Advanced Eiken levels elude almost half of high school English teachers

Kyodo, Staff Report

Only a little more than half of English teachers at public high schools are certified with advanced levels of English proficiency tests, and the rate is less than 30 percent for those at junior high schools, according to an education ministry survey released Monday.

The survey conducted in fiscal 2014 on English education found that 55.4 percent of teachers who teach English in public high schools have either Grade 1 or Grade Pre-1 of the Eiken test, or those with TOEIC score of 730 and higher, while the number stands at 28.8 percent for those at junior highs.

Under the Eiken, Japan’s most popular English proficiency test, grades ranges from 1 to 5, with pre-1 standing between Grade 1 and Grade 2.

The results indicate there is a tough road ahead for the ministry’s goal of increasing qualified English teachers by fiscal 2017 — 75 percent for public high schools and 50 percent for junior highs. Last year, the figures were 52.7 percent and 27.9 percent, respectively.

Grade 1 is a highly respected qualification with a wide range of practical benefits, such as its usefulness in applying to post-secondary academic institutions, obtaining academic credits and studying overseas, according to the Eiken Foundation of Japan.

“We know these teachers are busy, but we recommend they actively take the Eiken and measure their own levels,” a ministry official said.

Tomohiko Shirahata, a professor of English education studies at Shizuoka University, said teachers at junior high and high schools should strive harder to pass these qualification exams to prove their skills.

He described the ministry’s numerical targets of 75 percent for public high schools and 50 percent for junior highs as the “minimal level.”

“To achieve the kind of English education envisaged by Japan, teachers at junior high and high schools should at least master the pre-1 level,” Shirahata said, adding that English tests for entrance exams delivered by the nation’s universities tend to be much harder than the pre-1 level.

Gearing up for those exams, he said, will eventually help increase the teachers’ proficiency in the language as well as improve the quality of their classes.

He meanwhile said the figures unveiled Monday by the ministry do not necessarily provide an accurate assessment of their language proficiency, as the percentages do not take into account teachers who simply haven’t taken the exams.

By prefecture, Fukui scored the highest rate of qualified high school English teachers, with 86.3 percent at Grade 1 or Grade Pre-1, or TOEIC score of 730 and higher. Kagawa followed with 82.4 percent and Toyama was third best at 79.9 percent.

Fukui also came out on top in junior high teachers with 49.4 percent, followed by Toyama’s 48 percent and Tokyo’s 42.6 percent.

The government hopes to improve the level of English for high school students so that half acquire the English proficiency of Grade Pre-2 level or higher by the time they graduate and half of junior high school students acquire Grade 3 level or higher.

  • Jay

    Cut back on hiring ALTs and use the money to send Japanese English teachers abroad for a year to properly learn English. Also, require students in English education courses to spend one of their four years in English immersion abroad.

    • Firas Kraïem

      “Cut back on hiring ALTs” but do hire competent, qualified (aka, not clueless 20-somethings) native speakers to serve as real teachers alongside Japanese ones.

      • Jay

        The trouble with competent, qualified teachers is that they have to be paid properly. I’m not so sure Japanese education boards would pay them fairly.

      • keratomileusis

        None of the above proposals will work because the “mission statement” is flawed. BTW JETS make pretty good money.

      • Jay

        3.7 million yen may be alright for a new grad with a BA, but it is very low for a qualified teacher with experience. And what do you mean by the mission statement?

      • keratomileusis

        It’s actually ¥1,000,000 HIGHER than the starting salary for a new teacher, who I assume is “qualified.” The mission statement for education is to pass tests, not proficiency. BTW did you know that if you major in English literature in college, i.e. Sofia, the courses are taught in Japanese? Same goes with French.

      • Jay

        I was thinking about qualified foreign teachers. They make between 40K and 80K in Canada (some even more). My British and Australian colleagues tell me their teachers are also paid considerably more than starting teachers here, and they have better conditions and benefits. I understand what you mean by mission statement, and I agree. Change certainly does happen very slow here!

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        As for the salary being higher, does that take into account bonuses and help with rent, etc, that every Japanese teacher gets, which JETs… maybe get? ESID, after all.

