NPO targets education inequalities

Organization hopes to level playing field for poverty-hit kids

by Mizuho Aoki

University students Takerou Yasuhara and Sota Ueno, both 23, are on a mission to teach the importance and joy of learning to children who can’t find motivation in studying.

One week in August and every Saturday between October and December in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward and Hachioji, the two taught math, English and Japanese to junior high school children who fell behind in their studies but couldn’t seek help in cram schools due to financial difficulties.

The pair also helped the kids build motivation for studying, asking them about their dreams and explaining how education is necessary for achieving them.

“My student had no experience getting compliments from others. His classmates treated him as a stupid kid. But after a week of study, his math test score jumped from a single figure to 80″ out of 100, said Yasuhara, a graduate student at the University of Tokyo. “His smile when other kids praised his result was very impressive.”

Ueno concurred, stressing the possibilities are endless if kids have a chance.

Each child is born with different abilities, “but it’s the responsibility of adults to expand their possibilities,” said Ueno, a Meiji University student. “There certainly are children whose choice in education is limited due to where they are born or which families they are born into. . . . This can’t be ignored.”

The two were among some 40 volunteer college and graduate students who participated in short-term teaching programs crafted by the nonprofit organization Learning for All.

Led by Yusuke Matsuda, a 27-year-old former junior high school gym teacher, LFA has been providing short-term teaching programs to schools outside Tokyo since last summer, aiming to combat inequality in opportunities for education.

After the success of its pilot program, the organization is now preparing to dispatch two recent graduates as part-time teachers for a year to a public junior high school in Kanagawa Prefecture. Their salary will be paid by the municipal government, Matsuda said.

The NPO hopes to kick off its official two-year dispatch program starting in fiscal 2012 in junior high schools in around 10 regions. It is currently negotiating with local governments to begin the program.

“Teachers need to bring out their students’ motivation for learning so that students can keep chasing their goals. . . . What I want to do is to put children’s engines on full power,” Matsuda said.

Disappointed by other teachers’ lack of enthusiasm and feeling limited in what he could do as a junior high teacher, Matsuda headed for the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2008, determined to acquire the skills needed to improve Japan’s education system.

During a year at Harvard, Matsuda was moved by a lecture given by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 with a mission to eradicate the educational inequalities in the U.S.

Teach For America recruits and dispatches outstanding recent college graduates to impoverished communities across the U.S. to serve as teachers for two years.

Its short-term vision is to provide good education opportunities to children growing up in low-income communities. In the long term, TFA aims to build the movement to remedy the country’s education problems by increasing the number of education-conscious alumni who play leading roles not only in education-related fields but in other sectors as well.

Today it has more than 200,000 alumni, and TFA is one of the most popular organizations among graduates launching their careers.

Inspired by Teach For America’s methods, Matsuda founded LFA last July in Tokyo, hoping to make Japan a more education-conscious society.

“I think today’s America is Japan’s future in 20 or 30 years’ time,” said Matsuda.

“Many say Japan is a middle-class society. But I think they are just unaware of the reality. Or, maybe some of them are aware of the reality but are turning their eyes away from it,” he said.

Inequality in opportunities for education exists in Japan, Matsuda stressed.

“For example, around 40 percent of elementary and junior high students receive school expense subsidies in Adachi Ward (Tokyo), while the percentage is between 5 to 10 in Chiyoda Ward,” Matsuda said. “And there is a strong correlation between the percentage and children’s academic abilities.”

According to the education ministry, children who receive school expense subsidies from local governments are on the rise.

The number jumped from 766,173 in 1995 to 1,488,113 in 2009. The percentage is particularly high in urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, where more than 20 percent of students in public elementary and junior high schools received help with school expenses in 2009.

Also, the education ministry’s report on the 2010 national achievement test result shows that in macro terms, schools with high percentages of students receiving the government aid tend to have lower average scores compared with schools with smaller numbers of students receiving the aid.

Matsuda thinks Japan needs to create some sort of infrastructure to support those children before it’s too late.

“In 10 or 20 years’ time, there might be more immigrants living in Japan. And we don’t even have infrastructure to support their education. . . . I believe the problems America faces today will be coming to Japan in the future, and now we are seeing a glimpse of it,” Matsuda said.

He hopes his NPO’s dispatch program will open a door that helps solve such problems.

Based on the Teach For America method, LFA will give its teachers leadership-oriented training programs before and after they are dispatched to schools. The training includes critical thinking, problem solving, PDCA (plan-do-check-act cycle) and presentation skills.

“Our initial mission at the school is to give academic support during the school hours to students who fall behind in their classes,” Matsuda said.

Matsuda hopes to see talented young LFA alumni flourish in education-related fields and other sectors, creating networks in society that can combat education problems.

Although Matsuda said the organization is struggling to recruit recent graduates to become dispatch teachers — due to its lack of recognition — the two college students, Yasuhara and Ueno, are determined to launch their careers as LFA teachers when they graduate in 2012.

“What LFA plans to do may be just one of many ways to tackle inequity in education. It may not be everything, but I believe it is a valid method,” Yasuhara said. “I believe Japan will be a better society if we can increase the number of high-quality teachers as well as those who have strong interest in education problems in both the public and private sectors. . . . I want to increase the number of people who actually take action.”