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Some Thoughts on Why Japanese Students Are Better Than U.S. Students on International Mathematics Assessments

by James Harper
November 2001 back issues 

Much has been written about the fact that Japanese and other Asian students do better on international mathematics assessments than students in the United States. As an experienced fifth-grade mathematics teacher who spends considerable time thinking about how to improve my own instruction, I found myself wondering what in the Japanese educational system causes this difference. Is it the curriculum or the textbooks? Are Japanese teachers better prepared? Do they use superior teaching methods? Fortunately, I was able to pursue answers to these and other questions during two visits to Japan.

As a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholar and a Global Schools Partnership Scholar, I visited private and public schools in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kobe, and Nishinomiya over a period of five weeks in October 1999 and June 2000. During my visits, I observed in numerous classrooms, ranging from preschool to university levels, and attended lectures by current and former members of the Diet (the national governing body), monbusho (government education officials), superintendents, and principals. I also spoke with many of the teachers and officials at length, both informally and in public discussions, to gain a more in-depth perspective of what the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results mean for Japanese education. Much of what I learned is not new and supports what others have reported. However, I did learn some things that have not been widely reported or discussed and that might have implications for American mathematics education. In the following, I pose some commonly asked questions and offer tentative answers that are based on my own experiences.

Are families more involved in the education of Japanese children? 

Yes, in the sense that 65 percent of middle school students and 85 percent of high school students attend juku, or cram schools. My impression is that many mothers see their role in society as getting their children through their examinations in junior high and high school. This is dramatically different from the parents' preoccupation with nonacademic extracurricular activities in the United States.

Doesn't the better performance of Japanese students occur because Japan is a homogeneous society? 

I saw no evidence to support this claim, which I regard as outrageous. In my view the performance of Japanese students is more than likely attributable to such factors as the length of the school year—220 days in Japan, as opposed to 180 days in the United States.

Is the performance of Japanese students better because societal values toward education, and mathematics in particular, are higher than in the United States? 

Education has been highly prized in Japan for several centuries. Each aunt, uncle, and grandparent takes an active role in buying book bags, clothes, books, and so on for children in anticipation of each new school year. The first day of school is celebrated, and parents wear their most formal attire. I was told that mathematics problem boards are posted over the entrances to temples across Japan.

Are achievement expectations higher for Asian students overall? 

When I asked a teacher in Hiroshima what happens to students who do not master the lesson of the day, she told me "This doesn't happen! They will all master the lesson." I assume that she meant that all students would eventually come to an understanding; if not in class today, then after school, at home, or in mathematics juku school in the evening. Japanese teachers seem to have no tolerance for lack of mastery. Students who need more help simply go to more cram schools than other students.

Does more teacher collaboration occur, or are more varied methods of teaching mathematics used? 

Yes, more teacher collaboration goes on among grades and subject areas, primarily because all teachers' desks are located in the same large teacher workroom. Teachers typically move from classroom to classroom, whereas the students stay in their own room all day. However, I mostly observed teachers lecturing and modeling problem solutions and students then going to the front of the classroom to work out solutions on the board.

Are teacher preparation and in-service programs in Japan vastly different from those in the United States? 

As far as I could tell, beginning teachers have only two weeks in the classroom before they get a job as a teacher. But all the teachers whom I met and talked with were very professional; they all worked until 6 p.m. in one big teacher office all together, sharing ideas, student conference information, and plans for the next term.

Are textbooks different? 

One of the most astounding differences that I saw is the small 200-page paperback textbook that students are given early in each school year. Students are issued one textbook per semester: the books lack color, the type font is small, the book has no color pictures, and the few illustrations are sparsely spread throughout the text. Many American mathematics educators would find them dull and old-fashioned and would consider them to be completely lacking in motivational value. Only about five assessment items appear on each page, but they always seem to require a complete answer and use many skills, rather than just standard computation.

Teachers seem to focus on the underlying concepts, underlying causes, and the why of mathematics. I saw relevance often attached to mathematical situations, as well as real-life situations used in teaching; the teacher often used students' names as examples. In one second-grade class, students used little plastic bear counters and put them in groups for the first understandings of multiplication. Many students had all the algorithms written out on little cards for mathematics class. I asked one girl where she got the cards, and she replied that they were from her math juku class. It was a nice little reference that helped her remember the grammar of mathematics.

I could go on and on with my impressions, offering reasons for the better performance of Japanese students. Let me end by noting that although politicians like to oversimplify the reasons that students in the United States fared so poorly on the TIMSS, the real reasons are extremely complex. We have much to learn by studying Japanese mathematics education, but we must be deliberate and thoughtful with our conclusions.


James Harper has been teaching for eleven years in public and private schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. He is currently a fifth-grade mathematics and science teacher at Orangewood Christian School in Maitland, Florida. During the past two years, he has spent five weeks in Japan observing and analyzing mathematics instruction.



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