The Wrong Plan For Schools?

For Ayumi Yabe, now 18, the agony started back in first grade. A boy in her class singled her out for harassment. "Go die!" he'd scream at her--and a crowd of others soon joined in. As she got older, still other boys took to harrying her with taunts and threats on the way home. Sometimes the bullies would push her to the ground and make her eat berries that made her sick. Most painfully, she says, her teachers refused to help. Once, after receiving a death threat from a fifth-grade classmate, she passed the note to her teacher, who then read it in front of the class. "Our school was so detached," she remarks. Small wonder that she soon began to think about finding a way out. "I began to wish I was dead. I just didn't have the energy to live."

Luckily for Yabe, her resourceful mom managed to track down a refuge--one of Japan's rare alternative schools. Most children in the country aren't so fortunate. In recent months the media have been rife with gruesome stories about school-age suicides, most of them apparent responses to an epidemic of bullying. In the eyes of many Japanese, that scandal merely mirrors the country's lingering education crisis. Experts say standardized-test scores are falling, and so is the motivation to learn among secondary-school students. Critics also say there is less order and discipline in today's classrooms. Bullying, long a problem, is said to be worse than ever. "I think the number of bullying cases has been rising sharply, but it's getting increasingly difficult to keep track because many are not straightforward," says Midori Komori, a housewife turned antibullying activist. (Since her daughter committed suicide after being bullied, she's been visiting dozens of schools to fight the problem.) "The nature of bullying has become entirely different from years ago. Thanks to mobile phones and the Internet, kids today can send a curse in a click behind the scenes, without alerting the parents of the bullied."

Small wonder, then, that the new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rushed to enact what the government calls a "bold" new plan to reform the schools. Last month Japan's Diet, or Parliament, easily passed the educational-reform bill. The problem, critics say, is that the plan isn't bold at all. Indeed, Abe now is facing a revolt from disappointed teachers, parents and even some of his own education experts, who say that the new bill does little more than institutionalize the teaching of morality and "patriotism" in Japanese schools and fails to address the day-to-day concerns of the country's beleaguered schoolkids. Critics say Abe's education plans don't even mention the need to promote more creative thinking among students--which experts have cited for years as a weakness in the system--and do not address other key issues, such as school vouchers and the reform of local boards of education. "Educational reform continues to go astray," blared the influential liberal daily Asahi Shimbun, which criticized Abe's education reform for its failure to address core problems.

The controversy has heightened concern about Abe's lack of leadership. Three months ago, following his deft handling of the North Korean nuclear test and his diplomatic overtures to China and South Korea, his approval rating was about 70 percent. But it's since plummeted to 47 percent, according to a recent survey, partly because of the public's growing unease about Japan's education system. Experts say that improving the school system is necessary to foster future global leaders, boost the productivity of the Japanese economy and, by extension, strengthen the country's creaky welfare state, which is under severe strain from a rapidly aging population.

Reformers say that Japan's education system is too rigid, bureaucratic and obsessed with rote learning and conformity, to the detriment of students. The Ministry of Education runs the school system with an iron fist; it has strict guidelines for teacher hiring, establishes the curriculum and mandates how student problems should be handled. Bullying, say social experts, is a manifestation of the pressure kids are under to succeed. Kids in hypercompetitive classrooms seem to require little incentive to gang up on each other. One favored tactic: the silent treatment, which can translate into entire classrooms resolutely refusing to dignify the target with greetings or routine chitchat.

Reliable statistics are elusive, but the number of bullying cases handled by the National Police Agency hit 165 in 2005, compared with 93 in 1997. Many social commentators argue that the problem is, in fact, much worse, since many (if not most) cases simply aren't reported to teachers or school administrators. Worries about the issue peaked last fall, when at least seven children committed suicide in a two-month period. Bunmei Ibuki, Japan's minister of Education, Science and Technology, blamed the problem on deteriorating social morality and said: "We have to seek ways to restores ties among families and the community, which are now shifting their responsibilities onto teachers." The MOE is supersensitive about the bullying problem--so much so that the agency insists, astoundingly, that there were no student suicides linked to bullying between 1999 and 2005.

Komori begs to differ. Her daughter committed suicide in 1998. Komori has spent the past eight years trying to get information pertaining to her daughter's death from the high school she attended. But neither the school nor the MOE will provide any details. Now she's taking the school to court. The case is all too emblematic, Komori says, of an entrenched bureaucratic mentality. "The basic rule is, you look the other way," she says.

Reformers assert that individual schools need more autonomy when dealing with issues such as bullying, and should be allowed to hire teachers from varied backgrounds to help nurture creativity. Abe supposedly agrees. But the new law only gives more power to the MOE. "[The reform] will increase government control and reinforce the current trend toward intensifying competition in school," insists Yoshihiro Izumi, a 51-year-old Tokyo elementary-school teacher who recently joined 5,000 other protesters in front of the Diet objecting to the new bill, which they fear would increase the state's oversight. "I believe that bullying occurs in a society where human rights are oppressed."

An education-advisory panel is now studying how Japan can revitalize its schools. The group is supposed to make its recommendations to Abe in late January. The final report must be vetted by the Ministry of Education and politicians from the ruling LDP, who reformers say would rather not see existing policies radically modified. If Abe wants to convince voters that his heart is in the right place, he may have to come back to the education issue and show that he's genuinely committed to reform.