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Lagging rivals, Japan beefs up textbooks

Associated Press / September 6, 2010

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TOKYO — Alarmed that its children are falling behind their counterparts in South Korea and Hong Kong, Japan is adding about 1,200 pages to elementary school textbooks, bringing the total across all subjects for six years from 4,900 pages today to nearly 6,100.

In a move that has divided educators, Japan is going back to basics after a 10-year experiment in “pressure-free education,’’ which encouraged more application of knowledge and less rote memorization.

Japan’s near-the-top rank on international standardized tests has fallen, stunning this nation where education has long been a source of pride.

The textbook debate mirrors one in the United States, where new Common Core State Standards for math and English, adopted by 37 states, aim to unify different state requirements and strike a balance between teaching content and how to use that knowledge in everyday life.

In both countries, sliding scores on tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment, given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world, have helped drive changes in educational guidelines.

For Japan, the debate reflects a deeper anxiety as the country struggles to find direction in a world where its influence has waned. Its once-powerful — and now stagnant — economy has been overtaken by China’s, and political leaders are grappling with how to deal with a bulging national deficit and an aging, shrinking population.

Signs that Japan’s academic prowess is sliding have added to the consternation. Furthermore, the number of Japanese students studying abroad has fallen.

Science and math textbooks will see the biggest additions, getting 60 percent more pages compared with early this decade.

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