The View from Japan: Common Core is a Disaster in the Making

 “What many supporters of Common Core ignore is that the “rigorous” high-stakes testing approach that they wish to impose on our children has been experimented with in many other nations, and has been a complete failure. Once in place it dominates all instruction, turning schools into test prep factories, and students into test-taking machines.”

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I’m a full-time University teacher, living and working in Japan since 1994.  We have high-stakes exams given throughout the nation each winter, which students must pass to enter the high school or college they wish to attend. Students spend years preparing for these tests, because the stakes are so high.

One of the things I notice each year is that many Japanese students get 30 to 50% of the answers wrong. Sometimes answers are close but test makers are looking for the “exact” right answer. If the student spells a word wrong they may receive half credit or no points. Why are test makers so strict with spelling? Because these kinds of high-stakes tests are norm referenced, designed to rank and sort students, nothing more. 

Those who design entrance exams in Asia have purposefully made the tests really hard and expect high rates of failure- have designed the system for it- cause the purpose is to create a bell curve, not to help all students succeed or learn. The exams are designed to select out the top 25% who studied the hardest, who put the time in to accurately memorize the information correctly.

As a result, most Asian junior and senior high schools are focused on test-prep, not deep thinking, skill development or creative learning. Both my sons have gone through Japanese public schools. From 7th grade onwards, the purpose of most of their instruction has been to prepare them for the high-stakes entrance exams of high school and college.

Right now, my youngest son is at the end of his second year of middle school. He leaves at 8am each morning, usually gets home around 6pm, has dinner and then goes to the cram school (juku) nearby. He returns in the evening between 1o and 11:30pm, has a bath, watches a few youtube videos and goes to sleep.

There are of course many breaks during the day, and that’s what keeps him going. He’s got a great sense of humor and many friends. He’s adapted to the “rigor” of the system, and has been in a good mood since last Autumn when his test scores improved. Students who rise to the top with high stakes testing frequently start to enjoy the study, cause they are succeeding. Unfortunately, for those who fall below “average” it can be a living hell.

What’s also very concerning is that because of the massive amount of information students have to memorize, most don’t have time to develop useful skills. With English education my sons are some of the few who can actually understand English media (like movies and music) and use the language to communicate. Other Japanese students are just memorizing the vocabulary and grammar, basically trying to cram English dictionaries into their heads.

As I wrote in another essay, this perfectionistic test-obsessed culture of schools in Asia helps to train obedience and hard work, but has a dark side. In the NY Times, Yale instructor Se-Woong Koo described the endless pressure in South Korea as tantamount to “child abuse,” associated with high rates of suicide, physical illness and severe depression. In China, (see this CNN news video ), the competition is so intense that some students have been hooked up to IV drips in their classrooms, so that they can study from early morning till late at night, without passing out from exhaustion.

What many supporters of Common Core ignore is that the “rigorous” high-stakes testing approach that they wish to impose on our children has been experimented with in many other nations, and has been a complete failure. Once in place it dominates all instruction, turning schools into test prep factories, and students into test-taking machines.

In the case of English language education it’s a disastrous system, shutting down actual skill development, creativity, communication and authentic learning. It treats children like robots, where the focus is on cramming in information for exams instead of taking the time to practice and apply it. Competence and mastery requires an ability to use knowledge skillfully, creatively and in meaningful ways, not just to remember it for tests.

Here in the city where we live, these tests don’t come until the end of junior high school, but students start to prepare once they enter 7th grade. In elementary school they don’t have this kind of testing, in fact they don’t even receive grades. Both of my sons loved Japanese elementary school, where teachers are given the time and creative freedom to take a much more learner-centered approach.

Unfortunately, by the time they get to University, most young people have had six years of test-obsessed training. As this N.Y. Times editorial noted a few years ago, the result is that many college students in Asia are exhausted, learning how to memorize information and take tests, but *not* to think too hard.

If the US starts to implement overly difficult “selection” tests from K-12 with the new Common Core “aligned” PARCC exams being developed by Pearson, its going to be a complete and utter disaster, in my opinion. Even if “official” standardized testing time is reduced in most states, teachers will be forced to teach-to-the-test as long as these high-stakes exams are in place.

