Cramming. Bullies. Rote lessons. East Asia’s schools are failing their students. Big changes are planned, but will they come soon enough? Can Asia reform its schools before it’s too late?

Kobe is the kind of Japanese city where a yellow light still means slow down rather than speed up. The days are calm and ordered in the old-fashioned way, with parents rushing to work in the morning and uniformed kids dawdling on the way to school. It was here that a quiet junior high school boy grew up on comic books and dreams of becoming a superhero. He was a loner, picked on at school by both teachers and students, a trial shared by countless children before him. Nobody thought it alarming; if anything, in the Japanese context, it was considered character-building, along with cramming for difficult exams or wearing shorts through the coldest of winters during elementary years. This was normal school life.

But one day, that calm continuum was broken. The 14-year-old boy was suspended from school for fighting. To pass the days away from classes, he tortured cats and collected hunting knives. One long, idle afternoon, he invited a younger schoolmate out for some fun, luring the 11-year-old to a quiet hill where he strangled him and sawed off his head. The 14-year-old placed the severed head in a plastic bag and dropped it off at the gate of his school. A note stuffed in the younger boy’s mouth read, “(This is) revenge against the compulsory education system and the society that created it.”

So began the deluge. In 1999, two years after the Kobe incident, a teenager stabbed and killed a seven-year-old boy on a school playground. A year after that, a 17-year-old boy who had endured taunts at school began bashing passersby with a baseball bat on one of Tokyo’s busiest streets. Then it was the turn of other Asian countries. Last October in South Korea, where some child insurance policies now cover school violence, a 16-year-old boy surnamed Kim walked into his social studies class and fatally stabbed a boy who had picked on him. The same month in Hong Kong, seven-year-old Ng Dik-wai failed an exam in Chinese dictation, went home and leaped out of his high-rise apartment—earning him a place as among Asia’s youngest education victims.

The East Asian economic miracle was built on a number of sturdy pillars: hard work, high savings rates and Confucian values—in particular, an almost fanatical belief in the value of education. And for years, Asia could rest easy in the know-ledge that its school systems were producing the best and the brightest. Rising GDPs were proof, so were the calculus prodigies and engineers churned out by the millions. East Asian students almost always scored higher in international math and science tests—across the board, country by country—than their counterparts in the West. All you had to do was walk into an Asian classroom to see what they were doing right. Students were diligent, quiet, involved in copying down the daily lessons. It was nothing like the chaos of, say, American schools with the spitballs and pierced eyebrows and the emphasis on attitude with-a-capital-A. Education experts enjoined America’s teachers to look East.

The contrast isn’t so stark anymore. Recent math and science test scores show U.S. students gaining ground on their counterparts in Asia. And with their rote-based curricula and examcentric systems, Asians are finding that even children who attend the very best public schools lack the creative skills to compete in a new, challenging information economy. Who can name more than a handful of famous East Asian scientists or mathematicians—if that many? And now, some of the ailments of the West have come East. The dropout phenomenon, once considered exclusively Western, has reached Asian shores: in 1999, a record 130,000 Japanese primary and junior high school students refused to attend school for more than a month. The trendiest neighborhoods in Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei are filled with disaffected kids playing hooky, their ennui relieved by designer drugs and designer shopping.

Most alarming is the towering degree of unhappiness among Asian kids. Schools are suddenly plagued with record levels of violent crime and sky-high suicide rates. In Hong Kong, one in three teens have had suicidal thoughts, up 28% from two years ago. The number of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 in Thailand who commit suicide is second only to adult workers. Those children may be on the extreme edge, but some of the kids in the front rows are almost as unhappy and frustrated. “Something has gone very wrong with our schools,” says Hiroshi Yoshimoto, a director in the education reform division of Japan’s Education Ministry. “We all know we have to reform—yesterday.”

The good news is that things are changing. Governments are figuring it out after decades of white papers and bureaucratic backsliding. Parents, too: as countless moms and dads get laid off from jobs they thought they had for life, adults are realizing there’s little reason for kids to endure Asia’s stifling schools if there’s no promise of success upon graduation. Thus new schools are offering refuge to kids sick of rote learning and eager for some real education. “We would like to teach kids the method of acquiring knowledge, rather than just facts,” says Lee Ki Woo, a Seoul education official, who is helping oversee South Korea’s education reforms. But the big question remains: Are Asia’s classrooms changing enough to bring the continent back to competitive levels with the West? “The existing education system has produced reliable managers for predictable times,” says Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Education. “But it now needs to produce a new breed of leaders who have a certain ruggedness, an ability to respond quickly to situations.”

