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Osaka bets big on TOEFL to boost English levels

In the perennial debate about English-language education in Japan, there is widespread agreement that the system is archaic and change is needed. The consensus stops there.

Everyone concerned has a panacea: more (or less) assistant language teachers, more teacher training, more technology, more of a focus on language production, less testing, better testing, smaller class sizes, eviscerating and overhauling the curriculum, greater use of English in class. The remedies are as numerous as the debate is old. But in a consensus-bound country such as Japan, change, if and when it comes, is usually incremental — and perhaps then, even obsolete.

No one could accuse Toru Nakahara, the superintendent of education for Osaka Prefecture, of kowtowing to the status quo. He is responsible for pushing through a raft of initiatives, chief among them the introduction of TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) at top-performing high schools, which will be taught by an elite group of teachers earning approximately ¥8 million a year. (Disclosure: I teach part-time at one of these schools.) From the board of education’s perspective, this is radical. But is it also just a formulaic riff on the “teach to the test” approach?

TOEFL iBT is an Internet-based English exam that tests reading, writing, listening and speaking aimed at people who will pursue academic studies in the medium of English, says Jaime Miller, a TOEFL teacher and founder of English Success Academy, an online school. The exam, administered by ETS, an American education company, is accepted as a criterion for entry at more than 9,000 schools and colleges throughout the world. The top score is 120 and each institution sets their pass mark independently.

Since returning to power in 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party has been touting TOEFL as a means of improving English proficiency, but without providing any specific policies. So far, Osaka is the only school district planning to integrate TOEFL into the school curriculum.

Nakahara sees himself as a product of the English education system in Japan — and a failure: He graduated from high school in Yokohama and Waseda University with weak English communicative skills, a deficiency that became apparent, he says, when he joined an international law firm in Tokyo. He left Tokyo to continue studying law at the University of Michigan and subsequently practice entertainment law in Los Angeles before returning to Japan (with fluent English and a can-do spirit) to become principal at Izumi High School in Kishiwada city, Osaka.

Nakahara was one of a number of principals appointed from outside the education system in an unusual and controversial move designed to engender reform. At Izumi, Nakahara saw the same pattern: students coming through six years of English education and graduating with weak communication skills.

“I was thinking of how we could possibly enhance Japanese kids’ communication skills,” he says.

Nakahara is intent on reforming English-language education, but he rejects the notion that he is a reformer.

“I shouldn’t be,” he says, pointing out that the system is producing students who can’t speak English. “That’s sad, and I don’t know why Japanese educators haven’t come up with a better solution.”

Enter TOEFL. Nakahara first trialed the test at Izumi on a voluntary basis. Based on this initial experiment, Nakahara and his team at the board of education are expanding TOEFL to nine Osaka high schools next year, and eight more in 2016. Passing an exam such as TOEFL iBT or IELTS (the International English Language Testing System), a similar proficiency test, is essential for students hoping to study abroad. However, the vast majority of students opt to study in Japan after graduating high school, and in courses that do not require TOEFL. So, why bring TOEFL into the high school curriculum?

The goals behind Nakahara’s TOEFL project are twofold: to raise proficiency levels, especially speaking, and to circumvent the present curriculum, which focuses on teaching grammar, reading and translation. Ultimately, he hopes the education ministry will take note of what he is doing in Osaka and redress these imbalances in the curriculum by creating a test of the same standard as TOEFL, and which also assesses all four key skills. If that were to happen, he says he would drop TOEFL. But in the meantime, TOEFL is coming and will be around for at least three years, possibly five.

As to why he chose TOEFL, Nakahara admits that “it could have been IELTS,” but he was already familiar with TOEFL, having taken a form of the test prior to entering the University of Michigan.

“TOEFL is good-quality, pretty famous, open to the public and, most importantly, it requires the four skills.”

It also costs more than $230 to take the test, a burden that will eventually be borne by students’ parents.

Miller, the TOEFL teacher, believes the decision to introduce TOEFL classes through grades one to three culminating in the test is the right move.

“TOEFL is consistent, well-watched, there is an abundance of test-taking material and it’s cost-effective for school boards,” she says.

However, Miller, who writes TOEFL training programs and advises teachers, cautions that the success of the Osaka program will come down to how the TOEFL curriculum is implemented, guiding student expectations, and, above all, trust and communication across the faculty.

“TOEFL is like a jungle, but if the teachers know the path and guide students properly, then everyone comes out alive.”