That’s what has happened in Asia. Most students only have to take entrance exams twice in their lives, yet fear of the consequences of failure dominates all school instruction for six years. Don’t let the lies and money behind this juggernaut fool you. Remember the Titanic & Hindenburg? That’s what Common Core “aligned” testing and instruction is, a disaster in the making.

If we want our young people to be highly skilled, self-directed, creative and successful then parents and teachers should take a look at the learner-centered education systems of Finland and Northern Europe, not Asia. Check out Montessori schools or successful community and whole child approaches such as pioneered by Yale’s School Development Program

Don’t believe the hype about how “rigorous” “new” standards will make our children more career ready. Wealthy industrialists and robber barons said the same thing back at the beginning of the last century, when they first started to put the factory model of institutionalized schooling and “selective” testing into place. It’s time to face the facts, this is a dysfunctional and mechanistic system. It’s way past time for all of us to move on to something far more innovative, democratic, compassionate and wise.

~Christopher Chase
The Art of Learning

Related Reading:

Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery  * Flow- The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceUnderstanding How Our Brains Learn  * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Real Learning is a Creative Process  *  Children Need to Be Free to Learn  *  How Wisdom Grows  * It’s a Pink Floyd World – Welcome (Back) to the Machine *

“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie

“Why would policymakers create tests that are designed to mark as failures two out of every three children?  For the second year in a row, that is the question that New York parents are asking…” ~Carol Burris & Bianca Tanis

“Research from both within the United States and other countries suggest clearly that high stakes testing does more harm than good… We should completely abandon the idea of test-based accountability, that is, get high stakes standardized testing out of education, do not use it to evaluate schools or teachers. Second, we need to return autonomy to local schools and teachers. Let educators do their job and provide support. The government, both federal and state, should work on providing equal funding for schools and eradicate poverty, instead of interfering with teaching and learning, and adding bureaucratic burden on educators and students. Finally, we should invest in education innovations to encourage educators and local schools to seek creative ways to deliver an education for the future…”Dr. Yong Zhao

“Teachers are anxious because 40 percent of their evaluations come from student scores on a combination of state and other standardized assessments. Ms. Berry is anxious because under New York City’s charter school rules, if they don’t demonstrate enough test score growth within each subgroup of minorities, English language learners, and learning disabled students, they’ll be closed in five years. Students pick up on their parents’ and teachers’ anxiety. Some stay home with stomachaches. Others stare into space or misbehave. “My mom worries about me a lot. So does my grandmother,” says Lucas, a liquid-eyed sixth grader carrying a fantasy novel with a dragon on the front. When I ask what he thinks of the test, he says, “It’s like a life-and-death situation. It decides whether you’ll get to another grade. If not, people will be disappointed with you.” ~Anya Kamenentz, We’re Testing Children on the Wrong Things

“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.” ~Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

“Creating a society that goes against human nature is what creates the suffering… We live in a completely unnatural society, that actually tramples on what it means to be a human being. That’s the essence of suffering, and there are so many ways in which our society does that.”  ~Dr Gabor Mate

“The purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.” ~Dr. James P. Comer; Comer School Development Program

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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52 Responses to The View from Japan: Common Core is a Disaster in the Making

  1. Pingback: Save your babies from Fed Led Ed! They deserve so much better. | stopcommoncorenys

  2. Susannah says:

    Reblogged this on Susannah's Journey and commented:
    This is an interesting and provocative post that echoes my own experiences in the Canadian educational system, where the focus appeared to be on passing tests, as opposed to learning how to learn. I’m lucky–I’m a self-starter and I learn easily from books. But not everyone is as book-oriented as I am. Perhaps we could take a page from the learner-centered educational systems of Denmark and Finland. What I saw in a recent documentary about these educational systems was very encouraging and gave me hope that perhaps we can rise above the educational morass we seem to have fallen into.

    • Thanks Susannah! Yes, I totally agree with you. We need to totally rethink and redesign our systems. Look to the learner-centered models that actually work well and stop continuing down this dead end.

      • I taught college and university writing for 30 years (retired last year) and I witnessed the difference in attitude and abilities of students who’d been through NCLB vs. those who’d been taught skills in thinking and writing and questioning throughout their school careers. NCLB stole the souls from kids, made them frightened of trying anything new for fear of failing, suspicious of the motives of their teachers as well as creating animosity toward school. In my opinion, Common Core is but a paraphrase for that already bad idea. Your article is excellent and I’ve shared it with several teachers who are currently in the field. Thank you.

