There are significant differences between Japan and the United States in the organization and control of K-12 education. The centralized, national administration of the Japanese system can be contrasted with the dispersed, local administration of the U.S. system. These differences are perceived to have significant implications for the nature of K-12 education, with the belief that Japanese strengths lie in standardization and attention to detail and corresponding U.S. advantages lie in diversity and promotion of creativity. Although there are significant differences in the general structures of Japanese and U.S. K-12 education, a closer examination shows that in some respects the conventional view is distorted and oversimplified.
Japanese K-12 education is rightly seen as very successful in fulfilling its basic mission. The Japanese population is one of the most highly educated of any country in the world. Illiteracy has been almost completely eliminated, and Japanese students consistently are among the top performers in comparative studies of academic achievement. The educational system that is responsible for these accomplishments is a post-World War II phenomenon. The drastic changes in the educational system began in 1947, when they were enunciated in the Fundamental Law of Education, a law that has guided the educational system since that time.
National curricula in Japan define what is expected of children at each grade level and textbooks are written to conform to these standards. The Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture (Monbusho) sets high standards for Japanese students, but not so high that the average student, with appropriate instruction and practice, is unable to meet them. It is assumed that standards should be set so that all children are able to understand the material if they study and if the teacher presents the information effectively. Japanese parents reinforce the effort to maintain high standards because they are aware of the competition their child faces in his or her attempts to gain entrance into a university. Because numerical grades are used in the evaluation of their child's knowledge, the parent is also aware of where their child stands in relation to these standards.
Monbusho also defines the organization of the schools and the course of study. Schools throughout Japan follow the same general schedule. Monbusho directives describe the general curriculum and individual schools are allowed to organize their curriculum in the way they wish, as long as they do not deviate from the general outline. Monbusho guidelines also specify the number of hours that should be devoted to each subject.
The organization and control of K-12 education in the United States contrasts sharply with that of Japan.2 All children in the United States have access to a free public education, and most states require attendance until age sixteen.3 Control of structure and curricula lies with local communities and state governments. The number of days students are expected to be enrolled each year and the number of courses required for graduation are determined at the state level, but school districts and individual schools, often working with local school boards and committees, determine the time that should be devoted to subject matter and extracurricular activities. Unlike Monbusho, the U.S. Department of Education has no role in determining curricula or standards. The U.S. federal government does have influence on pre K-12 education through its funding for supplemental programs such as Head Start aimed at equalizing educational opportunities nationwide, collection and dissemination of information about education, and in facilitating national dialogue and debate on education issues. 4
Although both Japanese and U.S. public elementary and secondary schools rely heavily on decentralized funding support, the relative contribution by the national government is much higher in Japan (Figure 2-1 and Table 2-1). Inevitable differences exist between localities in the level at which they are willing or able to support public education. This factor, combined with the much greater heterogeneity of the U.S. population and school districts in terms of ethnicity,