign elementary-school children to homogeneous groups defined by level of achievement and to rely on special-education teachers for the more troublesome cases. But only the largest American cities have high schools devoted to vocational training or to the education of gifted and talented students. More generally, American high schools enroll large numbers of students; some seek vocational training and others aspire to enter a university. Paradoxically, then, the average levels of achievement among high schools in large American cities are more similar to each other than is the case in Japan - a reverse of the situation that exists in elementary schools.
While neither society can fairly be denounced as being more elitist than most others, both are asking serious questions about their educational systems.
Americans wonder if they are educating students to a level where they can meet worldwide standards. Japanese question the inflexibilities in their educational system. Both ask whether they are educating students who will be able to compete successfully in ever-more demanding technological societies.