IT is sometimes said that the Japanese and American educational
systems are elitist, effectively serving only a small percentage of
In Japan, the charge focuses on university entrance examinations
and the intense competition that exists for admission to the most
Criticism of the United States more frequently deals with the
neglect of poor children and the plight of minority students.
All educational systems are elitist in that they are
hierarchically organized. What differs is the point at which
selections are made for each level of the hierarchy. Japanese
students are not classified until junior high school. In the US,
classification may start in kindergarten.
The Japanese population has become one of the most highly
educated of any country. Only in higher education does the system
falter. Japanese colleges and universities appear to function in
many ways as waiting stations, where students spend four relatively
unproductive years, biding their time until they join a company and
receive the training necessary for them to function successfully in
What about the United States, which has invested heavily in
colleges and universities to create a system of higher education
whose excellence attracts students from all over the world? As in
Japan, one aspect of American education is seriously marred: The
typical American elementary or high school student consistently
receives scores below the average of peers in developed nations.
Yet despite the fact that approximately 14 percent of US
students - compared with around 4 percent in Japan - drop out of
high school, 62 percent of white high school graduates went
directly from high school to college in 1989. Even minority
students entered colleges at a high rate: 48 percent of African
Americans and 53 percent of Hispanic Americans.
The reputed elitism of the Japanese and American educational
systems is based partly on stereotype and myth. In both countries,
the percentages of students who enroll in some type of secondary
education are among the world's highest.
Even in Japan, known for the severity of the competitiveness
among students for college entrance, 32 percent of high school
graduates enroll in some form of higher education and another 30
percent receive vocational education beyond that obtained in high
The Japanese Ministry of Education goes to great lengths to
provide all elementary-school students with equal opportunities.
All schools follow a national curriculum. An effort to equalize
opportunity is also evident in the lack of tracking or ability
grouping in Japanese elementary schools. Special classes for gifted
students do not exist: They would be regarded as displaying unfair
favoritism, thus violating the egalitarian philosophy on which the
elementary-education system is built. Teaching in Japan is directed
at the whole class, with little small-group instruction. …