However, with the best intentions, solutions to problems often beget new problems. One foreseeable hurdle is that third-year students, already burdened with the standard national Center Test and any number of university entrance exams, will now be saddled with another test: TOEFL. Second, by bringing TOEFL only to top-level schools, the board of education faces charges of elitism and favoritism. Finally and crucially, one of the most difficult hurdles could come from teachers — regular English teachers, who will be expected to work with the TOEFL teachers, known as Super English Teachers (SETs), coordinating with and cooperating on a curriculum they are unfamiliar with and which cuts into their time to prepare students for university exams.

A particularly strong grievance is the issue of experience — specifically, teaching licenses, which are not a requirement for becoming an SET. On the other hand, the SETs will have to show they have a TOEFL score of higher than 100, a score arguably beyond the reach of teachers with weak communicative and writing skills.

Nakahara is positive on all three counts: TOEFL can be taken months in advance of the Center Test and university entrance exams, clearing the way for students to focus on college-related tests. As for charges of elitism, his response is to look to the bigger picture: In the next 12 years, Nakahara and his team plan to radically overhaul English-language education in Osaka by starting classes in grade one of elementary school. For the time being, he admits that TOEFL isn’t for everyone, and students at lower-level schools will be taught basic communicative skills to suit their ability.

As for tension between teachers, “I don’t see any problems,” Nakamura says. “In order (for students) to reach the TOEFL goal, (the teachers) have to cooperate,” he adds, explaining that the two curriculums will complement each other. Furthermore, he says, one of the tasks of the SETs is to pass on their skills and train colleagues, who in turn could be assigned to a “second- or third-tier school,” thereby creating a trickle-down effect.

This year the board of education will spend ¥26 million on research and designing the new curriculum, special lessons and administrating TOEFL practice tests. Once the program starts next April, the budget will jump significantly.

“Unless we make any kind of start, nothing is going to happen. I know there are potential criticisms and some of them may be legitimate, but at least we can make a start,” Nakahara says.

Fergus O’Dwyer, an associate professor at Osaka University, welcomes the addition of a speaking test to the curriculum — oral communication is not tested and therefore not really taught, he says. However, instead of introducing the TOEFL program in select schools — “undoubtedly an elitist move” —he suggests developing a similar program covering all the skills and introducing it to all schools. This could be done by using the Common European Framework for Languages, with progress measured according to its system of “Can Do statements.” The Ministry of Education has vetted these language learning tools, O’Dwyer says; by expanding on this work, tests could be developed to guide teachers and learners.

“Maybe the salaries of the ‘special’ teachers could be better spent by having them train teachers how to develop such curricula and integrate the practices into their classes,” he says.

James Rogers, a specialist in linguistics and an associate professor at Kansai Gaidai University, says that English education in Japan is in need of drastic improvement.

“Radical changes are needed in order for the country to move forward,” he says.

Rogers, who also develops online language learning tools, has been consulted by the Osaka Board of Education about the TOEFL program.

“The level of English after six years (or more) of English study by Japanese students entering university is actually quite low,” he says. “There is so much room for improvement, so I think certainly levels of proficiency can improve.”

But, as if to reinforce the point that there is no single silver bullet, Rogers points out that technological advances in language learning are underutilized — especially language apps, many of which fly under the radar in Japan, he says.

Teachers I spoke with who have taught TOEFL, or who will be once the program is expanded, agree that the current curriculum is in need of reform, especially when it comes to speaking, but many are skeptical of the usefulness of TOEFL for their students. Those I interviewed did not want their names used, as they will be working with SETs in the future and do not want to jeopardize these working relationships.

The most common critique among teachers was that since neither TOEFL, nor the skill of speaking, is needed to enter a university in Japan, the motivation to take the test is likely to remain low. And that’s before you factor in the cost of the exam, the profits of which flow directly to ETS in the U.S.

As one teacher stressed, “The plan of introducing TOEFL to high schools should be implemented along with reform of university entrance exams, because unless domestic university exams test students on their speaking ability of English, like the A-level exams in the U.K., introducing TOEFL at high schools will not have much of an effect.”

When it comes to Super English Teachers, surprisingly there is sympathy, or at least empathy, for these new teachers, even though they will be paid substantially more than newly qualified Japanese teachers of English and assistant language teachers.

