The direction that public schools follow in the years ahead in Japan and the United States is the subject of a series of debates with far-reaching implications for their respective societies. Although contentious, they are nothing new.

Once based on the Imperial Rescript on Education, Japan’s schools were known for their Confucian virtues, devotion to the emperor and sacrifice for the state. These traditional values largely disappeared in 1947 with the new Fundamental Law on Education, which was designed to inculcate students with the liberal, democratic values of the pacifist Constitution.

Progressives maintain this approach eliminated regimentation and repression, and was responsible for Japan’s emergence as a free, safe and prosperous nation. But traditionalists claim the change came at a steep price in the form of bullying, disruptive classrooms and juvenile crime.

The battle is far from over. Starting in 2018, new textbooks will follow guidelines reflecting prewar ethics. But if the controversy over singing the national anthem in schools a few years ago is any indication, a donnybrook is sure to ensue.

A similar battle developed in the U.S. Until the late 1800s, schools were characterized by strict discipline, passive learning and structured curricula. But that was before John Dewey came on the scene. Between 1896 and 1903, Dewey put into practice his ideas of a child-centered curriculum.

Dewey’s ideas that all children were “natural learners” who could “construct their own knowledge” with minimal guidance from teachers first caught on at teachers colleges. But it wasn’t long thereafter that they permeated classrooms, until public schools became unrecognizable to traditionalists. They still are.

The metamorphosis was seen a few years ago when New York City’s schools were placed under mayoral control. Instruction was left in the hands of a small group of progressives. They issued a manual stating: “Your students must not be sitting in rows. You must not stand at the head of the class. Your students must be ‘active learners’ and they must work in groups.” Inspectors visited schools to ensure compliance.

Compounding the controversy, millions of dollars was paid to the Teachers College Reading and Writing Program, which shunned phonics, even though no evidence existed that the program had ever improved reading and writing for students in urban schools.

The move toward what are often referred to as “democratic schools” is based on the belief that traditional schools fail to meet the needs and interests of too many students. Reformers point to the high dropout rate as one indication. But in today’s accountability era, critics demand more evidence than a greater graduation rate that learning has improved.

Which approach is best? Is it direct instruction favored by traditionalists, or is it inquiry-based instruction favored by progressives? Although each side claims the moral high ground, no definitive evidence exists. International tests, which are closely watched as indicators, don’t support one philosophy over another.

That’s why whatever path Japan and the U.S. take in overhauling their schools will not placate everyone. But that’s how democracy works. Only in dictatorships are school decisions easy to implement.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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