Current concerns (5)

Our series tracking educational issues continues here…

22. 20,000 in language pickle / Foreign students in need of specialized Japanese teachers The Yomiuri Shimbun May. 22, 2007

The number of foreign students in need of Japanese-language instruction in 885 municipalities exceeded 20,000 as of 2005, and the figure continues to increase, a government survey has found.

The Education, Science and Technology Ministry has produced guidebooks for language teaching, but most public primary, middle and high school teachers have little experience in teaching Japanese as a second language. Experts have pointed out the need for teachers who specialize in teaching Japanese to foreign children.

In Oizumimachi, Gunma Prefecture, about 6,800 of the town’s 42,000 residents are foreigners, and about 10 percent of all students in the seven public primary and middle schools hail from overseas.

Apart from regular classes, the schools also offer Japanese classes to increase foreign students’ language abilities. But the classes are taught by regular teachers who are not trained in language teaching.

An Oizumimachi Municipal Board of Education official said, “Although we’ve hired people who speak Portuguese or Spanish to help out [in the classroom], it would be hard to say our support for teachers is sufficient.”

At Okubo Primary School in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, more than half the 180 students come from South Korea, China, the Philippines and other countries.

“Even if these students can speak Japanese in everyday situations, acquiring the fluency that enables them to study in Japanese takes more time,” Principal Fumiko Nagaoka said.

According to the ministry, the number of foreign students who needed extra Japanese-language training in 1991 was 5,463, and exceeded 10,000 in 1993. As of 2005, the figure stood at 20,692, accounting for about 30 percent of all foreign students.

The largest group among the students are native Portuguese speakers, accounting for 37 percent, followed by those speaking Chinese (22 percent), and Spanish (15 percent).

This is a consequence of the 1990 revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that allowed foreigners of Japanese descent to work in Japan, which was previously banned. The revision pushed up the number of people entering the country, mainly from South America.

However, the children of such people often stop attending school due to language difficulties, or find it hard to secure jobs after graduating from school.

The ministry has produced manuals for teachers to help them provide language lessons in conjunction with other subjects. A version of the manual was introduced for primary schools in 2003, and for middle schools in March this year.

The manual for middle school teachers says that setting riddles and playing other word games during Japanese classes can help foreign students increase their vocabulary, and that creating a dictionary of unknown words for students also can be helpful.

Only 70 of the 885 municipalities have specialized Japanese teachers. The ministry plans to expand the teacher-training system to cover Japanese-language instruction.

Prof. Ikuo Kawakami of Waseda University said: “In the United States and Australia, there’s a system to foster teachers to teach English to children who can’t speak the language. Japan should introduce a similar system and dispatch expert teachers to schools.”

23. Japan stiffens law on youth crime amid social angst By Linda Sieg Fri Reuters May 25,

TOKYO (Reuters) – Children as young as 11 who have committed a crime could be sent to reformatories under a Japanese law enacted on Friday, part of a trend toward stiffer penalties reflecting growing angst about grisly crime.

The prospect that such young children could end up in reformatories, which stress military-like discipline, has sparked concern about human rights violations and charges the government is treating symptoms, not causes, of juvenile crime.

“This is part of the overall trend, based on the perception that crime is increasing, to impose harsher penalties and strengthen the power of the police,” said Yoshifusa Saito, a lawyer who specializes in juvenile crime.

“But the reality is different. Neither crime overall nor horrendous crimes are increasing, nor will imposing tougher penalties succeed in reducing juvenile crime,” Saito said.

The Japan Federation of Lawyers issued a statement expressing its opposition to changing the current system, under which juvenile offenders under 14 are sent to community homes.

Japan lowered the age at which youths can be sent to reformatories to around 12 after a number of gruesome crimes in recent years prompted calls for tougher penalties.

Just last week, a 17-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of murdering his mother after he turned up at a police station carrying her severed head in his school bag.

In 2004, an 11-year-old girl stabbed a classmate to death, prompting calls for harsher punishment of juvenile criminals.

Overall crime by minors aged 14-19, however, has decreased after hitting a peak in 1983 and the number of homicides committed by juveniles has been stable for decades, according to Justice Ministry data.

The trend toward stiffer punishment for juvenile offenders mirrors a growing tendency by the courts to hand down harsher sentences for adults — including the death penalty — in part because of an increasingly vocal victims’ rights movement, human rights activists say.

Prosecutors this week sought the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a 23-year-old woman and her 11-month-old daughter in 1999 after the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to re-examine the case. The lower court had sentenced the man, who was 18 when he committed the crime, to life imprisonment.

