Time to Change Course on Education Reform: Addressing the Real Issue in Japan’s Schools

Society Education

The Japanese government’s drive to reform public education through controversial changes in the common university entrance exam has hit two major potholes, calling into question the very premises of the reform. A leading opponent of the plan criticizes the dogma-driven policy-making process, which ignores the real crisis facing public education in Japan.

Nakamura Takayasu

Associate professor, Graduate School of Education, University of Tokyo. Specializes in the sociology of education. Born in 1967. Graduated and received his PhD in education from the University of Tokyo. Author of Bōsō suru nōryokushugi (Meritocracy Run Amok) and other works.

The government’s drive to overhaul Japan’s university entrance exam system with an emphasis on “critical thinking” and “real world” English skills—one of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s pet projects—has hit two major potholes on the eve of the scheduled transition. On November 1, 2019, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Hagiuda Kōichi announced that plans to outsource English-language testing to the private sector were being postponed. Then on December 17, the minister pulled the plug on another centerpiece of the reform, the inclusion of written-response (as opposed to multiple-choice) questions in the Japanese and mathematics portions of the new Common Test for University Admissions, slated to replace the 30-year-old National Center Test for University Admissions in January 2021.

Precipitating the debacle was a televised gaffe by Hagiuda, who appeared to sanction unequal opportunity when he spoke of students competing “in keeping with their [economic] status” on the private English tests. But the reforms were controversial from the start. The new emphasis on spoken English was unpopular with educators, and the plan for outsourcing English testing raised serious questions about equal access and opportunity, among other concerns. With respect to the use of written-response questions, education experts and advocates questioned the ability of test administrators to ensure fair and accurate scoring. The government was ultimately obliged to admit that it had no answers to these concerns.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has said that it will take an additional year to study the issue of written sections and the best way to evaluate student proficiency on the “four skills” of English (reading, listening, speaking, and writing). It currently plans to introduce a new English-language testing scheme during the 2024–25 academic year, but it has offered no timeline for introduction of written sections. Meanwhile, pressure is building for further delay while policy makers rethink the premise of their reform plan.

A Dogma-Driven Reform

Among those fighting the current timetable is the Conference on Entrance Examination Reform (Nyūshi Kaikaku o Kangaeru Kai), a recently organized group of university professors and professional test-prep instructors. Professor Nakamura Takayasu of the University of Tokyo was one of the group’s founders.

“From the beginning, there was a lot of buzz on social media expressing concern about the reforms,” he explains, “especially in respect to the outsourcing of English testing. But the design of the new system was so untenable that we figured it would stall of its own accord. When it became clear that they meant to go through with it regardless, we became really alarmed. In August 2019, a group of us, including [Chūkyō University Professor] Ōuchi Hirokazu, [test-prep instructor] Yoshida Hiroyuki, and myself, launched the Conference on Entrance Examination Reform. In November and December, we submitted letters calling on MEXT to rethink its exam reform plans and postpone implementation of the new test.”

As Nakamura sees it, education policy makers, driven by dogma, closed their eyes to the realities of public education in Japan and tuned out the advice of experts and educators on the ground.

“There’s a tendency to associate entrance-test preparation with rote memorization of historical names and dates, English vocabulary, and so forth. Reform advocates in the ruling party and the bureaucracy presumably began with the assumption that we need to get away from the spoon-feeding and regurgitation of rote knowledge that dominates secondary education in Japan,” explains Nakamura.

This assumption pervades the 2014 recommendations of the Central Council for Education on “integrated reform of high school and university education,” which set the direction for reform of the entrance examination system. “The council repeatedly criticizes the emphasis on memorization and repetition of factual knowledge, arguing that it has left Japan unprepared to meet the future. It insists that students need to create knowledge rather than storing it up and calls for a shift from passive learning to an active, independent, student-driven approach.”

This is scarcely a new concept. In Japan, educational policy makers have been criticizing rote learning and evaluation ever since the establishment of the Ad Hoc Council on Educational Reform under Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro in the mid-1980s. The council called for a shift from a uniform, standardized education system to a flexible model that respected individual differences with a view to preparing Japanese citizens for the demands of “internationalization” and an information-intensive society. That was the starting point for a long procession of reforms guided by the same basic dogma.

“For more than three decades now, they’ve been reiterating this notion of reforming education to develop ‘new abilities’ adapted to the future—basic skills completely different from those of the past. But all they’ve really done is invent new jargon for the same abilities people have always valued. Furthermore, it’s all based on an inaccurate perception of what’s actually going in education today.”

A Global Snipe Hunt

Nakamura attributes such criticism of the education system to higher levels of educational attainment overall and the proliferation of information, compounded by growing social malaise and “insecurity about the future of our economy in a changing international environment.”

The trend is by no means unique to Japan. In the early 2000s, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development introduced the idea of “key competencies” in its Program for International Student Assessment. In a complex, fast-changing society where the specific knowledge and skill sets needed for success are difficult to anticipate, the OECD stressed the ability to use tools (such as language and technology) interactively, to interact in heterogenous groups, and to act autonomously as fundamental to success in a well-functioning society. Successive Japanese reform programs have likewise extolled such ideals as ikiru chikara—translated as “zest for living”—and “independent thinking skills,” as if they were new concepts.

