Originally Posted by rfrobison
A couple of quick points. I may have more to say later, if people are interested.
I should preface my remarks by saying I'm not an expert on the subject. I have impressions, rather than hard data. I taught English conversation in Japan for six years, mostly adults, and had no experience in public schools.
First, some of the stereotypes are true, I think. It's easier to teach kids who basically share the same cultural background, maybe, than to teach kids thrown together from all over the world, I suppose.
Ledocs is right, too, I think. Having a national curriculum is useful insofar as it allows teachers to focus on whatever is deemed pedagogically important. The tradeoff is, there's a lot less room for experimentation and innovation than you see in a decentralized system like that of the U.S.
Teachers do get a lot more respect here, or at least that's kind of how it feels to me. You'd never hear a saying like, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach," in Japan.
One thing that struck me teaching little kids here is that the smartest ones are respected by their peers. They're not eggheads. They're not curve-busters or brown-nosers. They're cool. That's a huge difference.
Parents, particularly mothers, are very involved in their kids' education, usually. And it's OK and in fact the norm for a lot of college-bound students to attend supplementary classes after school.
I get the impression that American educators focus a ton of resources on "hardware" -- buildings, computers, etc. Most Americans would be shocked at how spartan Japanese schools are by comparison. Many are old and tatty looking, and the kids have to clean their own classrooms at the end of the day. Imagine the hue and cry if little Mary or Johnny came home and said: "I swept the halls this afternoon." There'd be lawsuits over child labor and God knows what else.
In the U.S.'s defense, I'd say it does a lot better job handling kids at either end of the curve, so to speak. If you're a special needs kid, or a genius, chances are you're going to get the attention (or the chance to exercise your unique gifts) in ways that many similarly situated Japanese kids don't. They tend to fall through the cracks here. (DISCLAIMER: Again, that's merely an impression. I could be way off base.)
I think the part I bolded is key. In America we have a silly belief, peddled by the corrupt teachers unions, that we need tons of money to educate children--that's why funding per students has risen so dramatically over the past 35 or so years. Meanwhile, performance has stayed flat.
Online learning is a perfect analog, and Sal Khan explained it well. Originally, when people started developing computer-based learning, platform was everything--you had to develop a flashy design, have lots of graphics, a fun layout, etc. Well, then he came in and just scribbled on a simulated blackboard while speaking. And he's had far more success than any of the others.
In education, content is key. It doesn't take a ton of money. We could cut education funding in half so long as we had good directions and sent the teachers unions to the special hell.
It is interesting to note that the U.S. has far more Nobel prize winners -- admittedly many of them foreign-born -- per capita than Japan. And many of Japan's Nobel laureates got their awards for research done in the U.S. This says a lot about the rigid hierarchy of the Japanese education system. Japan loses a lot of young brainpower. Many gifted scholars aren't willing to wait until age 60 to move from bottle-washing, so to speak, to actual science.
It also shows the power of a multicultural society. As someone put it, the Chinese government can draw on the strength of 1.4 billion people--not bad. The US government can draw on the strength of 7 billion people, at least as long as the anti-immigrant Malthusians don't gain power. If we had a more open immigration system, we'd be even better off.
Another point that often gets overlooked is that the U.S. believes in second chances. How many people in the U.S. do lousy in high school, only to find their passion in college and go on to brilliant careers? It's very different in Japan, where one's fate is sealed at age 17 or 18 by how one does on the university entrance exam. Kids who fail can try again, and many do for a year or maybe two. But it pretty much comes down to how you do on that one test.
In some sense, we have that with the SAT though I don't think it's nearly as strict as Japan's system (or SK's, or China's). I was a mediocre high school student until my senior year (I was bored most of the time), but my SAT score demonstrated that I had the competency to handle college (despite taking it on around 3 hours sleep). Thankfully I didn't have to rely on only my GRE for grad school admittance--my undergrad grades were considerably better than my primary and secondary school grades.
To sum up, I'd say Japan probably does a better job of teaching kids the basics. If you're of average to above average intelligence, all other things being equal, you might learn more for less money in Japan. The environment is simply better. No guns, very few drugs, teen pregnancies very rare.
But if you're in any way "different" you're probably better off in a "good" U.S. public school.
I think we'd be much stronger in that department if we allowed greater specialization (this is what school choice can achieve). It makes no sense for all schools to spend tons of money on sports programs, particularly one that causes brain damage in those who play it.
So, I say let a few schools develop high level sports programs for students who wish to concentrate on sports. Let the others spend their money elsewhere. Some schools can concentrate on the liberal arts, others on engineering, and others on trade occupations.
Then universities could finally separate their semi-pro major sports teams from the university proper.