Monday, August 25, 2014

Big Doubts on the NY Times Article: "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?"

With regards to the NY Times article "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?", I sent a letter to the writer, Ms Elizabeth Green, as below.
(After sending, I found some tiny mistakes in the letter, but I left them unchanged.)

In December, I made follow-up discussions on the background in which this article of the NY Times was written in following posts

Dear Ms. Elizabeth Green,

Thank you for your article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” dated 23 July, 2014 (July 27th edition). I have read it with great interest because you have taken up Japanese examples a lot.

However, your article unfortunately does not reflect the reality of Japanese education. Frankly people here will feel perplexed and frustrated at your article, though I wonder if you assumed to have it read in Japan.

1.  Anecdotes contradicting evidence:

First of all, your account of Japanese education significantly contradicts the local popular view, which is very negative to school education. I would like to explain how the recent view on school education has been shaped in Japan.

The math and science education has been one of the most controversial educational issues in Japan in recent years. The controversy was first sparked by experts of the fields other than education studies. One of the prominent figures of the controversy is Dr. Kazuo Nishimura, an economist who wrote a book titled "University students who cannot solve fractions" in 1999. He wrote it because he was shocked by the survey result on the math ability of the university students, which was unexpectedly low. 
Many experts from various fields joined the debate, overshadowing education academics, and shook the public opinion on education, which influenced the policy-making of the Government.

Subsequently the disappointing PISA (Programme of International Students Assessment) results of Japan in 2003 and 2006 have fueled this controversy and provided further evidence to the negative opinion on school education in general. 
Although the PISA result in 2009 recovered to some extent, the negative air against school education was not erased. Rather, it has been strengthened by other problems in schools, including crimes and inability of schoolteachers, cover-up nature of schools and school-related organizations, bullying, nepotism and so on.

Thus the recent popular view here is very negative to school education. In this context, inevitably it sounds so abrupt and irrelevant to insist that Japan has implemented the new method of math teaching with great success. And if you are to defy this negative view on school education, you have to refute it by providing counter-evidence. 

However, your argument is too "anecdotal" and lacks in evidence. Although it can be accepted in the rest of the world, where little is known about the reality of Japanese education, it does not hold water here. Actually I cannot get rid of the notion that only a portion of teachers or education academics admire and play up the new math teaching method.

Moreover, Tom Loveless points out in the Brown Center Chalkboard that Japan's scores are going down in TIMSS (Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study), though Japan outscored the U.S. all the time. This also supports the recent negative view on Japanese school education and contradicts your argument.

2. One-sided view:

Secondly, your article focuses only on half of the whole situation.
The actual situation of Japanese education is consisted of two sectors – school education and shadow education that is usually called "juku" in Japanese or, more commonly worldwide, "cram school" in English.

However, you only discuss school and neglect the other. In this sense, your article is pretty one-sided. And what is more important is that your argument can easily be turned over if you stop neglecting it.

Now in Japan, approximately 40% of elementary students and more than 70% of junior high students are using juku service according to an article of the Japan Times
And I, as one who have received education in Japan, would say that the percentages should rise much higher if you include the students who use only the mock exam system, which is one of the main products of the juku industry.

In contrast to the negative air against school education, the popular view on shadow education is very positive.
According to a rare survey by the Cabinet Office of Japan in 2005, more than 70% of the polled parents considered juku instructors better than schoolteachers at improving the students' academic ability, while less than 5% of them thought that schoolteachers were better.
And an article of the Economist also reported the similar survey result, saying that two thirds of parents attributed the growing role of jukus to shortcomings in public education.

Nowadays the juku industry penetrated into school activity. Some jukus provide remedial courses within public schools and some hold training courses not for students but for schoolteachers.

The perception of school educators are also changing. According to a report of a governmental research institute in Japan, the percentage of the polled public junior high school principals who have positive opinion about collaboration with jukus rose from 27.3% in 1994 to 50.1% in 2012. And the rate of those who are positive about inviting juku instructors to schools for teaching students rose from 19.1% in 1994 to 46.3% in 2012.

Moreover, the proliferation of shadow education is seen in other high-performing Asian countries, such as China, Singapore, and South Korea according to a report of Asian Development Bank in 2012.

With all the above facts considered, a completely different landscape emerges: the academic performance of Japan is hindered by schools, but saved by shadow education. 
And it blows away your argument that Japanese schools have implemented with great success the new method of math teaching, lesson study, "You, Y’all, We" script, sense-making, etc.

Nevertheless, you may argue that "Awesome achievement of the new math teaching in Japanese schools is damaged by cram schools...," or that "Lesson study is also adopted in jukus..."
However, you have to provide reliable evidence and put the neglected side on the discussion table in order to make such arguments. Otherwise, you cannot complain if someone suspects that the arguments are intended to manipulate public opinion for some reason.

Although it is kind of a surprise that a journalist who is interested in Japanese education totally ignore the existence of jukus, I don't think you have a particular intention to manipulate others' opinion by playing up one thing and neglecting the other. 
Rather, it is a malady of education studies in universities and elsewhere in Japan, it seems to me. I think I will discuss it some other time.


