The Wrong Plan for Schools? Critics Say New Education-Reform Plans Don't Address Crucial Issues Affecting Students

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Caryl and Akiko Kashiwagi

For Ayumi Yabe, now 18, the agony started back in first grade. A boy in her class singled her out for harassment. "Go die!" he'd scream at her--and a crowd of others soon joined in. As she got older, still other boys took to harrying her with taunts and threats on the way home. Sometimes the bullies would push her to the ground and make her eat berries that made her sick. Most painfully, she says, her teachers refused to help. Once, after receiving a death threat from a fifth-grade classmate, she passed the note to her teacher, who then read it in front of the class. "Our school was so detached," she remarks. Small wonder that she soon began to think about finding a way out. "I began to wish I was dead. I just didn't have the energy to live."

Luckily for Yabe, her resourceful mom managed to track down a refuge--one of Japan's rare alternative schools. Most children in the country aren't so fortunate. In recent months the media have been rife with gruesome stories about school-age suicides, most of them apparent responses to an epidemic of bullying. In the eyes of many Japanese, that scandal merely mirrors the country's lingering education crisis. Experts say standardized-test scores are falling, and so is the motivation to learn among secondary-school students. Critics also say there is less order and discipline in today's classrooms. Bullying, long a problem, is said to be worse than ever. "I think the number of bullying cases has been rising sharply, but it's getting increasingly difficult to keep track because many are not straightforward," says Midori Komori, a housewife turned antibullying activist. (Since her daughter committed suicide after being bullied, she's been visiting dozens of schools to fight the problem.) "The nature of bullying has become entirely different from years ago. Thanks to mobile phones and the Internet, kids today can send a curse in a click behind the scenes, without alerting the parents of the bullied."

Small wonder, then, that the new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rushed to enact what the government calls a "bold" new plan to reform the schools. Last month Japan's Diet, or Parliament, easily passed the educational-reform bill. The problem, critics say, is that the plan isn't bold at all. Indeed, Abe now is facing a revolt from disappointed teachers, parents and even some of his own education experts, who say that the new bill does little more than institutionalize the teaching of morality and "patriotism" in Japanese schools and fails to address the day-to-day concerns of the country's beleaguered schoolkids. Critics say Abe's education plans don't even mention the need to promote more creative thinking among students--which experts have cited for years as a weakness in the system--and do not address other key issues, such as school vouchers and the reform of local boards of education. "Educational reform continues to go astray," blared the influential liberal daily Asahi Shimbun, which criticized Abe's education reform for its failure to address core problems.

The controversy has heightened concern about Abe's lack of leadership. Three months ago, following his deft handling of the North Korean nuclear test and his diplomatic overtures to China and South Korea, his approval rating was about 70 percent. But it's since plummeted to 47 percent, according to a recent survey, partly because of the public's growing unease about Japan's education system. …