Commentary: Japan Can't Get School Reform Right, Either

By Brian Bremner

Japan is in the midst of a full-blown education crisis. Or at least that's what media pundits and conservative educators would have the Japanese public believe: "Classroom collapse gripping schools nationwide," shouts one recent headline. Given all the hand-wringing, you'd think Japan's students had suddenly developed a fondness for knocking off convenience stores with handguns. But no, the reason that parents are ready to storm the ramparts of the education bureaucracy is that little Noriko and Satoru no longer have to go to school every other Saturday.

You read that right: Some fear Japan is becoming a nation of slackers, and that dimwitted bureaucrats are accelerating the process. On Apr. 1, the Education Ministry began a program of school reforms, including cutting out Saturday classes and rolling back by 30% the number of hours of core course work students must devote to math, science, history, and Japanese language. Now, the press, egged on by concerned parents, is chock-full of stories about collapsing standards at Japanese schools.

Are Japanese schools really on a downward slide? Hardly. In fact, if criticism is being ladled out, it should fall on the university system, not the primary and secondary schools, which continue to turn out highly literate students. That's why the school flap reveals more about the national psyche than it does about real school problems. Japanese pine for the old values--a strong work ethic married to a quiet conformism--that served them brilliantly during its postwar recovery. But the current system, which relies too much on rote memorization and good behavior, isn't going to serve Japan well in an era of nonstop global competition and rapid technology shifts.

The opponents of the school reforms completely distort the threat they pose to young Japanese. On balance, Japanese students still blow away their Western counterparts in international test comparisons. There may be more bullying and unruly 12-year-olds with orange hair, but that hardly constitutes a national crisis.

Once the reforms are in place, basic educational skills will still matter, but so will problem solving and learning to express oneself clearly and logically. The new system, including those free Saturdays, will also allow more time for independent study, reading, or, heck, quality time on PlayStation 2. And when it's all in place, getting through a Japanese school still won't be a walk in the park. Kids, for example, will still need to memorize 1000-plus Chinese ideographic characters by age 12. Giving students more time to pursue personal intellectual interests and hobbies will teach them the flexibility they need to thrive in a more fluid economy.

So why all the fuss? There are those old values, of course: With the whole economy in crisis, the natural reaction of many Japanese is to make kids work harder, not smarter. But the profit motive is at work, too. The sense of crisis is being manufactured in part by Japan's massive test-preparation industry, which has an obvious commercial interest in fueling parental anxiety about the still-required entrance exams for competitive high schools and colleges.

The irony is that parents should be irate about one aspect of Japanese education, but it's not the primary and secondary schools. It's the universities. Once Japanese kids pass all those grueling exams and make it to the university level, demands on them are minimal, and they wind back big-time. "It's a four-year moratorium on study, and time to learn how to drink," quips Hirotaka Takeuchi, dean of the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy.

It's at the college level--where precious few flunk out no matter how little work they do--that parents are wasting millions of yen. As a result of the failings of the universities, executives complain that new hires often lack basic economic and managerial training. Employers are therefore getting increasingly picky about the college grads they hire. Once a degree from the University of Tokyo or Kyoto University was a ticket to success. No longer. If Japan doesn't improve the caliber of its college graduates, notes Takeuchi, "we are talking about a decline in Japan's global competitiveness."

So maybe implementing real educational reform in Japan should boil down to this: Go ahead and give the little ones back their Saturdays--but kick the rear ends of those goof-offs in the university. Now that's a program a real reformer can get behind.

Bremner reports from Tokyo on Japanese business.

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