Commentary / Japan

Time to include teachers in textbook selections

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

Involving classroom teachers in the process of reviewing textbooks under consideration for use in public schools should be a no-brainer. After all, they know far better than pressure groups what students need to learn. It’s here that Japan demonstrates far more common sense than the United States.

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology allows teachers to review which textbooks are adopted. It may not be a perfect system, as evidenced by the latest dust up, but it is far superior to the situation in the U.S.

When 818 public school teachers in Japan received monetary or other rewards from publishers for providing feedback on textbooks undergoing government screening, the practice caused an outcry even though no evidence emerged that anything unethical happened. Although professional expertise is worthy of compensation, the process was called into question because of the remuneration offered in exchange for services rendered.

The reason peer review of academic material has worked so well in higher education for so long is that critics are not paid and their identities are not revealed. As a result, they are able to express their opinions without fear or favor.

Yet despite the criticism, Japan still fares far better than the U.S. when it comes to textbook adoptions.

For example, textbooks in Texas are centrally certified rather than by individual school districts. Teachers have no say in the matter.

Textbooks in California are under the control of ethnic, religious and political interests, with teachers also left out in the cold.

Such meddling by outsiders and the exclusion of teachers shortchange students. But they continue unabated in the U.S. because of the country’s long history of local control of education.

Nevertheless, it’s important to bear in mind that reviewing textbooks involves more than looking for factual errors. That’s the easy part.

The hard part occurs when material falls into less objective territory. History is notorious for sparking heated debates. Should Islam be part of the history curriculum? Should the use of “comfort women” during World War II be taught? These are questions that have vexed publishers, as recent immigrant groups attempt to influence how their ancestors’ stories are taught to the next generation.

The latter question became a contentious issue in the U.S. when Korean community groups demanded that it be included “as an example of institutionalized sexual slavery, and one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.”

But a petition containing 5,000 signatures, predominantly of Japanese residents, protested, saying textbooks should not be used as “propaganda advertising.

The issue was finally resolved when the subject was included in the nearly 1,000 page “History/Social Science framework” in California.

There’s no guarantee that giving teachers a greater say in which textbooks are adopted will eliminate all controversies. But teachers are professionals who are less likely to be swayed by special interest groups. It’s time to give them a louder voice in the process.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week, a U.S. national newspaper covering kindergarten through 12th grade education. Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @waltxyz