National

Legal issues and entrenched ideas about education keep talented students from skipping grades in Japan

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

Academic acceleration systems, which enable students who excel in school to skip grades and study at a faster rate than others, have become increasingly commonplace globally. In the United States, around 180,000 students under 18 years old skip grades and enter universities early every year. But in Japan, the system has only been used by 130 students at nine universities over the past 20 years.

Educators and academics who see such acceleration as a significant way to maximize each student’s academic choices emphasize that the system cannot become better utilized unless many restrictions, such as those related to age, are removed. They also say the system will remain stymied in Japan as long as the tendency remains in place to give more value to age-based grade categorization and universities’ prestige rankings.

Under the current system in Japan, students can skip grades only after completing two years of high school. The only available accelerations are to skip the last year of high school to enter a university early or skip the last year of university to enter a graduate school.

Masaya Iwanaga, a professor at the Open University of Japan specializing in education issues, attributes the lower prevalence of the system to age-related restrictions set by the education ministry.

“Academic acceleration has spread in the U.S. because there are no (age) restrictions,” said Iwanaga. “In a nation of immigrants like the U.S., schools have to place students into classes based on their academic abilities, not their ages, because teachers do not know how much each immigrant student has already learned in their home countries,” he explained. “As a result, grade skipping or retaining has been occurring naturally.”

Iwanaga added that Japan, where age is prioritized over academic performance, also has a low percentage of students who have experienced grade retention compared with other developed countries.

Shiki Kurabe, director of the nonprofit organization Newvery, has offered advice to a few thousand high school students on choosing universities. Kurabe said the deep-rooted custom of sticking to age-based practices makes parents and high school teachers consider it normal for students to complete school with peers in their age group.

“Many teachers think that three years of high school are necessary for students to build their identities and that a one-year rush does not produce many benefits,” said Kurabe.

Under the current system, high school diplomas are not given to those who skip grades and enter university, which means that if such students fail to complete university they are left with only a junior high school diploma. Kurabe said this is why most parents are reluctant to let their children join the program.

On its website the education ministry states it has received some feedback saying that offering high school diplomas to students who skipped grades would help spread academic acceleration, but that the concept is not feasible under the current system.

But these concerns did not stop Takeshi Ohki, who entered Chiba University’s mechanical engineering faculty under the acceleration system, from pursuing his life-long dream of making robots.

“When I told my high school teacher that I decided to enter a university under the academic acceleration system, they said it was risky. But I felt that was wrong because the possibility of losing my passion — due to being exhausted from studying for entrance exams for a year — would also be risky,” said Ohki. He is now a research scientist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science And Technology (JAMSTEC), participating in a global robot competition aimed at mapping a 500 square-meter section of deep seafloor.

“I always made robots at home while attending high school but I had advanced to the point where it became difficult to do everything by myself, so I thought going to university would be the easiest way to advance,” said Ohki. “Academic acceleration would be a good choice for students who know what they want to do, but think it can’t be done as a high school student.”

Chiba University — a highly acclaimed public university that placed at No. 19 in Japan’s higher education ranking in 2018 — first introduced the system in 1998. Of the 130 students who used academic acceleration in Japan so far, 88 attended Chiba University. As the forerunner, Chiba University is said to offer a better curriculum — including small group teaching and personal training by professors — compared with the other six universities that use the academic acceleration system. Still, the university says the number of applicants for the program has remained at around 20 each year on average.

Iwanaga said the low applicant rate is attributable to the fact that people seldom see value in entering university earlier, and tend to care more about getting into more prestigious universities.

“Many teachers and parents think that students who can enter Chiba University one year earlier than usual can also get into top national universities such as the University of Tokyo,” said Iwanaga.

Iwanaga added that the Japanese labor market seldom takes into consideration whether students have graduated from university a year earlier because they are more concerned about the university’s stature. Most students who skip grades, therefore, continue studying in graduate schools.

At Chiba University, among the total of 71 students who completed undergraduate studies under the academic acceleration program, 61 entered graduate schools and 17 have received a doctorate. Ohki pursued a master’s degree at Tohoku University before working at JAMSTEC.

To open up more flexible choices to talented students who are eager to study at advanced levels, Iwanaga said the Advanced Placement (AP) program that is widely used in the U.S. would also be effective in Japan. The AP program was created in the U.S. to enable high school students to take college-level courses and examinations, thus allowing them to earn college credits and/or qualify for more advanced classes when they begin college.

The education ministry plans to establish a new system in the next academic year to integrate math and science courses at some of the nation’s universities and high schools designated by the government as focusing on science education, so that university professors will be able to teach at high schools and high school students will be able to visit university laboratories. The new system is seen as benefiting both high school students wishing to receive specialized education and universities seeking to secure talented individuals from an early stage.

Kurabe said he believes Japan needs more advanced education choices for students in order to compete in the age of globalization.

“Japan needs to have a system that does not hammer down students that excel over others, but instead cherishes their abilities and nurtures them to maximize their potential,” he said.