When both Japan and the United States reported the lowest birth numbers since they began keeping records, the news made headlines. But the implications for schools in their respective countries have been given short shrift. With preschool just a few years away, that’s an unfortunate oversight.

According to a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of infants born in 2016 fell below 1 million for the first time since 1899. That represented a drop of about 25,000 from the previous year. The all-time high was 2.7 million registered in 1949.

The picture in the U.S. was equally startling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. birthrate fell to the lowest point since record-keeping began more than a century ago, with 62.3 births per 1,000 women. California’s birthrate also dropped to its lowest level ever, with 12.42 births per 1,000. The closest the state came to that rate was during the Great Depression, when it hit 12.6 per 1,000 in 1933.

But the causes for the baby bust in Japan and the U.S. differ. The ministry attributes the drop to a decrease in the number of women in their 20s and 30s, which are the prime years for giving birth. Put another way, one baby was born every 32 seconds, while one person died every 24 seconds. The trend is expected to continue until the age composition of Japan’s population changes.

In contrast, the drop in the U.S. stems from the poor economy, a decrease in teen pregnancies, and an increase in the number of young adults attending college instead of having children. The mortality rate increased to 729.5 deaths per 100,000 in 2015 from 723.2 in 2014. The rate is expected to persist over the next few years.

With fewer children being born, schools will soon begin to feel the effects. The only bright side is that the low birthrate will take pressure off Japan’s nursery school teacher shortage. In Tokyo, for example, there are about five job openings for each teaching applicant. A survey of 31,550 nursery school workers conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government between 2008 and 2013 found that one of five was contemplating quitting largely because of the low pay.

Although the U.S. will also benefit from smaller preschool classes, the opportunity to teach empathy and social-mindedness as in Japan’s nursery schools will be much harder because of the demand for measurable outcomes beginning as early as the third grade. For example, the National Institute of Early Education Research has developed a set of 10 benchmarks on which states are graded annually. Meeting the goals is based on information provided by state officials rather than on actual observations of classrooms.

School officials in both Japan and the U.S. closely follow birthrates because of the long lead-in time needed to accommodate future students. In the past, the challenge was opening new classrooms and hiring additional highly trained teachers in time to meet growing numbers of them. But when fewer and fewer children are born, the situation is reversed, creating a set of unprecedented problems. How education officials respond will be the test of their leadership.

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

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