THE WORLD'S BEST 5 IDEAS JAPAN How to fix our grade schools
By DENISE M. TOPOLNICKI Reporter associate: Baie Netzer

(MONEY Magazine) – If you live in a suburban U.S. school district that isn't plagued by violence or a high dropout rate, you may think that only our inner-city schools need improvement. Test statistics say you're wrong. The results of exams given in 1991 to kids around the world by the Educational Testing Service show that our top 10% of students compare favorably with other countries' brightest boys and girls. However, the other 90% don't even reach the average score attained by their foreign counterparts. When compared with their peers in 14 other countries, American 13-year-olds rank next to last in math and just one notch better than that in science. How can we ensure that all students, not just the gifted, learn the skills necessary to compete in the global economy? One idea is to get kids offto a better start by revamping our grade schools along the lines of Japan's. (We should not look to Japanese high schools for inspiration, however, since they overemphasize rote learning to prepare students for multiple-choice college entrance exams.) Japanese grade schools don't owe their success to lavish funding (per-pupil expenditures average just $2,243 a year, compared with $4,083 here), technological gimcrackery or trendy theories about empowering teachers, parents or students. Instead, Japanese elementary schools work for three simple reasons: They are open more days a year. By the time Japanese kids leave high school, they have spent the equivalent of two more years in school than American students have. Yet their daily schedules are actually less grueling than those of our kids (see the profile opposite). Japan's elementary school students get four or five 10- to 30-minute recesses and a 40-minute lunch period daily. Ours rarely get more than one recess and usually have half an hour or less to eat lunch. They follow a national curriculum. By setting uniform, minimum standards for learning during each grade, Japan's national Ministry of Education ensures that all students -- rich or poor, urban or rural -- are exposed to the basics. By contrast, the education plan President Clinton proposed in April would set only voluntary national goals, not mandatory ones, and even that modest proposal faces stiffopposition from state and local school officials intent on preserving their fiefdoms. They don't segregate students by ability. All Japanese grade schoolers are encouraged to master the same curriculum, even though some don't perform as well as others. Says Hiroko Oohisa, a fourth-grade teacher in Sendai, Japan: "About a third of my students seem slower than the rest, so I work with them after school because I want all of them to understand." In the U.S., on the other hand, gifted kids take advanced classes -- often taught by the most imaginative teachers -- while other students are relegated to "dumbed down" lessons that are less demanding. "The Japanese don't undermine their educational system by holding some kids to a lower standard," concludes James W. Stigler, co-author of The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education (Summit Books, $20). Stigler found no evidence that the brightest Japanese suffer as a result; 88 of the 100 fifth-graders who scored highest on tests he administered were Japanese. Only one was an American. One caveat: Whether we dismantle our tracking system or not, we should continue to provide extra help to students with serious learning disabilities. Indeed, the Japanese are studying our schools to determine how they might better serve children with special needs. Since Japan now spends 45% less on grade schools than we do, it shouldn't be expensive to adopt their ideas. Lengthening the school year will require more money, but those costs could be offset by increasing our class sizes. The number of students per class averages 40 in Japan vs. 24 in the U.S. Like the French, the Japanese don't think large classes impede learning. A final word to the unconverted: Despite extensive publicity about pervasive and sometimes fatal bullying in Japanese schools, student violence is far less common there than here, where one student in 20 claims to carry a gun. And contrary to popular belief, Japan's rigorous educational system isn't driving students to suicide. In fact, the suicide rate for 10- to 14-year-olds is more than twice as high in the U.S. as in Japan.