“Japanese students spend 240 days a year at school, 60 days more then their American counterparts” (Johnson & Johnson 1996)
American and Japanese school structures differ in many different ways. The first, and most significant way, is that Japanese schools incorporate a national curriculum created by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Thus, unlike the educational system in the United States, in which each state determines its own curriculum, the federal government decides on what each school must teach, how to teach it, and even what books to teach it with. Therefore, there are many implications for such a disparity in educational structure. For American schools, the fact that each state can come up with their own curriculum means that states have autonomy as well as responsibility for what each student learns. Consequently, each state can then implement curricula in schools based on the resources available to each state and what the state feels is the most important for its students to learn. However, the major problem with this system is the fact that the resources, namely money, available to each state and district varies so much that students across the country receive vastly different qualities of education. Furthermore, because students across the country are educated at such disparate levels depending on the resources available to the school as well as the specific way in which the school decides to comply with the state curriculum, high school graduates from two different cities, not to mention states, may have strongly dissimilar skills and knowledge. This outcome is exceedingly true when comparing low-income urban schools with higher income suburban schools in intra-state and inter-state analyses.
Therefore, what the Japanese school is able to do by incorporating a nationalized system, is make sure that every student receives the exact same education and thus the system aims to decrease any gaps based on differential curricula. In the US, even though standardized testing such as the ACT and the SAT are nationalized, the playing field is not. Nevertheless colleges expect students from schools with such vastly dissimilar resources and curricula to compete nationally when applying and consequently students from disadvantaged backgrounds (socio-economic and educational) are the victims of the inconsistency. Therefore, while the Japanese schools are educating students at a even, arguably superior, level, students in the US must find a way over the hurdle of decentralized, state determined curricula. One study does show some cause for hope, however, in that, “when US teachers use a curricula that parallels that of Japan, US achievement is similar to that of Japan” (Westbury 24).
A second structural difference between Japanese and American schools is simply the amount days students are in school. Students in Japan spend, “240 days a year at school, 60 days more then their American counterparts” (Johnson 1996). Although critics of this claim have pointed out that many of the extra days are spent engaging in activities geared more towards cultural studies and field trips, students in Japan still spend significantly more time in school than students in the US. Furthermore, traditional Japanese schools also have a half day of instruction on Saturdays. As a result, according to some estimates, in 13 years of schooling, US students receive almost a year less than those in Japan. The implications of this are that not only do Japanese students receive more actual time per day engaging in focused, academic study, but they also spend more days overall and therefore may have a clear advantage in terms of practice, repetition, and breadth of knowledge. Not only that, but the Japanese school year is divided into 3 terms, without extended breaks that may cause students to lose their skills in the absence of regular academic instruction for prolonged periods of time (Johnson 1996). Thus, the problem in the US of students from disadvantaged backgrounds gaining an essentially equal playing field over the academic year and then losing most of what the gained over the summer, may not be a factor in Japan because of the systemic difference in the academic calendar (Lecture).
Finally, although the US spends a considerable amount of money on education relative to Japan, much of the funds that are appropriated are used for things other than academics. These include funds for transportation, food, athletics and custodians as well as money for programs such as D.A.R.E. In fact, as much as 40% of US curricula is devoted to nonacademic subjects (Abbeduto 380). In contrast, most Japanese students walk or ride their bikes to school and many traditional Japanese schools even have students clean the school at the end of each day. Furthermore, although students in Japan do participate in extra-curricular activities such as sports after school, most are only allowed to choose one club. Additionally, most students who are considering college perceive such activities as a hindrance to their chances of passing the entrance exams that will pave the way to their success (Johnson 1996).