The following report is part of CBS News' new series on education: Reading, Writing and Reform.
First thing in the morning, Japanese children bow to their teachers. It's a small gesture that says a lot, reports CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton.
Here, respect is not a song title. It's the backbone of Japan's school system, which for decades has topped international rankings while spending the lowest amount on education among developed democracies: 3.3 percent of Japan's gross domestic product, or GDP, goes toward schooling compared to 5 percent in the United States.
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How do they do so much with so little? By investing in top-notch teachers.
"Teachers are given a good deal of respect; they're expected to devote their life," said Catherine Lewis, distinguished research scholar at Mills College. "The whole system is set up to emphasize the development of teachers."
Retirement comes at 60 for Japanese educators with a salary of more than $62,000, compared to $53,000 in the United States.
But in return, teachers are tasked with transforming children into model citizens. If a student is caught shoplifting, for example, the child's teacher is usually alerted before a parent.
"If our students do something wrong outside the school, we tend to think, 'we should have taught them better'," said Japanese teacher Mitsuko Watanabe.
Inside the classroom, children learn responsibility. Changing into slippers at the school's entrance and cleaning the building themselves. At lunch, it's a similar story.
Children take turns dishing out food to their classmates and their teacher, and no one takes a bite until everyone is served.
Teaching everything from table manners to trigonometry takes time. But in Japan, teachers also have scheduled periods to compare notes. Their desks are even grouped together in one room.
"I spend 60 percent of my time with students and 40 percent with other teachers," said math teacher Kazunaga Yokota.
Classes are regularly videotaped, allowing senior teachers to mentor juniors -- a technique that's gaining traction in the U.S. And ineffective teachers aren't fired or sidelined -- they're given extensive retraining, explains the president of Japan's teachers' union.
"It's impossible for someone to get through the system who is incompetent," said Yuzuru Nakamura, president of Japan's Teachers' Union.
Despite all this, those all-important global test scores have slipped: Japan topped worldwide math rankings in 2000, but dropped to 6th in 2006: still far ahead the U.S. at number 25.
What hasn't changed in Japan is the value placed on education best summed up by a Japanese proverb: better than a thousand days of study is one day with a great teacher.
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