“If they can do all the work involved in successfully introducing the TOEFL program to a school, I think it is worth paying the salary. I think it may even be too small,” one Japanese teacher said.

“Introducing the TOEFL program successfully is not just teaching the content of TOEFL in class. It’s about establishing a well-designed course that fits in with other subjects, along with lots of other activities students will engage in during their three years,” the teacher added. “This job requires lots of teaching experience and determination to dedicate themselves to teenagers, who are nervous and in a very important period of their life, aiming at the next important step. Any SET dealing with such teenagers who has the experience to handle this and guide them through TOEFL should be well-paid. However, an SET with just a high TOEFL score might not prove useful and won’t be worth their salary.”

Osaka schools superintendent Nakahara doesn’t want English-language education to stand still. He wants change, not “hesitation,” as he puts it — in typical politicians’ rhetoric, “change for the better.” Teachers, too, recognize the need for change. However, more consultation between the two groups — the policymakers and educators — would go a long way toward aiding the end users: English-language learners.

Last year Nakahara sent Christmas cards to elementary school teachers in Osaka city who took part in an English-language teaching pilot program, to thank them for their efforts.

“It was my first time to send Christmas cards in Japan,” he says.

We’ll have to wait and see if he will be extending this tradition to high school teachers in light of his TOEFL initiative — and whether he will receive any in return.

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • gokyo

    On a quick note the TOEFL won’t do you much good if you are planning to attend a university in the UK since they no longer accept TOEFL or TOEIC for a visa due to the cheating scandal.

    • Jessica Bodini

      I’m going to attend a postgrad at the university of sheffield and they do accept toefl…

  • skattan

    Having a high TOEFL score does not mean that you are going to be a good teacher.

    • Firas Kraïem

      But having a low score surely means you are not going to be a good teacher. As I commented on another article on this subject, TOEFL and similar tests are simply a cost-effective way for recruting bodies to weed out the grossly incompetent applicants, which would otherwise be a waste of their time (since the cost is borne by the applicant).

      That said, the “TOEFL for all” policy only makes sense under the assumption that all high school graduates in Japan are going to apply to something which requires a high TOEFL score. This is obviously not true, so this whole idea is just pure madness.

  • nihongal

    “more (or less) assistant language teachers” — fewer, not less

  • skattan

    “No one could accuse Toru Nakahara, the superintendent of education for Osaka Prefecture, of kowtowing to the status quo”

    No, but you could accuse him of appointing someone with no formal qualifications other than a Virginia Tech Bachelor’s degree in Human Nutrition to the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education English Reformation Project Team. You could also accuse him of going after teachers who commit the egregious sin of lip-synching Kimigayo at school assemblies.

  • Ashley

    Denmark, amazing English, Sweden, amazing English, Norway, amazing English, Holland, amazing English, Israel, amazing English. All these countries do not dub their TV output and they also have English versions of all books. Denmark is a country of 5 million and their English is great and the school children don’t even start going to school until they’re 7 years old. They have no ALT’s, no foreigners teaching ‘real English” and yet their English is great, why? Most of it comes from subtitled TV, it is that simple. Kids in all those countries are exposed to hundreds of hours a year to English speaking TV, you can’t help but learn. I even picked up Danish words when I lived there simply by reading the subtitles.

    • Skatelin

      Very interesting point, but this problem is not that simple.

      I’m a Japanese grown up in Germany. And I can say for sure that, for Japanese people, learning English is extremely hard because the two languages are totally different. Try learning Hindi or Thai language from subtitled TV shows. That’s how it feels for Japanese people when they see English subs on the TV.

    • Al_Martinez

      Interesting hypothesis, but show me the empirical data that support this claim.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    UK Universities no longer accept ToEFL due to the corruption problems identified in the exam. It is completely discredited.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    No it was because wide spread cheating was identified. British Universities accept a number of other American tests without problems.

  • JB

    This Nakahara guy…what an idiot! Did he not realized he didn’t improve his English skills with TOEFL score? He spent years studying English in the US! As an English teacher here and a TOEFL instructor at top universities here in Japan, I am sick and tired of Japanese administrators thinking taking TOEFL lessons will help students improve their English skills in preparation for global communication. They need to stop letting English learners believe in that too! The bottom line is…you don’t improve English by preparing for tests!!! The administrators here are constantly coming up with new ideas and strategies that lack data and evidence for results…and are basically out of their whims and completely shortsighted. What a waste of time and money!