[Viewpoint]Unlike Japan, Korean schools aim for less

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[Viewpoint]Unlike Japan, Korean schools aim for less

People who have experience with Japan’s education system know well how low the standards of Japan’s compulsory education system are.
I sent my eldest daughter to a public elementary school in our neighborhood when I arrived in Tokyo to assume my post as correspondent. I was satisfied because she seemed happy and mingled with the other children well. As I was told that the school had only one class in each grade, and the school’s total number of students was less than 100, I was pleased and thought she would get a good education.
But a Japanese woman in my neighborhood said, “Most Japanese people do not expect public schools to educate our children well.” She told me most well-to-do Japanese parents send their children to private schools.
In Japan, the university entrance fever is as high as it is in Korea. Recently, however, the feverish competition among elementary 6th graders to enter private middle schools is reported more often in the press than the fever for university entrance. They say one out of six elementary school students in the Tokyo metropolitan area has applied to a private school. That is the highest rate of applications to date.
The reason is simple: People do not trust public education.
The idea of flexible education, which was introduced 30 years ago, is that it provides a pressure-free environment for students to develop the ability to learn, judge and act for themselves. Everybody agreed with the intention of flexible education at that time.
After the adoption of that idea, however, the amount of education at public elementary schools and middle schools was reduced in half by the end of the 1970s.
The purpose of education has evaporated and only five-day-week classes and shrinking school curricula remain.
For example, the formula for calculating the area of a trapezoid has disappeared from the math textbook for 5th graders, and the 6th graders’ science textbook no longer shows the structure of a heart. This has led to a general decline in the academic ability of students.
Private businesses immediately protested to education authorities. They complained of the poor quality of education, which failed to provide a qualified workforce. Nippon Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, submitted a proposal for reforming the compulsory education system to the government last year.
The Japanese government is having a hard time saving face. After 30 years, they have come to the conclusion that things are not right in their education system.
That is why a recent “education revival meeting” has issued a declaration in favor of abandoning flexible education, calling for a 10-percent increase in class hours and the resumption of Saturday classes.
The two biggest pillars of the reform plan are “reviving the scholastic ability of students” and “driving out unqualified teachers from school campuses.”
However, in Korea, the trend in public education is going in a completely opposite direction.
Korea introduced the five-day-week class system in March 2005, and currently schools have two Saturdays off each month.
The plan is to implement the five-day-week class system in full in the near future. Unlike Japan, Korea is moving toward the direction of reducing school hours.
Korean parents are passionate about their children’s education, so will they really leave their children to “nurture humanity” at leisure on a Saturday? If one out of 10 Japanese parents have turned to private schools, won’t more than half of every 10 Korean parents send their children to cram schools or get them private tutors?
There is one more thing worth mentioning about the Japanese public education reform plan: The Japan Teachers Union, which is equivalent to the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union, actively pursued the abolition of Saturday classes 15 years ago. The union also strongly resisted the introduction of a teacher’s license renewal system intended to improve the standard of education. Now, the Japan Teachers Union is receiving harsh criticism because its objection to the introduction of the license renewal system has resulted in the decline of students’ scholastic ability.
The Japan Teachers Union is now quietly following the government measures taken in 2002, because “it does not make sense for a teacher in a public school, who is a local civil servant, not to come to school during school holidays.” As a rule, all teachers come to school for work during school holidays.
This is very much in contrast to the attitude of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union, which has even abolished the system of posting teachers on day-duty at school during school holidays.
There is also a difference in the two countries’ approaches to the issue of a teacher evaluation system, which the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union is completely resisting.
The lessons from the “30 lost years” of Japan’s public education are as important to us as the lessons from the “10 lost years” of the Japanese economy.

*The writer is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Hyun-ki
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