In choosing this month’s topic “The Road Less Travelled -The Dangers and the Difficulties of a Home-Grown Education” I had to chosen to tackle two extremely difficult issues: one, how to choose quality educational institutions and educational services to meet your home educational needs. Two, to chart out the possible route to college – in the context of the Japanese educational system AND alternatively, for an international studies elsewhere in the world.

The particularly difficult aspect of the research was validating the credentials of the various schools since many schools that weren’t accredited tended to sell themselves “accredited”. I hadn’t counted on having to scrutinise each and every of the hundred distance learning and online schools, homeschooling support schools and educational services available to homeschoolers…a painstaking process Kudos must be given to Reiko Watanabe my partner in writing up this issue; she spent hours at the Prefectural Research Library researching and listing every major Japanese distance learning, online, free and cram school that she could find, and phoning them. We have put a dual-track listing of Alternative Education options: options when educating in Japanese (juku/cram schools, free schoolshomeschool umbrella schools) and Alternative Education options when educating in English. 

Cafi Cohen author and mother who homeschooled her two children to scholarships with top US colleges said it could save parents some headaches later to homeschool with “the end in mind”. Thus we have also attempted to sketch out below two paths to college, one for English-educated home-educated and the other for Japanese educated children, in the process listing all the many possible options that parents have resorted to in the past, and will resort to in the future. We know that there are many bicultural parents as well as non-bicultural parents who are carving out a dual-language educational path for our kids and hope this issue will be a helpful resource for all concerned.

The impetus for this topic came from the Open Education “Seeking Our Own Learning, Parent’s and Children Decide” Symposium 2000 held in Roppongi on June 3. The symposium ostensibly sought to present the positive aspects of home-educating children and to present the option of online schools as a support for homeschooled kids. But upon reflection, the Symposium raised more questions than it answered, and I felt the really difficult problems of home-educating our children in Japan were not seriously addressed.

Here is a quick summary of my afterthoughts from the Symposium:

1. Home is the creative crucible of learning.

Homeschooling mum, Kubo-san spoke at length about the importance of “sozoryoku” (two possible kanji words meaning either creativity or imagination), and how we think we could all be Picassos but for without “sozoryoku”, nothing would emerge from the spirit to create. She illustrated how homeschooling encouraged a child’s creativity with her account of how one of her daughters went from the first project of making an apron to ultimately mastering the art of loom weaving.

Katherine Comb earlier reported her impressions of the symposium :

“I have to say I was most impressed with Ms. Kubo’s personal experience of homeschooling her daughters from the beginning. They are now 11 and 9 years old. What struck me was her confidence and dedication to the idea of homeschooling as the BEST way to educate her children. She spoke of how they have expanded their creative talents by learning to make use of existing materials to create what tools they need to function in their daily lives. Ms. Kubo proudly described the children’s daily lives as summer vacation every day, plus a small amount of math and English thrown in. In answer to “Don’t you get tired of being with the children every day?” she says she not only enjoys being with her children, but also misses them when they are not around.

While I truly admired Kubo-san’s dedication to her children, I honestly could not relate to her account of homeschooling as “summer vacation every day”. If anything, I am perpetually wanting a vacation from running the household, getting the housework done, food ready on the table, plus trying to remember which basic skills my son is supposed to be learning for his age. And frankly I do get tired of kids in my hair every moment of the day, everyday. In truth, a great many of the message boards and articles on homeschooling websites are devoted to motivational and organisational issues where parents share their organisational tips and there are resources such as “choreganisers ” put out for sale to help other

2. Home is where the needs of the whole child are met.

Montessori educators speak of learning as a natural, self-directed process in which children learn and create when all the needs of the “whole child” are met. While outlining her family’s homelearning activities, Kubo-san conveyed her satisfaction at having achieved her goal of “ningen tsukuru” which I translate loosely as “building humanity”. Bob Chase, President of the American National Education Association in a more wordy way wrote, “In the rush to raise test scores and standards, educators and policymakers must not lose sight of education’s ultimate purpose: to cultivate the minds of children, to endow them with both the skills and the HUMANITY they’ll need to be productive in this world. And this means allowing kids time in the playground as well as the learning lab.”

Kubo san’s points about the home being the best place to develop a child’s creativity and humanity are valid ones. The world’s most famous schools consider it their prime mission to encourage imagination and creativity in children and have addressed these goals in terms of pedogogical method or curriculum. Virtually all educators today agree on the importance of spontaneous and exploratory play and of using the natural curiosity and interests of children to scaffold further learning of academic principles of science, math and language. A loving home is likely to be the most natural environment for encouraging natural learning, real-life problem-solving abilities, creative thinking and exploration. Indeed some schools like the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy have gone so far as to replicate the home environment in their schools.


