Japan has three levels of government: national, prefectural and municipal. There are 47 prefectures, each with their own smaller municipalities (cities, towns and villages). The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is responsible for the education system from early childhood to upper secondary, including establishing national curriculum standards, setting teacher and administrator certification programs and pay scales and developing requirements for setting up schools. MEXT also allocates some funding to prefectural and municipal authorities for schools. Prefectures play a significant role in resource and personnel management. Municipalities are responsible for the supervision and day-to-day operation of schools.
At the prefectural level, there is a board of education comprised of five governor-appointed members; this board is responsible for appointing teachers to primary and lower secondary schools, funding municipalities, appointing the superintendent of education at the prefectural level and operating upper secondary schools.
Within municipalities there are boards of education appointed by the mayor. These boards are responsible for making recommendations on teacher appointments to the prefectural board of education, choosing textbooks from the MEXT-approved list, conducting in-service teacher and staff professional development and overseeing the day-to-day operations of primary and lower secondary schools. In the schools, principals are the school leaders, and determine the school schedule, manage the teachers and take on other management roles as needed. Teachers are responsible for determining how to teach the curriculum and for creating lesson plans, as well as being in contact with parents.
Public schools are funded by a combination of support from the national, municipal and prefectural governments. In public compulsory education, prefectures pay two-thirds and the national government pays one-third of teachers’ salaries. Public primary and lower secondary schools do not charge tuition, and government tuition support makes public upper secondary school essentially free for families making below an annual income threshold. Families earning above this threshold pay tuition at the upper secondary level.
Private schools also receive a great deal of public funding, with the Japanese government paying 50 percent of private school teachers’ salaries. Other forms of funding are capital grants, which go to private schools for specific costs, including new buildings and equipment. While private schools are considered to be more competitive and prestigious than public schools, public schools still account for the vast majority of primary and lower secondary schools. Private schools are a significant part of upper secondary schools, with about one in four upper secondary schools classified as private.
The Japanese government spends less on its schools than do many other OECD countries. Schools are functional but unadorned, and most schools have a very small administrative staff, with only a principal, an assistant principal, a janitor and a nurse. The focus of the funding is on teachers and students. In 2014, Japan spent 3.2 percent of its GDP on education – lower than any other OECD country and well below the OECD average of 4.4 percent. Japan spends US$9,062 per student in primary school, US$10,422 in lower secondary, and US$11,047 in upper secondary, compared to the OECD averages of US$8,733, US$10,235 and US$10,182, respectively.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
Schools are evaluated and inspected by municipal and prefectural board of education supervisors, who are expected to provide external guidance on school management, curriculum and teaching. Typically, these board of education supervisors are former teachers and administrators.
The National Assessment of Academic Ability, a set of examinations in Japanese, science and mathematics for students in grades six and nine, are not used as an accountability exam but average scores are shared with schools and prefectures so that they can identify weak schools or areas of policy that need attention.
Support for Low-Performing Schools
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 practice of circulating high-performing teachers and administrators among prefectural schools. These teachers are compensated with generous subsidies and given a formal introduction to the area, in addition to mentoring and professional development. 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.