On international assessments of educational performance, Japan is one of the top performing countries in science and math.
The two primary international assessments that examine the performance of students in science and math are the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The former assesses science and math performance in grades four and eight; the latter assesses the science, math, and reading literacy of 15-year-olds. Fifty-nine countries participated in the most recent TIMSS in 2007 and 57 countries participated in the most recent PISA in 2006.
In science, Japanese fourth graders ranked fourth in performance compared to their international peers; eighth graders ranked third; 15-year-olds ranked sixth. All three ranks represent performances significantly above international averages.
There was no difference in average science performance between Japanese boys and girls in any age group.
In math, Japanese fourth graders ranked fourth in performance compared to their international peers; eighth graders ranked fifth; 15-year-olds ranked tenth. Again, all three ranks represent performances significantly above international averages.
The only difference in average math performance between Japanese boys and girls was in the 15-year-old category, wherein boys outperformed girls by 20 points. The math gender gap has widened by 9 points since 2003.
In reading, Japanese 15-year-olds performed above the international average in 2000. Between 2000 and 2006, their performance declined by 24 points resulting in Japan’s current performance at the international average level.
Japanese 15-year-old girls outperformed boys in reading by 31 points. The reading gender gap has not narrowed since PISA began collecting data in 2000. It’s currently more than 50 percent larger than the math gender gap.
When I visited Kadena Elementary School—a Japanese school located on Okinawa Island—the teachers confirmed that girls are indeed better readers than boys, regardless of whether the content is written in Japanese or a foreign language.
During an English lesson I observed at the school, several girls volunteered to stand in front of the class and read aloud; none of the boys did.
At one point, a group of students pointed to a boy and then clapped in order to pressure him to stand in front of the class and read. He didn’t budge from his seat. Eventually, the teacher selected two boys to read aloud to the class. They required much more assistance than the girls.
The reading gender gap is not exclusive to Japan; it’s an international problem. Girls, on average, are better readers than boys in every country in the world.
Another education gender gap exists in Japan at the university level. Only four countries have more males than females entering universities: Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Turkey. Of those countries, Japan has the largest gender gap.
52 percent of males and 38 percent of females enter universities in Japan. The international average is 50 percent of males and 62 percent of females.
However, the university gender gap in Japan is rapidly shrinking. Ever since antidiscrimination legislation was adopted in Japan in 1985, the enrollment of Japanese females in universities has risen sharply.
Of the three education gender gaps in Japan—in math, reading, and university enrollment—only one is narrowing: university enrollment. In order to narrow the gender gaps in math and reading, the Japanese education ministry needs to take action.