DSM: "Our current system, just telling kids to study, study, has been a failure."

David Rovner (rovners@netvision.net.il)
Mon, 26 Feb 2001 17:36:43 +0200

The New York Times on the Web
Sunday, February 25, 2001

"Our current system, just telling kids to study, study,
study, has been a failure."

- KEN TERAWAKI, of Japan's Education Ministry.

Full Story:
February 25, 2001
More Sunshine for Japan's Overworked Students
Stuart Isett for The New York Times
Japan plans to give its students more free time, but not everyone thinks it is a good
idea. Two Tokyo high school students waited for friends.
- Tokyo correspondent Howard French describes how Japanese students and
parents use an after-school cram system, known as juku, to improve their chances of
gaining access to better schools.
TOKYO, Feb. 24 - Daichi Zaitsu, a seventh grader, has so much studying to do that
he has precious little time to devote to his favorite hobbies: researching passenger
jets on the Internet and playing tennis. Still, the 13-year-old thinks that plans to
reduce school hours are a horrible idea.

"In Japan, the scholastic ability of people is not so high right now, and it seems to be
decreasing, so I worry about the future of our country," said the teenager, who puts on
a sober navy blue uniform and lugs a heavy book bag back and forth to his central
Tokyo junior high school each day, including many Saturdays.

"Having more free time is not a particular concern of mine," he said. "I would rather
school stay open on the weekend."

Like it or not, the teenager's class schedule is about to change drastically as Japan
undertakes its most dramatic educational reform effort in a generation. Starting next
year, instead of piling on yet more work for its famously hard-studying students,
Japan will let its young take a rest.

The changes are in striking contrast to the most recent trends in New York, California
and elsewhere in the United States, where schools are considering lengthening the
school day or year in order to help children learn - and to try to keep them out of

In recent decades, Japanese schools have developed a system that in some
respects is what some American schools are talking about now: long hours,
emphasis on basics rather than electives, school uniforms and a premium on order
rather than on creativity. Yet just as some American schools are taking tentative
steps toward such a system, Japan is talking about dismantling it.

The reason is a growing concern that an orderly and unimaginative school system
excels at producing pliant, disciplined workers, which the nation needed for its
rebuilding effort after World War II, but is failing to produce the problem solvers and
innovators needed for the future.

Japan has been floundering economically for more than a decade, and the change is
meant in part to help ensure the country's ability to compete. Somewhat
paradoxically, the drive to give millions of students more electives and unstructured
time out of school for their personal use comes as public anxiety over dropouts,
adolescent crime and what is perceived here as an epidemic of underachievement
among the young is higher than ever.

Some parents oppose the shortened hours for this reason, while many others fear
that a lightening of the curriculum by an estimated 30 percent will make it harder,
rather than easier, for Japan to compete with its rivals in Asia and the West.

"The direction that New York City is taking is exactly the right direction," said Ryoko
Zaitsu, Daichi's mother. "I wonder why this change is being made in Japan."

She speculated that the all powerful Ministry of Education was trying to remedy the
problems of rough schools ? from elementary through high school ? by "trying to
reduce everyone to the same level."

Officials at the Education Ministry acknowledge that the problems of disaffected and
poorly performing students enter into the thinking behind the changes. But they say
the main issue is that year after year of overworking students has left people
exhausted, and destroyed creativity and individual initiative, qualities officials say the
country sorely needs.

"Our current system, just telling kids to study, study, study, has been a failure," said
Ken Terawaki, a senior Education Ministry official who nonetheless dismissed the idea
that Japan and school systems in places like New York City were going in opposite
directions on the scholastic escalator. Instead, he insisted, Japanese reformers were
responding to features of their own country's culture and history that had no parallels
in America.

"Endless studying worked in the past," he said, "when there were many kids in the
school system, Japan was rebuilding and the competition was very fierce. But that is
no longer the case, and the kids are far fewer, things are not as competitive anymore,
and just telling them to study more will no longer work.

"Now we are going to try the sunshine approach, giving them more chances to play
sports, or read books. We would like to give them some free time and the
psychological freedom to do things that they are interested in. In other words, we
want to give them some time to think, rather than force everybody to stay in school to
study the same thing."

Noboyuki Tose, a professor of mathematics at Keio University in Tokyo, is a
prominent critic of Japan's education system, but opposes the planned changes
because he fears that they will further drag down performance.

About two years ago he began testing students at some elite colleges for basic
mathematics aptitude and was shocked - as was the nation when the results were
widely publicized -to find that many students were incapable even of elementary level

Mr. Tose said he traced the inability to Japan's traditional style of learning - cramming
- and to a subtle shift that began more than 20 years ago that allowed high school
students some electives and lighter classroom workloads.

Standardized mathematics tests suggest, he said, that Japanese students are
among the best in the world in junior high school, when such classes are obligatory.
But by high school, when the students already have more options, their performance
in mathematics has already become mediocre.

"What is happening in Japan happened a long time ago in the U.S.," Mr. Tose said.
Referring to an American white paper of the early 1980's that warned of a "nation at
risk," because of falling educational achievement, he added: "There are a lot of
similarities between the two countries, only a time delay of 20 years.

"Twenty years ago the education in America was like eating in a cafeteria: high school
students just chose what they wanted, avoiding mathematics and science and other
difficult subjects. Japanese schools at this moment have exactly the same system.
We don't need to increase students' free time. We need to reduce it."

At the secondary school level, however, many educators seem more enthusiastic
about the changes, even if they harbor doubts about whether the announced
restructuring alone would transform Japanese education.

"This reform is almost like an expression of remorse for the way Japanese people had
to live after the war," said Eiko Iwatani, the principal of Daichi Zaitsu's Bunkyo Ward
Junior High School No. 6, an almost antique seeming but colorfully decorated middle
school of about 270 students in the shadow of Japan's most prestigious college,
Tokyo University.

"After the war," Ms. Iwatani said, "education was so important to our reconstruction
that we resorted to cramming, education became automatic, and people didn't need
to think for themselves. Nowadays, people are feeling that we are lacking in the faculty
of creative thinking and problem solving."

The theory seems to have taken little account of parents' penchant for sending
children to private after- school classes known as juku. However much bureaucrats
plan to increase the free time of students and give them more freedom over their
time, anxious parents continue to send their children to the juku, and many students,
mindful of keeping up, are themselves eager to go.

Ms. Zaitsu sends Daichi to a juku three times a week, and a private tutor also goes to
their home sometimes. All this costs the family about $400 a month, but they see it
as a requirement.

"It shouldn't be necessary, but other parents will keep sending their children, so you
feel that you have to, too," Ms. Zaitsu said. "Frankly speaking, I would like to start a
revolt. But not everyone feels that way, so we are left with a feeling of helplessness.
You want to do something but you can't move. In the end, you feel that you just have
to take care of yourself."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.0b3 on Thu Mar 29 2001 - 11:16:43 EST