      • Sounds like your observations would make a great blog essay, have you written about this specifically yet? (Difference in Attitude and ability pre and post NCLB)?

      • I have, more than once, but here is probably the most despairing thing I’ve written in my life. NCLB is one reason I retired. I taught a summer lit class, 6 weeks, June/July last year. The last time I had the chance to teach this was 12 years ago. I constructed the classes in nearly the same way. Literature appreciation — the students could choose their grade by how many reader-responses they did by the end of the 6 weeks. Once the class began I saw I could not teach the same material I had taught 12 years earlier. I had to (and though I hate this phrase it’s accurate) dumb it way down. I did. It was never, ever enough, and it was a transfer requirement, nearly an upper-division class. One of my students ARGUED with me over whether or not Greek is a dead language… I had to stop teaching after that class. I reached the point where I could no longer respect my students and I believe that if a teacher cannot respect his/her students, that teacher has no business in the classroom. I loved teaching with all my heart and for a long, long time I was good at it, beloved by students and I woke up joyfully every morning because I was going to go teach people to write and to think.

        Anyway, here’s one of the posts I’ve written specifically on the effects of NCLB on the ability of post-adolescent students to learn what they need to move forward in their lives. That is what school is for, I think.

      • Thank you. I look forward to reading your observations. I’ve had to do a lot of adapting with my students here in Japan, to try and wake up their minds. The last few years I feel that I figured out some ways to get them to reflect more deeply, but it took a lot of experimentation and I had to drop a lot of expectations.

      • P.S. After waking up many nights after I retired and moved back home to Colorado (from CA) dreaming about teaching, I started a blog about my experiences. I don’t write there often, but if you want to look it’s here:

        The bitter is mixed with the sweet.

  3. Reblogged this on Teaching a Generation and commented:
    A beautifully articulate and well-supported argument against Common Core. It hits on the (in my opinion) arrogance of the United States in refusing to look around at the way other countries educate their children, what has worked and what has not. Excellent post!

    • Thank you so much Martha! And that same tunnel vision exists over here in Japan as well. Their system hasn’t worked well for 40 years, they keep tinkering and tinkering but no one in a position of power or influence thinks to look at what works in other countries. In a sense I think the people in power are the product of their own system, which never emphasized creative thinking or problem solving.

      • “If a nail sticks up, hammer it down.” I’ve taught hundreds of Japanese students during the first third of my teaching career. After reading your post yesterday, I thought about them. Most of them were never able to actually speak English. Too scary and unpredictable. Until I read your post I hadn’t linked them with what I was seeing in my classes at the end.

  4. Reblogged this on Crazy Crawfish's Blog and commented:
    This story from Japan is not what I want education to become in this country. I fight to keep creativity, exploration and true learning in schools and in our culture.

  5. Arnold says:

    Thank you for this article which Bill and Alex forwarded to me; I found it very interesting. I’ve forwarded it to a childhood friend with whom I attended grade school, high school, and college. We also roomed together for a while, while attending college. He went on to become a high school teacher, high school principal in Manhattan, a consultant in an education-related program up in Westchester, and is now consulting for another organization back in the city.

    I’ve click the ‘Notify me of new comments via email’ box and would like to be added to your list of recipients for future blogs.

    • Hi Arnold, thank you. I’m glad you appreciated the thoughts presented. I cannot add you to a list here but I think there’s a button somewhere on the page. Also, at the bottom of the essay you can find links to related pieces I have written. Thanks for reading!!

  6. This is useful. However, it’s not “The View From Japan,” be it of the Common Core or anything else. It’s A view, by an American teaching in Japan. That doesn’t need to be oversold with a misleading headline and shouldn’t have been. This need to gild lilies on the part of both proponents and enemies of the Common Core is screwed up and should not be allowed to stand.

