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In a bid to stem the widely perceived decline in Japan’s academic standards, an education ministry panel recommended Tuesday that teachers be allowed to deviate from government-set curriculum guidelines and cater more to student abilities.

The recommendations are contained in a final report to education minister Takeo Kawamura by the Central Council for Education, an advisory body to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

“The education ministry would like to make the best use of these recommendations so they are reflected in curricula and teaching methods for the next academic year (beginning in April,)” Kawamura said in receiving the report.

“To this end, we will revise the current curricula guidelines and support the creative activities of each school.”

The panel, which had been meeting since June, suggested schools be formally told that the curricula guidelines outlined by the ministry are merely a benchmark, and that teachers can venture outside the guidelines if they feel their students can keep up.

It also recommended wider use of education methods that suit individual student abilities, including teaching children in groups of differing levels.

But in what appears to be a reversal of recent moves to cut back on time spent in class and the amount of topics covered, the council suggested that local boards of education consider providing “sufficient” class hours through such means as readjusting schedules, shortening holidays or introducing a semester system, if these approaches seem appropriate.

It also urged schools to enrich their comprehensive studies classes, whose topics can be selected at each school’s discretion.

Although the ministry denies that the nation’s academic standards are falling, claiming there are no clear data to support this, many see the latest recommendations as an attempt to reverse the trend.

One eye-catching recommendation by the panel was its suggestion that schools be informed that the ministry-authorized curricula guidelines should simply serve as a benchmark.

One possible deviation from the ministry guidelines, for example, would be teaching sixth-graders about the food chain, a topic the ministry currently feels should not be taught at this level and has thus instructed publishers to omit it from textbooks.

Kazuo Onishi, an official of the Japan Teachers’ Union, said he welcomes the panel’s suggestions, as he believes each school should devise its own curricula, as long as they do not try to throw too much information at students.

But Onishi also shared concerns voiced by some experts that the ministry’s shift toward emphasizing advanced knowledge indicates a confusing change of direction, as only last year it advocated less-rigid curricula guidelines in order to ensure that all children grasp at least all the basics.

The ministry is also calling for more classes geared toward student abilities to help enhance academic performance. According to a ministry study, some 70 percent of elementary and junior high schools have classes divided into groups depending on students’ understanding levels for certain subjects.

Arima Junior High School in Kawasaki, for instance, introduced lessons adjusted to students’ comprehension levels in 2001 and has seen good results, according to English teacher Toshiaki Ito.

When studying English, students in two third-year classes are divided into three groups based on their choice.

Ito said students with poor English skills often cannot speak out in a class of 37 or 38. But in a smaller group of some 20 students studying the basics at a slower pace, students feel more comfortable speaking English and have more opportunity to talk with the teacher, he said.

As a result, test scores for some basic-level students have improved and they have advanced to an intermediate class, Ito said. “I believe the method raised the overall standard (of academic ability).”

Some experts meanwhile argue that if the ministry is serious about stopping the decline in students’ academic abilities, it needs to take more drastic measures, including restoring class hours and study volumes, both of which were cut in April 2002.

Toshio Sawada, a professor at Tokyo University of Science and president of the Japan Society of Mathematical Education, said he sees the latest recommendations as a positive move, predicting that publishers will be given more flexibility in compiling textbooks.

But Sawada, who insists that academic standards are declining, said this trend cannot be reversed simply by taking the measures recommended in the panel’s report. He argued that the ministry needs to increase curriculum volumes and the amount of time students spend in class.

According to Sawada, Japanese first-graders spend 562 hours in class a year, compared with 828 hours for their U.S. counterparts.

In such a limited time, Japanese children move to the next topic without fully comprehending what came before, Sawada said.

“Unless enough time can be secured for learning, students’ academic abilities will never be enhanced,” he said.

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