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Choice, Quality and Democracy in Education: A Comparison of Current Educational Reforms in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan - Part 2


The introduction of combined public junior and senior high schools, or six-year secondary schools, has been one of the major focuses of the current educational reform debates. In 1997, the 15th Central Council for Education (CCE) proposed the voluntary introduction of such schools as one of the special features of system reform. "Voluntary introduction" means that each prefecture can decide whether or not to introduce it and how many such schools will be established.

This matter has been at issue for some time, having been proposed by the ninth CCE in 1971 and then by NCER in 1985. It is now taking on all the more currency: In 1994, in Gokase, Miyazaki Prefecture, a combined public junior and senior high schools was opened as a special measure; at the end of 1996, Tokyo Metropolitan University announced a plan for the establishment of "an affiliated six-year secondary school"; and finally, in 1998, the School Education Law and related laws and regulations were revised to make the voluntary introduction of six-year secondary schools possible.

This is one of the major reform issues that has the potential for causing critical changes in Japanese elementary and secondary schools. Although the issue under discussion at present is the introduction of a small number of six-year secondary schools, an increase in that number would mean the reform of the current single-track, 6-3-3 school system and the spread of parental choice in the public sector of lower secondary education.

There are four critical problems associated with this reform measure: elitism; problems with school rank and tracking; problem with early selection; and the probable exacerbation of school maladjustment problems.

The problem of elitism was raised in the 1997 CCE report which proposed the introduction of six-year secondary schools and arguments of advocates of the plan who claim that this plan is not for creating elite secondary schools but for providing alternative public secondary schools and for improving public secondary education. According to their arguments, the advantages of this plan are as follows: 1) students in their secondary-school years will be released from the pressures of high school entrance examination; 2) because secondary education will not be disrupted by high school entrance examinations, more flexible and comprehensive education will become possible over the course of six consecutive years; 3) we will be able to watch the developmental process of students and meet their needs more appropriately over the course of six years; and 4)we can look forward to the educational benefits that come from broader contacts among students of a wider age range.

But it is clear that, even if these advantages are true, they apply only to a "chosen few," while the great majority of children will not be released from the pressures of high school entrance examinations, nor will they receive more flexible and comprehensive education and other presumed advantages. This single point makes it clear that the argument in favor of six-year secondary school is self-righteous and elitist.

Proponents of the plan also claim that its main premise is to lessen the competitiveness of entrance examinations. In order to ensure this, the 1998 Parliament which passed the bill revising the School Education Law to introduce six-year secondary schools made an attendant decision that public six-year secondary schools should not conduct the academic performance examinations for student selection. But, no matter how they conduct entrant selection, insofar as they recruit and select students from a city-wide area, these are schools only for selected students, or elite schools. Furthermore, as the reputation of these schools improves, more students will try to enter and the selection process will become more of a problem. As a result, a situation resembling that of Tokyo, where severe entrance examinations for private and national junior high schools are only too common, will spread to other urban areas.

In response to the criticisms mentioned above, policy makers and some advocates of six-year secondary schools suggest that we should expand this plan and increase the number of these schools. Others propose to combine all junior and senior high school. But neither of these makes sense in the context of Japanese schooling.

In the current system, about 65 percent of students attend public senior high schools, while the rest attend private or national senior high schools. Students can enter either public, national, or private high schools on the basis of their preference, their grade point average in junior high school and their score on the entrance examination. But, students can choose a public high school only within their assigned district while there is no such assigned district for national and private schools. Up until the 1960s, in spite of the existence of this assigned district scheme, public senior high schools, in general, were more prestigious and popular than private schools, and even now this is the case in almost all prefectures except for Metropolitan Tokyo. Since around 1970, however, in order to lesson the extreme competitiveness of the high school examinations, the entrance examinations and the assigned district system of public high schools were changed in Tokyo and several prefectures, making the assigned districts much smaller, restricting the rights of school choice in some prefectures and conducting entrant selection on the basis of grade point average in junior high schools and performance on entrance examinations. This local reform policy resulted in a drop in academic standards and in the popularity of public high schools, while those of private and national high schools rose. Accordingly, after about ten years, many local governments changed the system again to larger assigned districts in order to restore the popularity and academic standards of public high school. In general, however, this has not been successful. In fact, this is one of the major underlying concerns of local leaders in supporting the introduction of six-year secondary schools, because many national and private schools at the secondary level are already combined junior and senior high schools which prove a "cram" education oriented towards university entrance examinations.