    Ultimately, those in the USA who worship at the same altar as those in Japan who have promoted hyper-selectivity and exam insanity must be opposed and defeated. I’ve been criticizing their beliefs and proposed policies since I started graduate work in math education at U of Michigan in 1992 (one of my first papers there was on testing madness, Japanese style, with a clear warning that left unchecked, it would become policy here as well). It serves no useful purpose to write a headline that implies that there is Japanese opposition to the Common Core or that every American teaching in Japan opposes high stakes testing, for that matter. It’s not the author who does this, but the blogger by assigning the headline he wrote, or so I strongly suspect. Whoever did it, it’s wrong. Were it true, things would be better in both countries, but then there’d be no need for such misleading tactics.

    • Hi Michael. You are right about the title. I wrote this and should have written “A View” vs. “The View.” I realized that after posting. Unfortunately I can change the title here, but not change the title that gets passed around when it is posted on Facebook. I hope that I made it clear that this is my point of view in the very first sentence and in the personal examples I shared. Thanks for responding.

      Fukuoka, Japan

      • You’re welcome, Christopher. I understood your piece to be what it is. And it is a useful analysis, believe me. Too bad that extremists and fanatics on both the pro- and anti-CCSSI side don’t care much about facts or nuance. The last couple of comments here from a typical Teabilly extremist being the textbook case in point.😦

  7. nolanirvana says:

    This is an interesting and thought provoking article on the problem with the current focus on testing and scores. Based on what I have read about PARCC, it seems that PARCC is designed to set up students for failure. Despite the claim of wanting to make “all children college and career ready”, Common Core and PARCC will in my opinion create a climate in which only the top students will be seen as proficient .
    Mr. Chase, given your commentary on Japense public schools and their effect on students, as I read your essay, I wondered why you chose to send your children to a Japanese public school rather than an international school.

    • Hi, thanks for commenting. That’s not something I can answer easily. My son’s are bi-lingual, they have developed unique skill sets. They’ve both learned to thrive in this environment. They also don’t take the system seriously, they see how harmful and senseless it can be at times. And also, honestly, I’m not so thrilled with the options with International schools here, where they would not have developed their Japanese skills and knowledge of the culture, as deeply. They know the culture, have experienced it. I think that will serve them well in the future. If they were not so positive within the system, and were not able to develop their English skills and think creatively, we would have taken them out.

      • Jennifer says:

        I understand how difficult the choice are. I lived and taught in Japan, lived with a Japanese host family both times, while in college and then after college, trading work in their beer garden on weekends for housing, and the opportunity to be immersed in Japanese. It is very easy, as an ex-pat, to become isolated from the culture, because sometimes, it becomes tiresome, and the temptation to hang out with other expats is real….
        Still. You have a 7th grader that spends two hours a day with his family. IDK at what point I would say, you have learned enough about Japanese language and culture, now you should learn that cramming for tests is not real life. I did have a lot of Japanese friends who were top University graduates, and they turned out fine:) but the other ones…..

  8. This is spot on! I wish that the government in the US would understand the disaster they are creating. In NYS, the students are being set up to fail because the “cut scores” for the state tests are changed each year so more students do not do well…why? All because our governor wants to find more teachers ineffective so he can open charter schools and fire all public school teachers. This is a sad time to be a teacher…and a student. I feel so badly for the kids that study just so they can do well on a test, but have lost the love of learning! I enjoyed reading your blog!

  9. Reblogged this on standingupforthefuture and commented:
    This is an interesting perspective on testing from an American teacher who is teaching in a University in Japan.

  10. howardat58 says:

    Reblogged this on Saving school math and commented:
    Observations about high stakes testing from an American teacher who is teaching in a University in Japan.

  11. Ann Inquirer says:

    Unfortunately the assumption here is that Common Core has decent content and nothing could be further from the truth. There still will be no decent schooling because of TOXIC CONTENT. Though criticism of tests is valid, it’s not the MOST URGENT ISSUE, because the TESTS DO NOT ADDRESS THE TOXIC CONTENT – that is the root of the problem in schools. See just some of the toxic content in this photo, click into it for the links.

    • Sorry, but any chance you might have had for a cogent, coherent argument went out the door with “Liberal & Islamic indoctrination.” I’m 100% confident that you haven’t the first clue what that means, have never studied Islam, and couldn’t distinguish “liberal” from “progressive” from “socialist” from “communist” from a hole in the ground.

      Teabilly propaganda makes for a poor argument against anything.

