Japan news: Is the Education Ministry cleaning up English teaching?

Reader Lisa was kind enough to point out a story that appeared on Nikkei dot com, the paid English language version of Nikkei Shimbun.

As you can see, the article begins:

TOKYO (Nikkei)–School districts across Japan must decide whether to continue outsourcing assistant language teacher (ALT) jobs to private
staffing agencies or employ such foreign instructors themselves.

Outsourcing is cheaper, despite some legal barriers, but hiring English teachers directly would improve teaching efficiency. The question matters as Japan is making English a compulsory subject for its fifth and sixth graders beginning in the upcoming school year,
which starts in April.

The article didn’t give any indication that the Education Ministry is behind anything other than “making English a compulsory subject for its fifth and sixth graders”.

[The article] suggested that dispatch worker ALTs are not under the instruction of the schools, which I think is false. I think that issue (the Kashiwa problem) is that the ALTs were being considered as “independent contractors”, which meant they were supposed not to be under the school’s direction (like an employee). Spitefully, (and remember, the Shinto god of spite is a very powerful one), the school board then set up some sort of byzantine rule to give the appearance that the ALTs were in fact these totally-outside people who were just showing up at the school to do their independent contractor thing.

The article discusses how difficult it is to do direct-hire ALT placements. This, to me, sounds like Japanese excuse making. I have no doubt that far-off rural areas of Japan would have difficulty filling teaching spots without an Interac or other large ALT company funneling in workers. But it’s pretty darn obvious that the supply of warm bodies outstrips the demand—especially when the supply keeps flying in every month.

The article ends with a quote by someone who suggests that the real problem is that there aren’t enough Japanese who are good at teaching elementary school English, and that more needs to be done to create Japanese who can teach English. (Who will be the ones, in turn, to do this? Will it be that, inevitably, you have to deal with the, ehem, smelly barbarian foreigner? I guess this is why Japan proposed to send 100 young people to America to “skill up” their English.)

Since the piece may have been a translation of what appeared in the Nikkei evening paper, it really says a lot without saying very much in particular beyond pointing out the labor and contract issues of the past year. (You can learn more about these at sites like the one for General Union.) The bottom line is that Japan may have no plan for getting good teachers in front of 5th and 6th graders, which means they really don’t want the kids to learn.

Not giving graded tests was an earlier indicator that they don’t want the kids learning, either–since quizzes and tests are really the best way to make sure studied material sticks. I guess this latest rumbling adds that they don’t want the kids learning unless the teacher is Japanese or otherwise the Mythical Foreigner who they just can’t seem to attract.

[Update: Can’t attract foreigners? Maybe this is why:

1. Implicit age restriction. No one over 40 need apply.

2. Your social security and health care will be a politicized issue.

3. Your unemployment insurance coverage will be an issue.

4. No career track. From the day you get your job, one of those geeky-itaku junior bureaucrats with lifetime employment will have it as his job making sure that your job doesn’t continue beyond some pre-determined date. How did he (usually it’s he) get his job?

5. You can be assured that the government will be keeping dispatch agencies around to underbid whatever it is you did get a school board to agree to pay you.

These five are no jive. With them always hanging over your head like a Samurai sword of Damocles, is it any wonder that the pool of quality English teachers in Japan might in fact not be as stocked as the Japanese expect?

Is it possible that the new excuse-making was merely set up by bad conditions that the Education Ministry let fester?
“Oh geez, we’ve tacitly allowed this harebrained system to continue for so long, and now we need to make some changes that we don’t want to. So let’s use the fact that everything’s so screwed up to begin with as our excuse to say let’s do nothing to change it until we can find some Japanese speakers who can teach English to the elementary kids . . . ” ]