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High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan's Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan's Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

by Christopher Bjork
High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan's Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan's Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

by Christopher Bjork

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If there is one thing that describes the trajectory of American education, it is this: more high-stakes testing. In the United States, the debates surrounding this trajectory can be so fierce that it feels like we are in uncharted waters. As Christopher Bjork reminds us in this study, however, we are not the first to make testing so central to education: Japan has been doing it for decades. Drawing on Japan’s experiences with testing, overtesting, and recent reforms to relax educational pressures, he sheds light on the best path forward for US schools.
Bjork asks a variety of important questions related to testing and reform: Does testing overburden students? Does it impede innovation and encourage conformity? Can a system anchored by examination be reshaped to nurture creativity and curiosity? How should any reforms be implemented by teachers? Each chapter explores questions like these with careful attention to the actual effects policies have had on schools in Japan and other Asian settings, and each draws direct parallels to issues that US schools currently face. Offering a wake-up call for American education, Bjork ultimately cautions that the accountability-driven practice of standardized testing might very well exacerbate the precise problems it is trying to solve. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226309415
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christopher Bjork is professor and the Dexter M. Ferry Chair of Education at Vassar College. He is the author of Indonesian Education and editor or coeditor of many other books, including Education and Training in Japan, Educational Decentralization, Taking Teaching Seriously, and Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization

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High-Stakes Schooling

What We Can Learn from Japan's Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

By Christopher Bjork

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30955-2


Searching for Solutions

Education systems around the globe continually struggle to strike an appropriate balance between academically rigorous curricula and engaging instruction. In the United States, concerns about the nation's mediocre performance on international achievement tests — combined with expanding gaps between high- and low-achieving students — have generated enthusiasm for raising learning standards in the schools. Initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTT) place testing at the center of school reform in an attempt to pressure school districts to demand more of their students. Proponents of this approach assert that if school decision making is more directly informed by statistical measures of student achievement, teachers "will have a clear framework for creating a challenging and dynamic curriculum" (Bambrick-Santoyo 2010, 8). Data-driven instruction is presented as a more effective alternative to approaches that give teachers the autonomy to determine what and how they teach (Dyck 2006; Mandinach and Jackson 2012; Popham 2010). Although many school districts are still in the process of determining data-collection and -analysis procedures, reform currents push the school accountability movement forward. Districts that choose not to follow this trend risk losing credibility and funding.

In other locations, education planners are grappling with similar issues. Examinations have traditionally occupied a central position in the education systems of many Asian nations. But across the region, education planners have begun to reconsider the role that testing plays in schools. From South Korea to Singapore, observers lament that pupils may perform well on standardized tests but often lack the skills and attitudes necessary to become productive members of society. Responding to criticism that schools have become intense pressure cookers, education officials are encouraging teachers to pay more attention to the development of the "whole child." Reforms implemented throughout the region emphasize the need to cultivate children's creativity, critical thinking skills, and love for learning (Bjork 2006).

In Japan, testing has exerted a particularly powerful influence on education-related decision making. Interestingly, one of the first people to promote increased emphasis on examinations in Japanese schools was David Murray, an American who served as senior advisor to Minister of Education Mori Arinori during the Meiji reformation. Murray encouraged the Japanese to use examinations to determine advancement between grades, and as a mechanism for increasing student motivation (Amano 1990). By the 1920s, high-stakes tests were commonplace and the term "examination hell" (juken jigoku) had entered the Japanese lexicon. The emphasis on testing has been pointed to by some as an effective mechanism for securing students' commitment to studying — and by others as a primary reason that large numbers of children become stressed out and lose their interest in learning (Bjork and Tsuneyoshi 2005; Tsuneyoshi 2004b).

In the 1970s, the Japanese government began to consider strategies that might be used to overhaul its schools. A group of government officials and policy advisers, concerned that the rigidity of the education system was harming its students, asserted that practices that had served the nation well during its reconstruction after World War II required modification. Reports published by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in succeeding years emphasized the need to making schools more flexible and inspiring settings for learning. In 2002, after years of discussing and debating the merits of various reform approaches, the ministry enacted a series of reforms collectively known as "relaxed education" (yutori kyoiku). In attempt to relieve academic intensity in the schools, the school week was shortened to five days, the volume of concepts teachers were required to cover was reduced significantly, and the national Course of Study (gakushu shido yoryo) was revised to give students more opportunities to study topics that interested them. In addition, teachers were advised to incorporate more hands-on activities, problem solving exercises, and student-centered learning into their courses (Tsuneyoshi 2004a).

