Student Support Systems
The Japanese believe in achievement through hard work, and this belief is carried through in the government’s policies when it comes to student support. The Japanese education system is predicated on heterogeneous, age-based groups of students in each classroom. Thus students who are particularly talented are not removed from the classroom and placed in “gifted” classes or allowed to skip a grade. The same is true for struggling students. Instead of being sent to separate classes away from their peers, the needs of struggling students are addressed in the classroom. These students are expected to progress to the next grade with their classmates.
Just as struggling students are expected to work hard to improve, teachers are expected to put in the necessary effort to allow their students to succeed. To that end, they have a number of resources at their disposal. They can provide individual attention within a lesson, while students are working independently; students can receive after-school instruction from their primary teachers; and teachers regularly meet with one another to discuss how to help their struggling students. Parents, too, are expected to take a role. Teachers communicate regularly with all students’ parents, and in particular will provide information and advice to parents whose children are underperforming. Parents are expected to buttress the teacher’s efforts at home, and to seek professional help if the problem cannot be easily remedied.
Although Japanese educators expect struggling students to work hard in mainstream classes, there are measures in place for students with special needs. Special education is provided in three ways: in special schools, in special classes and resource rooms within normal schools, and/or within the normal classroom. The type of special education a child receives is based on his or her disability. Whenever possible, Japanese educators try to keep students with mild to moderate learning disabilities in class and on track with their peers. Separate schools are reserved for students who cannot learn the same way as children in normal schools, including students who are blind, deaf or otherwise handicapped. According to the Center for US-Japan Comparative Social Studies, in 2003, 1.6% of Japanese students in primary and lower secondary school received special education.
For students who do not necessarily have special needs but who have difficulty keeping up with the rigorous standards set by the curriculum, classmates are expected to help one another. Both the struggling and the excelling students benefit from this expectation, because tutoring another student reinforces the concepts for the stronger student while the entire process reinforces the sense of community within the classroom.
The Japanese government believes that staff is often the key to turning low-performing schools into average or high-performing schools. They have developed the innovative practices of circulating high-performing teachers and administrators among prefectural schools. This strategy ensures equitable access to the most capable staff for low-performing schools, while allowing staff from low performing schools to get a sense of how higher performing schools are run.
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The new National Assessment of Academic Achievement helps school boards evaluate which schools are in need of help. Additionally, the government has established Community Schools, which are managed by local school management councils in addition to being subject to oversight from the board of education. Community Schools have been in place since 2004, and are growing in popularity. Under the system, boards of education designate certain schools as Community Schools. Parents and other community members are appointed to councils that are responsible for school management, including the budget and educational programs. Councils can also make preferences about staffing decisions known to the municipal school boards, who are supposed to respect the councils’ requests. Because they have close supervision from community stakeholders, these schools can thrive.