  12. Pingback: Career paths for little children, a market share. | stopcommoncorenys

  13. Joan Landes says:

    Reblogged this on Psych out the opposition and commented:
    Another thoughtful critique from someone who is living the nightmare.

  14. Reblogged this on Exceptional Delaware and commented:
    I had not heard it in a while, but Matthew Albright quoted the DOE as saying kids have to keep up with their peers from other countries. This is an intriguing look at exactly how those “peers” are doing. This is our future America. Keep selling the Kool-Aid Delaware DOE.

  15. Thank you so much, Mr. Chase. I never really got a clear answer regarding schooling in Asia. I was aware the children got home later and that an immense amount of pressure was put on them to score high as a means to get into premium universities, though I’ve gotten conflicted views regarding the horror stories I asked about. Several foreign students (from Japan and China) were my neighbors at one point in time, and while we spoke of the tests, they told me they felt the U.S. was inflating the horror stories we hear of suicides and of course, the IV drips. They were more apt to describe the situation young people faced when graduating from college, and how hard it is to find a job and stand out when everyone is already high qualified.

    Now, I’m really conflicted. I read about how the concept of Common Core is flawed, and when you drill tests into the school routine to a certain extent, there’s a point where the students don’t actually master the material to incorporate it practically in everyday life (example, foreign language).

    My experience may be a bit skewed. But I’m concerned about how we are to encourage independent thought, creativity, and genuine learning while also emphasizing the importance of a work ethic. I appreciate the dedication these foreign students put into their studies, and while high stakes testing has its cons, I think it played some sort of factor in their industriousness.

    Then again, where I went to school (more so in college than high school), there were safeguards. I’ve witnessed high school teachers and professors alike tell students there’s no need to “try hard,” that colleges and graduate schools “would pay dearly” for what I learned were students from “underrepresented minority groups” (although my college’s tuition was in the ballpark of $25,000 a year, and the majority of the students, while belonging to those groups, were not disadvantaged in terms of resources. The better schools I know of are much more costly, yes, but for what the school gave, I think the tuition was a bit steep) I’ve seen such students take the encouragement, get into top schools, and eventually drop out or transfer to grad and professional schools with poor employment prospects because they couldn’t handle the course load. The professors would emphasize, “well, it’s their right.” Of course, some students who had qualifications and demonstrated abilities outside of just academics, but were not members of designated groups. I feel they were deliberately given false information about funding for grad and professional school (i.e. no fellowships exist, expect $150K in debt no matter what), but after I graduated, I learned that salaries and bonuses at the university were partially determined by the proportion of those from _____ group that moved onto doctoral and professional programs, regardless of whether they finish.

    Of course, it’s just one experience, though I’m sure this isn’t the only time and place where what I’ve described happened pretty frequently.

    I guess I revert to my original question. How do you think we encourage genuine learning, while not encouraging/perpetuating the idea that you’re owed something simply because you are? I’m often suspicious when educators talk about making it possible for “all children” to have a good learning experience. It reminds me of that “Me Generation” talk that makes me somewhat embarrassed to have been born in 1990.

    • Hi. I’m leaving on a plane in 4 hours, heading back to NY for a month. Don’t have time now to respond at length but you asked good questions. For me what I try to focus on with my writing is how much potential we all have. But until someone is motivated they are not going to put the time in to develop their skills. Thats one of the jobs of teachers, to have passion and then help spark it in your students. Its an art not a science. But some kind of hybrid is probably best. I actually think the Japanese students get a GREAT education, up until about age 13. That’s why both my sons are going thru the system. But they supplement their education with self-directed and creative actiivities outside of school.

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  20. Excellent article! I reblogged your post on

  21. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Powerful perspective from afar. The sad regression from child foccussed values in learning and teaching to the position of score-focussed teaching and score “valuing”. Learning, well . . .

  22. Pingback: The View from Japan: Common Core is a disaster in the making |

  23. REBLOGGED with comment @

    REBLOGGED FROM “Creative by Nature”: Powerful perspective from afar. We’ve fallen back, back way past the entire ‘whole child’. We are fueling the power and prevalence of Childhood Trauma(ACE). The sad regression from child focussed values in learning and teaching to the position of score-focussed teaching and score “valuing”. Actual learning, or learning how to learn, well . . .

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