Schools going back to the basics

'Pressure-free education' gets blame for sliding exam scores

by Malcolm Foster

The Associated Press

When Mio Honzawa starts fifth grade next April, her textbooks will be thicker.

Alarmed that children here are falling behind the kids in rivals such as South Korea and Hong Kong, the education ministry is adding about 1,200 pages to elementary school textbooks, bringing the total across all subjects for six years from 4,900 pages today to nearly 6,100.

In a move that has divided educators and experts, the ministry is going back to basics after a 10-year experiment in “pressure-free education,” which encouraged more application of knowledge and less rote memorization.

“I think it’s a good move. Compared with the education I got, I’m kind of shocked at the level my children are receiving,” said Keiko Honzawa, a Tokyo resident and mother of Mio and her junior high school brother.

Japan’s near-the-top rankings in international standardized tests have fallen, stunning a nation where education has long been a source of pride.

The textbook debate mirrors one in the U.S., where new Common Core State Standards for math and English adopted by 37 states aim to strike a balance between teaching content and how to use that knowledge in everyday life and unify different state requirements.

In both countries, sliding scores on tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world, have helped drive changes in educational guidelines.

For Japan, the debate reflects a deeper anxiety as the country struggles to find direction in a world where its influence has waned. The once-powerful — and now stagnant — economy has been overtaken by China’s, and political leaders are grappling with how to deal with a bulging national deficit and an aging, shrinking population.

Signs that Japan’s academic prowess is sliding have added to the consternation. The number of students studying abroad has also fallen.

“There’s a sense of crisis,” said Hiroaki Mimizuka, a professor of education at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, who thinks the new guidelines are a step in the right direction. “With the year-by-year weakening of the competitiveness of our economy, there are serious concerns about whether our education system is working for a country with few natural resources, whose most valuable resources are its people.”

Others see the revisions as misguided and believe the emphasis on independent thinking needed more time to bear fruit.

“Just adding pages to textbooks and pushing for more memorization isn’t going to get us anywhere,” argued Koji Kato, a professor emeritus of education at Sophia University. “Japan needs to invest in developing thinking people for its future.”

Science and math textbooks will see the biggest additions, getting 60 percent more pages compared with earlier this decade. Among new concepts for elementary schools: Fifth-graders will learn how to calculate the area of a trapezoid and sixth-graders will learn about electricity.

An hour or two of school will be added each week, depending on the grade, and English will be introduced in fifth grade instead of the first year of junior high school. Junior high and high school students can expect similar changes in subsequent years.

Some fear this heralds a return to the “cram education” of the past that stressed memorization and was geared toward passing rigorous university entrance examinations. Though some colleges have introduced essay sections, they largely test ability to recall information, including finicky questions about English grammar that would baffle many native speakers.

Tens of thousands of children attend private cram schools in the afternoons to get an extra edge for these exams. Getting into the right university goes a long way toward determining one’s job, income level and place in society — a system that many Japanese agree needs to change.

It was partly in reaction to criticism that the education ministry about 10 years ago launched what popularly came to be called “pressure-free education.” The aim was to boost students’ skills in applying knowledge and expressing their own opinions, viewed as weaknesses in a system whose strengths have been in solving math problems and memorizing complicated kanji.

Curricular requirements were reduced, Saturday half-day classes were phased out, and teachers were told to take three hours each week to engage in learning driven by students’ questions, such as “Why doesn’t a sleeping bird fall from its perch on a branch?”

But ever since, Japan’s PISA scores have fallen, setting off what the media called “PISA shock.”

Japan’s rank in mathematics in the test, conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, dropped from first in 2000 to 10th in 2006, the most recent year for which results have been released. Science rankings slid from second to sixth, and reading comprehension declined from eighth to 15th.

The slide is puzzling because the exam is designed to test the ability to apply knowledge in real-life situations — one of the supposed goals of “pressure-free education.”

Japan’s performance in another test that does measure knowledge acquired in school, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, has been mixed. Junior high school students’ rank in math has slipped from third in 1995 to fifth in 2007, while their rank in science, which fell from third to sixth in 2003, improved to third again in 2007.

The current system has been a “huge failure,” said Eiichi Kajita, president of International Pacific University, who helped craft the new curriculum guidelines. He argues that education has become too child-centered.

“Teachers were told students should be supported, not taught,” Kajita said. “We need to revive a respect for knowledge. We also need more discipline.”

Mutsuko Takahashi, vice president of the Japan Teachers Union, says teachers didn’t get enough training on how to carry out the program’s goals — something education ministry officials acknowledge. For their part, ministry officials say the new guidelines are meant to better balance teaching fundamentals with promoting creative, independent thinking.

“We cut too much,” said Kihei Maekawa, a ministry deputy director general. “We’re trying to adjust the course now. But as for the goal of training children to think for themselves, that’s unchanged.”

Japan’s educational performance is still the envy of many countries, including the U.S., which ranked 29th in science and 35th in math out of 57 countries that took the 2006 PISA test. In fact, American experts have looked to Japan and other high-performing countries, including Finland and South Korea, for guidance on setting up the Common Core standards.

Japan should be careful not to overreact and become too narrowly focused on the PISA subjects of math, science and reading, said Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core, an educational research organization in Washington.

Facing the prospect of teaching more material next year, Japanese teachers are pushing for smaller class sizes, which now can be as high as 40. The education ministry says it is considering the request and plans to hire more teachers.

“We’re worried that this will just add more burden on teachers,” said Takahashi of the teachers union. “We already feel that we don’t get enough time to prepare and be with the children.”

She and others say the textbook changes pale in comparison with what is really needed: a dramatic overhaul of the university entrance exam system — which few see happening soon since it is so entrenched.