National | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Osaka teachers resist mayor’s plan to raise achievement test scores

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Stung by the poor results of a national achievement test covering math, science, and Japanese, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura wants to raise scores on next year’s exam by linking the test results to personnel evaluations and bonuses for school principals and teachers.

But in the face of opposition from education experts, as well as a busy political calendar and next spring’s municipal assembly elections, putting the idea into action by next summer will be a tall order.

The annual test is conducted by the education ministry in April and taken by sixth-grade elementary school students and third-year junior high students.

This year’s test covered math, science, and Japanese. Among 20 major cities, Osaka’s elementary school students in particular had the lowest or close to the lowest scores in the subjects tested, the second year in a row that’s happened. Its junior high school students also fared poorly.

“It’s extremely regrettable that Osaka has scored in the bottom half of the results two years in a row. It’s necessary to aim for reform in the way the schools think, and change the system,” Yoshimura said at a news conference on Aug. 2.

“For next year’s test, I propose each school will set its own targets and the numbers from the test will show whether they have succeeded. For those schools that succeed, their efforts will be reflected in the personnel evaluations and the strategic budgets of the school principals. The details are something I want to discuss with the school officials in the coming weeks and months,” Yoshimura said.

The mayor has also said he would return his 2019 summer bonus if Osaka scores at the bottom of the rankings again.

Midori Takeda, an Osaka-based educational coordinator who works with schools to promote democracy and human rights education, launched an online petition via Change.org against the mayor’s plan. It has drawn over 15,000 signatures. She presented the petition to Osaka officials earlier this month.

“There are several basic reasons why we are opposing the mayor’s threat to have school budgets and teachers’ summer bonuses reflected in the test scores. First, there is a correlation between academic ability and poverty,” she said.

An analysis of the relative poverty rate for households in each of the 47 prefectures, published in March by the state-affiliated Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, showed that Osaka’s rate was 14.5 percent in 2013, compared with the national average of 13.4 percent that year.

In the city of Osaka, the poverty rate, defined as having less than half of the average annual take-home income, is 15.2 percent. For households with single mothers, it’s 42.9 percent.

Kids of single moms can be hit particularly hard if the parent works in the afternoons and evenings; some kids have told teachers there are days when they don’t get dinner. The result is that those children show up to class tired, frustrated and unable to concentrate on their studies.

Takeda also opposes the plan because she believes it won’t motivate teachers and will actually damage their pride as educators, leading to a result opposite of what the mayor intended.

Finally, Takeda says there is no clear proof that raising or lowering bonuses leads to an improvement in academic ability. Similar efforts in the U.S. have had inconclusive results.

“Where’s the evidence? The mayor and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) party are always talking about the importance of evidence as the basis for decisions,” she says.

The education ministry has warned of the dangers of judging children’s academic abilities solely on their school education. In March 2014, it announced the results of its own investigation into the test. The ministry concluded that, in general, the higher the parents’ income and educational history, the better off their children will be academically.

And children who had their parents read books to them when they were young tended to have higher academic abilities, as did families with books and newspapers in the house, the ministry added.

Past efforts with regards to standardized academic testing have run into problems.

In 1961, a national aptitude test was put in place for public elementary and junior high schools, and the results affected teacher’s work evaluations. Teachers whose students got high scores on the test would get priority in teaching assignments.

But the test also led to a wave of media reports about educators’ attempts to inflate the achievement scores. This included using more classroom time to study specifically for the test, cutting gym and music classes out of the schedule, and forcing students to study after school and during breaks.

Some schools also attempted to inflate their average by asking the weaker students to stay home on the day of the test. After these problems came to light, the test was abandoned in 1966.

Yoshimura has emphasized he will work closely with local education officials to implement his reform proposals. However, getting the Osaka Municipal Assembly to agree to his plan is problematic, partially due to skepticism among assembly members and education bureaucrats, but also because of the political calendar.

The assembly already faces a busy autumn schedule. Two issues near the top of its list of priorities are the ongoing debate over whether to merge the city’s wards and the need to discuss which casino resort proposal to approve.

Osaka will also make its final push for the 2025 World Expo, the host of which will be decided in November. The city also needs to discuss local preparations for the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit it will host next June.

The Osaka municipal and prefectural assembly elections will then be held in April, where the contentious merger plan, backed by Yoshimura and his party but opposed by the Liberal Democratic Party and the other opposition parties, is likely to be a key issue.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.