Reflection on High Expectations and Their Impact on PISA and TIMMS Scores in Japan TeachNow Module 4 Unit 3 Activity 3


High Academic Expectations

Resources from the TeachNow module 4 unit 3 activities 1-2  showed that high academic standards led to more student success. High academic standards are usually communicated to students both through curriculum standards which teachers use to plan their classes and the teacher’s own expectations of their class. High academic curriculum standards might include things like making sure the majority of studentsare achieving a certain score on the international standardized tests or implementing higher reaching goals for curriculum like introducing and mastering Algebra 1 and Geometry during middle school.  Teachers by fostering 21st century skills (one of thenewer high academic standards that teachers are now implementing such as promoting collaboration and interdisciplinary opportunities) and giving students opportunities to not just rote memorize facts but to think about and generalize content concepts to both real world and imaginary situations.

International Ranking and Analysis of PISA Scores in Japan versus Other Countries

The PISA is a standardized test that evaluates content knowledge for reading, mathematics, and science as well as critical thinking and the ability to generalize content knowledge to other situations. This is the first year the test has been given on a computer. So some degree of technological ability is also being evaluated (OECD, 2015).
In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, conducted in 2015, Japanese students ranked second in scientific literacy, eighth in reading, and fifth in mathematical literacy among 72 countries and/or regions (OECD, 2015). In the previous survey in 2012, Japan took fourth in science and seventh in math. Plus, they weren’t even in the top 10 for reading ranking 18th in average test scores (OECD, 2012). So, Japan’s new curriculum standards appear to have had a positive effect on progress, and the Japanese are one of the leaders in PISA test scores.

(OECD, 2015)

International Ranking TIMMS Scores

On the TIMMS assessment administered in 2016 to fourth graders and then again to eight graders, Japan ranked third behind Korea and Singapore for the science 4th grade portion, and the ranking rose to second only behind Singapore when the students moved to 8th grade for the science portion of the test. For the mathematics portion of the TIMMS, students in 4th and 8th grade achieved ranking of fifth,  (TIMMS&PIRLS International Study Center, n.d.). Students in Japan also report feeling more comfortable and excited with science and math in comparison to their 2006 peers. This is important because excitement over exploring math and science will lead to more intrinsic motivation developing in students to explore these concepts.


Like Korea, Japan doesn’t participate in the Progress in International Reading Literacy study. So, there is no date to analyze or compare meaningfully for this country. Instead, I’ve simply used PISA as the sole standardized measure of reading comprehension.

Why does Singapore regularly out perform Japan?
Very few countries outperform Japan on the PISA, this makes sense because there have been several educational acts passed under MEXT that work towards more student-centered approaches to teaching since 2006. This shift in emphasis has seemed to benefit the majority of disciplines excluding English- which because of the ALT system seems to be a more teacher-centered class.

However, Singapore has paved the way in ensuring that teachers trained extensively in their discipline are hired (THE CONVERSATION, 2016). Something that Japan through passing its MEXT act is striving to copy but hasn’t yet. For instance, teachers in Singapore regularly have to be re-certified (THE CONVERSATION, 2016). However, Japan didn’t introduce recertification until 2014 under a new MEXT act. By setting high standards for their teachers, they are in effect also setting higher academic standards for their students.

In addition, Singapore has a very strong interdisciplinary culture that values other view points. As a result, the students are likely encountering more diverse situations, and this would help them generalize better on a critical thinking test than the more limited, homogenous culture of Japan.

Other than this, Japan and Singapore have really similar systems: centralized education with equal opportunity funding, parental support for education, and a dedication to learning due to the importance of having a college degree to get a good job.

Why does Japan outperform the US and other countries?  

The United States doesn’t perform as well. But this is likely because of the unequal educational opportunity available to students. The advantages of countries like Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Finland are that they are more socialized in regards to education. In my experience, the educational standards of the US are individual from state to state. So certain states like Ohio had higher standards than states like my birth state of Tennessee. This is not true of the countries, I just mentioned.

Instead, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Finland all set specific and rigorous academic curriculum goals, and the national government watches very closely to ensure these standards are met even at rural schools. The disadvantage to this more centralized system of education is sometimes curriculum changes can be slow-going. But when curriculum changes are implemented, they affect everybody.