The youngest age at which a convicted criminal can receive the death penalty in Japan is 18, but such sentences are rare.

Hiroshi Motomura, the woman’s husband and father of the child, has been outspoken in seeking the death penalty for the crime.

“I think he engaged in the base act of murder with the easy idea that he would not get the death penalty because he was a minor,” Motomura told a news conference this week. “It is natural that he should pay for his crime with his life.”


In conjunction with this topic, you might want to read Mami Fukae’s review at Japan Today “Bokutachi no Munenouchi” (What is on our mind) By M Ishikawa, Y Komamura, T Shibui, R @Otsuki

“Brutal crimes by teenagers recently, including two cases in which boys killed their mothers last year, have prompted a revision of the Juvenile Act, yet the public is still left unclear about what is behind the increase in juvenile crime.

The book “Bokutachi no Munenouchi” (What is on our mind), by four free-lance writers, Mariko Ishikawa, Yasutaka Komamura, Tetsuya Shibui and Rob @Otsuki, published by Wani Books (1,365 yen), is a collection of opinions of more than 40 people aged between 15 and 23 on teenage crime.

What their candid remarks convey is that many teens today feel alienated in their lives and feel there is no way to extricate themselves.

One 18-year-old unemployed boy says in the book, “I am greatly disturbed by the recent public prejudice against my generation (teenagers). My parents treat me like a murderer. I was once sent to the Juvenile Classification Office, but I didn’t kill anybody. I am interested neither in weapons nor offending anyone weaker than me.”

However, a 21-year-old female college student confesses, “I really wanted to kill my mother. She often scolded me over trivial matters, and beat and hit me when she couldn’t have her way. But I didn’t even hit her because I though everything in Japan was screwed up — the law and society as well as my parents. I thought if I did anything to my parents, I’d have to kill myself.”

24. School tests not a piece of cake for students these days by Masami Murai and Eiichiro Matsumoto, Daily Yomiuri Thu, 2007-04-26 00:00

The national achievement tests in Japanese and mathematics taken by primary school sixth-graders and middle school third-graders Tuesday incorporated problems that required them to think and write, a skill long seen as difficult for the country’s students to acquire.

About 2.33 million children sat the tests, held in response to a growing concern that children’s academic abilities are declining.

When compared with similar tests held 43 years ago, the tests highlight the changes in academic ability the government requires from children today.

“The kind of academic abilities the government wants them to possess were expressed in the questions, ” Hiroshi Sowaki head of the National Institute for Educational Policy Research of Japan’s Curriculum Research Center, said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

For example, the following arithmetic question for primary school sixth-graders required them to not only get the correct answer but also to show calculations: “On Thursday, all cakes are sold at a 20 percent discount. On Sunday, cakes that cost less than 230 yen are sold at 200 yen each. If you want to buy a piece of cheesecake, priced at 300 yen and a piece of chocolate cake costing 400 yen, how much can you save on each day?”

There are three ways to discover that Thursday is the cheapest of the two days to buy cakes.

“In real life, many questions have more than one answer. We want children to learn about this [from this question],” an Education, Science and Technology Ministry official said.

The pattern of the questions is quite different from that in the national achievement tests held in 1961, in which all the questions were multiple choice questions, including those requiring calculations or reading.

There also were a large number of questions. In the Japanese test for middle school third-graders at that time, for example, children had to solve 33 questions, including ones that required them to read long sentences in 50 minutes.

“Those days were a period of rapid economic growth and theability to solve questions quickly and accurately was seen as important. Children weren’t required to be creative or original,” a spokesperson for the Eikoh Seminar cram school said.

“There were so many questions back then. I doubt if today’s children could solve half of them in the time allowed,” the spolesman added.

Some questions in Tuesday’s examination tested children’s basic academic knowledge, such as reading or writing selected kanji characters and arithmetic.

But it was on questions that thest their ability to apply their knowledge in practice such as reading and understanding diagrams or tables, that the ministry placed importance.

In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment in 2003, results of Japanese children showed a marked decline in their ability to read and write.

In the assessment for 15-year-olds, in which 41 countries and regions particiapted in 2003, Japan’s ranking dropped to 14th from eight in 2000, when 32 countries and regions took part.

In an attempt to improve those skills the ministry decided that Tuesday’s tests should have written answers for many of the questions. In the Japanese tests for primary school sixth-graders, 10 of the 24 questions required written answers as did 10 out of 27 questions in the Japanese tests for third-grade middle school students.

In one of the questions for sixth-graders, children were asked to read two different reviews of the same book and write down two positive points shared by both articles.

