TOP > Papers & Essays > School & Teachers > Choice, Quality and Democracy in Education: A Comparison of Current Educational Reforms in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan - Part 1

Papers & Essays

Choice, Quality and Democracy in Education: A Comparison of Current Educational Reforms in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan - Part 1

Since the 1980s, a new tide of privatization and marketization in education has emerged in many countries, making "choice" one of the major issues of educational policy and raising questions about the "one best system" of public education. Prior to that, the "one best system" regulated and provided by the state has been admired; whereas today's reform movements have attempted to move away from it and to create a decentralized and diversified system.

In the United States, "choice" and "excellence" have been two major, divisive themes. In the United Kingdom, "excellence" and "control" are two major, overlapping themes. In Japan, "individualization" and "deregulation" have been two major, concurrent themes. This chapter first examines major rhetorical and structural features of the current reform movement in Japan; second, to make a brief overview of recent reform waves in the United States and the United Kingdom; third, identify similarities and differences among these three countries; and finally, discusses the role of public education as a "quasi-public good" and the issue of governance/control of education in a democratic society. These issues are important because education is a social theory which function as one of the major organizing principles of our society.

education reform, choice, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan


Since the 1980s, a new tide of privatization and marketization in education has emerged in many countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, making "choice" one of the major issues of education policy and raising questions about the "one best system" of public education (Tyack 1974 & 1990). Prior to the 1980s, education reforms promoted the establishment of the "one best system" of state mandated, state funded and state provided education; whereas today's reform movements have attempted to move away from that model and to create a decentralized, diversified system (Clune & Witte eds. 1990; Whitty et al. 1998). This chapter attempts to identify the background factors and concerns of this new tide, to examine the rhetoric of the reformers, the nature of the reform measures adopted, and discusses the role of public education in a democratic society.

Actual issues and reforms vary from country to country, reflecting the current perception of the state of education, the structure of the educational system, and the social and historical background of education in each country (Clue & Witte, eds. 1990; Whitty et al. 1998). In the United States, "choice" and "excellence" have been two major, divisive themes of current reform movements. The current policy debates have taken place against the backdrop of these two themes with "choice" as the horizontal axis and "excellence" as the vertical one. In the United Kingdom, "excellence" and "control" have been the two major and overlapping themes. Reform measures such as the introduction of the National Curriculum, National Assessment Tests and new schemes for public funding were expected to improve the quality of schooling and to reduce the role of local education authorities; they resulted in making market choice and school autonomy major policy and research issues. In Japan, "individualization"(quality of schooling) and "deregulation" have been two major, concurrent themes, based on the general perception that the current education system is highly centralized, very egalitarian, meritocratic, and efficient. These features are perceived as having caused various problems such as school disorder and causing the obsolescence of the system in the face of changing society. Various reform measures and argument have tended to induce the spread of general concerns about individual choice and the accountability of the schools (Fujita 1992a; 1992b 1993c, 1995, 1996a; 1996b; 1997a; 1997b; 1997c; 1998a; 1998b).

Then, the questions arise: Why has the tide of reform movements seemingly been reversed? What forces have been promoting spread of this new tide? What will be the results of the current reform movements and the arguments surrounding them? To answer these questions, this chapter first examines the major rhetorical and structural features of the current educational reform movement in Japan. This examination will introduce the Japanese situation to researchers who may not be familiar with it as well as to examine the nature and rhetoric of the current reforms and the issue of school choice in the Japanese context. It then presents a brief overview of recent reform in the United Kingdom and the United States and then compares these three countries to clarify similarities and differences among them. Finally, in a reappraisal of public education, it discusses the following issues: (1) the nature of education as a "quasi-public good" and a market choice; (2) the relationship between individual choice as a consumer and civil right and social justice; (3) the nature of education as a common, fundamental good for a democratic society. These issues are important because ideas about and the system of education form one of the major organizing principles of our society.


In 1984, the National Council on Educational Reform (NCER) was set up as an ad hoc advisory committee to the Prime Minister by the Nakasone administration and launched the third major educational reform in Japan. The first was the establishment of a modern educational system in the Meiji Restoration period and the second was the post-war educational reforms intended to make Japanese education democratic in curriculum and pedagogy, and egalitarian in opportunity.

For three years after its establishment, NCER discussed a wide range of subjects including problems in Japanese schooling from preschool education through higher education. It released more than 30 newsletters and submitted four reports to the Prime Minister, setting both the neoliberal and the neoconservative agenda of the subsequent reform movements. In 1987, in response to these reports, the Ministry of Education established the Headquarters for the Implementation of Educational Reform (HIER) with the Minister of Education as chairperson and the government issued a policy paper entitled "Policy Guidelines for the Implementation of Educational Reform."

