Overhauling the curriculum to better prepare students for the future is commendable, but only if the changes are grounded in reality. That’s a lesson Japan and the United States still have not learned.

The education ministry’s recent rollout of what teachers should teach is the latest example. The ministry for one thing quite properly places great emphasis on the ability of students to be proficient in English. Exposing students to English beginning in the third and fourth grades is a step in the right direction. Research shows that the sooner children begin to learn a foreign language, the better the chances are that they will become fluent in it.

But the latest survey by the education ministry found that third-year students in junior high school posted mixed results on the Eiken English proficiency test. It’s unclear what caused the lackluster outcomes, but the scarcity of native-speaking English teachers is a strong possibility.

More disheartening, the education ministry reported in a related survey that 45.4 percent of students learning English expressed dislike for their studies. That reflected an increase of 2.2 percent. If such attitudes persist, whatever test score gains are reported will be a pyrrhic victory since these students will be unlikely to continue to learn English.

The U.S. found out the hard way why overly prescriptive curriculum guidelines and too lofty goals are an exercise in futility when it overreacted to the publication in 1983 of “A Nation at Risk.” The report warned that the weak performance of schools “threatened our very future as a nation and a people.”

In a panic, the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 decreed that there would be 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Of course such preposterous expectations never materialized, which led to the latest absurdity: Every Student Succeeds Act. Like its predecessor, it is totally unrealistic. The truth is that not everyone can succeed in the same subjects.

Instead, a far fairer goal would be to distinguish between progress (relative term) and proficiency (absolute term) in rating schools and teachers. The former uses growth in student performance regardless of whether the score made the cut. This growth metric, which is often referred to as “value-added,” takes into account prior achievement as the base line.

For teachers in schools serving large numbers of students from low-income households, growth allows them to get proper credit for what they add to their students’ learning, even though it still may not make the cut for proficiency. Conversely, for teachers serving large numbers of students from affluent households, growth prevents them from getting unearned credit for what their students bring to class, rather than what they learn in class through instruction.

Curriculum reform will continue unabated in Japan and the U.S. as both countries attempt to prepare students for the challenges ahead. Whether it will succeed in doing so, however, depends overwhelmingly on an understanding of the realities of the classroom.

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

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