Dear readers,

Today, in addition to our regular news summaries, I am also weighing in on the class size debate and other ideas expressed in this article: Are Japan’s public school teachers paid too much? (Japan Times — Nov 18 excerpted immediately below my opinion piece).

The finance ministry thinks that the maximum class size for first year elementary school students should be increased from 35 to 40 …  it concluded that class size has no effect because the DPJ earlier changed it to 35 in order to address the bullying problem, but found that bullying incidents increased slightly despite the reduction in class sizes were reduced.

The claims made by both the education and the finance ministry in the article need to be examined. The finance ministry considered that reducing it to 35 had no effect because the reduction was too small to make any impact, and that classes need to be kept to ratios of between 12 to 20 students to a teacher to be well-managed?

Has the finance ministry referred to studies based on proper medium- to long-term research on the effects of smaller classes and optimum class size for Japan ? If reducing the class size to 35 had no effect in Japan, what about reducing them to 30, 25, 20 or below 20??? The finance ministry doesn’t want to go there for obvious reasons, it would burn an even larger hole in their pocket.

Some studies have in fact shown that class size reduction has no impact unless reduced to below 20 per class. But according to Peter Blatchford‘s survey from head teachers’ experiences there is a magic number for the student age group 7-11 years and it is 25.

What the studies have shown, according to are that the benefits of class size reduction are these:

  • Gains associated with small classes generally appear when the class size is reduced to less than 20 students.
  • Gains associated with small classes are stronger for the early grades.
  • Gains are stronger for students who come from groups that are traditionally disadvantaged in education — minorities and immigrants.
  • Gains from class size reduction in the early grades continue for students in the upper grades. Students are less likely to be retained, more likely to stay in school and more likely to earn better grades.
  • Academic gains are not the only benefit of lowering class size. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that reducing class sizes in elementary schools may be more cost-effective than most public health and medical interventions. This is because students in smaller classes are more likely to graduate from high school, and high school graduates earn more and also enjoy significantly better health than high school dropouts.

NIEER (US-National Institute for Early Education Research):

“What We Know:
• Class size reduction is a policy that can
increase educational effectiveness.
• Small class size and better staff-child ratios
offer health and safety benefits.”

Is the education ministry framing its budget requests in the wrong way, perhaps the question is not small class size for higher academic achievement per se, but more financial resources for better teacher-student ratios, quality student AND teacher pastoral care.

Irving Flinker’s “Optimum Class Size: What Is the Magic Number?” and  Ehrenberg (et al.)’s “Class size and student achievement” suggest there is no magic number and conclude that reducing the class size in itself does not necessarily produce increased student academic achievement and that the factors are complex. The National Education Association weighs in on this question stating:

“The research shows that learning increases as class size is reduced, especially in the early grades. NEA considers 15 students to be the optimum class size, especially in kindergarten (K) and first grade. Researchers have documented benefits from class sizes of 15-18 students in K and of fewer than 20 students in grades 1-3. Studies show that students in smaller classes continue to reap academic bene?ts through middle and high school, especially minority and low-income students.”

It has been suggested that canny teachers can handle larger sized classes by creating small groups in large classes, and this appears to have been the secret why large classes have thrived in Japanese schools, with its system of dividing classes into han groupings (the idea of the han cooperative grouping is also a cultural characteristic see Japan: Land of Cooperatives).

“Within each classroom, students are organized in small, mixed ability groups called han. These groups of 4-6 students are cooperative study and work units. Teachers frequently ask the class to divide into han to work on specific assignments and have them report the results to the class. The han is also the primary unit for discipline, chores, and various other classroom activities.”

Peter Blatchford’s book “The Class Size Debate: Is Small Better?” makes a number of interesting and surprising observations and conclusions including:

  • a reduction in class size improves math learning across the board, even for marginal reductions;
  • regarding the magic number, from surveying head teachers, 25 appears to be the magic number that teachers appear to think they can handle for students aged 7-11 years;
  • it is also possible for a class to be too small.

OECD Education Today has a good writeup summing up the matter of class size-academic achievement in view of its good grasp on comparative class-size and achievement statistics of OECD nations.

“Smaller classes are favored by parents and teachers alike. But they come at a price, countries can spend their money only once and money spent on smaller classes can’t be spent on better teacher salaries, more instruction time, better opportunities for the professional development of teachers…

Between 2000 and 2009, many countries invested additional resources to decrease class size; however, student performance has improved in only a few of them.

