The poor are always with us … even more so now in our public schools

Educational Renaissance / Keeping poor kids on academic path

Educational Renaissance / Keeping poor kids on academic path

The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This installment visits a middle school that has been struggling with hard economic circumstances that affect its students.


KYOTO–2,200 yen.

It doesn’t seem like much, but this nominal fee for public high school entrance examinations in Kyoto Prefecture can be too heavy a burden for some of the families at Kyoto’s Toka Middle School.

“Some of our students can’t afford to bring even that much,” school guidance counselor Kumiko Namie says. “We’ve had to keep reminding the parents how much high school would cost ever since enrollment.”

Located in Minami Ward, in the heart of Kyoto, the public school has a large number of students from single-parent homes. Toka also has one of the highest ratios of students on public assistance in Kyoto. The assistance comes in the form of subsidies for school-related expenses–such as uniforms, school supplies, lunch and field trips–and is covered by the municipal government in line with the School Education Law, which requires cities to foot the bill to educate students whose families would otherwise find it difficult to pay for compulsory education.

Last month, a mother of one of the students asked the school to help her child, who was supposed to attend a local private high school starting this month. Her husband had been unable to secure a stable income, leaving the family only able to come up with half the tuition for the private institution.

Toka was able to help the woman apply for a prefectural government-run student loan targeting financially disadvantaged high schoolers. Many of Toka’s 78 recent graduates also have taken advantage of the program.

About 40 percent of the middle school graduates entered private schools. Some years, that figure rises to 50 percent. Despite the financial burden this puts on the families, there is a widely held belief the private institutions will take better care of their children by, for example, keeping close tabs on them so they don’t drop out.

The financial hardships Toka’s students face have a direct effect on their scholastic abilities.

National academic achievement tests in 2007 showed that the scores achieved by the school’s third-year students in Japanese and mathematics were, on average, 10 points lower than the national average.

Those scores crept closer to the national average the following year. But, in a questionnaire accompanying the exam, nearly 40 percent of the students said they studied at home 30 minutes or less every day.

Because of this, the school has been making an effort to encourage the students to develop good study habits.

In the weeks leading up to midterm and final exams, for example, the students are required to compile their own study plans and report their progress daily.

At the end of the school year late last month, the first- and second-year students were assigned homework for all the major subjects–Japanese, math, social studies, science and English. Although it is unusual for students to be given homework to be completed during the short break between school years, Toka wants to keep its students studying year-round.

The school also is participating in a testing program administered by the Kyoto Municipal Board of Education to help foster good study habits. In the program, third-year students are tested four times throughout the year, and then encouraged to review their exams, as opposed to merely receiving test results. They are also given exercises covering their individual weak areas.

Toka students tend to perform poorly just after summer break, according to the program’s test results. Principal Masayuki Yasui, however, remains positive in the face of this trend.

This could be counteracted, he says, by making them “report on their studies each time they are required to come to school during summer break. We could also open up a study hall during the vacation. We know what we are dealing with, we just have yet to tackle all of the problems.”

Guidance counseling also has been a central part of Toka Middle School’s approach, which calls for getting the parents involved whenever possible.

Last year, the middle school requested that local high schools allow prospective students to bring their parents whenever making a school visit. The school thus hopes to get parents thinking about their kids’ academic careers as early as possible.

Two high schools agreed to the request. Fifteen second-year students, and the parents of eight first- and second-year students visited Momoyama High School in mid-January. During a home economics class, the parents were asked to discuss their own parenting experiences and then participated in group discussions with the middle and high school students.

“Today’s tour made me realize how important it is for parents to gather information in helping their children decide which high school to attend,” one of the eight participating parents said. Although only a small number of educationally conscious parents attended the weekday event, the school expects more and more to follow as the first participants share their experiences with others.

The school also tries to raise awareness among parents of future students. Since last year, it has encouraged parents of local fifth- and sixth-graders to visit the school for briefing sessions on high school entrance exams. When it held a session early last month, more than 60 parents attended.

It seems that for the school to best help its disadvantaged children, it must first change the attitude of their parents.


Disadvantaged students on rise, but help at hand


Statistics by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry suggest that children have become affected more seriously by financial difficulties over the past decade.

During the 1998 school year, 833,500 primary and middle school students were eligible for subsidies to help relieve their school expense burden under the School Education Law, accounting for 7.15 percent of the student population at public schools.

The number increased to 1.42 million during the 2007 school year–or 13.74 percent–although the number of children decreased over the period due to the nation’s declining birthrate.

At high school level, 122,800 students at public schools nationwide had their tuition fees reduced or waived during the 1998 school year, accounting for 4.2 percent of the student population. During the 2007 school year, the number increased to 224,500, or 9.7 percent.

National academic achievement exams, which have been conducted by the central government since 2007 for sixth-year primary and third-year middle school students, look into the correlation between student performance and schools’ ratios of those eligible to subsidies.

These exams test Japanese and mathematics, with two types of questions: Type A quizzes students on their basic knowledge of each subject, while Type B examines their ability to utilize their knowledge to solve problems they might encounter in their daily lives.

Among schools participating in the 2008 exams, there were nearly 900 public middle schools where more than 30 percent of the student body received school expense subsidies.

Of those 900 schools, 481 had average student scores below the national averages in both subjects with both question types.

Only 60 of the 900 had average student scores higher than the national averages in all four categories.

An analysis of teaching approaches suggests that high-performing schools were more likely to maintain discipline during classes–such as not allowing students to whisper to each other–and to encourage students to think about what they want to do in the future.

(Apr. 16, 2009)

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