Law in Contemporary Society

It's Not Your Grandfather's Segregation

-- By ShawnFetty - 26 Feb 2010

A Story

I team-taught English to middle school students for a year in the rural northeast of Japan. One day, I noticed a particularly disengaged boy. He was having trouble matching words with similar vowel sounds: unusual since most find this exercise very easy. When I read a series of words to him, he had no trouble circling the correct answer. Yet when asked to try the next problem on his own, the boy just shook his head and said, “Sensei, it’s impossible.” I let him be, assuming for the moment that he ascribed to the common belief that learning English is categorically impossible for Japanese people. Sometime later, another teacher clued me in on what the real problem was: “That student can’t write. He has trouble reading and writing even in Japanese. He’s dyslexic.” He laughed, and I, awkwardly, laughed with him.

Although seemingly disturbing cases like this exist, the Japanese system isn’t broken. After all, Japanese students consistently perform near the top on worldwide academic achievement tests [Note: they’ve fallen a few ticks in recent years]. More importantly, however, I think the system better socializes students than our own.

The Social Costs of Tracking in America

When I was in high school, local public school students were divided into five levels, ranging from honors to vocational studies to special needs. Educators call this practice “tracking.” In my experience, students on different tracks in American schools share the same building but otherwise rarely interact. Long lessons of history and human nature teach us that “otherification” is the natural quotient of such divisions. So, unsurprisingly, a sense of elitism and entitlement was palpable among the honors students I knew—which in turn led to resentment by lower-track students. Worse, while students are ostensibly tracked according to objective criteria (standardized test scores), in fact, lower-track students tend to come exclusively from minority and low-income households. Irrespective of any positive effect on their academic performance, tracking reinforces feelings of difference in our youth—inextricably tied to race and class.

What Makes Japan Different

--The obvious

Tracking in Japan seems to escape this problem. Indeed, stronger students often go out of their way to pull in students that appear disengaged. In part, this can be explained by acknowledging the difference in cultural context. For example, while Japan is not nearly as racially homogenous as the Japanese often suppose, the fact of the matter is, Japanese people believe their society is racially homogenous. Also, as a matter of tradition and social density, there is a somewhat greater expectation of interdependency among Japanese people than among Americans. Neither of these factors should be overstated, but they plainly influence how tracking affects students in Japan. Still, the structure of Japanese education bears more directly on how students work with and perceive each other.

--Increased academic diversity

While we track students into different classrooms within the same school, Japanese students are tracked into completely different schools based on entrance examination performance. Except for extremely elite schools, however, the range of admissible scores for a school is not especially narrow. The goal is eliminating extreme disparity and getting students the education they need rather than maximizing instructional efficiency. Thus, in contrast with American classrooms, students in a Japanese classroom may range from the academically inclined to those with no plans of graduating high school. The result is already more exposure to people of different academic ability than what occurs in American schools.

--Prioritizing interdependency

Acting on that increased exposure, other institutional mechanisms promote interaction among students. First, students are assigned to groups (“kumi”) that share both class schedules and broader responsibilities in the school. As there are no janitors in Japanese schools, such responsibilities include students spending part of each school day on cleaning the school grounds. Chores (cleaning the floors, bathrooms, shoveling snow, etc.) are rotated between kumi every few weeks, but students in a kumi are always jointly responsible for a given task. The shared responsibility and mandatory cooperation ensure that these duties are as much about community building as they are about maintenance.

Second, during the nineties, Japanese education reform put a greater emphasis on working collaboratively. Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese education system is no longer characterized by robotic droning and rote memorization. Group projects are common, and even for individual assignments, there is an expectation that stronger students tutor weaker students. All this, coupled with the intimate kumi setting, makes it very difficult for students to sit aloof and focus on their own achievements. Beyond cultural differences, the system structurally fosters interdependency among students in a way American education simply doesn’t.

What It Means

The Japanese education system cannot be imported to America. It works in Japan because of the underlying culture and the infrastructure of Japanese cities. Further, we should be mindful that the Japanese system is not without its own victims. The boy from my story, however, is not one of them. True, he often got bored in class, but when I asked him what he wanted to do after middle school, he was very excited to tell me about enrolling in an agricultural high school; he wanted to learn to be a farmer. He wasn’t at all alienated from his peers, and he had the distinct honor of being the very best pitcher on the baseball team.

We can look at Japan to get perspective on what’s happening with our own children. Tracking is often justified in America on the grounds that it improves academic achievement. This is intuitively attractive: in a society that puts great emphasis on improvement through competition, it seems natural that children, too, when exposed to increased pressure from their peers, will study harder—learn better. But even if that’s true, is it worth the social costs? We’re proud that all men here are born equal, but as early as elementary school, the system is letting them know that they’re not. We should give more consideration to this social harm.

I liked your essay. I think the American public school system is broken for greater reasons than tracking. I never went to a public school, but reading the literature, it seems that policies that involve severe budget cuts and No Child Left Behind is leaving so many children behind. Public schools, especially those in the inner City, need more MONEY. But with No Child Left Behind, the schools lose money if their children don’t perform well on the exams. It seems a little backwards to me. If the children are doing poorly on the standardized tests, shouldn’t the school get MORE money? That’s just my opinion.

Also the schools that suffer from lack of funds are not able to hire enough teachers to teach and help the students. There’s also overcrowding which makes the school environments a place where it’s more difficult to learn in the classroom.

I did a little chuckle when I read about the part of the kumi system where the students help clean the schools. America is such a litigious society that I shudder to think what would happen if schools made children help clean the school buildings. They would go bankrupt from the lawsuits.


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r14 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:27 - IanSullivan
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