KAWAMATA, Japan—In many countries, the United States included, students’ economic backgrounds often determine the quality of the education they receive. Richer students tend to go to schools funded by high property taxes, with top-notch facilities and staff that help them succeed. In districts where poorer students live, students often get shoddy facilities, out-of-date textbooks, and fewer guidance counselors.
Not in Japan. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 35 wealthy countries, Japan ranks highly among its peers in providing its rich and poor students with equal educational opportunities: The OECD estimates that in Japan only about 9 percent of the variation in student performance is explained by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. The OECD average is 14 percent, and in the United States, it’s 17 percent. “In Japan, you may have poor areas, but you don’t have poor schools,”
For instance, in the village of Iitate, which was evacuated after being contaminated by radiation after the Fukushima nuclear-power-plant disaster in March 2011, many families still have not come back. Piles of contaminated soil, covered up, still dot the landscape, and many homes are shuttered. The local primary school has just 51 students, compared to more than 200 before the accident. Yet the quality of education given to returnees is top-notch. The government built a new school for students outside the radiation zone, in a town called Kawamata, and though the classes are still very small—first grade has only two students—the school is well staffed. In a classroom I visited, all five second-graders in the school watched a teacher demonstrate flower-arranging as three other teachers surrounded them, helping them with each step. In another, a math teacher quizzed students on odd and even numbers, and as the students split into groups to discuss a problem on the board, another teacher leaned in to help. Walking around the school, it almost seemed there were as many teachers as students.
“The quality of education is better than before March 11th ,” Tomohiro Kawai, a parent of a sixth-grader and the president of the school’s parent-teacher association, told me, citing the low student-teacher ratio. Many of the children who returned to the area are from single-parent families, a group prone to struggling economically; some parents moved back to Iitate because they needed help from their own parents in watching their children, according to Satoko Oowada, one of the school’s teachers. But the federal government takes pains to prevent economic hardship from affecting the quality of students’ education. It gave a grant to Iitate so that all students in the school would get free lunch, school uniforms, notebooks, pencils, and gym clothes. “Equality of education is very important for children in Iitate Village,” the school’s principal, Takehiko Yoshikawa, told me. “Everywhere, students receive the same education.”
The equity in Iitate stands in stark contrast to a place like New Orleans, which was also hit by a disaster. While Japan’s national government tried to ensure that students in the affected area got more resources after the accident, officials in New Orleans disinvested in the public educational system in their city. Public-school teachers were put on leave and dismissed, many students disappearedfrom schools’ rolls, and the New Orleans system now consists almost entirely of charter schools. (To be sure, New Orleans is something of an outlier—districts in New York and New Jersey, for example, received federal money to help deal with Hurricane Sandy’s impact on education.)
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