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High-Stakes Schooling

What We Can Learn from Japan’s Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

High-Stakes Schooling

What We Can Learn from Japan’s Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform

If there is one thing that describes the trajectory of American education, it is this: more high-stakes testing. In the United States, the debates surrounding this trajectory can be so fierce that it feels like we are in uncharted waters. As Christopher Bjork reminds us in this study, however, we are not the first to make testing so central to education: Japan has been doing it for decades. Drawing on Japan’s experiences with testing, overtesting, and recent reforms to relax educational pressures, he sheds light on the best path forward for US schools.
Bjork asks a variety of important questions related to testing and reform: Does testing overburden students? Does it impede innovation and encourage conformity? Can a system anchored by examination be reshaped to nurture creativity and curiosity? How should any reforms be implemented by teachers? Each chapter explores questions like these with careful attention to the actual effects policies have had on schools in Japan and other Asian settings, and each draws direct parallels to issues that US schools currently face. Offering a wake-up call for American education, Bjork ultimately cautions that the accountability-driven practice of standardized testing might very well exacerbate the precise problems it is trying to solve. 


“This is the only book on Japan’s relaxed education reforms, from which there is much to learn, and Bjork’s approach—starting with classroom ethnography—brings an entirely different focus to the issue. With a solid grounding in ethnographic theory and current research on Japanese education, he delivers a clear and engaging assessment of Japan’s experiences with high-stakes testing and what America can learn from them.” 

Gary DeCoker, author of Looking at U.S. Education through the Eyes of Japanese Teachers

"Chistopher Bjork’s High Stakes Schooling is several books in one: a nuanced ethnography of pedagogical practices in contemporary Japanese elementary and middle schools; an ethnographic case study of how elementary and middle school teachers in a region far from Tokyo are coping with a top-down reform mandate; an analysis of the links between high stakes testing, classroom practices, and learning outcomes, based on a review of data from Japan, Singapore, Korea, China, Finland and the US; and a cautionary tale for educators and policy makers in the United States and other countries tempted to use high stakes testing to leverage educational achievement."


“Bjork thoughtfully traces a national education reform as it plays out in a group of elementary and junior high schools far from Tokyo. He argues persuasively that the high academic performance of Japan’s elementary schools is due to the absence of high-stakes testing, the accountability of strong human relationships within schools, and the attention to students’ social, emotional, and intellectual needs.”

Catherine Lewis, author of Lesson Study Step by Step

“The Japanese Ministry of Education enacted a series of reforms in 2002 that Bjork (education, Vassar College) calls ‘relaxed education.’ The school week was shortened. The teachers covered fewer concepts, and students could explore topics that interested them. Since the Japanese system had been built on rigorous testing, Bjork sought to understand whether the teachers and students could adjust, and whether educators in the US could learn from the experience. He spent a year in six schools in a medium-sized city in northern Japan interviewing administrators, teachers, students, and parents. He observed lessons, and he looked at reformed curricula. In the elementary school, the reforms improved student learning; however, the reforms exacerbated the differences in middle schools between achievement-oriented students and those who were less motivated. . . . Recommended.”


“[A] stimulating account of recent developments in Japanese compulsory education, especially the response of teachers and parents to the Ministry of Education’s call for a more relaxed, exam-free educational experience….It is especially helpful in portraying the diversity of Japanese education depending on whether a school provides primary or secondary education and whether it is in a competitive urban setting.”

Journal of Japanese Studies

"Christopher Bjork has written an important book that reflects his long experience with fieldwork and Japanese education, as well as reporting on his most recent research. It is at once steeped in expertise and innovative....[T]he insights he draws from his research, as well as the broader implications he points to, make this a book that scholars who focus on the transformation of education systems will find very interesting....[A] terrific update on teaching practice and its relationship to national policy in contemporary Japan presented by a skilled researcher and thoughtful scholar."

Pacific Affairs

Table of Contents

List of Tables

ONE / Searching for Solutions
TWO / Framing the Education Crisis
THREE / Examining the Impact of Reform Polices
FOUR / The Teaching Force
FIVE / Nurturing Enthusiasm in Elementary School Students
SIX / Responses to Change in the Middle Schools
SEVEN / Curricular Reform, Academic Achievement, and Educational Opportunity
EIGHT / Shifting Student-Teacher Relationships
NINE / Broadening the Discussion
TEN / US Teachers Reflect on Japanese Elementary School Instruction
ELEVEN / Looking Forward

Epilogue Acknowledgments Notes References Index

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