The United States and six other industrialized democracies opened an unprecedented international education conference here this week to explore common issues and themes in an education reform movement that increasingly appears global in its scope.
In the opening talks, participants -- including a seven-member delegation of top-ranking American officials -- sounded strikingly similar themes on topics such as returning to "basics," expanding vocational education, surviving budget cuts, combating school violence and student delinquency, upgrading standards of curricula, improving the teaching force and deciding how much if at all government should support private schools.
The setting for this conference is also significant since the United States, Australia and Western Europe have shown an intense interest in Japan's educational system, often regarded as a world model for its high academic standards and rigid discipline.
But the Westerners here are getting a different perspective on the Japanese system, which is under attack here at home for being too rigid, too concerned with examinations at the expense of analytical thinking, and incapable of dealing with children with special needs -- like slow learners and the disabled. The Japanese officials who organized this conference specifically asked the Americans to address these issues.
Sponsored by the Japanese Education Ministry, the conference is the first to bring government education leaders together at a time of rapid changes in education worldwide similar to those that swept education in the 1960s.
"In the industrialized countries, there is a common core of problems that we share," said Dr. Torsten Husen, a University of Stockholm professor speaking for Sweden.
The common themes were all the more unusual since the participants represent a variety of government ideologies and educational structures. For example, Claude Care, the official speaking for France, which has a socialist government and a highly centralized national education ministry, called for a "return to basics" in curriculum and the use of education to instill more civic pride in the young. These same concerns have frequently been voiced by the Reagan administration.
George S. Papadopoulos, deputy director for education of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said that education today has reached a turning point after the "educational euphoria in the 1960s and early 1970s."
Australia, Britain, West Germany and Sweden -- along with France and the United States -- have sent delegations here. The U.S. team is headed by Dr. Chester E. Finn, assistant secretary in the Department of Education, and includes C. Ronald Kimberling, assistant secretary for post-secondary education.
The conference, which began with preliminary remarks here today and moves to Kyoto on Thursday, is an outgrowth of an education cooperation agreement reached two years ago between then-U.S. Education Secretary T.H. Bell and his Japanese counterpart.
For the United States and the countries of Western Europe, which are troubled by sluggish growth rates, high unemployment, and a loss of industrial competitiveness, Japan has emerged as an example of everything they are not. In education specifically, Japanese students are far ahead of most of their counterparts in the level of mathematics and science courses they take before graduating from high school, and they consistently score in the top ranks in international examinations.
Also, where the United States and the others are increasingly vexed by a perceived breakdown of moral and civic values, Japanese students are seen literally marching to school in uniform, bowing to their professors before class, cleaning their classrooms, and leaving instilled with the virtues of respect for elders, and the righteousness of hard work.
But the Japanese schools, as the Americans are learning, are now facing their own serious problems. "Over recent years, various manifestations of anti-social behavior -- such as school bullying, school violence and non-social behavior such as children's refusal to go to school -- have been exposed . . . , " said Koichi Igarashi, a deputy director general in the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. He also mentioned the widely publicized problem of child suicide here, which he called "a distortion of the educational system."
That system here is highly uniform, and classes advance as groups through a nationally prescribed curriculum. No one fails, and no one skips a grade ahead no matter how smart. At the end of four years of high school, the students must take grueling examinations to compete for coveted slots at Japan's most prestigious universities, like Tokyo University, which is the favored choice.