In addition, Japan’s national government gives even rural schools a fair amount of funding. Many schools in the US are funded partially by property tax levies and such. As a result, there is a large disparity in funding between poorer and wealthier areas. This funding gap is much smaller in Japan. In addition,  the state I went to high school in was Ohio. And it was fairly common for schools that didn’t meet the standards of the state to get funding cuts. This seems counterintuitive since these schools might need even more assistance and support that that additional funding could provide. But instead, the state used that money to create an incentive for the very best schools to continue performing well increasing the state average faster than working harder to increase their lower scoring schools.

As a note of caution however, many of the countries like China, Korea, and Singapore have entrance exams for high school. As a result, the PISA test results benefit from students that are sent to vocational school during this time. 15 year old students in Japan are usually in their first year of high school. So, the students in the lowest percent have probably been steered into a vocational school. This is not always true, but it is fairly common since the entrance exams for high school are fairly intensive. However by examining the fourth grade and eighth grade scores through the TIMMS and PIRLS assessment, we do somewhat correct for this, and these students are still outperforming US students. Since there is no PIRLS data for Japan, I am unable to compare using that measure. Interestingly, states that adopted the curriculum standards of Singapore, Japan, and China performed better on these tests indicating that adopting curriculums with very high academic standards might lead to an increase in US test scores.

In addition, there is a growing number of students in Japan that have become hikikomori due to the stress. These students drop out of school and often refuse to leave their house during their adolescent years. In the worst case scenario, a student may commit suicide. Suicides only occur more often in the Koreas, so suicide is an enormous issue in the Japanese school system.

My perception of academic expectations of teachers, schools, and parents

The Schools and Teachers

Overall, Japan has very high academic expectations for students. Schools regularly compete to become feeder schools to universities which means the standardized exam results are so important to maintaining their status. The beginning of this feeding into higher level schools begins as young as kindergarten. For some prestigious kindergartens, you have to take an entrance exam to even get in. However, the majority of students begin experiencing high academic expectations in fifth grade.

Students don’t begin receiving graded tests from their teachers until 5th grade. Instead, the students do informal evaluations using projects and homework. Furthermore, the schools let out fairly early in Japan about 2:00 and with little to no homework. Therefore for most students, the academic expectations are fairly low from the school side during the students’ early years..

But this all changes when one begins 5th grade because students have to pass an exam to get into high school. The homework steadily increases jumping again when the students enter the 7th-9th grade in junior high school. They are expected to participate in extra-curricular activities as well which lead them to begin at the school on weekends and after school as late as 8:00PM. Once the students pass the high school exam, they work at a university level rate for the next three years with their final year of high school attending high school in many instances and prefectures such as Iwate 364 out of 365 days of the year- their only break being New Year’s Day.

This is because many of the students have extra-curricular activities or additional test prep classes they must attend on Sundays. Saturday half days are fairly common in Japan. Once the student enters college unless they are going into a very rigorous career like medicine, these expectations are relaxed and more in line with US junior high school academic expectations. Overall, middle school through high school has very high academic expectations. And the Japanese government further supports this by passing extremely high academic standards curriculum for these schools to complete. These curricular standards are created to compete with other academically successful countries like Singapore.

Teachers also have a very unique role in the hierarchy. Many teachers work hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime over the course of the year. And teacher burnout is not uncommon. The teachers, particularly high school teachers, often act as a surrogate parent since their students spend such a long time at school. One of the really cool things about this though is that the teachers have really open lines of communication with the parents. When I worked for a public school in Iwate at the middle school level, the teachers visited the parents of the students at the beginning of every school year to learn about the child and update the parents about the child’s progress. Teacher and Parent conferences as well as PTA meetings where teachers and parents are both present to help elaborate on the curriculum standards are also fairly common.


The high academic standards are further enforced by parents (particularly those from a high socioeconomic class) who enroll their students even during the low stress elementary school period in after school programs such as the one I work at. These parents begin pushing their child as early as 2 years old because they fear that without a reputable college degree their child won’t succeed. And on some level, they are correct. Japan puts a very high value on one’s degree, and many jobs will turn you down if you don’t come from the right school.

