Friday, October 27, 2006

The High School Curriculum Scandal: Why the School System Bent Rules to Level the Playing Field

The Japanese (mostly public) high school curriculum scandal continues to grow, with no end in sight. According to the Yomiuri, as of Oct. 27, 249 schools in 35 prefectures left one or more compulsory courses (or parts thereof) off the curriculum. This is particularly serious for the seniors in the schools affected because they are sprinting along the home stretch of their 12-year race to get into the best college of their choice and don't have time now to take up stupid subjects like ethics and world history.

So what's going on? A closer look shows that the richest provinces tend to follow the rules, while poorer, predominantly snow-bound prefectures dominate at the other end. And therein lies the tale.

At richer provinces, households there with the means to do so are abandoning the public high school system in droves, and the better and the brighter ones are largely bleeding out at middle school level. The local elite and middle class are switching to a six-year integrated private education system that makes it easy to accommodate all compulsory courses and still leave a year or more for unadulterated cram. Thus there is little pressure to cut classes in the public school system.

The students in the poorer provinces whose populations are scattered over wide areas with long winters that make commuting a terror do not have this choice. These students are at a disadvantage because they essentially only have the three high school years to prepare for the college entrance exams. Better then, to have them study something useful than use that time to take naps.

This problem is driven by the esteem in which the nation holds the hierarchy of colleges and universities and the nation's insistence on a uniform set of almost purely test-based admission rules. Unless something is done there, obeying any but the most uniformly restrictive of rules will merely deepen the divide between the haves, who can essentially buy their way through the rules, and the have-nots, who must bend them. Prime Minister Abe should pay more attention to this if he is serious about striking an educational blow against the kakusa shakai, i.e. society of disparities.

I am trying to shop an extended op-ed version. It will appear on this blog later if I am not successful.

(note) Editorials as of Oct. 27
Yomiuri Oct. 27, 2006.
Nikkei Oct. 27, 2006 English online version requires subscription.

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