      • Jay

        Where I work, Japanese teachers make 600万円+, while some contract foreign teachers get as little as 300万. The rub is that some of the foreign teachers have advanced degrees and TOEFL qualifications! Needless to say, they don’t stay long.

      • keratomileusis

        We are comparing apples and oranges. My response was to JETs only. If you have foreign contract teachers, are you at a private school? Income inequality? Need to show that both teachers are equal in seniority and experience, evaluation (whatever the rubric), etc.

      • Jay

        Income inequality and outright exploitation is what it is. To hire a native-speaking English teacher with a MA or MEd, TOEFL certified and, say, 5 years experience, you should be willing to offer 500万 to start (that would include bonuses but not rent/transport subsidies). Some boards would rather pay 300万 and accept a lesser qualified person. But you get what you pay for.

      • Jamie Bakeridge

        You don’t get what you pay for. You get garbage regardless. May as well pay 300 for garbage than pay 500 for the same garbage!

    • doninjapan

      Expecting students “…to spend one of their four years in English immersion abroad.” whilst beneficial, would be ridiculously expensive, and a burden that many simply could not afford.

      • Jay

        The money would come from hiring fewer ALTs and allocating the savings to grants for Japanese students. Our College has overseas study programs, but they are very expensive. A meaningful grant would definitely boost the numbers of students participating.

      • doninjapan

        Well… given neither of us know the numbers – it’s mere speculation on both our parts.

        “Fewer ALTs” – Honestly? I think that this would hurt more than it helps. That would mean that some schools are without ALTs at all. And whilst I think that they could definitely be utilized better (and maybe screened better), they’re not a negative.

        I think there’d still be a significant shortcoming in the finances required…

        Overseas study would only be part of the solution, and if you’ve allocated all the $$$ to that, what’s done for the rest of the time they’re to study English?

      • Jay

        Alright then, fewer “underqualified” ALTs! Seriously, Monkusho should spend more time checking some of these people out on social media. I think more than a few are here to party and get laid, not to teach and learn. A four year program might look something like this: year one, lectures; year two, lectures + several small-group, individual research / presentation seminars; year three, intensive study abroad, pass Eiken level 1 and TOEIC 800 (aims); year four, practice teaching, thesis writing, more practice teaching. Anyway, the discussion has been interesting, and lets hope the Ministry of Magic–I mean the Ministry of Education–is reading and thinking.

  • Aeron

    Stop hiring people with bachelor degrees in an unrelated field. Even the most discerning English schools will let you teach English whether your education is in teaching or not, they just want you to have a degree because reasons (usually just to make getting a visa easier). It doesn’t benefit the school, and it doesn’t benefit the students.

    • keratomileusis

      You don’t need a degree in English to be a good English teacher. You need passion, creativity, and determination–qualities which most beginning teachers have–until disillusionment and reality set in. Native speaker status is also not a guarantee since many native speakers make lots of mistakes, e.g. “He speaks English better than I.”

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Agreed on the qualities you described. And there are ways to keep those qualities even after finding out what your job really consists of. You just need to work within what you’re able to do to make the change you want.

    • wanderingpippin

      You do realize this article is not about the foreigners hired to teach English in Japan, nor about English schools?

  • keratomileusis

    I’ve been a scorer on the Eiken writing test, and I as a certified foreign language teacher, I am always shocked at the demonstration of proficiency that merits an A grade. Anyone with less than an A+ (less than 5% of test takers) is not competent to grade student writing. But then, English education in Japan is not about proficiency, but passing entrance exams. I’ve also met a juku English teacher whose conversational skills were lacking, but who, apparently, is successful at getting students to score high on multiple choice exams.

    • wanderingpippin

      “Anyone with less than an A+ (less than 5% of test takers) is not competent to grade student writing. ”

      In other words 95% are competent?

      • keratomileusis

        5% of candidates receive the highest score, and their writing is pretty good. The distribution of scores is skewed towards the high end, with most people scoring a B. I wouldn’t however call people in the A- to B range competent to evaluate public school student writing.

