Japan Research and Analysis
through Internet Information

by Yasuharu Dando

Issues Behind the Problem of the Decrease in Scholastic Ability
(Japanese edition:2000/11/30)

The Ministry of Education (which has recently changed its name to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology) has stated its goal of "relaxed education," to be achieved by reducing the contents of curricula. This is at odds with the view of the National University Association, which hopes to get students to study more through increasing the number of subjects to be examined. However, both sides say that the reasoning behind their respective policies is the same: their common goal is to put the brakes on the drastic decrease in the scholastic ability of students. Why is it that, as is unfortunately so often the case, the two institutions are taking such completely opposite approaches? Might not the best approach to resolving this problem lie in quite a different area?

At the annual general meeting of the National University Association held on November 15th, 2000, it was decided that in principle seven academic subjects, in five educational curricula, would be tested at the University Entrance Examination Center. In the New Course of Study to be implemented in 2002, the contents of educational curricula are to be reduced by 30%. This year’s White Paper on Education, published on the previous day, November 14th, contains a statement that the Ministry of Education feels that "Implementing the New Course of Study will not lead to a reduction in scholastic ability." Nevertheless, people in the world of academia do not believe this statement, and are in revolt against the plan.

Last September the Second Standing Committee of the National University Association set forth a revolutionary plan that aims to put a stop to the reduction in scholastic ability of students, through "increasing the number of subjects covered by entrance examinations, and establishing a basic level of scholastic ability equivalent to that of a high school student." Depending on the university, nowadays the reality is that some places have only two or three educational curricula, but they will all have to revert to the common primary examination style of the 1980s. However, is it simply a matter of either "relaxed education" or compulsion to study extremely hard to pass entrance examinations? Are these really the only ways in which the problem of the reduction in scholastic ability can be tackled? Let us look more deeply, at the real root causes behind the issue.

A Battle over the New Learning Instruction Concept

Some examples of the reduction in educational contents by means of the New Course of Study are as follows. At primary school, students will not have to handle difficult mathematical problems such as multiplication of figures of more than two digits, and at middle school the number of words to be memorized as essential English language vocabulary will be reduced from 500 to 100. Figures will not be calculated to below two places of decimals, so when multiplying by pi (the circular constant), the 3.14 number will be simply calculated as 3.

Kazuo Nishimura, a professor at Kyoto University, investigated the calculating ability of university students today, and found that students majoring in the arts who had not taken an entrance exam in mathematics had extremely poor results. Surprisingly, even for science and engineering majors, in simple calculation problems that included minus figures, more than a third had incorrect answers. Since that is the current state of things nowadays, what will happen if further reductions in the requirements are made? "I am afraid that the 2002 New Course of Study will lead to the worst possible results, so it should be canceled immediately," Nishimura suggests.

According to the "Results of a Survey Related to the Decrease in the Scholastic Ability of Students" that was distributed to the teaching staff in all its departments by Osaka Kyoiku University, in response to the question of just when it was when the decrease in scholastic ability became obvious, 24% of the respondents said that it was in 1997 or later, while 26% responded that it was in 1990 or later, showing that many of those surveyed thought that this trend began in the 1990s. However, 13% said they thought it began earlier than the 1990s, in 1979 or later.

The reasoning behind the desire of the National University Association to return the number of entrance examination subjects to the "full line up" of before the 1980s is entirely understandable. That is exactly why the association is sailing full tilt in the exact opposite direction from the Ministry’s idea of taking things easy and aiming for "relaxed education."

In relation to this state of affairs, the Ministry of Education, which has the function of protecting the status quo, will brook no opposition to its view that there is absolutely no cause for concern that the reduction in subjects to be studied might lead to an even greater decrease in scholastic ability. The "New Course of Study," which introduced the fact that one third of all primary school students and half of all junior high school students cannot understand the meaning of even half of their lessons, states that "we have planned the program so that the basic fundamental contents of education will be very carefully selected, and so that children will be able to study in a relaxed atmosphere, enabling them to truly absorb what they are learning."

Moreover, this year’s White Paper on Education claims that "the level of educational content of graduates from high school will remain the same as it is now."

What Was Revealed by the Survey

Has there indeed really been a drop in scholastic ability? In fact, without a thorough investigation, even this point is not at all clear. That’s because, since the reduction in the number of children per family has led to a lowering of the hurdle of entrance examinations to get into universities, it makes perfect sense that the quality of students entering even universities that are hard to get into, has also gone down as a result.

According to Kawai Juku, one of the largest preparatory schools in the country, in clinical tests of students attending juku (cram schools) held every April, considering the fact that the same test questions continue to be used each year, the results of the first mock exam, which was given to about 200,000 students, could be used to divide students into four groups according to their exam results. A comparison was then made between the last students under the old system in 1995, and the students of 1999. Because students are divided into groups according to their deviation value, if there has been no decrease in scholastic ability, the results should be roughly the same.