“It turns out that it’s not so easy to identify new abilities. When people insist on coming up with something new anyway, what they end up with is just new names for abilities that everyone has to start with. In Japan, there’s this assumption that the West is more advanced than us, but people over there have been chasing their tails on education reform as well. Maybe the whole idea of molding our curriculum to a vision of society fifty or a hundred years hence is misguided. It seems to me that at a time when the future is so opaque, we should be looking back on what we’ve done to this point and, with that as a foundation, see how we can add to it.”

The Fantasy of Top-Down Reform

In regard to English teaching in particular, Nakamura accuses policy makers of pursuing a simplistic utilitarianism divorced from reality. In the face of widespread and vocal opposition from language-education specialists, they persisted in their determination to impose change from the top down by incorporating practical English communication skills into the university entrance exams. The plan to outsource the test to private companies was a total, albeit predictable, failure.

“The Japanese have an inferiority complex when it comes to English because a lot of people here study the language for ten years, beginning in junior high school, without achieving conversational proficiency. Businesses have lobbied for change because they want to hire university graduates who can hit the ground running. But the kind of English you need to function in the real world differs by industry and profession. The relative importance of reading, listening, speaking, and writing also varies. If the aim is professional and business proficiency, then it seems to me it would be faster to develop industry- or company-level language training programs than to try to engineer reform via the university entrance exam system.”

The architects and supporters of the recent reforms have high hopes that they can change the way secondary schools teach by changing the university entrance exams. Nakamura is skeptical. “When you change the exam, all that really triggers is a change in test-taking strategies,” he argues. “Adopt speaking tests, and immediately people will be offering tips and tools for passing specific exams. Is that what we mean by real-world English? I’m betting the outcome will be quite different from what the policy makers envisioned.”

Reality Check

Nakamura and other members of the Conference on Entrance Exam Reform acknowledge that a computer-graded multiple-choice exam like the National Center Test for University Admissions can only provide so much information about a student’s abilities. “Unfortunately, a lot of second- and third-tier universities rely on it because they lack the resources to design their own entrance exams,” he says. “But the answer is to use the National Center Test as one screening tool, while at the same time supporting alternative pathways, such as admission by recommendation or admissions-office [AO] screening [on the basis of grades, interviews, personal essays, etc.]."

AO screening and other alternative pathways offer precious opportunities for students from less advantaged high schools, “bad test takers,” and others whose potential may not be adequately gauged by the results of standardized multiple-choice examinations. According to MEXT, in academic year 2018, a full 45.2% of incoming Japanese university students were admitted by recommendation or on the basis of multiple factors under AO screening. Among private universities, the share came to more than half. Moreover, applicants to Japan’s most prestigious universities need to demonstrate much more than memorization skills in these institutions’ individual exams to outshine the competition. In Nakamura’s view, the belief that Japan’s university admissions process encourages a focus on mindless memorization is out of step with today’s realities.

Nakamura believes that the goal of “linking high school and higher education,” as touted by the Central Council for Education, should be pursued by providing support tailored to individual students, so they can fulfil their potential at university, rather than revamping the entrance exam system.

He feels that government policy makers should stop wasting their time trying to perfect the university entrance exam and start addressing the serious real-world challenges facing Japanese schools and school teachers today. “There’s a shortage of full-time teachers, so more and more positions are being filled by part-time and temporary staff. I know of cases in which faculty members had to take time off on account of illness, and the school was unable to find anyone to take over their duties. That can go on for a whole semester in some cases.

“In one Tokyo elementary school, a teacher resigned because the students in the class were out of control, and they couldn’t find a permanent replacement. The substitute teacher they brought in also quit in a hurry, so the vice-principal ended up teaching the class, but that didn’t work out either. The chaos spread to neighboring classrooms until the entire grade was in turmoil. Parents demanded extra staffing to deal with the situation, but there was no extra staff available. All over the country we’re seeing similar cases of serious dysfunction in our compulsory education system.”

The government sees little need to boost the ranks of full-time teachers, given the ongoing decline in the school-age population. But Nakamura and others argue that the demands of teaching have escalated drastically.

“As things stand today, schools lack the capacity to implement the reforms envisioned by the central government. Our policy makers need to recognize that more teachers are urgently needed to shore up the foundations of school education in Japan.”

In another example of reform by fiat, MEXT has decreed that English will become a required subject in the elementary school curriculum beginning in April this year. But the government has provided only meager budgetary support for the change. “It’s a thoughtless plan,” complains Nakamura. “If they want elementary school students to learn English, then they should design a real program and allocate funds to train elementary school teachers overseas, or hire qualified English-language instructors, or even pay junior high school English teachers extra to go and teach in elementary schools. Instead, they’re trying to do it on the cheap with some training course that elementary teachers are supposed to take in their spare time.”

Spare time is something Japan’s notoriously overworked schoolteachers have precious little of. Yet a law enacted in December 2019 as part of the Abe cabinet’s “work-style reform” actually raises the limit on overtime for public school teachers during busy periods, offering extended vacations during school breaks in return. Teachers are furious about the change, according to Nakamura.

“The teachers are saying that their responsibilities won’t allow them to compensate [for the extra overtime] by working fewer hours during summer break. If that’s the case, then what we’re seeing is yet another reform whose basic thrust is divorced from the realities of our schools.”

(Originally published in Japanese on January 17, 2020, based on an interview by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com. Banner photo: High school students prepare to sit for the National Center Test for University Admissions at the University of Tokyo’s Bunkyō campus on January 19, 2019. © Jiji.)

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