Given this condition of secondary education in Japan, the proposal to make all junior and senior high schools six-year secondary schools is unrealistic, because it means depriving students of the right to choose a public senior high schools. If this becomes the case, then public schools will decline, while private and national schools will further improve. This is logically and structurally inevitable, unless either students are entitled to choose public six-year secondary schools like national and private schools, or unless national and private secondary schools are forced to recruit their students from an assigned catchment area as public schools should do. If the latter is possible, however, there is no reason to introduce six-year secondary school and would be enough just to abolish the senior high school entrance exam. On the other hand, if the former measure is adopted, then the problems of early selection at age 12 like entrance examinations for lower secondary education and school ranking will emerge at this stage. It is totally unimaginable that this would be accepted, while the present system of senior high school entrance examinations and its associated problems are being criticized.

The first proposal to greatly increase the number of six-year secondary schools has a similar drawback. Because these schools will ostensibly be established to provide better secondary education than ordinary junior and senior high schools, various policy measures such as allocating more financial and human resources will be adopted towards that end, as is the case at the Gokase combined junior and senior high school. However, as the reputation of these six-year secondary schools improves, more students will try to enter them and the selection process will become more problematic. The issue of school choice, moreover, will become more of a reality, for it will be unfair to students who enter ordinary three-year junior high schools that only six-year secondary school entrants are free to choose their schools. Accordingly, it will not be surprising that dissatisfaction will grow over the issue of why some students will have the right to choose their schools, while others will not.

If school choice becomes a possibility at the junior high school level, then Japanese public education will undergo an upheaval and problems such as school ranking at the lower secondary level, early selection (at age 12) and further deterioration of the school climate and the students' lives will follow.

The problems of school ranking and tracking that are now criticized for plaguing senior high schools will begin at the junior high school level. When schools are ranked from the junior high school level, junior high school entrance exam pressures will creep into and warp primary schools. The adage "one's fifteenth year is misery" will be replaced by " one's twelfth year is misery."

Moreover, primary school children may not be able to choose an appropriate junior high school according to their personal preference, and the background of their families will have even more influence on children's educational opportunities. It is often said that entrance exams which are common among private and national primary and junior high schools are less a competition between students than between parents, and the increase of six-year secondary schools will only spread this problem to public schools.

Although the advocates of six-year secondary schools stress the merits of contact between students of varying ages, the disadvantage will grow as the number of six-year secondary schools increases. There is too vast a difference in the development of 12- to 13-year old students and 17- to 18-year old students. The advantages of the "privileged schools" like current private and national combined schools or the pre-war five-year secondary schools for a "chosen few" have received much attention. However, when these schools expand to serve the needs of a large number of students, various difficulties associated with student life will obviously increase as we can now see from the situation at "educationally-difficult high schools" for students with learning difficulties or disciplinary problems. On the whole, school maladjustment problems will become even more serious than they are now, other conditions being equal.

As shown in NCER and CCE reports, as well as in various writings on education, policy makers and education critics repeatedly decry the decrease in educational support from families and local communities, while emphasizing the importance of the cooperation of schools, families and local communities. But, if six-year secondary schools proliferate and school choice spreads to the public sector, the lives of the students will become even more divorced than they now are from the localities in which they live. No reasonable explanations are provided to explain this contradiction.

As a whole, even though six-year secondary schools will have advantages for an elite few, for the majority of primary and secondary students, the disadvantages of this plan far outnumber its advantages. The question thus arises as to why the policy makers are eager to introduce six-year secondary schools and why we hear no serious arguments opposing it?