Later on during their high school years, parents also pay for children to receive private tutoring and go to cram school to correct perceived deficits in the students’ abilities identified by the frequent testing schedule. In addition the parents themselves make many sacrifices for their children, they often drive or pay for commuter passes for their  children to schools as far as 2 hours away, so their children can get the best education possible to get into a better university. Of course, this is an extremely stressful environment, and some student react negatively to this pressure buckling but most students succeed.

My views of the teacher’s role and the importance of it in setting high academic and behavioral expectations

With students spending most of their time at school up to 12-14 hours a day, teachers play a key role in setting high academic and behavioral expectations for students. In my opinion, the teacher is ultimately the one responsible for deciding  what type of learner the student will become.

While curriculum standards are usually set by governments, teachers have a choice between setting the standard for fixed mindset learners who simply repeat memorized facts but shy away from tackling more difficult problems. And setting high academic standards to create learners with growth mindsets who strive to conquer more challenging and difficult tasks.

One way we as teachers can promote the standard of growth mindset learners is to make sure our praise is mostly targeted towards effort. This creates pride in the student for continuing to struggle on versus telling them that we value them simply because they know an answer.

Another way to create more growth-mindset learners is to use student led discussions and project based learning in the classroom. These give chances for students to apply content knowledge to solve problems and develop feelings of efficacy in their own thoughts in opinions. This will lead them to more academic success because over time the student will develop a more intrinsic drive for knowledge. Plus, the students aren’t just using content knowledge. A teacher with high academic standards also makes sure important 21st century skills like being able to use technology, critical thinking, and cooperation are all practiced while acquiring the knowledge to pass the standardized exams given by schools.

Teachers can also influence the students’ beliefs in what behavioral standards they can achieve which in turns affects the teacher’s ability to achieve high academic standards. This is because behavioral issues can cause large losses of time, and if you set and as a result have high behavioral standards, you should be able to achieve higher academic standards due to the extra time. Many parents try their best, but because they are emotionally involved in a situation may not be able to set appropriate behavioral standards for their children. If the teacher is able to keep an unbiased eye towards the student’s behavior and work on explaining and practicing the high  standards their other classmates have, a student who was previously a “problem” will eventually be able to reach these high behavioral standards.

For instance, I had a student who would have intense tantrums. The tantrums were so bad, that I was concerned the child would hurt himself during one. He was really hard to work with, but we had a breakthrough when I started teaching him the words to identify why he was feeling the way he was. In many instances, the student was frustrated with the pain he was experiencing and lashing out because of it. I taught him to tell me how he felt before a tantrum. I always made sure to acknowledge how he felt and try to provide comfort or a solution for it before ignoring the tantrum that ensued afterwards.

As he acquired  more emotional vocabulary and problem solving skills, the tantrums lessened. His parents hadn’t thought to teach him the emotional vocabulary words  and strategies because they assumed he was too young to know them. But by providing support to the student and expecting him to be able to understand and articulate his emotions, the tantrums all but disappeared.

In addition, I found success with another student when I started offering him options when he misbehaved. By plainly stating his choices, I was both explaining what I felt the standard for behavior was; and that while he had to pick one of my acceptable options, that I felt he had the right as a human being to have some control over the situation to make a decision.  By repeatedly explaining and enforcing these standards, the student eventually came to learn and respect the standards which actually translated into the child being better behaved at home.

Overall, I feel that the teacher has great power over the standards that their students feel they should achieve. So, we have to consider carefully what our teaching communicates to each of our students both from a behavioral and academic viewpoint.


OECD. (2015). [PDF document of PISA test scores and analysis]. Programme for international student assessment (PISA) results from 2015). Retrieved from

OECD. (2012). [PDF document of PISA test scores and analysis]. Programme for international student assessment (PISA) results from 2012). Retrieved from

THE CONVERSATION. (2016, December 8). Behind Singapore’s PISA ranking success- And why other countries may not want to join the race. Retrieved from

TIMMS&PIRLS International Study Center. (n.d.) [ PDF of TIMMS and PIRLS Scores and Analysis]. As global study TIMSS turns 20, new results show East Asian student continue to outperform peers in mathematics. Retrieved from



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