Japanese teachers and principals took copious notes, clicked cameras, ate school lunch and joined in while music students sang "This Little Light of Mine" during a two-day visit to Davis County schools.
The group of 29, from Gifu Prefecture south of Tokyo, toured schools in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, and Davis County during a two-week stay in North America. Of particular interest was the American school system and its mandate to provide all people with an education. They also were interested in gifted-and-talented programs and the extended-day school program used by Davis District to address overcrowding in seven elementary schools."The main reason we chose Davis School District was this individualistic approach," Takayoshi Yamashita, team leader, said through an interpreter. "There is an equal chance to receive an education."
In Japan, a grueling series of tests often eliminates less prepared students from the mainstream system.
But the Japanese, known for taking foreign ideas and adapting them to their own culture, certainly weren't pushing their system as the best. Wednesday and Thursday the group, known as Study Team No. 123, listened carefully and quickly acquired a new vocabulary including career ladders and magnet schools. They also weren't resigned to just watching but walked among the students and spoke to them in broken English.
At Knowlton Elementary School Wednesday morning, four of the group shed their suit coats and unabashedly volunteered to learn a new folk song a music class was practicing. In an art class they quickly snatched up patterns for a paper box the students were making.
The team also visited Farmington Junior High School, J.A. Taylor Elementary in Centerville and Mueller Park Junior High School in Bountiful.
Some of the things the Japanese educators found most intriguing about the American education system was government involvement in the school system - particularly the idea of local school boards and curriculum required by the Legislature. In Japan, the schools are directed by a national ministry.
They questioned Knowlton Principal Glen Tonge at length about how much latitude teachers have in using the required curriculum.
"This is kind of a foundation. What we teach grows out of that," he said.
Yamashita said he believes there is little difference between what takes place in Japanese and American schools but said American schools are better at improving students' personalities and preparing them for careers.
One of the reasons the group chose to visit Davis County, said Yamashita, is Utah's reputation in Japan for having a strong educational system. The Japanese educators were surprised when they learned how low Utah teacher salaries are.
"We heard in Utah that you were eagar to educate your students. Why are teacher salaries so small?" asked one man during a briefing with district Superintendent Richard Kendell.
Yamashita said that beginning teachers in Japan make an average of $17,000 and about $27,500 after 35 years. The average starting salary in Utah is $15,000. The average salary is $23,000.
While the Japanese educators were interested in low teacher salaries, they showed little sympathy for the district's student-teacher ratio.
In Japan, between the first and fourth grades there is an average of 40 students per teacher. In the higher grades the ratio increases to about 45, said Katsuhiko Kato.
"I think we have learned very much from your schools. We hope the visit will start greater communication between our two countries," Yamashita said.