It’s always dicey comparing educational systems because countries differ widely in their values and customs. But with so much riding on outcomes, the risk is worth taking. Japan and the United States serve as instructive cases in point.

Long known for placing the onus for learning squarely on the shoulders of students, Japan is in the process of trying to strike a healthier balance between individual responsibility and satisfactory performance.

A solution is complicated by the memory of what happened 10 years ago when the Education Ministry adopted yutori kyoiku (loose education). Rules were changed to reflect the American system of educating the young. School hours were shortened, homework was lightened and students were no longer held overwhelmingly accountable for results.

But when Japan’s rankings on tests of international competition suffered, policymakers began questioning the price paid. The new freedoms were blamed for shortchanging students, threatening the nation’s overall competitiveness and undermining its work ethic.

Before resurrecting the old way, however, Japan may want to consider the American experience. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the U.S. looks almost exclusively to teachers for what students learn. But by exempting students for their part in their education, the U.S. finds itself in a bind of its own making.

Classrooms too often become venues for entertainment. That’s because students are increasingly seen as consumers who are entitled to lessons designed to be fun. Never mind that not all learning can meet that standard. When it isn’t, students act out by disrupting instruction, and their teachers are reprimanded by their principal for failing to engage.

For example, when a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania recently blogged that her students were “disengaged, lazy whiners” who were “noisy, crazy, sloppy loafers,” she was immediately suspended.

No attempt was ever made to examine the truth of her complaint about students’ academic efforts.

This kind of denial is a prescription for disaster because it has led to the dilution of the rigor of almost all courses. Let’s be frank: Certain concepts in academic courses are by their very nature dry. Teachers try to make them interesting, but they can do only so much. The rest is up to students.

Educators do young people a disservice by shielding them from the realities of learning. Every field of employment has aspects that are tedious.

In their attempt to keep their students on task all the time and avoid complaints, teachers are tempted to avoid topics known for alienating them, even though the topics are essential.

It’s impossible to know if the teacher in Pennsylvania would have met the same fate in Japan for her admittedly intemperate remarks. But based on what has transpired in the past, it’s doubtful.

Japan knows that learning takes discipline. Students have to be willing to do their share of work to meet the stipulated goals, and parents have to be involved in their children’s education to reinforce what is taught in class. That’s how a successful partnership works.

It’s good that Japan is open to improving its system of education. But it needs to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is still much that is commendable.

Walt Gardner’s Reality Check blog is published in Education Week in the U.S.

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