“Such a question can be asked during a class, too. I hope the tests will serve as a guide for teachers to rethink their teaching methods, ” a ministry official said.

25. Competitive university funding dangerous The Yomiuri Shimbun

Operating subsidies provided by the central government to national universities are the key source of funding for the schools. The subsidies pay personnel costs for teaching and other staff, utilities and maintenance expenses for facilities, and expenses related to research labs.

The Finance Ministry and expert government panels, including the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, are increasingly insistent that the current subsidy allocation formula based on the size and capacity of a university be changed to one based on evaluation of each university’s achievements in research and educational activities.

Such an idea is questionable. Is it necessary to introduce competitive principles primarily designed for fiscal discipline into the allocation of state subsidies to universities?

Many officials at national universities should have been shocked by the estimates unveiled recently by the Finance Ministry.

If the operating subsidies were reallocated in line with subsidies allocated for key scientific research projects on the basis of research activities and actual results, 74 out of 87 national universities would see their subsidies reduced.

Hardest-hit would be Hyogo University of Teacher Education, which would see its subsidies cut by 90.5 percent. According to the estimates, nine of the hardest-hit universities would be those specializing in educating would-be teachers.

Meanwhile, most national universities in regional areas would see their subsidies cut. Only 13 universities would come out ahead, including former imperial universities such as Tokyo University and Kyoto University, which would see their subsidies doubled.


Lowering quality


The possible deterioration in the management of universities specializing in educating would-be teachers and those in regional areas, which are supposed to serve as regional intellectual centers, is cause for concern.

Due to the declining birthrate, national universities have also had to reorganize and integrate. While it is understandable for national universities to reorganize or integrate themselves to maintain and improve their educational standards, the economic rationalization of state universities may lower the quality of institutions for higher education as a whole.

Branches of learning, particularly the liberal arts and humanities, and pure sciences, the benefits of whose research are less obvious, will decline in the long run. In the future, there will be little room for researchers to throw themselves into such embryonic research as that could lead to a Nobel Prize. What constitutes “results” and who would assess them and how are all unclear.

The introduction of competitive principles in the allocation of state subsidies to national universities is being championed by private-sector members of the council, with Finance Ministry officials and other related offices following suit.


Taking sides


The Education, Science and Technology Ministry, worried about further reduction in state subsidies to universities, has sided with the universities, which are intensifying their opposition to the result-based subsidies allocation plan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked the Education Rebuilding Council, which is under his direct control, to summarize the results of discussions.

In proportion to the gross domestic product, government fiscal assistance to institutions of higher education in Japan remains only half the average of industrially advanced nations.

In light of its tight fiscal situation, the government deems it difficult to increase outlays for higher education. Yet we hope the education council can come up with proactive proposals to put the nation’s universities on a more solid footing.

Regional state universities also must make further reform efforts. It is essential for these universities to offer educational programs distinctive enough to attract students even from other prefectures, while developing their strengths in specific areas of study.

They must also emphasize their significance in terms of their contribution to regional economies and the development of human resources for local governments and other key entities.

These functions make it all the more necessary to ensure stable provision of operational subsidies for national universities. It is detrimental to hastily call for putting such funding on a result-oriented, competitive footing.


(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 28, 2007)

26. Groom Japan’s gifted students, By Takamitsu Sawa, Japan Times Tuesday, May 8, 2007

On April 11, the public broadcaster NHK’s program “Close-up Gendai (Current Affairs)” took up the issue of the International Science Olympiads (ISOs) for middle- and high-school students. The competition tests knowledge in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, informatics, astronomy and other areas of science. National rankings are based on average scores attained by students.

In the 2006 ISOs, China placed first in all subjects. Japan was far behind China and South Korea. China, South Korea and Vietnam are pushing policies of nurturing geniuses in sciences by providing economic aid and other benefits to participants in the ISOs.

Under the government’s “income-doubling policy” launched in 1960, Japan promoted the development of science and technology, and rapidly increased the admission quotas at national universities’ engineering departments. The fiscal 1956 Japanese economic white paper had said the domestic economy, which had been growing under the slogan of postwar reconstruction, should be boosted further by “innovation and transformation.”

Although it increased admissions of engineering students and expanded research budgets, Japan, unlike China and South Korea, failed to provide special education in sciences for the gifted.

But for two years from 1945, the final year of World War II, Japan did give special education in science and mathematics for the gifted to nurture top scientists and engineers. On Sept. 9, 1944, the legislation for creating special classes was proposed to the House of Representatives by lawmaker Ryutaro Nagai and was enacted two days later.

