“Why Johnny Cant Read_ but Yoshio Can”

					                                            “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can”

           “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can”
                                   by Richard Lynn

          Richard Lynn (b. 1930) was born in London and educated at King’s
          College, Cambridge. He now lives in Northern Ireland and teaches in
          the psychology department at the new University of Ulster. Lynn’s
          research shows his interest in national differences in personality and
          intelligence. The following essay, published in National Review
          (October 28, 1988), is drawn from his most recent book, Educational
          Achievement in Japan (1988). His essay title announces his contrast
          purpose: to explain why the Japanese are better students than
          Americans are.

1.      There can be no doubt that              between. In early adolescence, when
American schools compare poorly with            the first tests are taken, Japanese
Japanese schools. In the latter, there          children are two or three years ahead
are no serious problems with poor               of American children; by age 18,
discipline, violence, or truancy;               approximately 98 percent of Japanese
Japanese         children   take school         children surpass their American
seriously and work hard. Japanese               counterparts.
educational standards are high, and
illiteracy is virtually unknown.                4. Meanwhile, under the Reagan
                                                Administration, the United States at
2. The evidence of Japan’s high                 least started to take notice of the
educational standards began to                  problem. In 1983 the President’s
appear as long ago as the 1960s. In             report, A Nation at Risk, described the
1967 there was published the first of a         state of American schools as a
series of studies of educational                national disaster. A follow-up report
standards in a dozen or so                      issued by the then-secretary of
economically    developed     nations,          education. Mr. William Bennet, earlier
based on tests of carefully drawn               this year claims that although some
representative samples of children.             improvements have been made, these
The first study was concerned with              have been “disappointingly slow.”
achievement in math on the part of 13
and 18-year-olds. In both age groups,           5. An examination of Japan’s school
European children scored about                  system suggests that there are three
halfway between the Japanese and                factors responsible for its success,
the Americans.                                  which might be emulated by other
                                                countries: a strong national curriculum,
3.    Since then, further studies have          stipulated by the government; strong
appeared, covering science as well as           incentives for students; and the
math. The pattern of results has                stimulating effects of competition
always been the same: the Japanese              between schools.
have generally scored first, the
Americans last or nearly last, and the          6. The national curriculum in Japan is
Europeans have fallen somewhere in              drawn up by the Department of
                                            “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can”

Education.     It   covers      Japanese       specified in as much detail as in
language      and     literature,  math,       Japan. And now Britain is changing
science, social science, music, moral          course: legislation currently going
education, and physical education.             through Parliament will introduce a
From time to time, the Department of           national curriculum for England and
Education requests advice on the               Wales, with the principal subjects
content of the curriculum from                 being    English,    math,    science,
representatives of the teaching                technology, a foreign language, history
profession, industry, and the trade            and geography, and art, music, and
unions. Syllabi are then drawn up,             design. It is envisioned that the new
setting out in detail the subject matter       curriculum will take up approximately
that has to be taught at each grade.           70 percent of teaching time, leaving
These syllabi are issued to school             the remainder free for optional
principals, who are responsible for            subjects such as a second foreign
ensuring that the stipulated curriculum        language, or extra science.
is taught in their schools. Inspectors
periodically check that this is being          10. Under the terms of the new
done.                                          legislation, schoolchildren are going to
                                               be given national tests at the ages of
7. The Japanese national curriculum            seven, 11, 14 and 16 to ensure that
ensures such uniformly high standards          the curriculum has been taught and
of teaching that almost all parents are        that children have learned it to a
happy to send their children to the            satisfactory standard. When the British
local public school. There is no flight        national curriculum comes into effect,
into private schools of the kind that          America will be left as the only major
has been taking place in America in            economically      developed      country
recent years. Private schools do exist         without one.
in Japan, but they are attended by less
than 1 percent of children in the age          11.   To achieve high educational
range of compulsory schooling (six to          standards in schools it is necessary to
15 years).                                     have motivated students as well as
                                               good teachers. A national curriculum
8.     This tightly stipulated national        acts as a discipline on teachers,
curriculum provides a striking contrast        causing them to teach efficiently, but it
with the decentralized curriculum of           does nothing to provide incentives for
schools in America. Officially, the            students, an area in which American
curriculum     in   America      is the        education is particularly weak.
responsibility of school principals with
guidelines from state education                12. One of the key factors in the
officials. In practice, even school            Japanese education system is that
principals often have little idea of what      secondary schooling is split into two
is actually being taught in the                stages. At the age of 11 or 12,
classroom.                                     Japanese children enter junior high
                                               school. After three years there,
9.     America and Britain have been           they take competitive entrance
unusual in leaving the curriculum so           examinations for senior high schools.
largely in the hands of teachers. Some         In each locality there is a hierarchy of
form of national curriculum is used            public esteem for these senior high
throughout      Continental    Europe,         schools, from the two or three that are
although the syllabus is typically not         regarded as the best in the area,
                                            “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can”