Apart from optimising public resources, reducing class size to increase student achievement is an approach that has been tried, debated, and analysed for several decades. Some countries like Finland favour smaller class sizes (20 students of fewer) and are among the most successful countries in the PISA study. However, other countries like Korea have much bigger classes (34 students and over) but also feature at the top of the PISA ranking. What other variables than class size may explain the success of countries like Korea?

Findings from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that systems prioritising higher teacher salaries over smaller classes tend to perform better, which confirms research showing that raising teacher quality is a more effective measure to improve student outcomes.”

Joseph Berger’s NY Times article is old but is still good for today…

“There is no optimal class size, they suggest. The critics say experience has shown that smaller classes do make a difference with certain groups of students. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, an educational expert at the Rand Corporation, says smaller classes help pupils in primary grades, low achievers and students from low-income or ethnic minority families. For these children, she said, ”decreases in class size to about 22 and below do consistently result in gains in achievement.” Difference in Effectiveness”Kids who are older, kids who are ready to deal with material that’s being dished out, can probably learn reasonably well with a standard lecture and seat work approach in a large class,” she said. ”But it is not an effective way to teach young children and children who are having learning difficulties.””There is a growing body of evidence that kids needs to be talked to less and engaged more,” adds Stanley Litow, director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a civic group that monitors New York City’s schools. ”If what you want to do is increase interaction and draw kids into a process of learning, then you’ve got to have smaller classes.”Dr. Darling-Hammond acknowledges that school boards and teachers’ unions have often squandered the benefits of reductions in class size by insisting upon cuts that reduce the size of all classes without focusing on those students who most need help…”

See Peter Blatchford’s paper  “The effect of class size on teaching pupils aged 7-11 years” (School Effectiveness and School Improvement, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2007, pp. 147 – 172) – one of the things he notes is that reducing class size results in the reduction of time teachers spend on procedural matters and increases instruction time.

This is most relevant for Japan. Why? Because occupational stress and mental health of Japanese female teachers is currently a key hot topic of concern for Japan – in 2011, more than 5,274 primary-middle-and-high school teachers missed work due to mental disorder  see paper by on Kataoka Mika et al., on occupational stress among teachers, and Japan Times news article “Teachers bolt jobs over mental angst “.  According to a 2013 Tokyo Times report, the situation doesn’t seem to have made much improvement,

“More than 5,000 teachers in Japan had to take sick leave during the last fiscal year because of depression and other mental disorders, a government survey said.

The study was conducted by Japan’s Education Ministry on teachers at public elementary, junior and senior high schools, and special schools. While 8,544 teachers had taken sick leave, 62 percent (5,274 teachers) had to take some time off from work due to depression or other mental illness, the Japanese press comments.

It was the fourth consecutive year when the number topped 5,000. The survey’s conclusions also showed the number of mentally ill teachers had doubled compared to the one registered ten years”

For more on this, see “Poor mental health associated with job dissatisfaction among school teachers in Japan” J Occup Health. 2007 Nov;49(6):515-22.

Summing up my opinion here, the finance ministry is making a mistake in dissing the need for smaller classes (for they benefit younger children; they show benefits in specific subject areas; most of all there are important benefits such as helping to relieve stress and to improve the mental health of teachers, unless the finance ministry is suggesting they are happy to continue with the status quo of having  more than 5,000 schoolteachers annually posting a no show in school due to schizophrenia and major depressive disorder (MDD)).

The education policy-makers must share the blame for the way they always show such weak muscle and clout when facing the finance ministry, and for failing to frame their budget requests and objectives in more nuanced, better study-supported and aggressive ways. It should have been clear to them by now given how the debate has swung in the US, that a mere request for more money for more classes with reduced class sizes would not work.

There should have been more working committee reports or studies done and relied upon showing what would work – more money to improve quality of teaching, improved teacher-student ratio, two to a class perhaps, so they can relieve one another, or team teach with one teacher coordinating groups for those students who need more remedial work or attention and care.  There should be actual studies done on the amount of procedural/administrative work done by teachers vs. actual instructional classroom time and tabulation of the work hours, and a report on how more budget money could be spent to relieve teachers of administrative and teaching workload of teachers.

They should have studied and shown how, with more budget money, in line with the Prime Minister’s initiative to foster a more creative, thinking and globally-attuned student population, schools could set up smaller classes with new teacher-student ratios to bring about more interaction, instructional time for students in the classroom along with other more interactive-style classroom design, resources and spatial setups.