On Dec. 26, 1944, the Education Ministry announced specific plans to introduce special classes each with 30 students at the higher normal school in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kanazawa, and at the higher normal school for women in Tokyo. Students gifted in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics were selected for enrollment in the classes from among fourth- to sixth-graders in elementary schools and first- to third-grade students in middle schools nationwide. Special classes were started in January 1945 at elementary and middle schools attached to the higher normal schools.

In April the same year, more special classes were started at Kyoto Prefectural No. 1 Middle School and at the elementary school attached to the Kyoto Normal School at the behest of Dr. Hideki Yukawa, professor at Kyoto University, who was to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1949, and other people.

The special classes taught not only mathematics, physics, chemistry and other science-related subjects but also a wide range of subjects including English, Japanese, Chinese classics and history. Lessons were broad-ranging and their levels were extremely high. Teachers from higher normal schools and Imperial universities taught at the special classes. A professor emeritus at Kyoto University whom I know was taught physics by Dr. Yukawa. Thus special classes to teach gifted children were institutionalized.

After the war ended, however, a decision was made in November 1946 to abolish the special education clases on the grounds that they were discriminatory and ran counter to democracy. In March 1947, it was terminated, only two years after its launch.

According to the NHK program “Close-up Gendai,” only 30 percent of the Japanese ISO participants took up research jobs while 20 percent obtained jobs in the financial industry and another 20 percent became medical doctors.

Aside from medical doctors, many chose to take jobs in the financial industry for two reasons: pay is relatively good compared with the manufacturing industry and the financial industry has started employing a large number of graduates who majored in mathematics and mathematical engineering. Brokerages, banks and insurance companies need experts in financial engineering to develop new financial products. To learn the basics of financial engineering, knowledge of advanced mathematics is essential, which is much more than most economics majors can handle.

In order to attract gifted students to science and technology, it is necessary to raise the salaries for university professors and corporate researchers.

Meanwhile, Japanese educational authorities are pushing a contradictory policy of reducing the number of university teaching positions while expanding education at doctoral courses.

Students advancing to doctoral courses with the hope of becoming researchers in basic sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology run a high risk of failing to find research jobs. Moreover, the pay for research jobs is by no means high. Therefore, many gifted students choose to advance to medical departments at universities after graduating from high school or to obtain jobs in the financial industry after completing the early part of doctoral courses in science.

In addition, the education authorities’ increasing tendency to play down basic research at universities and place more emphasis on practical research and development is discouraging aspiring researchers in basic sciences. Research and development for immediate application and use should be relegated to companies.

In my opinion, the government should limit the use of funds for promotion of science to promotion of basic research. Since basic research does not require massive expenditures, the surplus fund accrued should be spent to increase the number of university teaching positions. The number of teachers with permanent tenure, rather than that of fixed-term researchers with doctorates should be increased, so that they can engage in research without hassle.

In order to further develop the Japanese economy and culture in a mature way, it is essential to nurture researchers in pure mathematics, theoretical physics, history, philosophy and other fields of nonpractical learning. However, after national universities were turned into independent administrative corporations, the assessment of a scholar’s ability has come to depend on how much outside funds he or she can secure and nonpractical learning as mentioned above has been marginalized.

In the end, neglect of basic sciences will cause a decline in applied research and hurt the competitiveness of Japanese industries and even erode the nation’s dignity.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University’s Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University’s Institute of Economic Research.
27. Government debate intensifying over education budget The Yomiuri Shimbun May. 6, 2007

Debate is intensifying within the government over whether it should meet demands for an increase in the education budget for fiscal 2008, or first require the Education, Science and Technology Ministry to follow through on restructuring the education system.

While the ministry believes a budget increase is essential for it to carry out reforms expected by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has placed education rebuilding at the center of his domestic agenda, many experts argue restructuring should come first.

With the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy expected to decide on basic policies for economic and fiscal management in June, debate on the issue is likely to intensify within the government and ruling coalition parties.

At a subcommittee meeting of the Education Rebuilding Council on April 9, Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of Central Japan Railway Co., dismissed the idea that simply allocating additional funds would boost enthusiasm within the education system and lead to better quality education.

“The budget should not be increased until quality can be seen to have improved,” he said. He likened the education system and its budget to a container and water to argue against an increase before restructuring takes place. “The container should be repaired before water is poured into it,” he said.

However, some members of the council who were once teachers said the system was underfunded.

Using the country’s preschool system as an example, Kyoto City Board of Education Chairman Daisaku Kadokawa noted Japan spends less than other countries.

