May 30, 2007

Dragon Zakura

At first glance, the TBS television series Dragon Zakura compares well with the movie Stand and Deliver. In the latter, maverick math teacher Jaime Escalante's goal is to teach and motivate his students at a failing inner-city high school to pass the AP calculus exam.

In Dragon Zakura, Kenji Sakuragi is an ex-motorcycle gang member who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became a lawyer (which is excruciatingly difficult in Japan). Now he's looking to do the same at a baka gakkou, a bottom-ranked Tokyo high school.

High schools in Japan are ranked by entrance exams the same way colleges in the U.S. can be ranked by SAT scores. Compulsory education in Japan ends with junior high and you have to pass an entrance exam to get into a good public high school.

His goal for his students: pass the Tôdai (Tokyo University) entrance exams, perhaps the toughest in the world (ironically, in terms of actual academic performance, Tôdai is pretty middling by world standards; once all those fried brains make it in, they're not particularly eager to set the world on fire).

Dragon Zakura, like Stand and Deliver, is "based on a true story." But while Stand and Deliver is a fairly accurate bio-pic, Dragon Zakura is far more fanciful. For example, the "master teachers" Kenji Sakuragi recruits to teach his hard-luck cases. The physics professor looks just like Einstein, the literature professor looks like Natsume Soseki, that kind of thing.

The knowledge they impart, though, is spot on. The pedagogical approach presented for the English portion of the exam (a subject I am somewhat qualified to address) should be made part and parcel of the curriculum in every Japanese high school. Though even here, Sakuragi is teaching to the test and nothing else.

Despite its uplifting conclusion, however, Dragon Zakura is a depressing indictment of the Japanese education system. While the "soft bigotry of low expectations" can be defeated by the right combination of innovative teaching techniques, the tagline: "Anybody can make it into Tôdai" is profoundly different than the tagline: "Anybody can pass the AP calculus exam."

Because everybody can't make it into Tôdai. For every student who makes it in, another student won't. This zero-sum game has turned the Tôdai exam into little more than a tortuous test of IQ and memorization skills. A high school student trying to get into Tôdai basically succeeds by proving that he's capable of graduating from Tôdai.

It'd be like having to ace the GMAT, MCAT, GRE and LSAT just to get admitted to the freshman class. But if you could pass those exams in the first place, why bother going to school?

The entire planet, on the other hand, could take the AP calculus exam if they were so inclined. And those credits would be treated the same at any institution, from the local community college to Harvard.

Moveover, in the U.S., those of Sakuragi's students who didn't make it into Tôdai on the first try certainly wouldn't waste a year of their lives as rounin treading the same water all over again. Anybody who could "almost" make it into Harvard could easily sail into a dozen other world-leading, top-tier schools that wouldn't hurt their future prospects in the slightest.

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