Based on the recommendations of NCER and "Policy Guidelines," various reform measures and policies have been introduced and implemented. Among them, the following are the major ones which I see as critical and problematic: (1) the five-day school week policy which first changed one and then two Saturdays per month into days off and from 2002, will make all Saturdays days off, resulting in the reduction of class hours and educational content; (2) the introduction of combined junior and senior high school education (six-year secondary schools) which will inevitably lead to the transformation of the existing single-track 6-3-3 school system into partially multi-tracked one; (3)the policy of relaxing the neighborhood "assigned" school system in elementary and lower secondary education which, along with the introduction of the six-year secondary school, will make "school choice" a major issue of the next decade and will bring with it the problems of school ranking and tracking at the lower secondary education level.

Many reforms were also implemented at upper secondary and tertiary education levels. The following are particularly noteworthy: reorganization and diversification of upper secondary education through such measures as the establishment of comprehensive schools and schools which operate on a credit system, and the expansion of elective subjects; revision of the teacher certification law and teacher training program to improve the quality of the teachers; diversification of university entrants selection procedures; establishment of the University Council which has discussed a wide range of subjects in higher education and recommended various reform; revision of the national standards for the establishment of higher education institutions to enable each individual university to develop distinctive educational programs; expansion and diversification of graduate programs; and the expansion and systematization of lifelong learning programs.

All of these reform measures, combined, will give outside observers some idea about the current state of educational reform in Japan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, these and many other reform measures were recommended by NCER, the 14th, 15th and 16th sessions of Central Council for Education, the Teacher Training Council, the School Curriculum Council, the University Council, and the Lifelong Learning Council, and were implemented by the Ministry of Education and its HIER. Thus, it seems that we are now in an Age of Educational Reform.

In the following pages, I will focus mainly on reforms related to elementary and secondary education, especially lower secondary education, although some reference will be made to higher education as necessary. This is because, in Japan, the issue of public education is now centering on compulsory education.


Amidst these radical reform movements, the following questions must be addressed as Japanese education appears to be at critical crossroads: Why does Japan need to carry out these reforms? Are they really appropriate and effective? What will be the outcomes of these reforms?

As far as reform measures and policies related to elementary and lower secondary education are concerned, these are the questions which have been on my mind with a growing sense of crisis since the mid-1980s and which I have often been asked by many scholars and teachers in Japan and abroad. Accordingly, since the late 1980s, I have written many articles and a book criticizing especially the above-mentioned reform measures and the rhetoric behind them (Fujita 1991; 1992a; 1992b; 1993a; 1993b; 1995; 1996a; 1996b; 1997a; 1997b; 1997c; 1998a; 1998b; 1998c).

It seems clear that Japan has achieved one of the highest levels of quality of schooling in terms of enrollment ratio, daily attendance, retention or graduation rates, equality of opportunity, standards of teaching, and academic performance. For example, six-year elementary and three-year lower secondary education is compulsory and free: about 97 percent of youth of high-school age are enrolled at three-year senior high schools, most of which are public (about 63 percent in terms of enrollment), and over 90 percent of these students graduate from high school; about 40 percent of college age are enrolled at four-year colleges and universities and about 60 percent are enrolled at higher education institution like four-year colleges and universities, two-year junior colleges and two or three-year special training schools. The daily attendance rates of elementary and secondary schools are above 95 percent; equality of opportunity is secured by the single-track 6-3-3 school system, the neighborhood school system at the elementary and lower secondary level and meritocratic entrance examinations for senior high schools and universities. The high quality of teaching and learning has been demonstrated by the three international comparative studies on student performance in mathematics and science conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in 1964-70, 1978, and 1994A95, every time with the average scores of Japanese students being among the top three countries. The results of these comparative studies and Japan's post-war economic success have attracted the attention of other countries to Japanese schooling and it has been highly appraised since the 1980s.

However, there are many problems to be dealt with. Among them, many educational critics and policy makers have considered as critical: (1) School disorder problems and related problems such as school vandalism, violence against teachers and peers, bullying, school phobia, and prolonged absence from school, all of which have increased since around 1980; (2) administrative and managerial aspects like the rigorous entrance examination for senior high school and to university, centralized educational administration and national curriculum and old-fashioned school rules and excessive control over students' life, which have been increasingly criticized for putting children under too much pressure due to examination, making school seem unattractive and inflexible, and causing school life to deteriorate; and (3)socioeconomic changes like the rise of the information society and the emergence of new economies from computerization and globalization, which have changed the nature of work and industrial management.