As mentioned above, there are several reasons - political, ideological, pedagogical, psychological, and structural. Politically, we are now in an age of reform. Politicians and higher government officials who are increasingly concerned with accountability are eager to carry out reforms. Ideologically, policy makers tend toward neoliberalism or neoconservatism in general, and to the belief in the necessity of deregulation and the functionality of the market mechanism in particular. Many people, especially those of the urban middle class, are increasingly inclined toward neoliberalism and consider greater choice and diversity in education more desirable. In pedagogy, progressive educational thoughts has spread significantly and many education critics and the media have criticized features of Japanese schooling like the uniform education, standardized curriculum, strict school management and disciplinary control for being outmoded and repressive, and they have proposed expanding child-centered education, open schools, diversity in education, and individuality in learning. On a psychological level, education critics and the media as well as policy makers who are seriously concerned about school maladjustment problems, have condemned Japanese schools for strict school management and discipline, for promoting a "cramming" education, for subjecting children to the heavy pressure of entrance examinations, and for causing various school maladjustment problems. Structurally, it is not surprising that reform movements which are fueled by these sentiments and have a tendency to shit from the present "one best system" of public education and centralized educational administration towards a system characterized by diversity in education, freedom of choice, local or site-based management, and market control. But here, we need to ask whether or not this is only the way to improve our children's education and lives. This is not only an important practical question for the future of Japanese education, but also an interesting theoretical question because a similar shift has taken place in many other countries including the United Kingdom and the United States.


Since 1980s, radical educational reforms have taken place in many countries including the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. In the United Kingdom, after the conservative victory in the 1979 election, the Thatcher and Major administrations worked enthusiastically to restructure English education and passed a series of Education Acts from 1980s to the early 1990s (Ball 1990; 1993; 1994; Brown & Lauder 1992; Department for Education 1992; Whitty & Edwards 1998; Whitty et al. 1998).

For example, under the 1980 Education Act, parents and students were allowed to choose state schools, and state secondary schools were forced to publish their examination results to provide parents with the information necessary for choosing schools. This Act also introduced the Assisted Places Scheme to enable able children of poor families to attend elite private schools using public funds. The major concern behind this Act was "to remedy the failures of 'monopolistic' public provision by enhancing consumer choice"(Whitty & Edwards 1998:212) although it was after the late 1980s that major changes began.

Under the 1986 Education Act, the school governing bodies were reformed to reduce the power of local education authorities (LEAs) and to increase the representation of parents and local business circles. City technology colleges (CTCs) were also created as a new type of secondary school funded by the central government and business sponsors. Although these CTCs were meant to cope with technological change and to improve technical and vocational training, they also indirectly reduced the power of the LEAs as they were run by independent trusts with business sponsors.

The 1988 Education Act, the most important educational reform act since the 1944 Education Act, further consolidated the restructuring process. Based on the provisions of this Act, the National Curriculum and the system of national testing were introduced to enhance the standards of schooling. At the same time, open enrollment and a per capita funding scheme were introduced to enable greater parental choice and to improve the quality of each school, forcing schools to compete with each other to recruit more students. The grant-maintained school policy was also adopted, by which existing state schools were enabled to "opt out" of their LEAs and obtain funds directly from the central government to operate the schools, although the number of schools that opted out was not as large as had been anticipated. Moreover, the local management of schools (LMS) policy, which was also adopted through the provisions of the 1988 Education Act, expanded the power of the school governing bodies, giving them more autonomy to control their own budgets and manage their own schools.

In addition, based on the 1992 Education (Schools) Act, a new central department, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) was established and the methods of school inspection were reformed to enhance the quality of education and standards of academic achievement (Ouston et al. eds. 1996). The role of OFSTED is to regulate and manage the new system of school inspection. Under this system, OFSTED inspectors, as registered inspectors, contracted the carrying out of school inspections, regulated and guided by the common Framework for the Inspection of Schools (OFSTED 1993b; 2nd version, 1994) and the Handbook for the Inspection of Schools (OFSTED 1993a, 2nd version, 1994). They have full access to all activities and professional documents of the school and are required to inspect schools in the areas of quality of education, standards of achievement; management of school finance, and the spiritual, moral and cultural development of the children. This new inspection system is important not only because it took over the responsibility for inspecting schools from the LEAs and thereby reduced their power much further, but also because it enabled the central government to monitor and control directly the work of individual teachers and schools by sending inspectors to watch their day-to-day activities and to judge the quality of their teaching and management. All of these reform measures were intended to change the system of public education and the framework of school management.