        The scoring rubric used is good, but not perfect. Creativity and expression understandably are not considered. Many use rigid, formulaic, “First…second…lastly” expressions in their essays. Who writes like this in Western schools? C grades remind me of elementary school students in the U.S. On the other hand, the number of kanji learned by high school students in the U.S. is about the same as an elementary student in Japan. We never did any writing when I studied Japanese in college.

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the students. I blame the system.

  • Steve van Dresser

    The first requirement for teachers in any subject should be competence in the subject being taught. Would you hire a math teacher who could add but couldn’t subtract? So why hire an English teacher who can spell but can’t speak the language. How can any person who can’t get 730 on the TOEIC be qualified to teach English, anywhere?

    There are plenty of native speakers of English who are teaching at universities in Japan. Many more are teaching in private conversation schools. Why are none of them “qualified” to be teachers in public secondary schools?

  • doninjapan

    My concern is that they’re focusing on Eiken/TOEIC. Neither are a sure guarantee that a high score equates to a proficiency in English as a language.

    One of the main problems Japan faces, is that educationally English is taught as a scholastic undertaking, rather than a communicative tool (which is often completely ignored).

    • Jay

      Agree, which is why study abroad through immersion is a better way. STEP is not a very good test, and TOEIC is too focused on listening comprehension.

      • doninjapan

        Well… there are better options. TOEFL is at least using language with greater relevancy, and IELTS is better again.

        “Study abroad” is a good option, but is limited due to financial constraints.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    Enough schools suffer with few/no ALT visits as it is(Kawaguchi City, for example, has ALTs that are revolved around the schools so that each school gets an ALT for about 2 weeks of the school year – that’s not even “inaka”). Good to know your plan revolves around cutting that down some. The interest of students in English when it is a way to communicate with a person who actually comes to your school on a regular basis as opposed to just a forced curriculum… just can’t be measured. But hey, let’s take away the foreign speakers, have students only able to communicate with their Japanese English teachers, who they’ll never speak English with since they can speak Japanese anyhow. So all possible fun from the subject is thrown away, but (maybe) you have Japanese teachers at a more capable level. And then we realize the school system needs even more Japanese English teachers that don’t exist with the introduction of JHS level English into the elementary schools in two years…

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Japan needs to abandon the crazy ALT system. These unqualified foreigners bring nothing to school and are just performing monkeys. Spend the money on raising the standard of English amongst Japanese teachers of English.

  • Toolonggone

    There is no empirical study suggesting that the presence of ALTs has contributed to the overall improvement of language skills for both students and Japanese Teachers of English(JTE). MEXT’s pie-in-the-sky plan reveals its unrealistic expectation on Annual Year Progress(AYP) for English language proficiency. Making 75% of those to put into a test bubble? In two years? How pity.

    The vast majority of JTE are a product of typical Japanese English language education that was notoriously inflexible, ineffectual for its outmoded instruction. Simply relying on teachers’ ‘grit’ that re-invokes ‘militaristic mentality’ in pre-war imperial period won’t make anything different. MEXT officials are simply making a robo call from the top. They are completely clueless about teacher’s surrounding stressful working condition including but not limited to excessive working hours, large class size, insufficient school resources, and top-down administrative directives narrowing down general curriculum and instructional practice.

    Solutions? Screw that government’s top-down order on curriculum (such as ‘English-as-mode-of-instruction’ mandate to all teachers nationwide). Appoint a highly qualified education researcher to special foreign language and curriculum advisor to the MEXT–instead of those 20-something from JET or TFA architect. Reach out to anyone who has a solid teaching and administrative experience(i.e., Ph.D in education or equivalent, minimum 10-15 years of teaching, minimum 5-7 years of superintendent) in public education– not charters or vouchers– outside Japan. Install mentor-mentee programs for JTE on lesson plans, instructional skills, student assessment, etc. Give teachers substantial amount of time to create their own lesson plans, and professional development. Make sure to cut down total working hours by putting a limit to after-school extra-curricular activity and reducing any administrative hours unrelated to teaching. Have their words in local school district board meetings.