Three Aprils ago, on a breezy spring morning, six-year-old Marino Kajikawa joined the neat lines of sailor-suited kids marching to their first day of school in Koshigaya, a middle-class enclave on the outskirts of Tokyo. During the welcoming assembly, the principal spoke of harmony, friendliness, togetherness. But those platitudes were forgotten by recess, when a posse of older kids began picking on Marino for looking a little too inquisitively at their circle of activity. Tearful, Marino came home and announced she hated school and wanted to quit. Her parents scoffed. But after just eight days, Marino woke up with severe stomach cramps. The next day, she had a bad headache. Then it was a fever, concocted by sticking the thermometer against a lightbulb. “Even though I was very little,” says Marino, now nine years old, “I was sure I would never go back to school again.” Her parents didn’t realize it at the time—but Marino was to become a first-grade dropout.

Japan has attracted the most attention for the failings in its schools, but its problems are mirrored throughout the region. That’s no accident: Japan was so successful economically that other countries emulated its education system. The main goal of East Asian schools: to churn out literate, disciplined workers for factories and offices. The secondary goal: by pushing students through a tapering hierarchy of schools—poor, better, best—the country’s finest test-takers are decanted into the best jobs in government ministries and top corporations.

Stated so simply, that sounds like a meritocracy, but the reality is very different. What it means to most East Asian kids is a childhood of “examination hell.” From the day their offspring set foot in kindergarten, the goal of most parents is to get their children into one of the good public high schools. The better the high school, the higher the chance of getting into a good university. The pressure intensifies in high school, which becomes one long cram session for college admission. In many countries, if a student wants to hedge his bets and apply to, say, four universities, he has to study that many times over: each school has its own exam.

That’s a whole lot of studying: in school, at home into the wee hours and at private cram schools that are major industries throughout East Asia. Even worse are the social implications of failure. The tiny minority who make it into good universities are, theoretically, the winners. Everyone else is a loser. “Our education system,” says Wang Jenn-wu, a former member of Taiwan’s Cabinet-level education reform committee, “was so focused on the country’s economic success that it ignored individual success.”

It has been this way for centuries, in imperial China, Heian Japan, Ayuthaya-era Thailand: teachers instruct, students cram, and success or failure is the difference between a life at court (or at Sony or the Bank of China) or a life in the fields (or hawking cell phones on sidewalks). Social skills become irrelevant: in Asian school hallways, the pecking order comes straight from grade scores. Kids who don’t fall in that rigid line are considered outsiders: if they don’t care, say, or if they screw up, if they prefer sports. Or even if they’re a little too pretty. Seira Kawashima, 14, looks like a Japanese animE heroine: she has wide eyes, flushed cheeks and a perfect smudge of a mouth. When she walks through the shopping arcades of Koshigaya, boys pay attention and people tell her she ought to be a model. At school, her beauty elicited stares too, but of a less positive kind. “If you’re ugly or pretty or somehow different, it makes you a target,” Seira says. “In school, the most important lesson I learned was that you have to melt in.” But Seira couldn’t; even getting braces didn’t help. Unable to cope, the prettiest girl in class became a dropout.

After leaving public school, Seira found she still wanted to learn. She enrolled in Apple Tree, an experimental academy in Saitama prefecture, where children come when they please and study only what they want. It doesn’t look like a dropout’s place: the kids don’t have attitudes or drug problems or rap sheets. There’s not a nose ring in sight. When a visitor walks in, all the kids look up, then bob their heads in a show of respect.

Yusuke Masuda, 19, is a baseball stud who was the star shortstop of his little-league team. Even though he was popular at school, Yusuke felt stifled by the crowded classrooms, authoritarian teachers and emphasis on uniformity. Like the others here, he faked illness to get out of school and never went back. Now, he helps tutor the younger students at Apple Tree, sitting next to them on tatami mats as they go over their math lessons. “The biggest condemnation of the Japanese education system,” says Yoshie Masuda, Apple Tree’s founder, “is that even normal kids can’t handle school anymore.”

Apple Tree is part of a 30-member, experimental-education consortium that received Japanese government approval last year. Before that, young kids who dropped out of traditional schools could attend alternative academies—but they were not allowed to apply to public high schools unless the principal gave his personal consent. (Translation: hope you like working at a 7-Eleven the rest of your life.) Now, with so many kids eschewing the system altogether, Japan’s Education Ministry has realized it has to embrace other forms of schooling. “There are many ways to teach children,” admits Yoshimoto, the Education Ministry bureaucrat. “We must look at all methods to address the needs of our students.”

This April, Japan will complete a radical restructuring, abolishing Saturday classes, encouraging volunteerism and allowing schools to experiment with different curriculae. Later this year, Taiwan will scrap its university entrance exam system in favor of a more holistic approach that considers grades, essays and extracurricular activities. In South Korea, up to a third of incoming college students will be picked not for their test scores but for their unique talents.