P.S.  I'm working on to shed light on the neglected side - juku (, and think that this is a good opportunity for attracting researchers and policy-makers who are interested in education to it. So I will make this open in the hope of raising world's awareness of shadow education. If you have comments, please let me know.

Elizabeth Green, "Why do Americans Stink at Math?", The New York Times Magazine, July 2014

Kazuo Nishimura's Home Page, last visited in August 2014

Tom Loveless, "Six Myths in the New York Times Math Article by Elizabeth Green", The Brown Center Chalkboard, August 2014

Minako Sato, "Cram Schools cash in on failure of Public Schools", The Japan Times, July 2005

The Cabinet Office of Japan, "Opinion Survey of Parental Guardians on School Education" (in Japanese), October 2006

The Economist, "Japan's Cramming Schools – Testing Times", December 2011

National Institute for Education Policy Research, "An Outline of the Final Report of the Comprehensive Study on the Development of School Organization Utilizing External Staff and the Teachers' Organization" (in Japanese), March 2013

Asian Development Bank, "Shadow Education: Private Supplementary Tutoring and its Implications for Policy Makers in Asia", May 2012

Best Regards

Manabu Watanabe


  1. "Shadow education" in the U.S are the parents teaching their children....

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thank you for your question.

      The term “shadow education” is new and its definition is still fuzzy, but it doesn’t include home teaching, as far as I know. It usually refers to the for-profit after-school tutoring service by some private companies.
      Shadow education is called in local language “juku” in Japanese, “hagwon” in Korean and “buxiban” in Chinese.

      Educational services given by Peason, Kaplan or Kumon can be defined as shadow education in the U.S.

    3. My grandchildren of the right age get a "shadow education" at their home based on the Japanese school texts. I can't say about how well those texts are taught in Japan, but I can say I think the texts, as translated into English, are excellent.

  2. How do you account for the results of the TIMSS video study as described in The Teaching Gap, which was based on a random sample of 8th grade classes in three countries, and which showed that teaching in Japan was indeed a successful implementation of the NCTM 1989 recommendations?

    Has the teaching of math in public schools changed since that video study?

    1. Knowing that many schoolchildren resort to shadow education, I cannot possibly say that it is “successful”.
      Anyway if you are interested in NCTM method, you should read the blog post by Tom Loveless.

      I may write about pedagogy someday, though I am not a specialist on it.

  3. "The perception of school educators are also changing. According to a report of a governmental research institute in Japan, the percentage of the polled public junior high school principals who have positive opinion about collaboration with jukus rose from 27.3% in 1994 to 50.1% in 2012. And the rate of those who are positive about inviting juku instructors to schools for teaching students rose from 19.1% in 1994 to 46.3% in 2012."

    But the percentage of principals who feel juku (and other informal education) should be accepted formally has not changed since 1994 (around 30%). Moreover, "inviting juku instructors to schools" is conditional - in some cases. But, there is no specific discussion of what those cases might be.

    1. Considering the nearly-half-century-old negative campaign against jukus, this change of perceptions of school principals are remarkably significant.
      It means that the principals, who might have denied and criticized jukus so fiercely, now cannot help but admit the excellence of them and, probably, the inability of schoolteachers.
      I hope that you understand the significance.

      However, those principals are not neutral at all. They are in the position to protect the right and interest of school educators. In this sense, it is understandable that they refuse to surrender all of them formally.

      Discussion on the involvement of shadow education at the governmental level may be just started, but In reality penetration of shadow education into school education has been carried out for more than ten years.
      Besides the remedial courses within the schools and the training courses for schoolteachers in jukus, there are officially-approved high schools established by juku owners, and some jukus are involved in the recent public-private project of new school establishment.

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  5. Have you observed mathematics lessons in Japanese schools? Or, is your opinion based on people's reported perceptions?

    1. In the post, I did not write about my subjective observation on the math lessons, though I used to be a student in Japan.
      I presented the facts that were neglected in the NY Times article.
      And some of the facts show that many Japanese students who have observed math lessons in schools resort to shadow education.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Thank you for this insightful response.

  8. This is an awesome rebuttal to the article. It really sheds light on the biases in educational media as well. Thanks for sharing!

  9. You don't have to know anything about Japan to understand this article. It's a piece of propaganda intended to support Common Core. This was published a year ago roughly, when it was clear that Common Core was in trouble. (NCTM was a key player in the CC scheme so the article finds reason to praise it.)

    Last year we saw an outbreak of stories about stupid math homework that parents can't understand and children couldn't do. Instead of saying, "Whoops, we made a mistake. Let's get rid of this ridiculous stuff," our Education Establishment doubled down, shameless hussies that they are. And, really, this article is in the New York Times. What else do you need to know? They are going to spin all the planets into new locations in order to fine ways to support Obama. Basically, he is the root cause of Common Core.

    I continue to feel the Common Core should be eliminated top to bottom. An elaborate national program like this, which affects children of almost every age, needs to be tested for many years, city against city and state against state. There was no testing of this vast scheme. Arne Duncan ran to the states with suitcases full of money and said: enact this thing right away, you don't have to know what's in it. The tortured sophistries in this article are simply an extension of Arne Duncan's first sales pitches.



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