Image: Kazuyo Arai and her class
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Teacher Kazuyo Arai, background standing, and her class listen to a student speaking at Honmoku Elementary School in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. Alarmed that its children are falling behind, Japan is adding about 1,200 pages to elementary school textbooks.
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updated 9/5/2010 12:24:08 PM ET 2010-09-05T16:24:08

When Mio Honzawa starts fifth grade next April, her textbooks will be thicker.

Alarmed that its children are falling behind those in rivals such as South Korea and Hong Kong, Japan is adding about 1,200 pages to elementary school textbooks, bringing the total across all subjects for six years from 4,900 pages today to nearly 6,100.

In a move that has divided educators and experts, Japan is going back to basics after a 10-year experiment in "pressure-free education," which encouraged more application of knowledge and less rote memorization.

"I think it's a good move. Compared to the education I got, I'm kind of shocked at the level my children are receiving," said Keiko Honzawa, a Tokyo resident and mother of Mio and her seventh-grade brother.

Japan's near-the-top rank on international standardized tests has fallen, stunning this nation where education has long been a source of pride.

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The textbook debate mirrors one in the U.S., where new Common Core State Standards for math and English adopted by 37 states aim to strike a balance between teaching content and how to use that knowledge in everyday life and unify different state requirements. In both countries, sliding scores on tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world, have helped drive changes in educational guidelines.

For Japan, the debate reflects a deeper anxiety as the country struggles to find direction in a world where its influence has waned. Its once-powerful — and now stagnant — economy has been overtaken by China's, and political leaders are grappling with how to deal with a bulging national deficit and an aging, shrinking population.

Signs that Japan's academic prowess is sliding have added to the consternation. Furthermore, the number of Japanese students studying abroad has fallen.

"There's a sense of crisis," said Hiroaki Mimizuka, a professor of education at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, who thinks the new guidelines are a step in the right direction. "With the year-by-year weakening of the competitiveness of our economy, there are serious concerns about whether our education system is working for a country with few natural resources, whose most valuable resources are its people."

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Others see the revisions as misguided and believe the emphasis on independent thinking needed more time to bear fruit.

"Just adding pages to textbooks and pushing for more memorization isn't going to get us anywhere," argued Koji Kato, professor emeritus of education at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Japan needs to invest in developing thinking people for its future."

Science and math textbooks will see the biggest additions, getting 60 percent more pages compared to earlier this decade. Among new concepts: Fifth-graders will learn how to calculate the area of a trapezoid and sixth-graders will learn about electricity.

An hour or two of school will be added each week, depending on the grade, and English will be introduced in fifth grade instead of seventh. Middle and high school students can expect similar changes in subsequent years.

Some fear this heralds a return to the "cram education" of the past that stressed memorization and was geared toward passing rigorous university entrance examinations. Though some colleges have introduced essay sections, they largely test ability to recall information, including finicky questions about English grammar that would baffle many native speakers.

Tens of thousands of children attend private "cram schools" in the afternoons to get an extra edge for these exams. Getting into the right university goes a long way toward determining one's job, income level and place in society — a system that many Japanese agree needs to change.

It was partly in reaction to criticism that the ministry of education about 10 years ago launched what popularly came to be called "pressure-free education." The aim was to boost students' skills in applying knowledge and expressing their own opinions, viewed as weaknesses in a system whose strengths have been in solving math problems and memorizing complicated "kanji" characters used in Japanese writing.

Curricular requirements were reduced, Saturday half-day classes were phased out, and teachers were told to take three hours each week to engage in learning driven by students' questions, such as "Why doesn't a sleeping bird fall from its perch on a branch?"

But ever since, Japan's PISA scores have fallen, setting off what the media here called "PISA shock."

Japan's rank in math in the test, conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, dropped from first in 2000 to 10th in 2006, the most recent year for which results have been released. Science rankings slid from second to 6th, and reading comprehension declined from 8th to 15th.

The slide is puzzling because the exam is designed to test the ability to apply knowledge in real-life situations — one of the supposed goals of "pressure-free education."

Japan's performance in another test that does measure knowledge acquired in school, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, has been mixed. Middle school students' rank in math has slipped from 3rd in 1995 to 5th in 2007, while their rank in science, which fell from 3rd to 6th in 2003, improved to 3rd again in 2007.

The current system has been a "huge failure," said Eiichi Kajita, president of International Pacific University, who helped craft the new curriculum guidelines. Education has become too child-centered, he argued.

"Teachers were told students should be supported, not taught," Kajita said. "We need to revive a respect for knowledge. We also need more discipline."

Mutsuko Takahashi, vice president of the Japan Teachers' Union, says teachers didn't get enough training on how to carry out the program's goals — something education ministry officials acknowledge. For their part, education ministry officials say the new guidelines are meant to better balance teaching fundamentals with promoting creative, independent thinking.

"We cut too much," said Kihei Maekawa, deputy director-general at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. "We're trying to adjust the course now. But as for the goal of training children to think for themselves, that's unchanged."

Japan's educational performance is still the envy of many countries, including the U.S., which ranked 29th in science and 35th in math out of 57 countries that took the 2006 PISA test. In fact, American experts have looked to Japan and other high-performing countries such as Finland and South Korea for guidance on setting up the Common Core standards.

Japan should be careful not to overreact and become too narrowly focused on the PISA subjects of math, science and reading, says Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core, an educational research organization in Washington.

Facing the prospect of teaching more material next year, Japanese teachers are pushing for smaller class sizes, which now can be as high as 40. The education ministry says it is considering the request and plans to hire more teachers.

"We're worried that this will just add more burden on teachers," said Takahashi of the teacher's union. "We already feel that we don't get enough time to prepare and be with the children."

She and others say that the textbook changes pale in comparison to what Japan really needs: a dramatic overhaul of its college entrance examination system — which few see happening soon because it is so entrenched.

"We need to break away from the past," says Takahashi. "There's a need to change the system so it's not based just on test scores. We need to rethink the entire system."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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