The Role of Parents and Community in the Education
of the Japanese Child
In Japan, there has been an increased concern about family and community participation in the child’s education. Traditionally, the role of parents and community in Japan has been one of support and less one of active involvement in school learning. Since the government commenced education reforms in the last quarter of the 20th century, a more active role for parents and the community in education has been encouraged. These reforms have been inspired by the need to tackle various problems that had arisen, such as the perceived harmful elements of society’s
preoccupation with academic achievement and the problematic behavior of young people. In this paper, the following issues are examined: (1) education policy and reform measures with regard to parent and community involvement in the child’s education; (2) the state of parent and community involvement at the eve of the 20th century.
Key Words: active involvement, community, education reform, Japan, parents, partnership, schooling, support
Introduction: The Discourse on the Achievement Gap
When western observers are tempted to explain why Japanese students attain high achievement scores in international comparative assessment studies, they are likely to address the role of parents and in particular of the mother in the education of the child. Education mom is a phrase often brought forth in the discourse on Japanese education to depict the Japanese mother as being a pushy, and demanding home-bound tutor, intensely involved in the child’s education due to severe academic competition. Although this image of the Japanese mother is a stereotype spread by the popular mass media in Japan and abroad, and the extent by which Japanese mothers are absorbed in their children is exaggerated (Benjamin, 1997, p. 16; Cummings, 1989, p. 297; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 82), Stevenson and Stigler (1992) argue that Japanese parents do play an indispensable role in the academic performance of their children. During their longitudinal and cross-national research project, they and their collaborators observed that Japanese first and fifth graders persistently achieved higher on math tests than American children. Besides reciting teacher’s teaching style, cultural beliefs, and organization of schooling, Stevenson and Stigler (1992) mention parent’s role in supporting the learning conditions of the child to explain differences in achievement between elementary school students of the United States and students of Japan. In Japan, children receive more help at home with schoolwork (Chen & Stevenson, 1989; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992), and tend to perform less household chores than children in the USA (Stevenson et al., 1990; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). More Japanese parents than American parents provide space and a personal desk and purchase workbooks for their children to supplement their regular text-books at school (Stevenson et al., 1990; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Additionally, Stevenson and Stigler (1992) observed that American mothers are much more readily satisfied with their child’s performance than Asian parents are, have less realistic assessments of their child’s academic performance, intelligence, and other personality characteristics, and subsequently have lower standards. Based on their observation of Japanese, Chinese and American parents, children and teachers, Stevenson and Stigler (1992) conclude that American families can increase the academic achievement of their children by strengthening the link between school and home, creating a physical and psychological environment that is conducive to study, and by making realistic assessments and raising standards. Also Benjamin (1997), who performed ‘day-to-day ethnography’ to find out how differences in practice between American and Japanese schools affect differences in outcomes, discusses the relationship between home and school and how the Japanese mother is involved in the academic performance standards reached by Japanese children. She argues that Japanese parents are willing to pay noticeable amounts of money for tutoring in commercial establishments to improve the child’s performance on entrance examinations, to assist in homework assignments, to facilitate and support their children’s participation in school requirements and activities, and to check notebooks of teachers on the child’s progress and other school-related messages from the teacher. These booklets are read and written daily by teachers and parents. Teachers regularly provide advice and reminders to parents, and write about homework assignments of the child, special activities and the child’s behavior (Benjamin, 1997, p. 119, p. 1993–1995). Newsletters, parents’ visits to school, school reports, home visits by the teacher and observation days sustain communication in later years at school. According to
Benjamin (1997), schools also inform parents about how to coach their children on proper behavior at home. Shimahara (1986), Hess and Azuma (1991), Lynn (1988) and White (1987) also try to explain national differences in educational achievement. They argue that Japanese mothers succeed in internalizing into their children academic expectations and adaptive dispositions that facilitate an effective teaching strategy, and in socializing the child into a successful person devoted to hard work.
