As a participant in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) Teacher Program in 1999, I was fortunate to spend several weeks studying the Japanese education system from kindergarten to post-secondary teacher training including a brief glimpse into the Japanese special education system. While visiting Japan, I was first introduced to a common Japanese saying after introductions had been made between our group of JFMF teachers and the high school teachers and administrators we were having a panel discussion with that afternoon. As so often happens in such situations, each person at the table gave his or her name and teaching/subject area expertise. I gave my name and stated that I was a teacher of the gifted. While my American colleagues all nodded, understanding my role in the education system, our Japanese counterparts looked at me with confusion. I did my best to explain gifted education through our interpreter, but it was clear that the concept was lost to the Japanese teachers and administrators present.
I asked our Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) liaison to explain their puzzled reactions while we were headed back to our hotel later that afternoon. He provided me with the Japanese saying – deru kugi wa utareru (出る釘は打たれる) – the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. The phrase is typically used to reinforce the idea of conformity, the idea of maintaining the status quo – of ‘fitting in’. As such, an emphasis is placed on the group or collective rather than the individual. Standing out is discouraged…both poor performance and exceptional performance are reprimanded.
Recently, I found my photo album from my JFMF visit to Japan, and I remembered that Japanese saying about nails and hammers. It got me thinking about the state of the American education system and its infatuation with standardized, high-stakes testing. Is our system really that different? In the most recent State of the Nation in Gifted Education: A Lack of Commitment to Talent Development report notes a lack of consistency and accountability in gifted programming that is vulnerable to changes in administrative leadership and economic conditions.
• Gifted children receive the majority of their education in the regular classroom setting where most teachers have little to no specialized training in gifted education.
• 7 states permit students to enter kindergarten earlier than the state cut-off age, but 10 states do not allow the practice; 24 leave the decision to districts
• 16 states provide public residential high schools for math and science, 2 for the humanities, and 11 for the fine and performing arts. 13 states provide funds for summer advanced programs called “governor’s schools”; and 14 states fund a virtual high school.
• Only 8 states have state policies that specifically permit academic acceleration; the rest leave the decision to the local school district.
In our egalitarian society, advocating for the academically able or for those who are academically gifted may be construed as elitist. There are those that believe that such programs instill arrogance and the students in such programs need to be brought down a peg or two (no pun intended given the name of this blog) for performing better than their peers. Take the case of Tyler Weaver of Hudson Falls, New York, who for the last five years has won the summer reading club contest at the Hudson Falls Public Library. This year, the library’s director said Tyler should step aside…a nail sticking out that should be hammered down. I disagree. Stick out!
The Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) Teacher Program was an amazing experience. Its successor, the Japan-US Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is just as worthwhile. There are several other Fulbright Programs peruse the Institute of International Education website.
If you would like to see my photo travelogue from my JFMF trip to Japan, feel free to visit my An American Educator in Japan site. (My aplogies – this site has not been updated since 2000.)
The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) is a wonderful advocacy organization for academically able and talented youth. The State of the Nation in Gifted Education: A Lack of Commitment to Talent Development report is just one of the many resources available through NAGC via their website.
If you would like to read more about Tyler Weaver’s story, access the story through the Post Star’s website.