NPO tutors helping to bring students up to speed

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The following article is from a series by The Yomiuri Shimbun on efforts by schools to adapt to the government’s revised school curriculum guidelines and make a fresh start after years of “yutori kyoiku”–a pressure-free education policy that allows children more free time–which is now regarded as a key factor in poor academic performance in recent years. This is the fourth of six articles and focuses on a move in a municipality in Kanagawa Prefecture to introduce contract teachers to a public school.

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In a rare attempt to introduce contract teachers to a public school, the municipality of Kaiseimachi, Kanagawa Prefecture, has allocated 4.18 million yen of this fiscal year’s budget for outsourcing work to improve children’s basic academic ability.

The town has signed a contract with nonprofit organization Learning for All (LFA)–which aims to support public education through public-private partnerships–to dispatch the NPO’s staff to Bunmei Middle School as teaching assistants. The school is the only municipal middle school in the town.

The move seems to be helping. During a lunch-break tutoring session at the school, a first-year student said to Yuka Shikina, a 26-year-old staffer from LFA, “Give me more difficult questions.”

In a math class several days before, the student could not perform the simple calculation, “-1+-2=-3,” a basic operation taught to first-year middle school students. But after attending the tutoring session every day, the student was capable of tackling questions used on high school entrance examinations.

Shikina said the NPO program has been well-received among students.

The new curriculum has called for a drastic increase in the volume of learning for students. The revamped guidelines were introduced to public primary schools in April, and middle schools will adopt them starting next academic year.

The overhaul was prompted by concerns that the pressure-free education policy resulted in lowering children’s academic achievements. However, if teachers speed up the content of the classes, some children may not be able to keep up.

The Bunmei school is hopeful the LFA’s assistance will solve this problem.

“We appreciate the help we’ve got to teach students the basics before the new curriculum is launched,” said Minoru Odaira, the school’s 59-year-old principal.

Japanese children’s academic ability has ranked high among top-performing countries. But according to the results of the reading literary section in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 13.6 percent of Japanese participants classified as Level 1. Children in this group are considered likely to have difficulty living as members of society.

Meanwhile, a combined total of 13.4 percent were assessed at Levels 5 and 6, the highest reading proficiency level.

The 2009 PISA test, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, was taken by 15-year-olds from 65 countries and regions.

The first PISA test, held in 2000, was taken by about 5,300 first-year Japanese high school students. In reading literacy, 10 percent were assessed at Level 1–findings that suggest about 140,000 people in this age group were estimated to fall into this level nationwide.

A few years later, about 210,000 students of this generation dropped out of high school or were undecided about their future plans after graduating.

Kokichi Shimizu, a 51-year-old Osaka University professor specializing in educational sociology, said, “The chances are high that students with poor academic performance will end up dropping out of high school or being unsure about their future careers.”

The gap in academic ability seen among students is attributable to differences in their household income.

According to an analysis of national achievement tests conducted by the education ministry in the 2008 school year, the average rate of sixth-grade primary school students who answered questions correctly and were raised in households with an annual income between 12 million yen and 15 million yen was about 20 percentage points higher than students of the same grade in households that earned less than 2 million yen a year.

NPO Enfant Palette provides support in children’s education to single-parent households by dispatching tutors to such families, if necessary for free.

Yusuke Nakano, a 20-year-old university student who volunteers for the NPO, tutors a second-year middle school student in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, once a week. He helps the student, who has difficulty keeping up with classes, learn the basics by using textbooks for first-year students.

The middle school student’s 38-year-old mother, who also raises another son, a first-year high school student, said: “I can’t afford to pay for a cram school and don’t have time to help my sons study. The free service really helps.”

According to Andreas Schleicher, project director of PISA and special adviser to the OECD secretary general on education policy, students at Level 1 are likely to face difficulty finding jobs. Reducing the number of Level 1 students is the key to academic success, Andreas said, adding that society as a whole must increase efforts to improve children’s competency.

(Yomiuri, Sep. 22, 2011)