THE BLOG

The Global Search for Education: Japan

09/17/2013 10:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2013

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"Ours is now a knowledge based society, which requires education to strengthen higher-ordered inquiry, creativity and communication beyond ready-made knowledge and skills acquisition." -- Professor Manabu Sato

Many consider Japanese primary and junior secondary level education to be exceptional, yet Manabu Sato believes the quality of his country's senior secondary and higher education is questionable. The rate of non-standard labor in Japan for 15-24 years old in 2010 was 43.3%. OECD studies report that Japan ranks second worst among 29 countries in terms of the proportion of national educational budgets to GDP (3.3%). Teachers' salaries have declined 9 % during the past 10 years.

What are the key issues faced by Japanese educators and what are the possible solutions?

It is my honor today to share with you the insights of Professor Manabu Sato, one of Japan's leading thought leaders in education. Sato is a Professor of Gakushuin University, Professor Emeritus of The University of Tokyo and Director of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the Japan Council of Sciences. He was Dean of the Graduate School of Education of The University of Tokyo from 2004 to 2006. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and President of the Japanese Educational Research Association.

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"As a result of the gap between the knowledge-based society and the traditional curriculum, the labor market of the young generation is in critical condition."

-- Professor Manabu Sato

What are the main aspects of an educational system that you believe Japanese students require to enable them to have the human skills they will need to compete globally in the 21st century?

The human skills to be educated to compete globally in the 21st century are composed of many factors from early childhood education to higher education. Even though most foreign people think Japanese primary and junior secondary level education is excellent, the quality of senior secondary and higher education is disputable. Under globalization, Japanese society, in particular the labor market, has drastically changed from an industrial society to a post-industrial society. Ours is now a knowledge-based society, which requires education to strengthen higher-ordered inquiry, creativity and communication beyond ready-made knowledge and skills acquisition.

According to PISA (OECD) and TIMSS (IEA) international achievement surveys, Japanese elementary and junior secondary students stand at the top level. However, many international surveys indicate that senior secondary and university students in Japan lack motivation for learning so that more than half of them spend below 1 hour on learning outside of their schooling. Though innovation of curriculum and instruction for senior high school and university is a matter of exigency, they remain traditional.

As a result of the gap between the knowledge-based society and the traditional curriculum, the labor market of the young generation is in critical condition. The rate of unemployment of 15-19 years old reached 12.7% in 2009. In addition, the rate of non-standard labor in Japan for 15-24 years old in 2010 is 43.3%.

Policy makers regard globally competitive human capital mainly as top elites or top scientists at top universities. However, the most serious issue under global competition is embedded in popular education. In 2010, the new national curriculum declared to educate knowledge-usage competence in correspondence to our knowledge based society.

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"The burden of Japanese parents to educate their children is among the highest in the world." -- Professor Manabu Sato

What do you believe should be your top priorities in terms of improving your existing system?

The key concept of education in globalized and post-industrial society is pursuit of both "quality and equality." Education in advanced countries including Japan has plunged into "quality" from "quantity." Successful countries, according to PISA survey, e.g. Finland, Canada and Australia display that the pursuit both of "quality and equality" is the keystone for educational reform among the advanced countries.

However, during the past three decades, Japanese educational policies have been dominated by neo-liberal ideology, which debase the "quality" of education in favor of populism and market-driven policies, and the "equality" of education by budget cutting in public spheres, accountability, ideology of self-responsibility, competition of the educational marketplace, and expansion of the gap in economic background. Now, the disparity in education comes to a critical level.

Therefore, the first priority is to raise the educational budget both of national and local governments. According to OECD data about the rate of national educational budgets to GDP in 2009, Japan (3.3%) is second worst among 29 countries (OECD average is 4.9%). As a result, the burden of Japanese parents to educate their children is among the highest in the world.

The second priority is educational support to children at risk due to economic background. The equality of education faces a critical stage in terms of a long stagnation of the economy and the recent neo-liberal policies. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced in 2010, that the rate of poverty of children reached 15.7%, which stands among the 4 worst OECD countries.

The third priority is upgrading teacher education. Teacher education at university launched in 1949, and it had been in the top tier among the nations of the world up to the 1970's. But, since the 1980's, the upgrading of teacher education has failed because of the shortage of educational budget. Now, the educational level of Japanese teachers has dropped to the bottom of the world. Teachers who gain a Master's degree amount to just 2.3% of elementary school teachers, 3.7% of junior secondary school teachers and 10.6% of senior secondary school teachers.