The real revolution, though, is coming from the region’s parents and kids. Some parents are allowing their children to escape the system altogether, either by dropping out or going to school abroad. Others are turning to that budding crop of alternative schools like Apple Tree, where creativity and camaraderie can flourish. At the Beijing 21st Century Experimental School, 1,400 kids from all over China receive bilingual education and loads of computer training. Even though private schooling is a fledgling phenomenon in China, 21st Century has already sent its top students to Elite institutions like Peking and Qinghua universities. “My old school was supposed to be good, but it didn’t really teach me anything about computers or English,” says Ni Chengcheng, a 13-year-old, straight-A student. “I know that what I learn here will be useful for my future.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with Asia’s schools today is that children themselves no longer link substantive learning with schooling. “I look for a spark in kids’ eyes,” says a Hong Kong therapist who deals with 10 young stress cases a week. “But more and more, I just don’t see any interest in what they’re being taught.” Surveys show that while East Asian pupils top worldwide academic tests, they retain the information for the least amount of time, believing, not surprisingly, there is little utility in what they learn in the classroom. And employers are taking note. According to Alexa Chow, managing director of Centaline Julies Personnel Consultants in Hong Kong, graduates of Asian schools are finding themselves beaten out for positions with multinational corporations by peers who were educated abroad. “Those educated overseas,” says Chow, “are more independent, more aggressive and more proactive when tackling problems.” A poll of 20-plus countries by the Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement discovered that Asian students scored second-lowest in enjoyment of math and science, even though they placed first in understanding of these subjects. No wonder, then, that so few Asians are drawn to research when they graduate—they want nothing to do with stuffy labs that stifle creativity as their schools did.

The Haja Center, an experimental school located in northwestern Seoul, is trying to put the fun back into learning. With a million-dollar grant from the city government last year, the school has created a laid-back oasis in a country where a popular saying goes, “Sleep four hours and pass, sleep five hours and fail.” At the Haja Center, students lounge on mats or hang out in a funky playground. (In most Seoul schools, playgrounds are empty because students don’t have time to play; 86% of kindergartners receive cram school lessons). Cafeteria speakers pump out dance music, and the school boasts facilities for filmmaking, Web design and even a recording studio. Teachers are called tutors, and kids use nicknames—like Oasis, Lithium, Gum and Chili—in order to avoid Korea’s hierarchical honorifics. “It’s a way to get rid of old labels and instill new ways of thinking,” says Cho Han Haejoang, a Yonsei University sociology professor who set up the school three years ago. “The idea is to create a new self.”

That’s exactly what the Haja Center has given Lee So Dam. The shy 13-year-old spends her days drawing intricately etched faces. She wants to become an artist, and she dropped out of public school because her art teacher only wanted her to precisely render white plaster statues. “In public schools, kids are told how they must draw,” says Japanese alternative-art teacher Hiroko Miura, as she watches one of her students throw great splotches of color onto a drawing pad. “But if you don’t allow creativity in art, how are you ever going to find the next Van Gogh?”

The Pathumkongkah technical high School in a festering part of Bangkok exemplifies much of what has gone wrong with Asia’s schools. Murals on the walls depict the modern social problems facing its 2,400 students: AIDs, drugs, prostitution and violence. In the eight monsoon-stained buildings, individual teachers have to preside over classes of more than 50 students. Class size continues to increase by 5% each year; there is a teacher hiring freeze. When asked to describe the good aspects of education, Pathumkongkah’s deputy headmaster, Pethai Aowayatitaw, arches an eyebrow, giggles nervously and says, “Here? In Thailand?”

When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra swept into office last year, he promised to overhaul the nation’s blighted schools. Although literacy is high in Thailand, and in Southeast Asia the country ranks second to Malaysia on the percentage of GDP it spends on education, Thailand’s students lag behind in skills needed to transform a factory-based economy into a knowledge-based one. “Students can’t really read or write,” says Sippanondha Ketudat, a former Minister of Education. “All they know how to do is tick a box next to a multiple-choice question.” But despite his promises, Thaksin has done little to goose a bloated Education Ministry. The country has had three education ministers in less than a year—including Thaksin himself—and the current one is advocating more rote memorization and the reintroduction of caning as a disciplinary measure.

Some parents are so fed up they’re pulling their kids out of Asian schools altogether. Clark Cui grew up in the Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen but he now shares a suburban three-bedroom brick house in Sydney with three other high school kids from China. The number of Chinese students studying abroad has skyrocketed: China ranked fifth among countries sending students to Australia in 2000. This year, it will have the No. 1 slot. “My parents didn’t want me to go through China’s entrance exam hell,” says Clark, who hopes to major in software engineering at an Australian university. “And I like studying in a place where I can make jokes with my teachers and breathe clean air.” Most parents, of course, can’t afford that escape route. Still, there are local alternatives. In Taiwan, the Forest Elementary School offers students a chance to study traditional subjects and still get a breath of fresh air. Located in a small wood about a 40-minute drive outside petrol-redolent Taipei, the school encourages kids to explore their inner mind through hiking, camping and getting to know local fauna. “Kids here,” says school adviser Shih Ying, “have the courage to climb trees, to be different from others and to be themselves.” For one lucky group of East Asian youngsters, the buzz of worker bees are a part of the natural landscape—not a glimpse of their future lives.

(adapted from TIME)