A Reader from Japan Sounds Alarm Bells

Dear Bill and Melinda,

We recently received a comment from Japan, which we feel deserves greater visibility and consideration in light of your recent corporate education reforms in the US.  Please read it.


How do you feel about the prospect of our children attending cram schools here in the US? As teachers, we’ve already seen the effects of high stakes testing, and the narrowing of curricula, on students’ morale. Let’s not continue on this road.

-Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

My name is Beniko Mason. I am an English teacher in Japan. From many messages that I receive on my facebook page , I can see that US teachers are very upset about being told how to teach and about being forced to give tests to children and students all the time. I do not understand why US is doing this.

That is what has been going on in Japan for the last 50 years. I am sure it is the same in Korea too. Japanese children from K to 12 are tested all the time. The teacher’s job is to help her/his students score high on tests. As the result Japanese students are not happy in school. When they don’t feel worthy of themselves in school, they will look for somewhere else to feel that way. Most of them find fun somewhere else outside of school.

Young Japanese people like to buy designer brand clothes and bags, dye their black hair yellow, shave their eyebrows to change the original shape, pierce their lips, and tattoo their body. Some of them work at night and become prostitutes to buy things. These young people are children from middle class families. These are the by-products of the wrong kind of education.

Test-centered education has been going on for 50 years. This kind of education has damaged two generations in Japan. With the current ways of teaching in Japan, only a tiny percentage of the students are winners. The rest are losers. Even when they spend money and time at a cram school, they don’t achieve the scores they need. Most children are educated to feel stupid and are forced to follow. Children are told that they are stupid. Their parents are told that their kids are stupid. They are afraid and feel threatened. So, they follow.

Many students commit suicide because of poor grades. Parents began to criticize teachers. Those parents who complained and voiced their opinions have been called “monster parents.” Some sneaky parents managed to manipulate teachers and get better grades for their children. Sometimes these “monster parents” try to fire teachers whom they don’t like. Teachers sometimes physically abuse their students. 12th graders bully the 10th graders. There is little respect for teachers from parents and students. Everyone has to work off their frustrations.

I am surprised to hear that the US is trying to do something that has been proven to be wrong in Japan. Japanese teachers are forced to give lessons to prepare for tests. Students are forced to do hundreds of mechanical drills endlessly so that they can automatically write correct answers on tests (mid-term tests, final tests, proficiency tests, practice tests, entrance exams, and daily tests).

There are cram schools everywhere in Japan where they charge high tuition, and many children are forced to go to a cram school after school as late as 9PM or 10PM. I see small children on commuting trains coming home from a cram school late in the evening. Parents must work overtime to pay for the cram school tuition. Many families can’t enjoy a summer vacation as cram schools offer summer intensive courses. The cram school teachers don’t get a vacation, either. Those cram schools hire college kids to teach some of the classes. The college kids don’t know how to teach, but they need money, so they teach according to their own method without any evidence of efficacy.

It is a big mess. Those teachers who understand all this try to be compassionate and do as much as they can, but when they do a good job, the current system gets the credit.

I hope you will not repeat this in America. The USA is supposed to be a good example to the world.

Beniko Mason
Osaka, Japan


About Highlighting Members' Needs

We are running for the following Renton Education Association positions because we believe in the following planks: Becca Ritchie, Candidate for REA President, Nelsen Middle School, Computer Tech Susan DuFresne, Candidate for Primary Executive Board, Maplewood Heights Elementary, Integrated Kindergarten ✅  Demanding a healthy work-load/life balance. ✅  Bargaining competitive professional compensation. ✅  Challenging the status quo test culture with: Less is more! ✅  Emphasizing our professional expertise. ✅  Prioritizing equity and access for all. ✅  Utilizing 2-way 21st century communication tools. ✅  Acting in solidarity with all unions. ✅  Supporting ALL members. ✅   Implementing developmentally appropriate K-3 curriculum/assessment.
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2 Responses to A Reader from Japan Sounds Alarm Bells

  1. Teachers'LettersToBillGates says:

    From Katie Osgood (Chicago teacher): I taught in Japan for many years. Their education system leaves much to be desired and there is much happening behind the headlines of high ranking test scores. Many Japanese high school students sleep through their high schools classes, knowing they will cover all the materials later at juku (cram school.) While US reformers point to the larger class sizes in Japan, it is important to note that the kids do NOT do much learning in their boring lecture style classes, but Japanese parents subsidize the learning by providing exceptionally small, sometimes 1:1 individualized learning at the cram schools.

    Also, kids must test to get into any high school. The kids who test well go to “academic high schools” while the kids who struggle go to “technical” “commercial” or “argicultural” high schools to learn a trade and very few of these students go on to college. This creates highly homogeous classrooms and Japanese teachers often do little, if any, differentiation.

    Something that I have almost never heard talk about is the lack of special education services in most Japanse High Schools. There are entirely separate schools for children with severe/profound disabilities and then all other children are sorted through testing, and the poor test-takers do not receive special education services as we know them. ( The US is one of the few countries that attempts to give a free and appropriate education to all learners, regardless of ability, which is something to be celebrated.) Japanese stuggling learners are often condemned to trade schools and not given expert specialized instruction (Most cram schools are staffed by college-aged tutors and the like, not certified teachers/specialists.) There is a lot of stigma around learning disabilities/mental health issues, and these issues are rarely addressed in Japanese schools. Families tend to deal with problems privately.

    There were a few things I liked about the Japanese system such as the equitable funding systems, whether you went to a rural school in the mountains or a bustling city school, you’d get generally the same types of resources and access to fully-qualified teachers. Also, Japanese elementary schools (5th grade and lower) tended to be less test-prep and rigid and offered quality early learning experiences.

    In the US we seem to have ignored the good in the Japanese education system and instead doubled-down on the bad, testing mania that even the Japanese acknowledge needs to change.

  2. Charma says:

    This is exactly what my professor from Korea said and another reason she took her daughter and left Korea. She said they are trying to change and follow the US, but the US is going backwards to the 1880’s curriculum. She is very sad for the US kids now. Another prof. from China said that is why he took his 2 kids and left China. There is no creativity there, they all study engineering but basically use that knowledge to copy designs from the creative Americans. These people with engineering degrees will work for 1/2 what our engineers earn. So pushing all kids into STEM will not get them jobs, the Chinese will work for so much less. ( I see now on the latest report that the min. wage in China is 80 cents per hour.) So those with engineering degrees will not command the high pay that our engineers earn. Who do you think will be hired?

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