“Education needs both a container and enough water,” he said. “We should tackle the two problems simultaneously.”

Tokyo University President Hiroshi Komiyama echoed the view that reform should go hand in hand with a budget increase. “The government should announce it will increase the education budget,” Komiyama said.

Public spending on primary and middle school education accounted for 2.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2002, compared with 3.8 percent in the United States, and was 0.4 percent for the high school level, compared with 1.2 percent in the United States.

The ministry’s funds for education in its initial budget for fiscal 2007 were 7.8 billion yen less than the previous year, falling to 3.93 trillion yen.

The decline was largely accounted for by cuts in public funds for compulsory education, grants to national universities and subsidies to private schools, as outlined under the basic policies for economic and fiscal management.

In light of these cuts, the ministry hopes to secure a significant education budget for the long-term as it begins mapping out a basic education plan in line with the Fundamental Law of Eduction, which was revised last year. The ministry also hopes to narrow the growing disparity between education spending in Japan and other nations.

The education budget was discussed at a meeting of the House of Representatives special education rebuilding committee, which is deliberating three bills related to education reform.

Education, Science and Technology Minister Bunmei Ibuki said the education budget should be increased. “If the prime minister is serious about reform, an appropriate budget could be compiled,” he said.

However, Abe cautioned against anyone taking an increase in the education budget for granted. “The necessary financial sources have to be secured first,” he said.

Some government officials and ruling coalition lawmakers believe that increasing the budget would be the clearest way of sending a message to the public that Abe intends to prioritize education reform.

(May. 6, 2007)
(May. 26, 2007)

The government’s Education Rebuilding Council unanimously voted Friday to in principle recommend primary and middle schools use “moral education” textbooks authorized by the education ministry.

The council believes authorized textbooks are needed to improve moral education–a special subject taught informally at present–as it considers education in primary and middle schools to be inadequate.

It plans to include the recommendation in its second report to be submitted to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday.

The current ministerial teaching guidelines require primary and middle schools to hold a weekly hour of moral education that is not part of regular classes, to teach students about the importance of life and acting kindly.

However, while the council believes the teaching stipulated by the guidelines is important, many council members agreed with Motoyuki Ono, former deputy education minister, that some teachers are not enthusiastic about moral education, and that textbooks are currently inadequate for imbuing students with proper values.

As such, the council has explored ways of making moral education a formal subject.

A formal subject requires numerical evaluation of students, the use of authorized textbooks and licensed teachers for students at middle and high schools.

Currently, classes use a textbook on kindness distributed to primary and middle schools by the ministry in 2002, and supplementary reading materials produced by private teaching material companies and boards of eduction. But one council member said primary and middle schools do not always consider materials used in the class to be important. Some council members believe the authorized textbooks would help such schools improve moral education.

The council plans to seek the inclusion of biographies and stories of historical figures in the new textbooks, which are expected to be used with the current supplementary reading materials.

As a majority of the council members believe numerical evaluation is not a good method of grading moral education, evaluations are likely to be made through written comments.

The council will request that homeroom teachers of primary and middle schools teach moral education so teachers will not require a license to teach the subject.


Education reform proposals draw praise criticism by Akemi Nakamura Japan Times A group of six Lower House members published an essay in the June issue of Sekai magazine that states the council failed to review the relationship between the relaxed education system and academic performance, or to examine whether and why students’ morality has declined.

Currently, elementary and junior high schools have a class on morality once a week.

However, the panel, which sees bullying and crimes committed by children as a sign of a loss of morality, argued the current setup is insufficient because many schools use ethics classes for other purposes, such as school events, and that government-authorized textbooks should be used with supplementary materials to teach morality.

Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of educational sociology at Nihon University in Tokyo, said strengthening moral education may result in students being forced into one particular standard of morality — set by the government.

“If citizenship would be taught in morality classes, I support (the panel’s idea.) But the panel seems to be proposing ethics education to teach students particular moral values that the government prefers,” Hirota said. “Such a direction is the opposite of a multicultural society, in which people live with diverse values.”

He said the most important measure to improve academic performance and morality would be to allocate a bigger budget for education so more teachers can look after students more carefully.

Japan’s percentage of government spending on elementary, junior high and high school education to gross domestic in fiscal 2001 came to 3.5 percent, far below the 5.1 percent average ratio among the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to government data.

According to its latest report, the panel is not seeking a major spending increase for education.

For reference, see MEXT’s page Contents of the Curriculum – Moral Education – Textbooks & Teaching Methods MEXT’s page Contents of the Curriculum – Moral Education – Textbooks & Teaching Methods

29. Cram school teachers face tough new skills assessments 04/17/2007 THE ASAHI SHIMBUN



Cram school teachers will undergo exams to test their abilities under new rules to be introduced by an industry association, sources said.