The main objectives and concerns of these reforms are clear. As has been pointed out in many books and articles (Ball 1990; 1993; 1994; Brown & Lauder 1992; Department for Education 1992; Whitty & Edwards 1998; Whitty et al. 1998), all these reforms were guided and justified by the objectives of enhancing the quality of public education and increasing the accountability of the educational system. To realize these objectives, all of the reform measures were intended to and were significantly successful in reducing the role and power of the LEAs and in undermining the autonomy of teachers, while, at the same time, increasing the voice of parents and business circles in public education, the regulatory power of the central government, and the control of the market. LEAs were "regarded from the right as self-perpetuating, self-interested and objectionably 'progressive' educational establishments that had consistently ignored and overridden the interests of consumers" (Whitty & Edwards 1998, 213; Seldon, 1986; Hillgate Group 1987; Sexton 1987) and they were condemned for the failures of British public education and for preventing state schools from improving themselves.

There are at least three elements which stimulated the government to carry out these radical reforms. First was the perceived failure of public education such as the decline in academic standards and the explosion of school disorder problems in the 1970s. Second was the decline of the economy and United Kingdom's international competitiveness as well as the deadlock situation of welfare state. Third was the rising tide of neoliberalism and neoconservatism which promote freedom of choice, a competitive market and small government, or " Thatcherism." We can see some similarity in these three aspects among the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, although the specifics vary, reflecting the educational and socioeconomic circumstances of each.


The basic landscape of American education, compared to that of Japan and the United Kingdom, seems more complicated, partly because the political and administrative system of education is far more decentralized, multi-layered and responsive, and partly because the school system is significantly more diversified and fragmented (Witte 1990).

For example, there is no national curriculum; the number of years of compulsory education varies from state to state; the grade organization of schools is diverse among school districts, with the 6-3-3 system in some districts and the 8-4 or the 5-3-4 system in other districts; there are a variety of private elementary and secondary schools, parochial, sectarian, or independent; and even the public schools are highly diverse in terms of curriculum and institutional organization, with a variety of magnet schools and alternative schools.

On the political and administrative level, there is no Ministry of Education; the role of federal government is limited to establishing general principles of school education such as educational rights and equality of educational opportunity, setting national goals and programs to realize these principles and improve education, and providing financial support to implement those goals and programs. The state governments set the basic structure of the school system including the number of years of compulsory education, district organization, teacher certification, graduation requirements and minimum standards. The local authority structure is also multi-layered with city and county governments, school district and school boards which are partly hierarchical and partly divisional.

This decentralized and multi-faceted nature is also seen in school finance. Historically, the major responsibility for funding public schools was left to local districts with property tax as the major source of revenue, But after World War II, state and federal governments began to expand their contribution significantly and states now provide the largest potion of school revenue. However, there is a functional division among these three financial providers such that both local and state funds are used basically for running the schools and state funds are reallocated to poorer districts; the federal funds are provided mainly for special programs to improve standards and promote educational equity through aids to the disadvantaged, handicapped, and disabled.

Furthermore, there are a variety of governmental and state agencies, professional associations, and organized interest groups which exert an influence over the educational policies and day-to-day management of public schools. The court, mass media, citizens, and parents and students also have an influence on public education through making decisions on legal cases, arousing public opinion, voting on education bills, or representing themselves on school boards. This is another aspect of the decentralized and diversified system of educational governance that makes educational policies responsive to various voices in society.

Taken together, these features give us the impression that American education is much more decentralized and diversified than countries like Japan, France and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, one of the major elements of the current reform movement sees American education as monopolistic and monolithic, criticizes it for being oppressive and inadequate, and advocates greater parental choice and more diversity in education. Another element regards it as socially expensive, inefficient, and inadequate in meeting the various needs of American society - in particular, the needs for cultural integration, liberal democracy, and economic success. It therefore advocates deregulation, marketization, and smaller government.

Both of these elements, however, agree in their beliefs in the market mechanism and individual responsibility both as consumers and as citizens. This convergence of these two major reform elements in this aspect, even though they differ in many other aspects, makes the current reform movement unique in the history of American education on the one hand, and on the other, concomitant with a new world-wide tide of reform criticizing the "one best model" of public education.

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