Support, Support and Support
Epstein (1995) constructed a framework of six types of involvement of parents and the community in the school: (1) parenting: schools help all families establish home environments to support children as students; (2) communicating: effective forms of school-to-home and home-to-school communications about school programs and children’s progress; (3) volunteering: schools recruit and organize parents help and support; (4) learning at home: schools provide information and ideas to families about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities, decisions and planning; (5) decision making: schools include parents in school decisions, develop parent leaders and representatives; and (6) collaborating with the community: schools integrate resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs, family practices, and student learning and development. All types of involvement mentioned in studies of Japanese education and in the discourse on the roots of the achievement gap belong to one of Epstein’s first four types of involvement: the creation of a conducive learning environment (type
4), the expression of high expectations (type 4), assistance in homework (type 4), teachers’ notebooks (type 2), mother’s willingness to facilitate school activities (type3) teachers’ advice about the child’s behavior (type 1), observation days by which parents observe their child in the classroom (type 2), and home visits by the teachers (type 1). Thus, when one carefully reads Stevenson and Stigler’s, Benjamin’s and other’s writings about Japanese education and Japanese students’ high achievement level, one notices that parents’ role in the child’s school learning is in particular one of support, expected and solicited by the school. The fifth type (decision making) as well as the sixth type (community involvement) is hardly ever mentioned in the discourse on the achievement gap.
In 1997, the OECD’s Center for Educational Research and Innovation conducted a cross-national study to report the actual state of parents as partners in schooling in nine countries, including Japan. In its report, OECD concludes that the involvement of Japanese parents in their schools is strictly limited, and that the basis on which it takes place tends to be controlled by the teacher (OECD, 1997, p. 167). According to OECD (1997), many countries are currently adopting policies to involve families closely in the education of their children because (1) governments are decentralizing their administrations; (2) parents want to be increasingly involved; and (3) because parental involvement is said to be associated with higher achievement in school (p. 9). However, parents in Japan, where students already score highly on international achievement tests, are hardly involved in governance at the national and local level, and communication between school and family tends to be one-way (Benjamin, 1997; Fujita, 1989; OECD, 1997). Also parent–teacher associations (PTA, fubo to kyoshi no kai ) are primarily presumed to be supportive of school learning and not to participate in school governance (cf. OECD, 2001, p. 121). On the directions
of the occupying forces after the second world war, PTA were established in Japanese schools and were considered with the elective education boards to provide parents and the community an opportunity to participate actively in school learning (Hiroki, 1996, p. 88; Nakata, 1996, p. 139). The establishment of PTA and elective education boards are only two examples of numerous reform measures the occupying forces took to decentralize the formal education system and to expand educational opportunities. But after they left the country, the Japanese government was quick to undo liberal education reform measures and reduced the community and parental role in education. The stipulation that PTA should not interfere with personnel and other administrative tasks of schools, and the replacement of elective education boards by appointed ones, let local education boards believe that parents should not get involved with school education at all (Hiroki, 1996, p. 88). Teachers were regarded to be the experts and the parents to be the laymen in education (Hiroki, 1996, p. 89).
In sum, studies of Japanese education point into one direction: parental involvement means being supportive, and community involvement is hardly an issue at all. But what is the actual state of parent and community involvement in Japanese schools? Are these descriptions supported by quantitative data?
Statistics on Parental and Community Involvement
To date, statistics of parental and community involvement are rare. How-ever, the school questionnaire of the TIMSS-R study did include some interesting questions that give us a clue about the degree of involvement relatively compared to the degree of involvement in other industrialized countries. The TIMSS-R study measured science and math achievement of eighth graders in 38 countries. Additionally, a survey was held among principals, teachers and students. Principals answered questions relating to school management, school characteristics, and involvement. For convenience, the results of Japan are only compared with the results of those countries with a GNP of 20650 US dollars or higher according to World Bank’s indicators in 1999. Unfortunately, only a very few items on community involvement were measured. According to the data, Japanese principals spend on average almost eight hours per month on representing the school in the community (Table I). Australian and Belgian principals spend slightly more hours and Dutch and Singaporean principals spend slightly less on representing the school and sustaining communication with the community. But when it comes to participation from the community, Japanese schools report a nearly absence of involvement (Table II). Religious groups and the business community have hardly any influence on the curriculum of the school. In contrast, half of the principals report that parents do have an impact in Japan. On one hand, this seems a surprising result when one is reminded of the centralized control of the Ministry of Education. Moreover, this control and the resulting uniform curriculum are often cited as a potential explanation of the high achievement levels in Japan. On the other hand, this extent of parental impact on the curriculum might be an indicator of the pressure parents put on schools to prepare their children appropriately for the entrance exams of senior high schools.
In Table III, data on the extent of other types of parental involvement in Japan and other countries are given. In Japan, parental involvement is most common in case of schools volunteering for school projects and programs, and schools expecting parents to make sure that the