The Japan Juku Association (JJA) hopes the move will improve the credibility of teachers, the sources said.

Both full-time and part-time teachers, including moonlighting university students, can take the test.

At present, there are no objective standards to assess the abilities of juku teachers. Teaching methods also vary from school to school.

Teachers taking the test will first have to attend a two-hour seminar hosted by JJA.

They will be taught subjects including: correct manners in dealing with students and their guardians; proper attire and grooming; and the right mental attitude to classes. The teachers will then be tested on what they learned in the seminar.

The teachers will also sit an exam in their own subjects at a difficulty level similar to those of entrance exams for public senior high schools. If they pass, they will qualify to take the second-grade test.

In the second-grade test, the teachers will be required to deliver mock lessons, which will be videotaped. Three examiners, each with at least 10 years experience as cram school teachers, will watch the videos and assess the classes.

If the teachers pass the assessment, they will be given a second-grade certificate as cram school teachers.

Tests for the more difficult first-grade certificates have not been worked out yet.

The JJA will hold the first seminar for the second-grade certificates in Tokyo in December this year.

It will hold similar classes in several cities throughout the country starting next year, in May and December.

JJA currently consists of about 650 cram school operators, ranging from individuals to large-scale ones, each of which operates several schools. The association’s total number of schools stands at about 2,600, and their total number of teachers amounts to several tens of thousands.

Including those that are not members of JJA, the total number of cram schools in Japan stands at 49,000. Of them, about 18,000 are Kumon centers, which are operated by individuals in their houses under the direction of Kumon Institute of Education Co.

Excluding Kumon centers, the number of cram schools operated by those that are JJA members account for about 8 percent of all the cram schools in Japan.

Teachers of cram schools who are not JJA members will also be able to take the new tests. The fees for the tests have not been decided yet.(IHT/Asahi: April 17,2007)

30. On School Standards

Japanese kids lag world in reading skills Mainichi

The reading skills of Japanese 15-year-olds have plummeted over the past few years, leaving Japan lagging behind 13 other countries, a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has shown.

In the first survey conducted in 2000, Japan had ranked eighth in this category.

Japan placed second and sixth in science and mathematics, but officials in Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology said that with the drop in reading comprehension skills, Japan could not be considered to be at a top world level.

The average mark for the member countries was set at 500 in each of the four categories — reading comprehension, science, mathematics and problem solving. The reading level of individual students was split into categories, ranging from “level 5” (626 points or more) to “below level 1” (less than 335 points).

The percentage of Japanese students below level 1 rose to 7.4 percent, up from 2.7 percent in the previous survey and above the average of 6.7 percent for OECD member countries.

In reading comprehension the top 15 countries and their scores were as follows: Finland (543), South Korea (534), Canada (528), Australia (525), Liechtenstein (525), New Zealand (522), Ireland (515), Sweden (514), Holland (513), Hong Kong (510), Belgium (507), Norway (500), Switzerland (499),

Japan (498), Macao (498). (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan, Dec. 7, 2004)

Japan academic skills fall Yomiuri

The percentage of Japanese students who recorded the poorest performance was remarkably high.

According to a questionnaire included with the ability survey, Japanese students spent an average of 6.5 hours a week on homework compared to the OECD member average of 8.9

Japanese Lost for Words Guardian Eric Johnston in Osaka, Thursday November 25, 2004

With its phonetic symbols and complex vocabulary, Japanese can defeat even the most talented linguists. Now it seems to be baffling native speakers, too.

Nearly a fifth of the students at Japanese private universities have the reading ability expected of 13- to 15-year-olds, according to the National Institute of Multimedia Education (Nime), which surveyed 13,000 in their first year at 33 universities and colleges.

The students were presented with a multiple choice test and asked to define nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Two-thirds of the respondents thought that a word meaning “to grieve” actually meant “to be happy”.

The study showed that foreign exchange students who had spent some years learning Japanese could sometimes read better than locals.

The survey confirms a trend which educationists have noted for at least 10 years.

And although the Nime report gives no reason for the low standards, the Japanese have long attributed the reduced vocabulary of today’s students, at least in part, to the proliferation of comics, which use simple ideograms and sentence structures.

The research team has called on the education ministry, to which the institute is affiliated, to introduce remedial classes for the students that need them.

Foreigners have long considered Japanese to be one of the world’s most difficult written languages.

