Illuminating Parallels from Kyoto, Japan
On a typical morning at the Kin Kaku elementary school in
Kyoto, Japan, students line up in the stone courtyard outside
while a teacher makes announcements for the day. When the announcements
are finished, the children are directed inside, where they
head to their classrooms after quietly slipping off their shoes.
Surely one morning spent visiting a single school cannot provide
a comprehensive view about the state of education in an entire
country. But it, along with an assortment of conversations
with school and government officials, can provide a glimpse,
and that glimpse was illuminating for its stark parallels with
education in America.
Start, for example,
with the pressures of keeping children safe. When asked what
the biggest problems were that he faced as an educator, Mr.
Ito, the first year principal of the school of 600, did not
hesitate. “Security,” he announced
through a translator. “We must worry about keeping our
For Mr. Ito, safety concerns encompass getting children to
and fro school (one Japanese district has pioneered the use
of a student ID card that activates as soon as children file
out of a gate, which via a link to a GPS system, allows parents
to monitor progress home with their computers and cell phones),
as well as keeping them secure from the threats of intruders
when classes are in session.
School safety was a concern that surfaced in every conversation
I had during my ten days in Japan. The highly publicized case
of a 17 year old Osaka boy who had entered an elementary school
with a knife, fatally stabbing one teacher and wounding many
children, was just going to trial.
Mr. Ito’s second greatest concern was achievement. “We
have one classroom teacher,” he explained, moving his
arms at different heights to emphasize his point, “and
so many children at different levels.”
A third concern was the increasing disparity of opportunities
based on economic status. Two blocks away, a new private elementary
school is set to open in a year. The annual tuition will be
1.5 million yen, which translates at current exchange rates,
to approximately $14,500 per year. Only the children of the
traditionally wealthy, or of doctors, lawyers, engineers and
businesspeople are able to attend such schools.
And finally, he decried
the erosion of traditional values that have been fundamental
in Japan’s extraordinary educational
and economic success in the past six decades. Although teachers
still commonly work twelve-hour school days and students are
exceedingly orderly by American standards, the students are
no longer eager to automatically put forth the effort of their
parent’s generation, and the school day has been reduced
from 6 to 5 ½ days.
“We are slipping,” Mr. Ito said, sadly and earnestly, “not
like America where everything is tops.”
A conversation with Muchiko Heida of the Japan Tourist Bureau
reflected the same concerns about safety, diminishing work
ethic, and the emergence of a two-tiered education system,
separated by class.
In addition to independent day schools, concern about being
admitted to top level universities has generated a thriving
after school tutorial business, which, as a result of the price,
is limited to the affluent.
Japan is not known
as an egalitarian society. There is a strict social code
that has long taken cues from position and age. Egalitarianism,
at least with respect to educational opportunity, has been
the hallmark of the United States. Perhaps that explains
the surprise on Mr. Ito’s face when I assured him that “everything
is no longer tops in America,” and that we, too are struggling
with similar educational dilemmas.#<
Dr. Ted Fish is Founder of Philos Institute, an educational
consulting firm in Santa Fe, NM that provides evaluation and
training for schools in the areas of literacy and leadership.