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During a heated debate earlier this year over year-round school in the Provo School District, one parent wanted to know why the district didn't get back to basics - like the Japanese - and quit mucking around with education.

It's the kind of comment you hear all the time in education-related debates. Its general theme is this: When it comes to education, the Japanese do it better.Periodically a report comes along that appears to substantiate that belief. For instance, a University of Illinois study published in 1987 showed the United States ranking between the middle and last place in international comparisons of science and mathematics. (There are a host of explanations for why the United States ranks so, but that's another story.)

Like a delicately woven tapestry, education is a complex mix of cultural values and educational priorities; each country selects different threads to emphasize in creating its education fabric.

In the United States - and Utah - the emphasis is on individualism, choice, creativity and self-reliance.

In Japan there is a saying: "If a nail sticks up, hammer it down."

Standing out as an individual is not a virtue. The emphasis is on group cohesiveness, responsibility and loyalty, social consensus, diligence and perseverance.

These fundamental and somewhat intangible differences make comparisons between the two systems difficult.

But not impossible:


In Japan, elementary and secondary curricula are set by national policy.

That's possible to a large extent because of the homogeneity of Japanese society. Around 98 percent of the people in Japan are Japanese.

The number of hours spent in school increases yearly from first grade to fourth grade and again at the seventh- and 10th-grade levels.

Interestingly, beginning in 1992, changes will be implemented in the Japanese curriculum that will afford "richness and latitude" - more like the U.S. curriculum. Elementary students will begin taking "living experience," a class designed to develop basic abilities and attitudes for living and