Issues | LEARNING CURVE

Osaka embraces English Reformation

by Teru Clavel

While Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s controversial political antics have increasingly drawn criticism, little attention has been paid to how his leadership has prompted the most progressive reforms of English-language education in the nation. Hashimoto, who served as Osaka’s governor from 2008-11, made possible the appointment of fellow Waseda Law School graduate Toru Nakahara as superintendent of the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education, charging him with the task of empowering students to compete on a global stage.

Only in Osaka will students in the public school system have the opportunity to start preparing for the TOEFL iBT — an internationally recognized English-language proficiency exam for non-native speakers administered over the Internet that tests reading, writing, speaking and listening skills for entrance to English-speaking university overseas — in grade one of primary school.

With the urging of Mayor Hashimoto, Nakahara — who also graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and was a practicing attorney at a California firm for 10 years — left the private sector and took a substantial pay cut to become the principal of Izumi High School in Osaka in 2010. In 2013, Nakahara became Japan’s youngest-ever superintendent at age 42, overseeing 1,600-plus schools, and he formed what is known as the English Reformation Project Team.

Nakahara’s accomplishments in the United States and at Izumi High School have led him to be recognized as an education innovator.

“One thing I noticed when I was in Ann Arbor (Michigan) was the necessity to have English-speaking abilities, otherwise nobody outside of Japan is even going to acknowledge you,” he says. “We Japanese do not have a strong ability to debate with others. We lack opportunities to debate throughout our education, and we are not good at logical and critical thinking.”

At Izumi, he started a TOEFL preparation course that took place outside school hours and attracted more than 200 students — some of whom went on to U.S. universities or the international sections of those in Japan.

“Whether you like it or not, you need to deal with other cultures, and you need to deal with people outside of Japan,” he explains.

For example, referencing current Asia-Pacific tensions, he continues: “We have land issues with China and Korea — we need to resolve issues with them through direct in-person communication without a translator. It would make a big impact if we spoke directly to the Korean president and high-ranking Chinese officers who do speak English.”

To begin within the next year, the four major changes to Osaka’s English-language curriculum will be: dedicated TOEFL iBT preparation, a comprehensive English program starting in grade one, the hiring of Super English Teachers and the acceptance of third-party English exam scores (such as the TOEFL iBT) for high school entrance exams.

No other public school curriculum in Japan includes preparation for the TOEFL, which increases the opportunities of Japan’s next generation and will in turn help Japan grow globally.

Nakahara says: “As educators, we have to give our students two tickets: one to get them to international universities outside of Japan and the other for domestic universities. I want to give them a choice. And to become prospective leaders, we have to educate them so that they can clear a base TOEFL score of 80, or 100 for top-notch universities including Harvard.” (The TOEFL is scored out of 120).

According to Matthew Cook, a full-time member of the English Reformation Project Team and the first non-Japanese civil servant on Osaka’s Board of Education: “Approximately eight of the top 15 schools in Osaka Prefecture will introduce special TOEFL iBT courses into their curriculum,” starting in April 2015.

“The following April of 2016, approximately seven more top schools will do the same,” Cook says. “These special courses will be for 40-80 students in each school who voluntarily enroll in these courses to significantly increase their English levels.”

This program is meant to create an English-major stream for those looking to study overseas, similar to the science and medical track meant for those students hoping to attend medical school.

To attain high scores on the TOEFL exam, the Osaka Board of Education recognizes it must work backward and chart an English-language course that starts in primary school grade one — earlier than the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (MEXT) currently mandated grade-five start. A pilot phonics program for approximately 20 elementary schools that elect to participate will begin in September this year and will run through March 2016 with hopes to expand to all Osaka prefectural elementary schools thereafter.

This curriculum, Cook explains, takes a holistic approach to English-language education.

“Focusing on the content and the curriculum, specific vocabulary is repeated and recycled over and over between content mediums. For example, students will hear phrases in songs then in a story,” he says. “What we are doing is more strategic than anywhere else I have seen at this point, and we are starting from scratch.”

At the middle school level, approximately seven schools will participate in intensive English reading programs. “These schools will each be given a budget for buying extensive reading libraries, as well as for teacher training and support,” he says.

Another unprecedented move is the plan to hire Super English Teachers (SETs) for the 2015 academic year to teach at these pre-selected top high schools. According to Cook, these teachers will be “the best and brightest Japanese, English-speaking citizens… who have TOEFL iBT scores of over 100 points or an IELTS score above 7.5.”

The Osaka Board of Education will grant special teaching licenses to these candidates, and they will teach for three- to five-year contracted terms and be paid approximately $74,000 per year. In contrast, Japanese teachers in their mid-20s earn approximately $44,000 per year. These SETs will also be expected to have regular teacher responsibilities including homeroom and club supervision.

To incentivize students to prepare for the TOEFL, and to align English-language education objectives across grade levels, in 2016 the Osaka Board of Education will accept scores from the TOEFL iBT, IELTS or EIKEN English certification tests in addition to the existing English entrance exams administered by the Osaka prefectural high schools. If students choose to submit their results from these other tests, the board will take the higher of the two scores (based on an equivalency chart). Cook explains that these three tests will be accepted because they assess all four language skills, including speaking. “Each of these exams has been given a scoring rubric that has an equivalent score on the regular English entrance exams,” he explains.

The educators behind these reforms can be called mavericks. They are not including foreign native-English-speaking ALT’s (Assistant Language Teachers) in their plans and are surpassing MEXT’s English curriculum that Nakahara refers to as “the minimum threshold” Cook goes as far as to say: “What MEXT has been doing is a farce. They are talking about changing English language six years from now in 2020 for the Olympics. We are talking about changing things now.”

In the works are plans to include tablet computers in high schools to maximize in- and out-of-classroom time via the flipped-classroom model, to implement student assessments that hold teachers accountable, to increase ties with abroad and overseas summer study opportunities at top English-speaking universities and to hold regular parent-education programs.

Such radical changes, however, do not come without challenges. Nakahara says he has learned that many current teachers are used to “old-fashioned” methods of teaching English and are resistant to change. Another potential snag may come from a change in political leadership — the Osaka Board of Education’s budget has been supported and approved by the incumbent Governor of Osaka, Ichiro Matsui. Last, Nakahara mentions how he feels the media is not always supportive and has “fixed ideas” that can send a negative message to the general public about the reforms.

Professor Robert W. Aspinall of Shiga University and author of “International Education Policy in Japan in an Age of Globalisation and Risk,” supports the efforts in Osaka — he has been an advocate of creating separate tracks for concentrated English study and incorporating an exam that tests for English speaking into the curriculum. However, he expresses concern about the teaching qualifications of SETs and questions whether their higher salaries will alienate other teachers in a culture with a strong egalitarian ethic.

“The creation of any kind of elite track needs to be done with great care. Teaching is actually very collaborative — it’s people working together all of the time,” Aspinall says. “You can’t just parachute in one or two teachers — you need to get all the teachers on board.”

It seems Osaka is light years ahead of its closest metropolitan counterpart — Tokyo — where the English-language education discussion rests on the report of an advisory committee, with plans to raise numbers of ALTs and increase opportunities for native-Japanese English-language teachers to study abroad. Therefore, the greatest possible outcome may be, as Aspinall says: “If they overcome some of the hurdles of Japan’s broken English-language education system in Osaka, then that could have a sideways influence on other local education.”

Similarly Nakahara, the mastermind behind the plan concludes: “I hope other cities and prefectures will at least take a moment to consider whether or not what Osaka is trying to do is beneficial to the future of children.”