Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership, big decisions, for better and for worse, were abruptly announced concerning education policy that caused great confusion among schools and teachers.
A typical case was when Abe suddenly asked schools nationwide to suspend classes in response to the new coronavirus outbreak. Another proposal to offer college-level and early childhood education for free quickly developed into the administration’s signature education policy initiative, partly because Abe wanted to use it as a tool to push ahead with his cherished dream of amending the Constitution.
Late last year, the administration earmarked a huge budgetary sum to make greater use of information and telecommunication technology at elementary and junior high schools. The policy measure raised many questions, including whether teachers had the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with the tasks involved.
Few would dispute the need to allocate more policy resources to education. The Abe administration deserves credit for tackling some important education policy challenges that had long been avoided.
But it failed to offer adequate explanations about these proposals to the public.
As for free higher and early childhood education, there was little in-depth, educated debate on some key issues. One question is whether this idea should be carried out through a universal program that also covers high-income families or if it should be focused on supporting the needy so that the resulting budget savings can be used for other programs as part of efforts to narrow disparities and promote social justice.
The Abe administration’s reluctance to engage in mature, thoughtful debate on policy issues showed utter disrespect for experts’ viewpoints.
Abe abruptly announced his request for schools around the country to close without seeking the counsel of epidemiologists or educators.
As a step to reform the university entrance examination system, the administration tried to hastily introduce English skills tests offered by private-sector operators despite warnings from experts that the plan was flawed. Universities and high schools voiced strong opposition and the administration was forced to drop the plan at the last moment.
All these initiatives caused considerable stress and bewilderment among children, students, parents and schools and had a lasting effect on school education in this nation.
The policy snafus should be blamed on the administration’s inability to pay careful attention to the realities of the people involved and foresee the consequences of such radical steps.
For a while after the second Abe administration was inaugurated at the end of 2012, it showed a strong propensity to tighten state control over education. The government revised the standards for the education ministry’s screening of school textbooks, insisting that they include descriptions of territorial disputes and other political issues that are in line with the government’s positions.
This heavy-handed, authoritarian approach was completely at odds with the basic principles of the ministry’s official guidelines for school curriculums, which stress the importance of giving students opportunities to learn about diverse views and information to help them develop the ability to think for themselves.
The Abe administration also devoted much effort to establishing a top-down decision-making system. In one symbolic example of this undertaking, the administration tampered with the local education board system to enhance the related powers of local government chiefs.
The administration showed scant interest in protecting political neutrality and freedom in education through a restrained policy stance based on lessons from the wartime militarist education. It also revised the law to expand the powers of university presidents.
Embodying the administration’s top-down policymaking approach is the Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding, which was set up as a personal advisory panel for the prime minister.
The panel promoted a set of policy initiatives that reflect the administration’s education policy agenda, such as upgrading ethics to the status as a formal subject at school.
The education ministry’s long-established Central Council for Education has degenerated into a body whose only job is to develop specific plans based on the policy principles adopted by the prime minister’s advisory panel. The council’s power to promote diverse values through education policy has been significantly weakened.
Policies, however, do not produce benefits unless they are rooted in expert knowledge and the views and opinions of people actually working to implement. Unilateral instructions or casual ideas coming from higher-ups simply don’t work.
This is the principal moral of the sad spectacle of education policy debacles stemming from the Abe administration’s nearly eight years in power.