The Japanese education system, often held up as exemplary, can learn some things from the American system, a Delta teacher found.
The Japanese government recognizes that fact in a growing program that brings American teachers to Japan's schools, said Jane Beckwith, a teacher at Delta High School.She spent a school year in Japan as an employee of the country's department of education, which has sponsored the exchange program for three years, adding to the American teacher corps each year.
"They're trying to get their educational style closer to ours," she said.
Beckwith taught English but was required to use a reading textbook, which she felt wasn't the best approach to her assignment. She also taught a quick-read class. Her students were primarily sophomores and seniors, she said.
It was a year of learning for Beckwith, as well as a year of teaching as she dealt with students at Akifuchu High School in the prefecture of Hiroshima.
"In Japan, the teacher tells the kids everything, teaching in a lecture style. There is less interaction between students and teachers. If I could choose between average students at middle school level, I'd take the American average student. They're much more flexible and dynamic. You can get them to move. With 37 kids in a (Japanese) classroom, I always felt I had to lift them up, get them in motion. It was an incredible task. American students already are up. You just have to capture that energy."
On the other hand, she found Japanese students not as self-centered. They have a sense of needing to perform acceptably for their families and their country. American students lack that quality, she said.,
If Japanese students are more passive in class, they may be more motivated to succeed because college and good jobs depend on it. Dropouts, a serious problem in the United States, are minimal in Japan. Beckwith estimated five students in a student body of 1,400 failed to complete their schooling during the year she spent in Hiroshima.
Students are pressured not only by parents, but by teachers to be in school.
"Sometimes a teacher would go to the student's home before school in the morning, get the kid out of bed and take him to school. They talk about dropouts as they do an illness. They have a psychiatric word to describe `school illness.' " The average absentee rate at the school was 12 per day, much smaller than in American schools.
Although Japan is one of the electronics leaders of the world, many of its schools are sparsely equipped, Beckwith said. There is a television in most classrooms, but it is seldom used. Students do not have easy access to computers.
"It made me just a little bit upset with the fact that American students have so much. They have lovely classrooms, while the Japanese schools have rooms of reinforced cement with tile on the floor. In our school there were five computers, all for the use of teachers. There was no student access."
Japan does have a well-deserved reputation for student accomplishment in mathematics, Beckwith said.
"They have strong curriculum and kids are really expected to perform in math. They take trigonometry as sophomores or juniors. Everybody takes it." Many students go on to calculus while still in high school.
Japanese students spend little time out of class for extracurricular activities, she said. Such activities are relegated to before or after school or weekends.
Competition to get into the best high schools is fierce, Beckwith said. "They have taken a myriad of tests by the time they are out of junior high school. They are encouraged to take three entrance tests - for a high-level high school, a middle one and one that's lower." The high school in which she taught was a mid-level school. Although Japan claims to provide a good education for all its students, the quality in the lower schools is not as good, she said.
Besides needing a good high school background to get into a favored college, many Japanese students savor education for education's sake as part of their Confucianist background, she said.
"There's lots of status in being able to say you go to certain high schools," she said.
The status question is genuine impetus to get into the most acceptable schools. Beckwith said she was aware of one family whose daughter did not pass the tests for a quality school and they sent her to the United States rather than settle for a less desirable school. When a family home burned down, however, she had to return to Japan and enroll in the school her family did not want. Such perceptions of status create some jealousies and put pressure on students to perform.
Parents pay large dues to belong to PTA-type groups and attend frequent meetings, often taking time from work to do so.
American teachers who participate in the Japanese program are paid more than their Japanese counterparts, Beckwith said, but they did not receive the periodic bonuses the Japanese teachers enjoy.
Japanese teachers also have less control over their careers, being subject to transfer based on their administrators' whims.