KAWAMATA, Japan—In many countries, the United States included, students’ economic backgrounds often determine the quality of the education they receive. Richer students tend to go to schools funded by high property taxes, with top-notch facilities and staff that help them succeed. In districts where poorer students live, students often get shoddy facilities, out-of-date textbooks, and fewer guidance counselors.
Not in Japan. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 35 wealthy countries, Japan ranks highly among its peers in providing its rich and poor students with equal educational opportunities: The OECD estimates that in Japan only about 9 percent of the variation in student performance is explained by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. The OECD average is 14 percent, and in the United States, it’s 17 percent. “In Japan, you may have poor areas, but you don’t have poor schools,”
John Mock, an anthropologist at Temple University’s Japan campus, told me.
Perhaps as a result, fewer students in Japan struggle and drop out of school—the country’s high-school graduation rate, at 96.7 percent, is much higher than the OECD average and the high-school graduation rate in the United States, which is 83 percent. Plus, poorer children in Japan are more likely to grow up to be better off in adulthood, compared to those in countries like the U.S. and Britain (though Scandinavian countries lead in this regard). “It’s one of the few [education] systems that does well for almost any student,” Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the OECD's work on education and skills development, told me, adding, “Disadvantage is really seen as a collective responsibility.”