The school system in Japan consists of three years of optional kindergarten, six years of primary school, three years of lower secondary school, and three years of upper secondary school. Children are required to attend school for a minimum of nine years – six years of primary and three years of lower secondary education. Students who have completed lower secondary school, at about age sixteen, may choose to apply to upper secondary school. There are three types of upper secondary schools in Japan: senior high schools, colleges of technology, and special training colleges. Roughly 95% of Japanese students elect to continue on to senior high schools, each of which have their own admissions processes and requirements. Seventy-two percent of students go on to senior high schools, 24% go on to vocational education, and 4% take a combined general and vocational course of study offered in some upper secondary schools. The graduation rate from upper secondary school is 95%.
Senior high schools provide general, specialized and integrated courses. General courses are intended for students who hope to attend university, or for students who wish to seek employment after high school but have no particular vocational preference. Specialized courses are for students who have selected a particular vocational area of interest. Integrated courses allow a student to choose electives from both the general and specialized tracks.
Colleges of technology (Kosen colleges) typically offer a five-year program in different occupational areas. Students can also choose to complete upper secondary vocational education after three years and go directly to the workplace. Upon graduation, a student who completes five years of technology college is considered an “associate” in his or her field. Special training colleges offer vocational and technical education in a variety of degree programs, typically through the bachelor’s or master’s level.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), in conjunction with university professors and the Central Council for Education, establishes broad guidelines for the content of each school subject from pre-school education through senior high school. The curriculum for each grade level is carefully calibrated to pick up each year where the previous grade left off, and to ensure preparation for the following grade. Ministry specialists prepare teacher guidebooks in each subject with input from experienced teachers. These texts, compared to textbooks in many other countries, are very short and are focused on key concepts, rather than presenting a detailed and prescriptive curriculum. All schools use the same texts, though how a text is taught is teacher-dependent.
Primary school curriculum is divided into three main components: compulsory subjects, moral education and special subjects. Compulsory subjects are Japanese language, Japanese literature, arithmetic, social studies, science, music, arts and handicrafts and PE. Moral education and special subjects like homemaking are introduced as well. Moral education is intended to teach students to respect one another and the environment, to understand the importance of life, to respect the rules of society, and learn general self-control.
These compulsory subjects are continued in lower secondary school, with the addition of fine arts, foreign languages and a greater array of electives. In senior high schools, compulsory subjects include civics and geography and history in place of social studies in the general education track.
In primary and lower secondary school, Japanese teachers use “whole-class teaching,” which means all students are working on the same task at any given time. However, teaching rarely takes the form of lectures, despite relatively large class sizes. Students are expected to learn by doing and to learn from their peers, so small group work is commonly used, with the expectation that struggling students will find it easier to grasp concepts by watching their classmates work through them. Both correct strategies and mistakes are highlighted, so students can grasp the concepts that underlie the mathematics, enabling them to apply what they are learning to problems of a kind they have not seen before. Team teaching is increasingly used, so that different teachers can focus on different ability levels within the same whole-class lesson.
Japanese students are world-renowned for the amount of time they spend studying, and this is perceived as a problem in Japan. Until recently Japanese students attended school six days a week and spent many additional hours in “cram school,” or juku, to prepare for exams and to drill on the concepts they learned in the classroom. Juku are essentially a shadow school system in which students may spend up to 12 hours a week, particularly in the months leading up to university entrance exams. New reforms mean that students now spend five days in school per week instead of the previous six, but the prevalence of cram schools and private tutors has not changed. Students also continue to be assigned several hours of homework a day and summer vacation remains short. The cumulative effect of these extra-curricular hours spent learning is the equivalent of several more years of schooling than students in other nations get.
Students take school-developed exams at the end of lower secondary and upper secondary schools, both of which have an impact on their placement in the next level of the education system. Admission into senior high schools is extremely competitive, and in addition to entrance examinations, the student’s academic work, behavior and attitude, and record of participation in the community is also taken into account. Senior high schools are ranked in each locality, and Japanese students consider the senior high school where they matriculate to be a determining factor in later success. Following senior high school, a Japanese student’s future is dependent on their score on the national achievement exam, as well as their performance on the individual exams administered by each university.
Colleges of technology require their own set of entrance exams, while special training colleges do not. After three years in a special training college, students may apply to enter a college of technology. These students are eligible for higher education after completing an upper secondary course of two to three years.
The Structure of Japan’s Education System
Sarkar Arani, Mohammad, Fukaya Keisuke, and James P. Lassegard. (2010). “Lesson Study as Professional Culture in Japanese Schools: An Historical Perspective on Classroom Practice.” Japan Review, 22 (PDF)
Schools administer their own assessments at the end of lower secondary school (which may influence acceptance into upper secondary school) and at the end of upper secondary school. Upper secondary schools also require students to take entrance exams to determine their eligibility for admission, though these vary from school to school. The entrance exams for upper secondary school and university are so important in determining placement that they often are the sole educational concern of students in the years leading up to the exams. In order to enter university, students must take both a national entrance examination known as the “Center Test,” as well as individual entrance examinations required by their university of choice.
Teachers at all levels of schooling consistently assess their students through teacher-developed tests and other forms of student-based work. Homeroom teachers often spend many years with the same group of students and are involved with their lives outside the classroom, making the assessment process easier, more precise and more accessible to parents.
Japan has just recently begun to formulate national assessments, to be used for diagnostic purposes, starting with the National Assessment of Academic Ability in mathematics and Japanese. This assessment effort began in 2007, and was administered to students in grades 6 and 9. The results were used in revising curriculum guidelines and for policy planning. The National Institute for Education Research (NIER) conducts this assessment in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). NIER also conducts other diagnostic examinations when necessary.