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Spurious link between education, economy

by Walt Gardner

LOS ANGELES — When Japan’s Central Council for Education recently announced its plan to move the nation’s schools away from yutori kyoiku, the “more relaxed education” policy adopted in the 1990s, its decision was largely based on the belief that effective schools are responsible for a robust economy. By buying into that assumption, Japan joined the U.S. in ignoring lessons both should have learned long ago.

Up until 1990, Japan enjoyed a boom that was the envy of industrialized countries around the globe. Observers concluded that schools played a major role.

They pointed to the progress that Japan made in the decades after World War II when schools operated under a uniform national curriculum relying heavily on memorization and cramming. They cited the impressive results of students on tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study as prima facie evidence for their view.

But a strange thing happened. Despite the continuing high performance of students overall on these closely watched tests, the economy sank. Although it began to recover five years ago from its decade-long slump, it continues to be lethargic to this day.

The same disconnect between education and the economy can be seen in the U.S. The landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” that was released a quarter of a century ago warned that America’s dominance in commerce, industry, science and technology was threatened by competition around the world. Its veiled reference to Japan in particular was obvious to everyone at the time. The report laid the blame on the “rising tide of mediocrity” of America’s schools in blunt language rarely used in a blue-ribbon document.

Yet while America’s students continued to finish well behind Japan and the other Asian tigers on tests of international competition, the U.S. economy entered into the longest period of economic growth in its history starting in 1991. Seen against this backdrop, something clearly was amiss in the alarmist theme of “A Nation at Risk.”

The compelling record calling into question the validity of the doomsday scenario notwithstanding, Japan has chosen to ignore the past. It prefers instead to revert to the old ways in education, even though it runs the risk of undermining attempts to create a new generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers. This clash between traditionalists and innovators has been on view in the media in the form of editorials and reportage.

Because of the high stakes, public schools in the U.S. have also been whipsawed. The back-to-basics movement, with its emphasis on patriotism and morality, in many ways parallels what is taking place in Japan. In October 2007, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a former Indiana teacher who was fired when she admitted to her class that she honked for peace in answer to a question posed to her. In Japan, teachers who have refused to stand and sing the national anthem have faced similar sanctions.

What these examples illustrate is the difference between education and indoctrination. If students are not permitted to question certain practices in school, they can’t be expected to develop the knowledge and skills they will need as adults in the real world.

Stifling debate may make some parents and politicians happy, but it will shortchange students in the long run.

These deficits will unavoidably affect the contribution they will make to both the economy and to society. And make no mistake about it: Both Japan and the U.S. need good workers and good citizens.

So rather than blame schools for their respective country’s economic status, the focus should instead be on examining government policies. The subprime mortgage mess that threatens to propel the U.S. into a deep recession was not created by what America’s schools were doing. It was the predictable outcome of Federal Reserve policies that made borrowing all too easy, tax policies that favored the very rich, and deregulation policies that created an Eden for unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

It’s not too late for Japan to reconsider the course it has set for itself. Too much is on the line to do otherwise.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. Contact him at walt.gard@verizon.net