It uses two separate sets of phonetic symbols and thousands of Chinese ideograms, and some words have as many as a dozen meanings and nearly as many pronunciations.

The good news, the researchers said, was that only 6% of the students at state universities were reading at junior secondary school levels.

The national universities tend to have tougher entrance exams than private colleges.

Location of Iraq on world map stumps students Yomiuri Shimbun

The location of Iraq is a mystery to 44 percent of university students, and 3 percent cannot find the United States on a world map, according to a survey conducted by the Association of Japanese Geographers.

As a result of the findings, the association has called for an improvement in geography education.

The survey of 3,800 students at 25 universities and 1,000 students at nine high schools was conducted between December and February. In the first survey of its kind, students were asked to identify 10 countries, including Iraq, North Korea and the United States from a list of 30 on a world map.

The hardest country for students to find was Ukraine, with 54.8 percent of university students and 33 percent of high school students able to identify it correctly.

Despite extensive media coverage of Iraq during the war and on the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces personnel, only 56.5 percent of university students and 54.1 percent of high school students could find it.

Just over 76 percent of university students and 59.4 percent of high school students were able to correctly identify Greece, site of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The highest rate of recognition was for the United States, but about 3 percent of university students and about 7 percent of high school students still failed to correctly identify it on a map.

(Comment: Since revisions to government teaching guidelines in 1989, high school students have been required to choose at least two subjects, including world history, in the topic areas of geography and history. But only half of students choose the geography course, according to the association.)

31. Panel hopes to promote kids’ interest in science Daily Yomiuri (May. 8, 2007)The challenge facing a newly established committee to promote the “Science Olympics” for young people is to ensure society is able to provide young people who excel in mathematics and science more opportunities to play a significant role in areas requiring such expertise.

In the hope of sending more Japanese students to the international science olympics, a committee that includes several Nobel laureates was formed in March to promote the event. The group aims to create an environment to develop the ability of young people who love science and mathematics through various measures.

Founders of the committee include Nobel laureates Leo Esaki, Masatoshi Koshiba and Ryoji Noyori, in addition to Toyota Motor Corp.’s Honorary Chairman Shoichiro Toyota and Hitachi, Ltd.’s Board Chairman Etsuhiko Shoyama.

Esaki who heads the committee said, “There are various events to promote sporting prowess, but when it comes to cultivating ability in science and mathematics, we have a really poor environment.”

“We’d like to inspire children [with this committee],” Esaki added.

The group hopes to support international meets and domestic preliminary contests for the science olympics by collecting donations from companies.

In 2009 and 2010, Japan will be the host country for the biology olympics and the chemistry olympics, respectively.

The committee also plans to conduct public relations activities for the olympics to draw more attention from high school students to prompt greater participation.

Currently, Japan participates in the international olympics in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and information. Last year, 23 students were sent to the olympics and returned home with five gold medals, seven silver medals and eight bronze medals. Japan was ranked seventh in the best performing category.

The committee also will broaden the base for those who are keen on areas featured in the olympics. One such activity is to encourage universities to take high school students who achieved good scores in the olympics based on recommendation.

Supporting the committee’s activities, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry also is working on tripling the number of participants in the first round in Japan from about 1,000 to 5,000 in each category within the next five years.

Although the olympics provide tough competition, they can give participants the opportunity to meet new people. Those good at science and mathematics often tend to be alienated from others, but through the meets, they can make new friends.

Of 1,271 participants in the domestic preliminary contests held for the mathematics olympics, 21 middle and high school students took part in the four-day training camp held in the spring holidays this year.

They took lectures and seminar classes in the morning and sat for examinations that lasted four and a half hours in the afternoon.

The participants are immersed in mathematics during the camp through which Japanese representatives for the international contest are decided, but the atmosphere at the camp was surprisingly cheerful throughout.

Kazuhiro Hosaka, a first-year student at Kaisei Academy high school, said: “The camp participants are all lovers of mathematics. I had a good time with them because we share something in common.”

“Taking part in the mathematics olympic is like high school baseball teams trying to play at Koshien. My school is supporting me,” Hosaka added.

In this camp, it is traditional for university students who won medals at the past olympics to teach their juniors.

Yuya Matsumoto, a 20-year-old Tokyo University student and silver medalist at the 2004 international mathematical olympics in Greece, said: “[At the contest] I met people who love mathematics. I was inspired by them and decided to study at the university’s mathematics department. I joined the camp this time to return a favor.”

