A recent survey found that more than half of Japan’s graduate schools in education are short of students for the 2012 academic year. More than 40 percent of schools had failed to meet their quotas for the past five years.
Since 2003 when the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) started to expand graduate programs in education throughout the country, nearly 3,800 people have enrolled in graduate teaching schools — far from enough.
The push to better educate teachers is a worthy goal with many potential benefits for teachers and their students, but improving teacher education in Japan will require effort, encouragement and a shift in thinking. After all, those are the basics of education.
Japan’s teachers are generally less educated than those in other developed countries. In the United States, 49 percent of elementary school teachers and 54 percent of secondary school teachers held a post-bachelor’s degree in 2007.
When MEXT began its push to expand teacher education, only 3 percent of teachers had master’s degrees or above, though that number has been increasing steadily.
Considering teachers as professionals who require specialized, long-term study is an important shift in consciousness. Teaching should be considered a profession like any other.
In Finland, for example, all primary and secondary teachers hold master’s degrees. Having teachers with a higher educational background, both in the field of education and in their areas of specialty, helps to ensure a higher quality of professional work.
That is not to say a degree will automatically make someone a great teacher, or that teachers without degrees are in any way worse. Good teachers have many other qualities such as compassion, patience and creativity that can be developed without formal study. But teachers can develop those qualities and give them greater applicability by studying theories of education and their own subject area in systematic and coherent ways.
At present, the majority of primary and secondary teachers in Japan have only four years of study at the undergraduate level. As the world becomes more complicated, that no longer seems enough to meet the challenges of current students.
Graduate schools are no simple or easy fix for the nation’s educational problems, but they do provide teachers with a professional learning community in which to develop higher skills and greater know-how for an increasingly complex classroom.
For too long, prefectural education boards have relied on passing a paper exam as evidence of being fit for teaching. Pass it and you are deemed a teacher, regardless of what you actually studied, practiced or developed, or for how long.
As with many other exams in Japan, teachers spend time and energy cramming for the exam at the expense of expanding their knowledge base and developing teaching skills. Developing a nationwide program to educate teachers is a complex undertaking compared with setting a once-a-year exam.
MEXT has already started to increase in-service training, which is a step in the right direction.
Most primary and secondary teachers are now required to attend workshops, seminars and training sessions as part of their continuing education. That training is frequently helpful, but sometimes amounts to just another hoop to jump through. Short-term training is different from extensive, consistent and challenging programs in education that require two years of commitment.
Graduate programs in education should be developed in a practical direction, too.
Most education students, or those seeking a teaching license, now spend only a few weeks of practice teaching during their third or fourth year of college.
As with any professional work, a few weeks of practice is only a beginning. Combining practical experience in the classroom with learning theory, teaching methods and other studies strikes the right balance. MEXT and graduate schools around the country should consider degree programs that are workable for current teachers, too.
Many prefectures already allow teachers to take off a year to complete a degree. That should be encouraged, but flexible summer programs in which teachers finish courses toward a degree should also be instituted.
Primary and secondary teachers spend their summers attending meetings or supervising sports activities, but engaging in reading and discussion with specialists and colleagues will have the biggest long-term payoff.
Most teachers make the calculation that a degree is not worth it — certainly not if they don’t receive a bonus or additional pay for completing a degree. Many of those teachers, though, would work for a degree if it could fit in with their schedules. Incentives are helpful, too, but most teachers are already motivated to learn.
Teachers tend to naturally be good students, but allowing them time and giving them support would encourage that inclination.
Graduate study has limitations, and experience may be the best teacher. Further study can enhance the best qualities of teachers and deepen the understanding of their experience.
The quality of an educational system depends on the quality of the teachers, and on what they have learned and are ready to teach to others.