When Takehiko Sawada taught junior high school in Osaka, Japan, an eighth-grader in his homeroom became a chronic truant.
"He tried to put on a school uniform, but he just couldn't," says Mr. Sawada, who's now with the Osaka City Board of Education. "At first his parents were worrying. But finally they came to the conclusion it's not so important to rush him."
Sawada's solution? He'd visit the student at home. They would talk or play Nintendo. Then, if the student was agreeable, they'd settle down for some serious tutoring. The student eventually went on to high school and graduated from college.
Sawada beamed with pride recently when relating this story to a group of educators from Illinois who spent two weeks touring schools in Japan. They were hoping to glimpse what makes Japanese students consistently outperform their American counterparts on international tests, and to gain some understanding of Japanese culture and society.
Sawada's story reinforced what some of them had already concluded: Japanese students excel for reasons beyond what they learn in the classroom.
Sent by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago, the delegation visited elementary, junior high, and high schools in Osaka and Niigata. They saw crowded classrooms, few visual aids, and surprisingly few computers. The ideals of American education - a small teacher-student ratio, student participation, exercises in critical thinking - were mostly absent from the classes they observed.
"In an English class in Niigata, there were 40 kids or more," says Marvin Edwards, superintendent of Elgin Area District 46. "The teacher talked so low you couldn't hear.... Then she asks, 'Does everybody get it?'
"They couldn't have gotten it because they couldn't have heard it," he goes on. "But they said, 'Yes.' We went to a math class and the kids were extremely noisy. All my life I've been hearing about Japanese education. Now, I see it's not about their education, it's about what they do in addition."
In Japan, school is the center of children's lives, and the functions of parents and teachers tend to merge. At school, students learn everything from morals to how to use chopsticks, and are responsible for serving lunch and cleaning the school after classes.
It is common for teachers to visit students' homes. Teachers and parents communicate through notebooks about tests, homework, and behavior.
Classes are held 220 days a year - including two Saturdays a month - as opposed to 180 in the United States. Compulsory education ends after ninth grade, and only students who pass entrance exams go on to high school and college. Because there is enormous pressure to do well - scores determine entrance to the best schools - private after-hours cram schools, or jukus, are a popular supplement.
Critics say the emphasis on academic achievement comes at the cost of independent thinking. Students wear uniforms and are otherwise encouraged not to stand out. The Ministry of Education sets a national curriculum and approves textbooks. Classes are geared toward average learners, and, some argue, bore the gifted and lose the slow learners.
As the US delegation was winding down its tour, a disturbing crime touched off calls for reform: Police arrested a 14-year-old suspect in the beheading of a school boy in Kobe. The killer blamed his behavior on the educational system and a society that "rendered me invisible."
The arrest prompted Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to ask, "Where did we go wrong?" An associate professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University was quoted in a newspaper as saying, "I assume that the school system, which pushes students to the wall, will have to be transformed."
According to Junichi Kanza, of the Osaka City Board of Education, the system is already becoming "Americanized." Class size is shrinking, from about 48 students per class 10 years ago to about 40 today, while the dropout rate is increasing (from 2.5 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 1996 in Osaka). Mr. Kanza says the changes reflect societal shifts. The birth rate has decreased since the mid-1980s, and more students are working nights rather than studying.
An advisory panel to Japan's Ministry of Education recently proposed many reforms, including eliminating Saturday classes and tailoring instruction to individual needs. Experts wonder whether American-style reforms will jeopardize quality, but at least one big difference will remain. Property taxes in the US fund compulsory public education unevenly, while in Japan the government picks up the tab. Regardless of locale, students in Japan have access to the same resources.
The homogeneity of the culture greatly contributes to academic achievements, according to Andrea Kerr, a Chicago public schools administrator and part of the delegation. "Everyone has the same goal, and that's to improve life for the Japanese people."
The US educators left Japan saying they gained a better understanding of Japanese culture and built links for future exchanges. "The contacts we made with our colleagues in Japan have already allowed us to begin to plan ... exchanges," says Merle Erlich, a history teacher at Streamwood High School's World Languages and International Studies Academy in Chicago.
"The experience of traveling to other cultures makes you more sensitive when teaching about them," she adds. "I have a different kind of respect and closeness to the Japanese people that I didn't have before."