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DECISIONS, DECISIONS

School selection comes to Japan at last

by Alice Gordenker

In many countries, parents have a choice of public schools. Not Japan. Here, you get just one choice: Send your child to the closest public school, or pay a lot of money for private school. But this is changing. School choice is coming to Japan.

Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward led the way in 2000, allowing parents of incoming first-graders to choose which elementary school their child would attend. A year later, the ward introduced choice for middle schools, too. Other school districts have decided to follow Shinagawa’s lead. About a third of the 23 wards in Tokyo, including the one in which I live, will introduce gakko sentakusei (school choice) for the school year beginning April 2003. So will at least 16 cities and towns in other parts of Japan.

The impetus for change was a recommendation made in 1997 by an influential advisory committee to the Education Ministry. If parents make an active choice among schools, they feel more satisfied and become more involved in their children’s education, the panel members said. And school choice puts pressure on schools to improve, because parents won’t choose schools with problems.

This happened in Shinagawa. Parents steered clear of one middle school in the ward because of an alleged incident of violence involving a third-year student and a teacher. This spring, there were only nine incoming students. The previous year, before rumors of violence got around, there were 51 new students. People in the neighborhood say it will take at least three years for the school to repair its reputation. Longer, if officials don’t tackle the problems in a more proactive way.

I think it’s a good thing if schools are under pressure to deal with problems quickly. But the fact is that schools aren’t competing on a level playing field. Some schools have out-of-date facilities. Some are in poor locations, such as near a noisy railway line. Some have a lot of troubled students.

In theory, schools with such handicaps can attract good students by offering something special. I’ve seen how this can work. In the U.S. city where we used to live, officials decided to reopen an old school building to reduce overcrowding at a school near our home. The problem was how to fill it. No one likes to be forced to switch schools, so changing school boundaries is a political nightmare. Instead, the school board introduced school choice.

The four schools in our part of the city were organized into a team. Each school adopted a special program. Parents would be allowed to choose among the schools, selecting the program that best suited their child or their education goals and philosophy.

One school taught children in both English and Spanish so they would become bilingual. Another was very traditional. A third offered a program for children with physical disabilities and happened to have mostly students from wealthy families. The fourth school, the new one, would emphasize science and math, and have many immigrant children who needed assistance learning English.

It wasn’t easy to choose. I visited the schools. I read the brochures. But I didn’t really know how to evaluate a school. I’m not an educator, and this was our first child to attend school. In the end, my husband and I opted for the school in the old building because of the innovative science program. We hoped our son would learn tolerance by studying with children from many different countries.

Things will work differently where I live now, in Japan. Our board of education set up a chart of “neighboring schools.” Based on this, parents of next year’s first-graders will have a choice of three to seven schools within reasonable walking distance of their homes. Each school will set aside 30 spaces for children who live outside of the school’s normal boundaries. If too many out-of-district children apply, the school will hold a lottery. There will be open houses in October so parents can visit, and each school will have a brochure explaining its tokushoku (distinctive characteristics).

Critics worry that parents will make choices for the wrong reasons. A survey of parents in Shinagawa found that only 9 percent of middle-school parents and 18 percent of elementary-school parents based their choice on the substance of the education offered. The rest said they chose a school because it had better facilities, or because the commute was safer.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Ease of commute or a nice swimming pool are valid reasons to choose a school, if that’s what parents think is important. Besides, it’s hard to find much difference in the quality of education from one school to the next, at least right now. Japan has a national curriculum, set by the central government, and it’s the same for all public schools in the country.

But now the Education Ministry is advocating tokushoku arukyoiku (education with specific character). Schools are supposed to develop unique activities and lessons, usually based on local conditions. So a school in a rice-growing area may take students out to the paddies to see how rice is planted and grown. And a school near the ocean may do extra units on fishing or marine ecology.

Our school, because we’re located in a neighborhood with many embassies and foreign residents, is emphasizing its international character. Its brochure notes that it has a program to teach kids Japanese as a foreign language, and opportunities for exchange with people from different countries. The brochure also highlights volunteer activities and the 10 minutes of individual reading time set aside every morning to promote literacy.

But frankly, I don’t think there are big differences between our school and the one next door, or any of the other schools in our ward. For school choice to be really meaningful, schools should offer truly distinctive programs. How about an English-Japanese bilingual immersion program? How about an arts and music school?

Still, I’m pleased that our school board has taken this first step. Some choice is better than no choice at all.