The fourth priority is to empower professional autonomy at prefectural educational boards and at school sites. As in other nations, Japanese educational policies have been carried out by decentralization and deregulation. But, it is ironic that the more decentralization and deregulation are implemented, the more teachers lose their professional autonomy under bureaucratic control and accountability policies. Professional autonomy is the keystone of creativity in education; empowerment of it is a critical matter for educational innovation in Japan.

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"Professional autonomy is the keystone of creativity in education; empowerment of it is a critical matter for educational innovation in Japan."
-- Professor Manabu Sato

What have you done to make standardized testing relevant in Japan?

The national achievement test was launched by the Ministry of Education in 2006. It was a political reaction to popular hysteria about the decline in school achievement and PISA ranking in the world. The national standardized test has a strong influence over accountability in each prefectural board of education, which is ranked from the 1st position to the 47th position.

The numbers game of ranking is misleading, because the results for all the prefectures excepting Okinawa fall within just 5 %. But the effect of ranking has resulted in a narrow perspective of educational performance, a survival game among schools under school choice system, and bureaucratic control of teachers by accountability policies.

However, standardized testing can improve teaching practice. For example, the Japanese national test is composed of two parts, "A" problems, which test basic knowledge and skills, and "B" problems, which examine higher-ordered thinking and advanced knowledge. According to meta analysis, Japanese students are good at the basic knowledge and skills of "A" problems, but weak at the advanced inquiry of "B" problems. This means that we should attach greater importance to advanced content and inquiry-oriented learning.

What do you do in Japan to ensure your teachers are highly qualified to meet the 21st century needs?

In retrospect, highly qualified teachers have been guaranteed by the following three factors. The first is the competitive employment of new teachers. Up to the 1990's, the teaching profession was one of the most attractive jobs, so there were over 10 times more applicants than positions. The second is a high level of salary. From 1971 to the 1990's, the salary of Japanese teachers was 20% more than for other public servants. The third is the informal professional culture for in-service professional development. Japanese schools had afforded ample opportunities for teacher professional development.

However, since the 2000's, the above three factors have declined.

The competitive situation for admission of new teachers has declined from 12 times in 2002 to 4.6 times in 2011 due to scapegoating of teachers and increasing workloads at schools. The average working time of teachers has reached 52 hours per week, 12 hours more than regulation without additional payment; salary has declined 9 % during the past 10 years; and the informal professional culture at school sites has also declined in terms of isolation of teachers. For many years, Japanese teachers had grown their professional competence by lesson study at school in-house workshops. It is paradoxical that Japanese lesson study has spread throughout the world, while it has declined in Japan.

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"I redefine the school of the 21st century as "learning community" where students learn together, teachers learn together for professional development, and even parents learn together through participation in school reform. This definition corresponds to the public mission of realizing the human right of learning for all children."

-- Professor Manabu Sato

What role do you predict technology will play in changing the classroom students learn in today?

Technological innovation has a great effect on educational innovation. However, in my view, the effect is not as significant in Japan as it is in other countries. The main weakness in Japanese education regarding technology is the shortage of budget. As a result, the hardware for IT education is not sufficient in Japanese schools.

How does your vision for a 21st century education take into account the quality of life of individuals and of a society, e.g. its artistic and cultural achievements?

Analyzing national curricula of the advanced countries, I depict 4 main agenda items of school reform and 3 main features of educational practices of the 21st century. The society of the 21st century requires school education to correspond to: (1) the knowledge-based society, (2) multi-cultural education, (3) risk society and disparity society and (4) citizenship education. School education in the 21st century is characterized by changes (1) from a program-oriented curriculum to a project-oriented one, in other words, a thinking curriculum; (2) from lecture style teaching and isolated individual learning to learner-centered teaching and collaborative learning; (3) from a teaching profession to a learning profession. In addition, the curriculum of the 21st century is composed of four main cultural areas of language, scientific inquiry, art and citizenship. These new features and modes of education are summarized as the pursuit of both "quality and equality."

The proposal of "school as learning community" is not a technical approach but a set of three integrated components of a vision, philosophies and activity systems. I redefine the school of the 21st century as "learning community" where students learn together, teachers learn together for professional development, and even parents learn together through participation in school reform. This definition corresponds to the public mission of realizing the human right of learning for all children.

During the past 10 years, the grassroots movement for establishing the "school as learning community" has spread its wings to Asian countries, especially Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam. In all of these countries, as well as in Japan, the movement is recognized as the most powerful school reform for innovation in correspondence to the 21st century.

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C. M. Rubin and Professor Manabu Sato

Photos courtesy of Professor Manabu Sato.

In The Global Search for Education, join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. Madhav Chavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. Eija Kauppinen (Finland), State Secretary Tapio Kosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Professor Ben Levin (Canada), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (Lycee Francais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.
The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, "The Global Search for Education" and "How Will We Read?" She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland.