"Math and science offer the only common basis for comparing American schools to the rest of the world. Other subjects vary from one country to another… …tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were 'average' in elementary school, 'we appear to be "near the bottom" at the high school level…… Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.' - excerpted from a speech by Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., Ph.D. U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics.
This is one of the most common comparisons between Japanese schooling and American, the consistently lower test scores achieved by American students. But it’s comparing apples and oranges, really.
In arithmetic, Japanese elementary students drill, drill, drill. The entire education system here is set up to enhance memorization, data acquisition. In arithmetic, this is ideal. 1st graders spend the entire year on variations of the addition/subtraction tables. 2nd graders do the same with the addition of some multiplication. 3rd grade is the multiplication tables.
“The US does the same”, you say? Does it, really? Yes, but not to the extent Japan does. You can take any average American elementary school student and put them into Kumon classes (a popular math and kanji drill school here in Japan), and their test scores will improve, often dramatically. About half, maybe more, of J. primary schoolers go to some sort of classes in the afternoon evening, usually math, Japanese or English cram schools.
This continues into junior high school, where all students will study algebra, geometry and algebra II. There is no splitting according to ability at the public schools, everyone studies the same material. Advantage? Students can’t be lazy and take an easier level just because they want don’t want to work. “I don’t need math!” Disadvantage? In any class, a fair number of kids who are having problems understanding will get left behind, and sometimes even become depressed and give up. And most will need to go to cram schools 3 or 4 nights per week to keep up at school during the day.
But Japanese junior high students study for the test, not the learning. The entire education system is aimed at one thing: passing entrance exams into high school, and then the all-important university entrance exam. [Kinda sounds like student assessment tests in the States, eh?] 9th graders only study for the test to enter high school. If it won’t be on that test, it isn’t important to them.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention: nobody goes to high school without passing that school’s entrance exam or a city-wide entrance exam with point preference. There is no local high school, high school’s serve the entire city or ward, and are split up according to level. You want to go to a particular school, study a particular level? That test is on Feb 25, for example. And the other school you like might be the same day, so choose which one to challenge.
In my school district, you are given 30 extra points for your first-choice school’s test. This would help you if everyone else didn’t get the same points, but they do, so no real edge there. Where it kicks you in the cahones is if you fail your first-choice school, and your test score has to compete at your second-choice school against other students who set their sights slightly lower than you did, and are using that school as their first choice, with the extra 30!
It's actually possible to miss out on all 3 of your choices in this way, and end up having to go to one of the low, unpopular private schools, where you pay4 times as much, but only get 1/2 the education. Kinda makes you understand why some students stress out and do the jin-shin-boogie, and splat themselves across the front windshields of passing trains.
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