I suggest the finance ministry and the Prime Minister’s initiative to move resources to provide mandatory and universal preschooling could be misguided and needs to be rethought or at least reworked. We know from many studies done on Scandinavian schools which typically do not even begin school till age 7, that early education isn’t considered necessary for improved student learning and academic achievement.

The country’s leaders want more global and outward looking youths, more creative Japanese students who have more analytical skills and are able to debate eloquently in public global forums, more students who can speak foreign languages.  You don’t get all this by puffing up school textbooks and making students stay longer and from an earlier age in school, you get people like this who have time and freedom to relate to their parents, their grandparents, siblings and other members in their community. You get creative, individualistic and opinionated people who are interested in the world around them, because they have had Saturdays and Sundays (more than that if possible) off to go camping into the wild with their parents or interest groups, to have free time to pursue, explore and investigate with some depth all sorts of diverse, real or odd, interesting and creative passions or phenomenon, to read interesting books and to hear them read aloud to, so they have something interesting and somebody to think and talk about with. And this is particularly true and important for the development of the younger set. More and earlier institutional care … err …how is that supposed to create a more globally-oriented mindset and creative thinkers, when they just spend more time in the group, and learn to think like the group?

The younger preschool years are the only time parents in Japan can take their kids camping or traveling overseas off-season without having to worry about holiday and school schedules, and at times when the airfares are still affordable and within reach. The minute you make institutional preschool mandatory, you remove a huge chunk of children’s most pleasurable, stimulating,  and memory-making moments of their calendar lives. You remove huge chunks of hours of their “skinship” and bonding years with real personal human contact and role modeling. For families and mothers who willingly stay at home for the sake of their children, they want more time to interact with their children in the early years, not less.

More money shouldn’t be thrown on universal preschool education or childcare – instead, resources should be targeted on those who need and want better quality preschool support and early childcare and education, however, this usually means for households with career women or for financially strapped single parents or double-income householders who typically need to work to support the household and have no time or energy to raise or interact with their children. Throwing money on early preschool childcare and education where it is not needed is therefore a waste of resources. They had better be spent addressing the workload and stress situation and mental health for teachers — and the need to improve quality pastoral care within the classroom so as to address the schoolbullying issues which still have yet to go away. We should also pay heed to what one of Shanghai professor says is the secret of its schools’ top worldranking performance in OECD tests, is to “lessen teachers’ workload”, (the professor said as a math teacher he only taught 10 – 12 classes a week). And besides. who wants to send their kids to schools where their teachers could be mentally ill?

Japan’s politicians and top civil servants are typically creatures of privilege, and who themselves attend and send their own children to private schools that have marvelous facilities and smaller classes, so they should remember that the average person in society would thank them to inject some money into improving classroom conditions in public schools so that the ever widening economic gap doesn’t increase further between their privileged class and that of members-of-society at large. As for cutting the pay of teachers, OECD reports show that teacher remuneration, quality and status is a top predictor for academic achievement. The only reason we can surmise why Japan can attract teachers at all to teach in its schools at all under the currently stressful conditions and workload, is the remuneration and stable job condition and status (although this is eroding somewhat). The ministry wants to remove what it considers the access that Japanese teachers receive over what other OECD counterparts receive, but have they factored in that Japan is an expensive country to live in, that teachers here get shuffled around the regions a lot (which increases personal and financial costs for them), that they put up with a lot more than what other teachers have to, in terms of managing afterschool club activities, work much during school holidays and deliver a great many childcare and holistic services for their young wards, than do their counterparts?

The desire to throw money on something new, unnecessary glitzy new projects than to fix old broken problems, and the obsession to make financial cuts in areas where it really counts the most – is always a penny-wise pound-foolish trait with public policymakers figures. The age for salaryman and samurai minions is over. The current leadership must learn to treat their teachers more like people, to value their human resources, like those in Finland and Singapore that have the best educational systems and then learn to put its wallet where its mouth is.

Are Japan’s public school teachers paid too much? (Japan Times — Nov 18)

Last month the Ministry of Finance presented a policy recommendation based on studies made by an advisory group. Such recommendations are fairly common, but this one caught more than the usual amount of attention because of where it was directed.
The ministry thinks that the maximum class size for first year elementary school students should be increased from 35 to 40. In purely economic terms, such a change would result in a reduction of as many as 4,000 teachers, which would translate as Y8.6 billion in savings for the central government alone. However, the ministry’s explanation for why the change should be implemented was not made in fiscal terms. It was made in educational terms.
Until the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party, maximum class size was 40, and the DPJ changed it to 35 in order to address the bullying problem. But the finance ministry says that bullying incidents have increased slightly since class sizes were reduced, so obviously it has had no effect.