Introduction of these policies raised the possibility that a system known for its resistance to change would undergo major restructuring. According to ministry guidelines, curricula, pedagogy, and student-teacher relationships would all be modified to make learning less intense and more meaningful. Cave emphasizes the significance of yutori kyoiku, calling the movement "the most radical since the introduction of a national curriculum in the late 1950s" (Cave 2001, 179). The Ad Hoc Education Council labeled relaxed education the Third Major Education Reform initiative in Japanese history (the first two being the Meiji restoration and the post–World War II reconstruction). Not surprisingly, the reforms provoked intense debates about the direction of the nation's schools. Rarely does one pick up a newspaper or turn on the television in Japan without glimpsing a report examining the effects of recent changes in the schools. Reform advocates decry problematic aspects of the traditional schooling with as much fervor as critics of relaxed education trumpet the deleterious effects of test-driven instruction. Yet outside of East Asia, knowledge about this reform movement is limited. Impressions of the Japanese education system continue to draw primarily from reports published during the economic boom era.

Why Look East?

The fact that a system that only a decade earlier had been regarded as one of the most successful in the world was undertaking such a significant overhaul is intriguing. By the mid-1980s, Japan had "achieved one of the highest levels of quality for schooling, as illustrated by such measures as enrollment ratios, retention or graduation rates, daily attendance rates, and academic performance" (Fujita 2010, 21) in the world. Japanese students consistently scored near the top of global rankings that compared the performance of pupils on achievement tests such as TIMSS and PISA. Searching for clues for understanding "the so-called Japanese education miracle" (Arnove 1999, 6), Western countries looked to Japan for inspiration. In many instances, the Japanese education system was held up as a model deserving emulation. Why would a system that was enjoying such success undertake such an ambitious reform project? Could a system anchored by an examination system that produced cohesion and dependability — but also great stress — be reshaped to nurture children's individuality, creativity, and intellectual curiosity? And how would education stakeholders respond to the changes advocated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)? Would they support the ministry's vision for the future?

The answers to the above questions should interest individuals who follow the Japanese education system, as well as those with a more general interest in the effects of standardized testing on curriculum and instruction. Pushing children to reach their academic potential while maintaining their interest in learning is a daunting task. This is especially true in environments in which students are compared, ranked, and sorted. Even changes that seem minor on the surface can have a powerful effect on school cultures. When new mechanisms for determining academic success or failure are adopted, members of a learning community are expected to adjust their behavior to fit reform directives. Given the complexity of this process, it is not surprising that few fundamental reforms have had lasting impacts on school practice (Cuban 1990; Tyack and Cuban 1995).

Policies such as NCLB and RTT have cast their shadows over all K–12 schools in the United States. They have aroused strong opinions among parents, teachers, and administrators. More important, they are shaping the experiences of children who are compelled to attend school. Yet discussion of these policies tends to be driven by ideology rather than evidence. Ironically, at the same time that the US Department of Education is trumpeting the benefits of "evidence-based policies and practice" (NCLB 2001; Slavin 2002; USDOE 2007), it is implementing an ambitious reform agenda that lacks solid empirical foundation. Both NCLB and RTT are guided by the premise that high-stakes testing will galvanize teachers and schools across the country to elevate academic standards. According to advocates of these measures, a primary reason that US students do not excel on international achievement tests is that neither they nor their teachers have been held accountable for their performance. Instituting a challenging set of examinations and attaching rewards and sanctions to the results, it is argued, will provide the impetus for system-wide improvement. But the United States has had limited experience with the accountability systems that anchor the two initiatives. Even today, unreliable data make it difficult to "discern whether school reforms are, in reality, raising student achievement" (Fuller et al. 2006, 21).

Given the muddled reform environment in the United States, it makes sense to look abroad to deepen our understanding of the effects of high-stakes testing. Studying the outcomes of educational reforms introduced in other countries can provide valuable insights into the potential ramifications of policy decisions made at home. The field of comparative education is uniquely organized to yield such perspectives. As Harold Noah, a pioneer in the field, once posited, "Knowledge of what is being proposed and tried in cognate situations abroad is indispensable for reasoned judgment about what we need to do at home" (Noah 1984, 552). This is true even when the school systems and societies being analyzed differ from our own; their unique attributes can push us to think about education from distinct vantage points. Over the past half century, the governments that facilitated and maintained the most impressive progress in education all constructed reform plans after carefully studying strategies that have proven successful in other settings (Tucker 2011). American government officials, on the other hand, have rarely looked abroad for inspiration. Such insularity makes no sense, given the multitude of challenges that currently confront our schools. It is in our best interests "to compare broad goals, policies, practices, and institutional structures, as well as relative standing on common measures, in order to understand what another country is trying to achieve, how it has gone about achieving it, what it would have done differently, what mistakes it made, and it addressed them, which factors most account for its achievement, and so on" (Tucker 2011, 173).

