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    Japanese education statistics drop

    The OECD’s figures for its 2003 education survey are out, and Japan’s rankings have fallen. The Mainichi‘s English report is here and is, naturally, not as complete as its original Japanese report here. What’s interesting, as it so often is, is what was omitted from the English version: Japanese students trust their teachers less.

    To what degree do students feel their teachers support them in class? Of 31 countries (including 7 major nations of Europe and the Americas, and also Hong Kong, the rank of which was high this year), Japan had a lower-than-average percentage of students who gave the most affirmative response “Always true” to any of 5 prompts about the degree of support from mathematics teachers, including “[The teacher] takes an interest in students’ individual studies,” and “[The teacher] provides opportunities for students to express individual opinions.” Averaged over these five items, Japan ranked lowest of the 31 countries.

    This is important, given the traditional close relationship students have been expected to form with their teachers. It’s hard to know what to make of it, though–exactly what kinds of opinions do students want to be giving in, of all things, math class? Or is the issue just that lecturing at students is emphasized over student input? But that makes little sense–Japan’s math education is famous for using directed drills to guide students, whenever possible, into discovering the next mathematical principle to be learned. More worrisome is that the article goes on to relate that Japanese students showed comparatively little confidence that their schools were teaching them useful knowledge (59%, 28 percentage points lower than average for the group) and were giving them the confidence to make their own decisions (52%, 18 percentage points below average). It’s not possible to determine from the Mainichi how well-constructed the survey instrument actually was, though the OECD is hardly a piddling organization.

    What is obvious is that the Ministry of Education and Culture’s major concern is with the drop in reading and math scores. The reason I’m not obsessing over them here–besides the fact that those figures are amply sliced and diced in the English article–is that everyone has known for years that there are problems with the tendency to compare Japan’s education statistics so favorably with those of other countries. Japan does not have a history of documenting degrees of literacy, for example. Functional illiteracy is not defined and measured. Are Japanese people better readers on average than citizens of most other countries? Sure, probably. Are they comparatively up in the exosphere? It’s hard to tell. As the Monbusho likes to frame things, either you can’t read at all, or you’re literate. How well you read if you’re in the latter category is not easy to assess, though from experience, I’d have a difficult time believing the Japanese average doesn’t put the American average to shame.

    Even the math scores have always needed more qualification. The level of achievement in computation and problem-solving among average Japanese really is a marvel. But Japan doesn’t appear to do any better at producing math major material–people who can go beyond remembering why the harmonic function doesn’t converge to their own conceptualizing–than other countries do. Now, since most of us don’t need to come up with our own theories of mathematics, that doesn’t matter all that much. It would be nice if American schools could teach students how to add fractions. But the idea that Japan turns all its students into Karl Friedrich Gausses does not obtain.

    Even so, the reaction of the Ministry of Education is encouraging, lacking as it does any American-style references to Carol Gilligan or journaling. Whether the remedial programs that are implemented can quickly address the increased (and highly-publicized) disaffection of students remains to be seen.

    Added on 9 December: Hong Kong’s rankings were higher, but Simon is unimpressed. The reasons he cites are not entirely inapplicable to Japan as well.

    7 Responses to “Japanese education statistics drop”

    1. Janelle says:

      It is encouraging. Thanks for your thoughts, they are well thought out and persoanlly have feelings about Japanese. Long story, but a good one.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yeah, well, if the Japanese education system doesn’t get its act together, my boyfriend and I will have no one shoveling money into the Social Insurance system to pay for our twilight years. :)
      Just kidding. I mean, factually, that’s true; but the Japanese seriously do have much to be proud of regarding their educational system, and I’d very much like to see them sort out the long-running problems they have. It’s especially urgent given the state of the economy.

    3. Anxious Asians

      Japan’s scores fell in the new international survey of math and reading skills, reports White Peril. Japanese students trust their teachers less than students elsewhere; they’re also less likely to believe schools are teaching useful knowledge or givin…

    4. Janelle says:

      Their education system is tough and children learn to respect that. Therefore it tells me so much about the teachers and parents in wanting the kids to keep on ttrack and do good, well no, they are encouraged to spend time at home really doing hard assignments. The whole system shows cooperation from the administration to the children to the parents.
      Oh, I said sir to you in Dean’s post when yyou had me laughing so much over a reaction.
      I do hope you come back to Texas again and bring your boyfriend.

    5. Chris C. says:

      There 31 countries in the study, not 13 – it appears to be a mistake in the Mainichi article. And Japan wasn’t quite last in the teacher support measure – Austria was.
      Japan was almost average for most of the items involving teacher support, such as “Teachers give extra help when students need it” and “The teachers show an interest in every student’s learning”.
      The “express an opinion” item was quite low, which is why Japan was ranked so lowly in the average index of teacher support. However, one could argue the Japanese students might have interpretted that item a little differently or even that it’s the least important among ‘teacher support’ questions. The student-teacher relationship seems about average when looking at the other items.

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      Thanks for the corrections.
      I should have known that 13 was a low number to include the Americas and Europe, but I was focusing more on keeping all my modifying clauses straight. (I’m not the best translator.) I also didn’t get a chance to look back at the OECD report itself, though I noticed over lunch time that it was at the link Simon posted.
      Usually, the education figures that are used to tout Japan’s superior educational system have to do with tests, especially entrance exams. It struck me as weird that that set of questions–about whether students are happy with their teachers–was getting so much play in the Mainichi article, and I did wonder about it. “Support” and “provides opportunities” are pretty slack wording and can, as you say, be interpreted different ways, especially by teenagers of varying degrees of sullenness.

    7. Simon World says:

      Asia by Blog

      Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, usually posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found here. This edition contains China-Japan tensions, the f…