Tetsushi Ito, a 29-year-old assistant professor at Kyoto University, who won the gold medal at the past international olympics in information, said: “In the world, there are lots of interesting things because we don’t understand them. Schools teach only a tiny part of them. I realized that by participating in the science olympics, and so decided to pursue a career as a mathematical researcher.”

Most participants in the science olympics move on to science and mathematics departments at universities.

They can use the knowledge that they acquired at universities also in various business fields, such as finance and business management, in addition to research and education. But their abilities are yet to be fully utilized.

The reality also is reflected in some surveys.

The nonprofit organization Suri no Tsubasa surveyed about 2,500 people who have taken part in its seminars, which are held for high school and university students with high math and science skills.

Among 182 people who took the nonprofit organization’s courses in the past, 124, or 68 percent, said they can use their knowledge in science and mathematics in their current job, while 37 respondents said they cannot, and 21 said neither.

The situation is worse for those who passed the first round of the international mathematical olympics.

The National Institute of Science and Technology Policy asked 92 such finalists similar questions.

According to the institute’s survey, only 44 people, or 48 percent, answered that they can use mathematics knowledge in their current occupation, while 35 people said they cannot use such ability at work.

The survey also found that more than half of the respondents believe jobs using mathematics and science pay poorly but are demanding and also have a dour image.

Masatoshi Watanabe, the institute’s senior researcher, who conducted the survey, said, “As there aren’t many places in society which can take enthusiastic people with mathematics and science skills, such people’s abilities are not fully utilized.”

Although Japan has been promoted as a country based on the creativity of science and technology, it is hard to say the country as a whole has been doing a lot for human resources with math and science skills.

If Japan does not create an environment to develop the ability of such people rapidly and expand fields in which they can use their skills, the country that was built on scientific creativity may collapse.

32. Competition growing for good teachers: Retirement wave pushes hiring drive, Daily Yomiri, (May. 9, 2007)


The need for competent primary school teachers in urban areas to replace teachers from the baby-boom generation who are set to retire in the next 10 years is pushing education boards to come up with ways to raise the number of applicants to maintain quality levels.

Some schools have started to reduce the number of examination items to attract more applicants, while others have begun holding explanatory sessions in rural areas.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education decided to exclude a liberal arts subject from its employment examination for primary school teachers, starting this year. The first-stage written tests, to be held in July, will now include a specialized subject and an essay.

The board of education also will stop piano and swimming tests conducted in the second stage. “We can see if an applicant has acquired a liberal arts education from the essay and interview [at the second-stage exam], and those who have obtained the primary school teacher’s license should be able to swim or play the piano,” a board official said. “We hope the number of applicants will grow as the burden imposed on examinees will be eased with the change.”

The Osaka Prefectural Board of Education also reduced the number of examination subjects. Its practical examination will be just swimming, with singing excluded.

At public primary schools, a massive number of teachers were hired in the 1970s to cope with the rise in the number of students, who were children of baby boomers. Such teachers have reached their 50s and will retire over the next 10 years.

According to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, the number of retiring public primary school teachers was about 12,000 at the end of fiscal 2006, but is expected to increase to 15,000 at the end of fiscal 2009. This is particularly evident in urban areas, as they have seen a jump in population due to housing developments in the 1960s to ’70s.

The Tokyo board of education plans to increase job openings for primary school teachers in phases to fill spots left by retiring teachers. It will hire about 1,100 teachers this year–about five times more than 10 years ago.

The increase in openings has resulted in a drop in the openings-to-applicants ratio. There were about nine applicants for every opening 10 years ago. Last year there were about 2.8 applicants for each opening.

The number of applicants per available teaching post in other urban areas, such as Osaka, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, hovers between 2.5 and 3.4.

Since it has become so much easier to become a primary school teacher, officials of local boards of education say it is necessary to increase the number of applicants to prevent a decline in the quality of those who pass the employment tests.

In rural areas, however, those who wish to become primary school teachers have had no chance to do so, as the spike in hirings in the 1970s was not as large as in urban areas, and the local boards of education have been reluctant to hire new teachers due to the decline in the number of children.

The Tokyo board of education decided to offer recruiting sessions in these rural areas. In addition to Osaka, Nagoya and Sendai, it held a session in Iwate Prefecture for the first time this year.

In Iwate Prefecture, the ratio of successful examinees to applicants for the primary school teacher test was 1:25.3 last year. An official from the Tokyo board of education visited the prefecture in late April and told about 100 people at the session: “Tokyo needs a lot of new teachers. Please consider working in Tokyo.”

The Osaka Prefectural Board of Education also sends officials to Takamatsu and Hiroshima, in addition to Tokyo and Nagoya, to hold similar sessions.



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