This is an opportune moment to follow the advice of Noah and Tucker — to study Japan's experiment with relaxed education and apply the lessons learned to education decision making in other locations. Education pundits inside Japan may decry conditions in schools, but their students continue to excel on international achievement tests. As Tucker and Brown report,

The performance of Japan's students relative to those in the other OECD countries in mathematics and science is legendary, and their comparative performance on the PISA reading survey, though not in the top very ranks, is nonetheless impressive. There is nothing new about this consistently superior performance. Japan has placed at or near the top of the international rankings on all such surveys since they began. (Tucker and Brown 2011, 79)

The Japanese school system remains an important reference point for educators and policymakers in the United States. That is especially true now that American schools are grappling with issues tied to high-stakes testing. Individuals who find Japan's efforts to reduce academic intensity admirable — as well as critics of those changes — can benefit from careful study of the effects of the yutori kyoiku movement. The mechanisms used to build and refine the Japanese education system "should surely be considered by any country that wants to match its achievements" (OECD 2010, 154).

Components of Japan's Relaxed-Education Policies

"Relaxed education" refers to both a philosophical approach to learning and a concrete set of initiatives designed to support that vision. Definitions of the concepts are often ambiguous, as flexible as the form of education they promote. While MEXT documents frequently refer to yutori kyoiku, it is not always clear which specific programs or initiatives fall under that umbrella. In my study, I consider the following developments as the central components of the relaxed-education movement:

Shortened school week. Beginning in 1992, MEXT reduced the number of minutes Japanese students spend in school each year. The sheer volume of time children were required to attend school, some believed, was symbolic of the excessive demands placed on students and teachers. The decisions to cut the school week represented such a significant modification to traditional practice that it was introduced in stages. In 1992 — which could be identified as the beginning of the relaxed-education era — one Saturday per month was designed as a vacation day. Three years later, an additional Saturday each month was removed from the school calendar. Finally, in 2002, all public schools in the country were required to follow the comprehensive five-day school week (kansen shu itsukasei).

Modifications to the Course of Study. A series of revisions to the national Course of Study represented another significant step in the ministry's reform plans. Similar to the strategy used to reduce the school week, the curriculum was cut in small increments over a span of two and a half decades, announced in revisions to the Course of Study implemented in 1978, 1992, and 2002 (See tables 1.1 and 1.2). Although it is difficult to quantify the extent of these reductions, MEXT usually used a figure of 30% in reports on curricular changes. Ministry officials believed these changes were necessary after both media reports and government surveys attested that students' interest in studying was declining (MEXT 2002b). Reducing the number of hours teachers were required to devote to core academic instruction was regarded as one way to rekindle students' interest in academics. Trimming the contents of the Course of Study, MEXT asserted, would allow children to explore concepts in greater depth and to feel more engaged in the classroom.

Introduction of the Integrated Studies subject. The creation of a new subject called Integrated Studies (sogoteki na gakushu), which became part of the national curriculum in 2002, represented the symbolic embodiment of the relaxed approach to education advocated by MEXT (Bjork 2009). Schools could select topics for integrated study that fit the unique characteristics of their surrounding communities and the interests of their students. Ministry officials hoped that introduction of Integrated Studies (IS) curricula would catalyze substantial changes in instructional methodology, as well as students' views about learning. IS was regarded as a vehicle that would encourage the investigation of provocative issues that children face in their daily lives. According to MEXT guidelines, students would explore those topics in an integrated fashion, drawing from a variety of relevant disciplines, as one naturally does in looking for answers to real-life questions. Taking part in such investigations would make learning more stimulating and personally relevant for students. Although IS became a distinct course, no additional instructors were hired to teach this subject. Instead, teachers from all disciplines were expected to take part in IS planning and implementation.


Excerpted from High-Stakes Schooling by Christopher Bjork. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables

ONE / Searching for Solutions
TWO / Framing the Education Crisis
THREE / Examining the Impact of Reform Polices
FOUR / The Teaching Force
FIVE / Nurturing Enthusiasm in Elementary School Students
SIX / Responses to Change in the Middle Schools
SEVEN / Curricular Reform, Academic Achievement, and Educational Opportunity
EIGHT / Shifting Student-Teacher Relationships
NINE / Broadening the Discussion
TEN / US Teachers Reflect on Japanese Elementary School Instruction
ELEVEN / Looking Forward

Epilogue Acknowledgments Notes References Index

What People are Saying About This

Catherine Lewis

“Bjork thoughtfully traces a national education reform as it plays out in a group of elementary and junior high schools far from Tokyo. He argues persuasively that the high academic performance of Japan’s elementary schools is due to the absence of high-stakes testing, the accountability of strong human relationships within schools, and the attention to students’ social, emotional, and intellectual needs.”

Gary DeCoker

“This is the only book on Japan’s relaxed education reforms, from which there is much to learn, and Bjork’s approach—starting with classroom ethnography—brings an entirely different focus to the issue. With a solid grounding in ethnographic theory and current research on Japanese education, he delivers a clear and engaging assessment of Japan’s experiences with high-stakes testing and what America can learn from them.” 

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