Please refer to the attached Table No.1. In the highest deviation value group, there is only a very slight gap. In the upper middle deviation value group, there is a clear drop, shown by, for example, the decrease of around nine points in the percentage of correct answers in mathematics, while in the lower middle and lowest deviation value groups, the gap is even more obvious.

  Percentage of Correct Answers in Clinical Tests

              ◆Mathematics (for Arts)◆
                            1995  85.6%
      Top Group             1999  86.1%
                      Difference   0.5%

                            1995  74.8%
      Upper Middle Group    1999  66.1%
                      Difference  -8.7%
                            1995  61.3%
      Lower Middle Group    1999  42.3%
                      Difference -19.0%

                            1995  37.8%
      Lowest Group          1999  21.1%
                      Difference -16.7%

For arts stream students in the middle group, in mathematics, the percentage of correct answers was 61.3% in 1995 compared to 42.3% in 1999, a drop of 19 points. This means that children who used to score 61 now score only 42, something that even not very observant teachers must surely have noticed.

Looking at the results as a whole, the lower the level of the group, the more extreme the drop in the percentage of correct answers. Also, the trend towards a division into two extremes, of capable children and those who are not very capable, is progressing. For those children who are not getting good results, introducing the idea of "relaxation" might turn out to be completely ridiculous.

Children Don’t Feel Any Need to Study

Mr. Junichi Kawakami, a teacher at a junior high school, suggests the following.

"I really believe that ten or more years ago a type of "new child" that was completely different from anything before, appeared. This kind of child was characterized by being weak, but at the same time actually very strong, or you could even say aggressive.

"I feel strongly that there has been an enormous drop in the attitude to study, or the desire to learn, at school. If we compare middle school students of thirty years ago with those of today, there has been a dramatic decrease in their attitude towards learning at school.

"Basically, not only children but their parents as well seem to have lost sight of exactly what one needs to learn at a place called a school. At least, that’s how it seems to me."

If you think of the children of Peak 2 (in the Diagram) as a phenomenon embodying a copy of the way of life of those in Peak 1, there are many things that become easier to understand.

    [Diagram]Trends in Numbers of Junior High School Students  
    (Unit:10,000 people)
  800|          Peak1
     |             *
  700|            ***
     |            ****                      Peak2
  600|       **  ******                      ***
     | **   **** *******                  *********
  500|**********************          *****************
      1948      1958      1968      1978      1988      1998(Year)

Before the first oil shock, it was usual to go out into society and get a job and to covet security in a rapidly growing society, feeling no need at all to lay out a new way forward, becoming an executive who follows the policy of previously trod paths and earns a lot of money. The results are a reflection of such a way of life.

I would like to tell you about an episode at the training center of a certain local bank. At an open seminar aimed at bank clerks, from the level of brand-new staff up to bank manager class, with no restrictions on age, about 60 employees were gathered. They were given a problem of calculating compound interest, and not one of them could produce the correct answer. In order for one’s income to increase to 1.585 times what it is now in 16 years, what annual percentage of yearly income increase would be needed? All they had to do to figure out the answer was to use a calculator which included a square root calculating function.

If this kind of knowledge of figures had no connection to their present work, the story would be different. "For working with assets, calculating compound interest is absolutely essential. If you operate the assets using this particular rate of interest, about how much will it become in how many years? To answer a question like this, they could work it out simply by repeatedly using the multiplying function. Nevertheless, at some stage knowledge related to logarithms and indices depending on the setting of the required value, will also become vital. It is impossible to view this kind of knowledge as being outside one’s area of expertise."

In most cases local banks provide one of the best places of employment in local areas. It seems to me that the true state of affairs of those "financial experts" and the fact that the recent mistakes in the tables displaying JR prices is spreading also to the private railway companies, as being closely connected. Bank employees and railway company workers -- weren’t these both the very people that we thought were taking their work responsibilities in society most seriously? In fact, it turns out that they weren’t using their own brains to do their work. What we thought of as professionals were nothing much at all.

A high educational level, and hard-working -- these terms are often heard, but which nationality could they be referring to? It is clear that companies that employ people are neither making use of individuals’ true abilities nor properly evaluating them. From individual corporations to bureaucratic organs, as a result of an enormous building up of the style of following previously accepted ways, Japan is showing signs of becoming a "country that does not move." We would like to be able to claim that, even without knowing any of the details or particulars, children are aware of their parents’ ways of life, at an instinctive level. At the deepest stage of the problem of the reduction in scholastic ability, the real "root cause" is the way of life of the children’s parents.

The "new children" went on to university in the 1990s. The fact that the subject of the current discussions is children who are different from those of the 1980s is something that the National University Association does not seem to be fully aware of. I cannot believe that their way of handling the issue will be successful.

(special thanks to translation by PHP Institute Inc.
"JAPAN CLOSE-UP" March 2001)

Related work!!---"Large amount judgment of invention countervalue projects Japanese corporate society."
--------------"A Worst Possible Beginning to University Reform"
(under printing by "electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies" May 2004)

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