The Grass is Always Greener': A Look at Educational Reform in the United States and Japan

Author:Joseph Strong
Position:J.D. Candidate at the University of Iowa College of Law
Pages:277-302
“The Grass is Always Greener”: A Look at Educational
Reform in the United States and Japan
Joseph Strong*
I. INTRODUCTION ..................................................................................... 277
II. THE TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE
STUDY ................................................................................................... 278
III. EDUCATION IN JAPAN ........................................................................... 281
A. The History of the Japanese Education System ........................ 281
B. Characteristics of The Pre-Reform Japanese Education
System ......................................................................................... 283
C. Changes in Japanese Curriculum .............................................. 285
D. Amendments to the Fundamental Law of Education ............... 286
E. Effects of the Changes in Curriculum and Amendments
to the Fundamental Law of Education on the Japanese
Education System. ...................................................................... 288
IV. EDU CATION IN THE UNITED STATES..................................................... 289
A. The Origins of Governmental Regulation of Education in
the United States......................................................................... 289
B. The Enactment of No Child Left Behind ................................... 291
C. An Example of State Accountability Under No Child Left
Behind: Iowa ............................................................................... 293
D. An Example of Curriculum Standards Under No Child
Left Behind: Iowa........................................................................ 293
E. Criticism of No Child Left Behind ............................................. 294
F. Positive Views of No Child Left Behind ..................................... 296
G. Changes to the Education System under President Obama ...... 297
V. CONCLUSION ......................................................................................... 300
I. INTRODUCTION
Within the past twenty-f ive years, the United States and Japan have
undergone significant changes to their respective education systems. In
Japan, these reforms resulted in an abandonment of the previous system
predicated on the creation of a uniform body of knowledge for all students, to
* Joseph Strong is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Iowa College of Law. The author would
like to give special thanks to Dr. Barbara Ramos, whose lecture inspired the topic of this Note.
TRANSNATIONAL LAW AND CONTEMPORARY PROBLEMS [Vol. 21:2 77
278
adopting a more “relaxed” 1 approach based on individu ality and creativity. 2
The reform in the United States was the inverse of Japan’s, disbanding a
system that was mor e individualized and largely void of govern ment
regulation for a highly regulated system based on the creation of a universal
body of knowledge with student achievement measured by rigorous
standardized testing.3 Recently, President Obam a stated his intention to
further reform the U.S. education system by allowing states to apply for relief
from many of the provisions of No Child Left Behind.4 These reforms leave
the U.S. education system at a very important crossroads.
This Note focuses on th e Trends in International Mathemat ics and
Science Study (TIMSS) measurement of student achievement under both of
these reformed education systems. This Note also considers whether the
nature and number of government regulations imposed on schools produce
better student test scores. This Note concludes by finding that, despite the
substantial controversy surrounding the No Child Left Behind Act,5 recent
trends in TIMSS scoring6 indicate that the United States shou ld hesitate to
disband the education system ushered in by No Child Left Behind for a more
“relaxed” system similar to that u sed in Japan.
II. THE TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE STUDY
This Note will use the TIMSS test as a baseline indicator for student
achievement in both Japan and the United States. The TIMSS test is an
internationally administered test give n to fourth- and eighth-grade students
for the purpose of “provid[ing] reliable and timely data on the mathematics
and science achievement of U.S. students . . . compared to students in other
countries.”7 Data from the TIMS S test was first collected in 1995, and the
National Center for Education continues to administer the test every four
years.8 This Note will li mit its focus to student scores in the area of
mathematics, as mathematics is one of the most “universal” areas of study
with the concepts being consistent across countries.
1 The new education initiative is known as yutori kyoiku, which can be translated as “relaxed
education.” Kathleen Morikawa, Been There, Done That: Reform Holds Japan’s Students Back,
49 WORLD PRESS REV., July 8, 2002, available at http://www.worldpress.org/Asia/652.cfm; PETER
CAVE, PRIMARY SCHOOL IN JAPAN: SELF, INDIVIDUALITY AND LEARNING IN ELEMENTARY
EDUCATION 223 (2007).
2 See infra Part III. C–D.
3 See infra Part IV. A–B.
4 Sam Dillon, Obama to Waive Parts of No Child Left Behind , N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 22, 2011,
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/education/23educ.html [hereinafter Obama to Waive].
5 See infra Part IV. E.
6 See infra Part II.
7 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS): Overview, NATL CTR. FOR
EDUC. STATISTICS, http://nces.ed.gov/timss/index.asp (last visited Apr. 3, 2012).
8 Id.

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