Obviously, this sounds more like something the education ministry should tackle, and, predictably, the education ministry objects to the recommendation, saying that increasing class number back to 40 runs counter to world trends, which favor smaller class sizes so that students can get more individual attention from teachers.

The finance ministry has countered the objection by saying that the money saved by increasing class size can be spent on “pre-schoolers,” since the education ministry is now promoting tuition-free pre-schools for some households but have no budget for it.

As several other media have pointed out, the finance ministry isn’t really interested in education programs. It is simply moving the money from one area to another. It’s a matter of bookkeeping.

The ministry’s justification for cutting teachers is also problematic. It says that Japanese public school teachers’ salaries are higher than they are in other countries, which is a conveniently misleading truth. The salary of a median age 45-year-old full-time public school teacher in Japan is about Y7 million, though a 2010 OECD survey found that Japanese teachers made on average the equivalent of $44,337 a year, which is $7,000 more than the OECD average. That’s probably what the finance ministry is talking about.

What the ministry doesn’t mention is that this average salary was 8.6 percent less than it was in 2000, which is perhaps a reflection of the fact that more teachers are now non-regular part-timers. Moreover, as a percentage of total public spending on education, teachers’ pay in Japan is higher than it is in other developed countries – 86 percent compared to 81 percent in the U.S. and 67 percent in the U.K. – and as a portion of GDP Japan’s spending on education is the lowest of the 31 OECD countries, and has been for five years running – See more here.

Other news stories of interest:
Japanese students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities decreased by 1.2 percent to around 19,000 in the 2013-2014 academic year, although they remained the seventh-most numerous in the country, the New York-based Institute of International Education said Monday. (Japan Times)

Scores of fully-clad riot police raided a dormitory at one of the nation’s leading universities on Thursday, in an apparently heavy-handed response to a left-wing movement that may involve students.

Ranks of helmeted officers carrying shields and wearing protective clothing converged on the dormitory at the prestigious Kyoto University, backed up by plain-clothed officers.The operation was being carried out by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in connection with the arrest earlier this month of three leftist activists, including at least one Kyoto University student.

The three were arrested on suspicion of obstructing public officials and were accused of using violence against riot police on the sidelines of a labor rally in Tokyo on Nov. 2.

Thursday’s raid showed no evidence of any violence. Riot police were reportedly brought in to “prevent confusion.”

– – See more here

The University of Tokyo came in 24th in the top 500 global university rankings compiled recently by U.S. News and World Report magazine.

The institution is ahead of any other universities in Asia. The magazine produced the top 500 rankings for the first time.Harvard University topped the global rankings. Massachusetts Institute of Technology came second and the University of California, Berkeley was third. Eight of the top 10 universities are U.S. institutions, and two are British.

Including the University of Tokyo, 17 Japanese universities are among the top 500. Of them, Kyoto University ranked 60th, Osaka University 111th, Tohoku University 129th and the Tokyo Institute of Technology 164th.

68% of 2015 university graduates secure job offers (Jiji Press)

As of Oct. 1, 68.4 percent of university students set to graduate next spring had found jobs, up 4.1 percentage points from a year earlier and improving for the fourth consecutive year, according to the education and labor ministries.

The figure was the second highest ever for the month of October, after the 69.9 percent for students who graduated in March 2009. The improvement reflects a situation in which more companies have stepped up new recruitment amid earnings recoveries and labor shortages, ministry officials said.

The proportion of male students who had secured jobs stood at 67.6 percent, up 3.1 points, while the rate for female students showed a significant increase of 5.4 points to 69.4 percent.

The rate rose to 67.3 percent for students with arts majors and to 73.5 percent for those with science and engineering majors.

The proportion improved in all six regions of the nation, according to the survey. The Kanto region, including Tokyo, had the highest rate with 74.5 percent. Chugoku and Shikoku posted the lowest at 56.9 percent.

Corporate recruiting uptrend must continue for sake of young people

The Yomiuri Shimbun The informal recruitment rates for students soon to graduate from university and high school have improved significantly against the backdrop of brisk corporate performance. Read more here 

High school students in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, had the opportunity to contemplate gender identity when male and female students exchanged uniforms on Tuesday. Nearly 40 percent of all students at Fuji Hokuryo High School, or 299 students – 117 boys and 182 girls – participated in the exchange.
Elsewhere in the world, here’s other news on education:
And that’s a wrap…
Digitally yours,
Aileen Kawagoe