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Monday, May 26, 2008

What do You Know About Japanese Education? Part 2

You can find the original “quiz” in Part 1.

4. Japanese students take responsibility for keeping their school clean.

False. It is true that Japanese schools do not hire custodians or janitors. I am going to quibble and say that while Japanese students are given the responsibility for keeping their school clean, it does not mean that students willingly or cheerfully take that responsibility. The school administration divides the school into several areas, and assigns one to each classroom. Japanese schools are organized according to groups of students. In elementary school there is a resident teacher for every classroom, but the classroom is labeled according to the class designation. For example, a classroom would be labeled “2nd Grade, 3rd group,” not “Mr. Oshiro.” In middle school and high school, there is no resident teacher, the students stay put, and the teacher comes to them each class period.

The class divides itself into groups of about five students. With a typical class of 45 students, there will be nine groups. Each group is put on a rotating roster. Every two months or so, the group will clean its assigned area after school every day for a week. I use the word “clean” advisedly. I guarantee that you do not want to be in a restroom at 4:00 pm. One day I was in the restroom when a student came in. She stuffed the end of a hose into the faucet on one of the sinks, turned on the water full force, put a thumb on the other end of the hose and proceeded to spray the restroom for a minute or two. She turned off the water, pulled the hose off the faucet and left, clearly satisfied that she had “cleaned” the restroom. The school allotted twenty minutes per day for cleaning.

Where was the rest of her group? They certainly were not occupied cleaning other parts of the school as might be expected. The students had long ago perceived that it did not take five people to “clean,” so every day they play “jankenpon” (paper, scissors, rock) to determine which person will clean while the other four take advantage of twenty minutes of free, unsupervised time. I wondered if I had witnessed an anomaly. I wandered all over the school, but apparently everyone was already done cleaning. From then on, I often made a point of wandering the halls at the stroke of four to see if what I had observed was typical. It was.

In the course of my job, it was my responsibility to teach at a number of public secondary schools. I had long noticed that schools were uniformly dingy and dirty, student responsibility or not, and now I knew why. Japanese schools are never clean to American standards, except right after “O-soji” days. O-soji literally means “big cleaning.” Once near the end of every quarter, and also the day before an important person visits, the students do a grand job of cleaning the school, a task that usually takes them several hours. The school is immaculate then.

5. Japanese students learn calculus in high school.

False. I first read this statement years ago in a report by Terrence Bell, a former Secretary of Education. During a trip to Japan, he had asked to visit a high school. “High School” is another one of those words the Japanese understand differently than we do. Mr. Bell knew that Japanese schools were fairly uniform throughout the country and he expected to be taken to a comprehensive high school. He came home without any apparent realization that he had not visited a comprehensive high school. Mr. Bell could not visit such a school; they do not exist in Japan.

There are three different kinds of high schools, administered separately, with separate missions, separate facilities, separate staff, separate everything. One kind of high school is the academic high school whose mission is college preparation. When Americans are taken to a “high school,” an academic high school is where they go. Another kind is the vocational high school, whose mission is to train mostly boys for vocational work. The third kind is the commercial high school, whose mission is to train mostly girls for work in companies. The status hierarchy roughly corresponds to the order I have listed them. The vocational and commercial high schools do not offer calculus.

Typically, when Americans ask to observe Japanese classes, they go to English and math classes on the reasonable assumption that as non-speakers of Japanese, they will be able to understand what is going on in those classes. As they walk around the class, they may see calculus on the textbook page. Again American assumptions color the interpretation of observations. If calculus is on the page, the students must be learning it, right? What most Americans do not understand is that while American schools target lessons to most of the class, Japanese schools target lessons to the top 5 percent of the class.

Japanese teachers deliver education, and they deliver the same education to everyone regardless of individual differences. They do not customize lessons to ensure learning for the majority of students in the class. Students usually do not understand the lesson material. Those that do understand probably studied it a couple days earlier in a juku, a private tutoring school. Juku try to stay a few lessons ahead of classroom teachers, a task made easier by the national curriculum with a predetermined scope and sequence.

6. The Japanese public school system is doing an excellent job of educating its citizens.

False. Some critics believe the Japanese public school system is doing a great job as evidenced by Japanese students' performance on international tests. Other critics argue that creativity and initiative are sacrificed to performance on tests. The problem with international tests comparing Japanese and American student achievement at the same age is that almost all Japanese students attend juku, the after-school tutoring schools, throughout their schooling, while almost no American students attend anything comparable. Juku are often innovative, experimental and operate at the bleeding edge of excellence in educational practice. In fact, it would be easy to argue that it is the juku, not the public school system, which are responsible for Japanese academic achievement.

The quality of education in Japanese schools is quite uniform throughout the country. Even the smallest rural school has a gymnasium, a library, and a fully appointed science lab. Although both Japanese schools and American schools are supported by taxes, in Japan the local tax base does not determine the affluence of a local school. Taxes are redistributed all over the country to ensure that every school meets certain facility requirements.

In order to prevent the drift of less competent teachers to poorer (usually rural) schools, all teachers are required to transfer every three years on an overlapping basis. No teacher becomes permanently installed in any school for an entire career. Seniority and other benefits transfer in full with the teacher. The district superintendents (kyoikucho) coordinate these transfers in consultation with the teachers. Teachers themselves may also initiate personal moves without loss of benefits.
A household move can be financially dangerous for an American teacher. The more experienced the teacher, the more fraught with economic risk an out-of-district move may be. It is often very difficult for seasoned American teachers to find employment in a new district. If they do find a new teaching position, they will be compelled to accept a steep pay cut because most districts give a maximum of seven year's credit on the pay scale, not the ten, fifteen or twenty years the teacher may actually bring to the district. Furthermore, American teachers may have to get a new teaching credential if they move to a different state. It is in the American teacher's interest to stay in one school district.

To be continued ...

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