Therefore, the question is whether these problems should be addressed by changing the existing system of schooling; that is, by such reform measures as the implementation of the five-day school week, introduction of six-year secondary schools, and movement toward school choice. The answer seems to be no. The reason is that these measures are concerned with educational opportunity, the allocation of educational resources and the definition of public education, but not with educational knowledge and practices. Moreover, they will not eliminate school disorder problems nor improve the overall quality of schooling, and they may even exacerbate the situation by changing the structure of opportunity and differentiating junior high schools in terms of allocated resources and status. This is evidenced by the example of schools in countries where the five-day school week has been the rule for a long time; where a multi-tracked school system with elite secondary institutions has remained in existence; where parental choice of elementary and secondary schools has been allowed and has grown; where entry selection procedures are more diverse; and where educational practices are assumed to be more progressive and students are likely given more freedom than in Japan. In spite of these features which are antithetical to those of Japanese schooling, since the 1970s, schools and teachers in those countries have also been faced with various problems like vandalism, violence, bullying, and truancy.

Nevertheless, the reform measures in Japan have been implemented, oddly enough with no serious investigation into their effectiveness nor with arguments opposed to them. Why? It is, I think, because the field of educational policy-making in Japan is dominated by the forces of sensationalism, neoliberalism, and neoconservatism, and reformism.

Since the 1980s, the reform movement has been fueled by moralistic sentiments which see school problems like violence, bullying and prolonged absence as indications of the failure of Japanese education and it is argued that leaving them as they are is a sign of neglect. That viewpoint has relied on teleological arguments and vague, untested expectations that these problems can be solved through the measures like the implementation of five-day school week and the creation of six-year secondary schools.

The reform movement has been promoted by progressive, neoliberal, and neoconservative argument, which overlap with each other to a significant extent. Many educational critics committed to progressive ideas have emphasized individuality, self-realization, self-cultivation and freedom in learning, and argued that the "cramming" education, standardized curriculum, uniform teaching, and strict school management obstruct authentic learning, a stress-free life, and the development of individuality and creativity. Neoliberals have stressed the importance of freedom and choice in education, criticized the state monopoly on schooling, and argued that freedom of school choice and having a variety of alternative schools are the prerequisites for releasing children from the pressure of entrance examinations, for repairing the deteriorating school climate, and for improving the quality of schools and children's lives. Neoconservatives, mostly economists and business leaders, have emphasized the necessity for deregulation and the improvement of education to cope with socioeconomic changes like computerization and globalization, and they have argued that market competition is more effective than state monopoly because it will stimulate creativity, raise incentives to learn, and thus improve education. The mass media and critics have repeatedly brought up serious cases of bullying, violence against teachers and peers, and juvenile crimes; commented that these cases and the reported statistics are only the tip of the iceberg and that our children are being damaged by too much education and distorted schooling. They have suggested that it is our moral duty to save our children from such a suffocating situation and that urgent radical reforms are called for.

These arguments, orchestrated together, brought on a new tide of neoliberal and neoconservative reform efforts. This new tide is not only both neoliberal and neoconservative at the same time, but also seems to have an aspect of "reform suprematism." Reform itself seems to be the goal, not the means to improve education. Policy makers are now eager to proceed with reforms for their own sake in Japan's radically changing political landscape. This change began in the late 1970s, but accelerated especially after the breakdown of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR and other socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. That is, ideological opposition finally came to an end; political parties repeated factional alignment; politicians became more responsive to the public, at least in appearance; and the notion of accountability began to spread. The collapse of Japan's "bubble economy," the subsequent economic and financial crisis, and the rise of the new global economy accelerated this process and forced the government to deregulate and restructure the economy. Under these circumstances, deregulation and reformism became a general trend in the field of policy making, and educational policy was no exception.

Unfortunately, however, current policy arguments and reform measures in elementary and secondary education seem to be irrational and deceptive. Proponents of the current reform movement always bring up school disorder and maladjustment problems and justify the reform measures by saying that they are coping with these problems. But, there is no rational reason nor any evidence to show that these problems will be solved by above-mentioned reform measures. These measures have nothing to do with school disorder problems but much to do with the structure of educational opportunity. To illustrate these weakness in the current reform arguments, let us consider the problems associated with the introduction of six-year secondary schools.

Write a comment

*CRN reserves the right to post only those comments that abide by the terms of use of the website.


Japan Today

CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia

About CRN

About Child Science


Honorary Director's Blog