through those considered to be good            examination hell: during this time,
or average, down to those that (at             which lasts fully two years, it is said
least by Japanese standards) are               that those who sleep more than five
considered to be poor.                         hours a night have no hope of
                                               success, either in school or in life. For,
13.    The top schools enjoy national          in addition to conferring great social
reputations, somewhat akin to the              and intellectual status on their
famous English schools such as Eton            students, the elite senior high schools
and Harrow. But in England the high            provide      a     first-rate  academic
fees exacted by these schools mean             education, which, in turn, normally
that very few parents can afford them.         enables the students to get into one of
Consequently       there     are     few       the elite universities and, eventually, to
candidates for entry, and the entrance         move into a good job in industry or
examinations offer little incentive to         government.
work for the great mass of children. By
contrast, in Japan the elite senior high       15.    Although Japanese children are
schools are open to everyone. While a          permitted to leave school at the age of
good number of these schools are               15, 94 percent of them proceed
private (approximately 30 percent              voluntarily to the senior high schools.
nationwide, though in some major               Thus virtually all Japanese are
cities the figure is as high as 50             exposed in early adolescence to the
percent), even these schools are               powerful incentive for academic work
enabled, by government subsidies, to           represented by the senior-high-school
keep their fees within the means of a          entrance examinations. There is
large proportion of parents. The public        nothing in the school systems of any
schools also charge fees, but these            of the Western countries resembling
are nominal, amounting to only a few           this powerful incentive.
hundred dollars a year, and loans are
available to cover both fees and living        16.    The prestige of the elite senior
expenses.                                      high schools is sustained by the
                                               extensive publicity they receive from
14.     Thus children have every               the media. Each year the top hundred
expectation of being able to attend the        or so schools in Japan are ranked on
best school they can qualify for; and,         the basis of the percentage of their
hence, the hierarchical rankings of            pupils who obtain entry to the
senior high schools act as a powerful          University of Tokyo, Japan’s most
incentive for children preparing for the       prestigious university. These rankings
entrance examinations. There is no             are widely reported in the print media,
doubt Japanese children work hard in           and the positions of the top twenty
response to these incentives. Starting         schools are announced on TV news
as early as age ten, approximately half        programs, rather like the scores made
of them take extra tuition on                  by leading sports teams in the United
weekends, in the evenings, and in              States and Europe. At a local level,
the       school       holidays        at      more detailed media coverage is
supplementary coaching establish-              devoted       to       the     academic
ments known as juku, and even at an            achievements of all the schools in the
early age they do far more homework            various localities, this time analyzed in
than American children. At about the           terms of their pupils’ success in
age of 12, Japanese children enter the         obtaining entry to the lesser, but still
period of their lives known as                 highly regarded, local universities.
                                              “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can”

