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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
June 10, 2002

Best Practices for Education Reform in Japan: Principles and Priorities

Daniel Dolan (Director, Global Communication Strategy, Weber Shandwick, Japan)

In an April 2002 essay published on this Platform, I discussed the importance of addressing fundamental questions when considering university education reforms in Japan. One such question concerns the very purposes of higher education, and as one example I argued for the importance of identifying and responding to the specific learning needs of students. Although many of these issues are relevant to K-12 as well, my focus here and in future essays will be on universities and colleges.

Now that there is general public consensus on the need for taking action toward education reform, I believe that in addition to ongoing debate about structural and political issues there also should be discussion of possible concrete strategies, activities and behaviors that impact student learning most directly. Beginning with this essay I would like to suggest some best practices for selected pieces of the education reform process, including formulation and implementation of reform principles, course design, effective teaching, and learning assessment strategies. I will not examine themes related to governance or economics, but hopefully interested persons will add their voices in these areas. The result of ongoing dialogue in this forum might be a kind of work-in-progress roadmap for moving ahead.

Formulating Principles of Education Reform

Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in January 2001 outlined its "Education Reform Plan for the 21st Century" and called for public comments and recommendations. The Plan as given verbatim on the Ministry's English language website consists of seven strategies:

  1. Improve students' basic scholastic proficiency in easy to understand classes.
  2. Foster open and warm-hearted Japanese through participation in community service and various programs.
  3. Improve the learning environment to one which is enjoyable and free of worries.
  4. Promote the creation of schools trusted by parents and communities.
  5. Train teachers as "education professionals."
  6. Promote the establishment of universities of an international standard.
  7. Establish a new educational vision for the new century and improve the foundations of education.

Each of the seven strategies listed above has 2-3 sub-points that provide further explanation. Examination of these sub-points reveals both constructive ideas and potential deficiencies in the principles.

For example, the three sub-points for strategy number One focus on the need for small class sizes, IT infrastructure in classrooms, and national achievement surveys. The phrase "easy to understand classes" in this strategy apparently refers to classroom environments conducive to learning. This is fine, but contrary to prevailing assumptions, studies in the United States suggest that class size has positive impact on learning only for particular kinds of students (poor minority students), and that teaching effectiveness has a much more profound effect. However, nowhere in the Japanese Ministry's strategies is there mention of the need for teacher training. Strategy number Five, which would seem to address this issue, actually suggests only a reward scheme for "outstanding teachers" without defining teaching excellence or how teacher performance might be evaluated, "working community experience" at companies, and penalties such as suspension for "incompetent teachers".

The Plan's strategy number Four is, in contrast, quite promising. The three sub-points for this strategy include creation of "open schools," introduction of a "school council system," disclosure of information and increased participation by parents on boards of education. Although the details of these suggestions are not clear, in my view the direction is productive. This call for decentralization of decision making in education is similar to trends in the United States. For example, that country's Education Leaders Council suggests the following principles for education reform:

  • We should hold high expectations for every child and every school.
  • Our focus must be on students and families. At stake is not the system, the district or the school, but a child's education. Systems, districts and schools exist to meet the needs of students and their families.
  • Public education is the "people's" education, and we must empower parents, teachers and taxpayers to provide a better future for all our students.
  • Education decisions need to be made by those closest to the children, not by bureaucrats sitting in remote offices.

From Formulation to Implementation

Pushing in Japan for changes such as relatively radical localization of education decision-making clearly will take time and determination. Formulation of education reform principles is far less daunting than implementing such changes. For inspiration I turn again to the United States, which is struggling at present with its own education reform programs but which has more trial-by-fire experience than does Japan.

The Center for Education Reform in the United States suggests ways for parents and other concerned stakeholders to maximize the effectiveness of educational reform campaigns. Some of these tips might have more relevance and value in the United States than in Japan, but I offer them here as a final thought for the consideration of readers:

  • Distinguish between the public servants and the bureaucrats, those with a can-do attitude versus those with an armful of excuses about why they can't help you. Recruit the public servants to help you.
  • Don't accept excuses from those who have the power to change things. Be persistent and don't let them pass the buck.
  • Keep a sense of humor and don't lose your cool.
  • Learn when and where not to compromise.
  • Write things down and date your notes. Summarize meetings and agreements, and distribute them to participants.
  • Never threaten something unless you are willing and able to carry it out.
  • Use multiple strategies to achieve your goals, and never lose sight of those goals.

In my next essay I will discuss strategies for effective course design. I welcome all comments and suggestions to

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