 
 3. Homeschoolers need suitable products, resources and networking support, where are the quality controls? Kubo-san also described her visit to the US to homestay with homeschooling families and Hino-san recounted what he had learned from attending a 3-day homeschooling conference in Los Angeles. The latter panelist spoke of how he was impressed by the wide availability of resources for homeschooling at the bookstores and conventions, and of the trend towards the use of online/internet schools as a means for homeschool support. However, from this point onwards, the symposium became a commercial pitch for the online Atmark Inter-High School program that he had launched. Hino-san spoke about wanting to help establish Japan’s first national homeschooling support association … the commercial benefits of shepherding the sheep of homeschooling parents into an Atmark educational pasture and pen should be obvious to anyone. Apparently as I write this article, the association has been realised and established under the auspices of Atmark Inter-High School.

The commercial aspects should raise bright RED FLAGs in parents’ minds. In the space of three years, three internet institutions have sprung up all vying for a share of the tiny market of Japanese “school-refusers”, “school-avoiders” and more recently, the potential market — homeschooled kids. With the dissatisfaction with Japan’s educational system at an all time high and closely paralleling that of the US public’s sentiments on declining educational standards, increased numbers of homeschooled kids in Japan could become a trend of the future. Herein also lie the manifold business opportunities without the checks and balances since Japan’s Ministry of Education, Monbusho does not accredit or recognise private sector educational institutions. Monbusho has said it has no intention of regulating private sector educational institutions on the periphery of the Japanese education system. There exist no local independent accrediting agencies.

We looked at the services offered by all three of the local online schools and compared those services and the tuition fees charged, with equivalent institutions in the US, and found that not only were the educational services provided here unremarkable, but the prices charged were at the very least, five times more than are being charged in the US. A dangerous situation given that Japanese parents still see paper qualifications as the ticket to better jobs and a secure future for their children even when unorthodox schooling methods are being contemplated.

Home-educating parents seeking educational services in the US might not be getting what they think they are getting either. As I researched the issue of accreditation of educational institutions, I realised this was a slippery slope with two problems. One is the ease with which schools are established in the US. The US Department of Education “licenses” and allows schools to establish their legal operations, it does not hold the school accountable to any educational standards. Accreditation is generally done by either regional accrediting bodies or the appropriate professional accrediting bodies which are recognised by the Department of Education as the proper accrediting agencies. Knowing which are the valid accrediting agencies is the key to knowing the standing and legitimacy of the school one is interested in.

I insist a spade is not spade just because you call it one. In surveying nearly 100 universities, colleges and schools, I discovered were schools that called themselves “accredited” when in fact they were merely “licensed” by their state Department of Education to operate, others claimed they were “accredited” by agencies which were in fact accrediting agencies recognised nationwide or by the Department of Education. One school denied explicitly that no agency could possibly accurately assess the standards of their school, and blatantly claimed they were “accredited” by the sheer fact that their students’ transcripts have never been rejected by any college or university. On the other hand, there were a handful of private schools which had chosen NOT to seek accreditation from any agency with a solid reputation, rigorously academic curriculum and several decades of experience and graduated students who went on to the nation’s best colleges. In short, where the States is concerned, there is a whole gamut of institutions to be sorted through.

I received this report from Osaka’s Parents Citizens Ombudsman (one of whose functions is to check out funny schools”), Mr Alan Riggs:

“The Atmark Inter-Highschool mentioned in this mail is a bit of a fraud being linked to a diploma mill in the US which has no accreditation and a quick review of its own Japanese faculty reveal a collection of oddballs with little to offer for the large amount of money being charged.”

Strong words indeed from the ombudsman. I am not ready to put myself on the line of fire here by saying that the school in question is a fraudulent enterprise because Atmark Inter-High DOES provide some services…”bare bones” as these services may be. Homeschooling parents differ in their approaches, where parents are “unschoolers”, they may actually need FEWER academic services, and more support services by way of preparation of transcripts and record-keeping. However, I am concerned with questions of over-charging and the questionable value of the US high school diploma being offered by the three new online schools which are carrying out their studies entirely in Japanese.

In an email to the Editor, one writer warned of scams in the past:

“International study programs have been a rip-off scheme in Japan for many years. Though homeschooling angle is a new one.

Many years ago, I wrote an article criticizing an international exchange program within Japan as a rip-off scheme and almost got fired for it. The parent company apparently was a regular advertiser and placed great pressure to make life miserable for me. My editor stood by me and said that since there was no mistake, no retraction will be printed. Instead, the company could write a letter to the editor expressing their viewpoint and we will print it. Internally, I had to write some lame letter to the company. The company wasn’t fraudulent, but overcharged with hidden expenses and I criticized it. They have since straightened out their act, besides recession doesn’t allow for such extravagant expenses anymore.