17. Thus, once Japanese 15-year-                 Japanese corporations operate along
olds have been admitted to their                 the same lines, although they widen
senior high schools, they are                    their recruitment net to cover the next
confronted with a fresh set of                   forty or so universities in the prestige
incentives in the form of entrance               hierarchy. Thus, obtaining entry to a
examinations to universities and                 prestigious university is a far more
colleges,     which     are      likewise        vital step for a successful career in
hierarchically ordered      in      public       Japan than it is in the United States
esteem. After the University of Tokyo,           and Europe.
which stands at the apex of the status
hierarchy, come the University of                20. Secondly, like the elite senior high
Kyoto and ten or so other highly                 schools, the elite universities are
prestigious universities, including the          meritocratic. The great majority of
former Imperial Universities in the              universities are public institutions,
major provincial cities and the                  receiving     substantial    government
technological       university         of        subsidies. Again, as with the senior
Hitosubashi, whose standing and                  high schools, fees are quite low, and
reputation in Japan resembles that of            loans are available to defray
the    Massachusetts      Institute    of        expenses. In principle and to a
Technology in the United States.                 considerable extent in practice, any
                                                 young Japanese can get into the
18. Below these top dozen institutions           University of Tokyo, or one of the
stand some forty or so less prestigious          other elite universities, provided only
but still well-regarded universities. And        that he or she is talented enough and
after these come numerous smaller                is prepared to do the work necessary
universities and colleges of varying             to pass the entrance examinations.
degrees of standing reputation.                  Knowing this, the public believes that
                                                 all the most talented young Japanese
19. To some extent the situation in              go to one of these universities—and,
Japan has parallels in the United                conversely, that anyone who fails to
States and Europe, but there are two             get into one of these schools is
factors that make the importance of              necessarily less bright. Avoiding this
securing admission to an elite                   stigma is, of course, a further incentive
university substantially greater in              for the student to work hard to get in.
Japan than in the West. In the first
place, the entire Japanese system is             21.    The third significant factor
geared toward providing lifelong                 responsible for the high educational
employment, both in the private sector           standards in Japan is competition
and in the civil service. It is practically      among      schools.   This   operates
unheard of for executives to switch              principally among the senior high
from one corporation to another, or              schools, and what they are competing
into public service and then back into           for is academic reputation. The most
the private sector, as in the United             prestigious senior high school in
States and Europe. Employees are                 Japan is Kansei in Tokyo, and being a
recruited directly out of college, and,          teacher at Kansei is something like
needless      to    say,     the    major        being a professor at Harvard. The
corporations and the civil service               teachers’ self-esteem is bound up with
recruit virtually entirely from the top          the academic reputation of their
dozen universities. The smaller
                                            “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can”

schools—a powerful motivator          for      and dealing with losses, fraud,
teachers to teach well.                        counterfeits, and so forth, are likely to
                                               be too great for the scheme to be
22.     In addition to this important          feasible.
factor of self-esteem, there is practical
necessity. Since students are free to          24. The Japanese have evolved a
attend any school they can get into, if        different method of exposing schools
a school failed to provide good-quality        to market forces. Subsidies are paid
teaching, it would no longer attract           directly to the schools on a per-capita
students. In business terms, its               basis in accordance with the number
customers would fade away, and it              of students they have. If a school’s
would be forced to close. Thus the             rolls decline, so do its incomes, both
essential feature of the competition           from subsidies and from fees. This
among the Japanese senior high                 applies to both the public and private
schools is that it exposes the teachers        senior high schools, although the
to the discipline of the free-enterprise       public schools obviously receive a
system. In the case of the public              much greater proportion of their
senior high schools, the system can            income as subsidies and a smaller
be regarded as a form of market                proportion from fees.
socialism in which the competing
institutions are state-owned but               25.     A similar scheme is being
nevertheless compete against each              introduced in Britain. The Thatcher
other for their customers. Here the            government is currently bringing in
Japanese have been successfully                legislation that will permit public
operating the kind of system that              schools to opt out of local-authority
Mikhail Gorbachev may be feeling his           control. Those that opt out will receive
way toward introducing in the Soviet           subsidies from the central government
Union. The Japanese private senior             on the basis of the number of students
high schools add a further capitalist          they have. They will then be on their
element to the system insofar as they          own, to sink or swim.
offer their educational services more
or less like firms operating in a              26.     There is little doubt that this is
conventional market.                           the route that should be followed in
                                               America. The exposure of American
23.     The problem of how market              schools to the invigorating stimulus of
disciplines can be brought to bear on          competition, combined with the
schools has been widely discussed in           introduction of a national curriculum
America and also in Britain ever since         and the provision of stronger
Milton Friedman raised it a quarter of a       incentives for students, would work
century or so ago, but solutions such          wonders. Rather than complaining
as Friedman’s voucher proposal seem            about Japanese aggressiveness and
as distant today as they did then.             instituting             counterproductive
Although the proposal has been                 protectionist measures, Americans
looked     at    sympathetically      by       ought to be looking at the source of
Republicans in the United States and           Japan’s power.
by Conservatives in Britain, politicians
in both countries have fought shy of
introducing it. Probably they have
concluded that the problems of getting
vouchers into the hands of all parents,

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