press release - KVCC President/Mid-Maine Global Forum

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Release date 12-17-13


KVCC President addresses Mid-Maine Global Forum on how education policies in Japan and elsewhere could help to improve secondary education in Maine


WATERVILLE, ME – Dr. Richard Hopper, President of Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC), spoke at the Mid-Maine Global Forum Dec. 11 on lessons Maine can learn from Japan’s education policies since World War II.

Dr. Hopper was invited to address the monthly forum as the featured speaker based on his expertise in international education, including his tenure as Senior Education Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

The OECD administers an international test for 15-year-olds known as the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), which is widely regarded as a yardstick for comparing educational systems from countries around the globe.KVCC logo

While at OECD, Dr. Hopper was Program Manager for the Strong Performers, Successful Reformers Project, which attempted to describe through both quantitative and qualitative analysis some of the major policies and organizational behaviors that seem to influence the learning outcomes of 15-year-olds in nations with highly successful educational systems. This study combined analysis of the 2009 (PISA) test data with descriptions of policy phenomena that may help to explain the performance of the strongest and most rapidly improving education systems in the world.

This analysis included a close look at education policies and practices in Japan, where student test scores continue to be among the highest in the world.

Results from the 2012 PISA scores were released two weeks ago and show that Japanese high school students continue to perform at high levels, even showing some noticeable improvement over their 2009 scores.

“This particular talk was about the consistently high performance of the Japanese education system over decades in the face of demographic contraction and persistent economic stagnation,” Dr. Hopper said. “Estimates show that the population of Japan will contract from 130 million to around 100 million in the next generation, and this inverted population pyramid with an aging population looks alarmingly like the demographic projections for the state of Maine.”

The population changes Japan has experienced have already prompted the country to consolidate nearly 20 percent of its primary and secondary schools, and consolidation of another 20 percent is expected in the coming years. Meanwhile there has been an expansion of Japan’s private higher education sector.

“Of all the countries in the world - Japan’s experience has some of the greatest relevance to the problems facing secondary education today in the state of Maine,” Dr. Hopper said.

Dr. Hopper described in-depth what PISA scores and related survey data together reveal about education outcomes. Setting high academic standards, spending judiciously on key aspects of education, and maintaining a laser focus on core subjects can help overcome negative school characteristics and socio-economic conditions of students. The data show in a surprising and compelling way how small classes, instructional technology and even the type of school are not as important as aiming high and investing in the best possible teaching force.

Dr. Hopper explained how Japan made a number of critical moves that seem to help solidify the country’s preeminence in education outcomes over time, including development of national standards and a dramatic increase in teacher salaries in the 1970s, which made the profession competitive by attracting the highest quality university graduates to teach in public schools.

Dr. Hopper said that Japanese education is also noteworthy in the way it combines centralized financing with decentralized authority over instructional practices. Paradoxically, Japan is currently pursuing a policy of smaller class sizes although the data show this is not likely to benefit learning outcomes. Instead, Dr. Hopper suggested, spreading teachers out over smaller classes probably allows for a slower consolidation of schools as the population contracts, likely helping to make the demographic realities less painful on local communities.

Dr. Hopper also discussed some interesting practices in Japan, including the rotation of teachers to new districts every four years to circulate talent, a surprising aversion to technology in the classroom, and a steadfast focus traditional subjects for students up to the age of 15 - reading, writing, math, and science. This is combined with chores to engender social responsibility and regular physical activity.

Steve Knight, Secretary of the Mid-Maine Global Forum and a former high school teacher who is currently a history instructor at KVCC, said Dr. Hopper’s talk was very well received.

Based on his own experiences as a high school teacher Knight said that he found Dr. Hopper’s discussion of steady and incremental Japanese education reforms interesting. Knight said it seemed to him that, compared to Japan, US teachers are asked to change strategies frequently and apply new methods without mastering the former ones – all without any input from teachers.

“In contrast, in many of the top-performing countries teachers are empowered in their schools in developing curriculum and teaching strategies,” Knight said. “To me, it is clear what our country needs to do; it needs to address the issues of poverty, it needs to attract and hire the best and the most committed individuals to teaching, and it needs to empower those educators to have a real say in how the schools are run.”

Dr. Hopper's research and policy perspective over the past 29 years has been strongly influenced by his first job out of college in 1985 when he took a position with the Japanese Ministry of Education. As a Mombusho fellow Dr. Hopper lived and worked in Kagoshima, Japan from 1985-86 and in Tokyo, Japan from 1986-88, teaching in secondary schools and higher education institutions while working on national and regional education policies related to the teaching profession.

Dr. Hopper earned a BA from George Washington University, an MA from Geneva, Switzerland, and a second master’s and a doctorate from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He was a Fulbright Doctoral Scholar in Bangladesh for one year and served as an education specialist at the World Bank for over 13 years.

In his work at the OECD, Dr. Hopper coordinated a team of experts and oversaw the preparation of two volumes and a number of short documentary videos supported with funding from the Pearson Foundation.

Links to the two volumes, as well as a link to the video project, are below:




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