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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 4, 2003)

Educational Reform: Lots of debate, little action

Gregory Clark (Honorary President, Tama University)

The problems with Japan's education system are well known -- poor teaching in the universities; class disintegration (gakkyu hokai) in the schools -- to name but a few. So many students, unwilling to put up with the pressures and rigidities of the existing school system, are now dropping out of school (toko kyohi) that special schools have been established to bring them back into the education stable.

A key problem is the way university entrance exams effectively decide a student's employment future. Students who pass the exams are under little pressure to study properly since job placement is already decided by the reputation of the university they have entered. Universities, elite universities especially, are under little pressure to improve the quality of their education, for the same reason.

Meanwhile the harm caused by the pressure on students trying to enter good universities reverberates down the education ladder, almost to kindergarten level.

The education bureaucrats sought two years ago to ease some of these pressures with a half-baked scheme decreeing free-study time (yutori kyoiku) for students in public high schools. But the only result was to lower academic standards and disadvantage those students in their efforts to enter quality universities. It is now being withdrawn.

One way to make school education more appealing would be to divide classes on the basis of students' aptitude. That would both ease pressures and provide study incentives. But the bureaucrats still say no. They want to protect what they see as Japan's tradition of familial classroom equality.

Another answer that I have tried often to push in committees and shingikai (policy advisory bodies) of the former Education Ministry is a system of provisional entry to universities. Students just below the pass level of a university's entrance exams should be allowed to enter provided they can pass another exam at the end of their first year. It would ease entrance exam pressures, and provide a study incentive for at least some university students.

But when we tried to introduce the idea at Tama University, ministry bureaucrats moved to kill it, saying it would violate the principle of the rigid entry quotas they impose on all universities. It would also go against the regulation that makes it almost impossible to fail even bad students.

Meanwhile, in the same ministry's committees and shingikai one heard endlessly how universities should widen their entrance "gate" and narrow the exit "gate." How do you do this when entry quotas are fixed and you cannot get rid of bad students? Japan's capacity for tatemae and honne -- in this case, flowery words vs. the hunger for rigid bureaucratic control -- seems unlimited.

Later, as a member of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's National Peoples Conference on Education Reform, I managed to get the concept of provisional university entry recommended in the final report. But the bureaucrats still said no.

Other attempts to reform the system have met much the same fate. Together with others, I have long campaigned for a lifting on the ban on university entry below age 18. We managed to get that also recommended by the National Peoples Conference. But in revising the law to allow entry at age 17, the Education Ministry managed to insert so many conditions that it has become a dead letter. The bureaucrats are terrified that early university entry would disrupt their control of the school system.

But it was in efforts to reform English language teaching that I suffered my worst defeats. Something has to be done about the system of distorted English-language exams for university entry. Preparation for those exams is clearly the main reason why so many educated Japanese either dislike English or speak it badly.

The exams can only test script-comprehension abilities. They are often absurdly difficult, and riddled with mistakes (I recently counted 26 errors in one exam). Worse, the time and effort wasted in preparing for these meaningless exams is a major reason for declining standards in science and math at high schools.

Japan should do what we do in the West, namely recognize that advanced teaching of languages, difficult languages especially, should be the job of the universities.

Universities in Australia and the United States today use double concentrations -- for example, Japanese and business -- to produce quality graduates able to move directly into jobs requiring difficult language abilities. In many cases study of the language did not begin till university entry. In Japan, simple English can continue to be taught in primary and middle schools. But in high school only those who want to stay with the language should do so.

The advantage of a university-based teaching is that language courses can be intense -- four years of almost daily study, with good attention to the full range of language abilities. As well, the all-important incentive to learn is strong since students choose to study a language intensively, with the aim of using it for a future career.

Crucial to this idea is having English removed from the list of compulsory subjects in university entrance exams. I managed to do this at Tama, but to date no one has followed our example. In a committee I attended for a year to discuss reform of English teaching, the ministry bureaucrats managed to go in exactly the opposite direction. Whereas foreign-language study had previously in principle been an elective subject in high school, it has now been made compulsory.

After 25 years in Japan's education industry I am convinced there is little hope for any real improvement. Bureaucratic power and rigidity are much too strong.

(Originally appeared in the December 3, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

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