I’ve also helped my mothers friend get money back from a cheesy study abroad program that expels kids for no reason except to make room for more kids to enroll, and then expel again.

The proper venue is really the Futoko Shimbun because many parents are desperate for some formal program for their children.Fortunately, enough information is now circulating that these schools have either straighten their act or else gone out of business.”

[Name withheld upon request]

More light is thrown on the nature of commercially-oriented educational organisations in an informal email exchange between Brian Covert and myself: “I probably can’t tell you anything about it that you don’t already know, since you seem to have researched the matter fairly deeply. But for what it’s worth: I do know I had to sort through these same kinds of questions when I was doing an investigative newspaper story on corruption between some Japanese and US schools that had joint programs going, apparently much like the one with Atmark. Coincidentally, the particular college I was investigating was in Washington state, same as this one.

What we found was that there was a regional accrediting agency in the US northwest covering several states, including Washington state. I don’t recall the name of the agency now; I’d have to unearth my files and dig it all back up again.

Anyway, this Washington-state based college, like several other legit US college campuses, would — in cooperation with (usually wealthy) Japanese sponsors — open branch campuses in Japan. The academic side of these operations in Japan had to conform to US standards to meet the US regional accrediting agency’s standards.

The Japanese branch campuses themselves, however, had no such legal obligations within Japan. They were considered just private businesses in Japan. As such, their academic standards were not recognized by the Ministry of Education — though they *were* recognized academically by the US side.

And as you can expect, the success of these Japanese “sponsored” schools depended entirely on the Japanese sponsor’s profit margins. When the bubble economy in Japan burst a few years ago, many of these Japan branch campuses unsurprisingly went under — which didn’t affect the US main campuses that much because the Japanese sponsors bore most, if not all, of the financial liabilities under such joint ventures deals.

The classes in these typical Japan-based US branch campuses were reportedly conducted in both English and Japanese. As I understand it, the Japanese students enrolled in these Japan-based American college branch campuses were required to pass a minimum level of English (don’t ask me how much), especially if they were considering transferring their academic credits to the US main campuses someday.

As I understood it, US academic requirements were generally considered to be too high for the average Japanese university student (an ironic situation if ever there was one), so the Japan-based branch campuses would go “light” on the US requirements and try to pass as many of the students in the Japanese branch campuses as they could.

So to summarize: We found that under these kinds of US-Japan educational joint ventures, two schools were operating together — yet apart. The US colleges were considered legitimate academic institutions and had to conform and perform as such. The Japanese branch campuses of these US institutions, maybe like Atmark in this case, were considered to be private businesses that had to answer to no Japanese academic authority. They could — and did — do pretty much as they liked.”

The path of the homeschooling or homelearning family in Japan is certainly the less-trodden one. Getting off the beaten track of formal schooling has its pitfalls when homeschool support networks and information on schools are either non-existent or scarce. To check out any commercial educational services, you really need to go by word of mouth or to be really audacious by Japanese standards…go knock on doors and take a peek at the organisation, and also ask to look at samples of the materials you are going to be paying for. In the case of educational institutions elsewhere, research, research, check out websites and bulletin boards, internet message boards and find out why parents make the decisions they do. Below are a list of resources that can be used to help parents educate their children at home. But like I always say: proceed with great caution and sceptism … Caveat Emptor ..Buyer beware!

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A Route Map for the College Bound Kid in Japan” The route to college for a homeschooled kid in Japan, is it possible?

Jukus or cramschools are Japan’s “shadow education” institutions considered responsible for much of the educational success of Japanese children. Read “Inside the Pressure Cooker: The Juku System” for more info.

Cram Schools: Navigating Your Way Through the Juku Jungle  – An Annotated Directory of Cram Schools

Free Schools – These are schools offer an alternative education to children who refuse to go to school or who do not fit into conventional public or private schools. Classe schedules may be flexible, or kids can choose from options they like or the schools may offer a different kind of setting, eg. incorporating more rugged play, hands-on activities or may have a rural country setting.

Tutoring Option The tutoring option is resorted to by a great many people who feel their kids need extra help in some areas of schoolwork, or in areas of weakness in home school studies where outside expert teaching assistance comes in handy. 

 

Previously published in the

HOMESCHOOLING/AFTERSCHOOLING IN JAPAN NEWSLETTER – ISSUE #9 (June 2000)

Copyright Aileen Kawagoe

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