[Paleopsych] NYT: Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools

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Sat Nov 26 02:07:33 UTC 2005

Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools


    The United States will become a second-rate economic power unless it
    can match the educational performance of its rivals abroad and get
    more of its students to achieve at the highest levels in math, science
    and literacy. Virtually every politician, business leader and educator
    understands this, yet the country has no national plan for reaching
    the goal. To make matters worse, Americans have remained openly
    hostile to the idea of importing strategies from the countries that
    are beating the pants off us in the educational arena.

    The No Child Left Behind Act, passed four years ago, was supposed to
    put this problem on the national agenda. Instead, the country has
    gotten bogged down in a squabble about a part of the law that requires
    annual testing in the early grades to ensure that the states are
    closing the achievement gap. The testing debate heated up last month
    when national math and reading scores showed dismal performance across
    the board.

    Lurking behind these test scores, however, are two profoundly
    important and closely intertwined topics that the United States has
    yet to even approach: how teachers are trained and how they teach what
    they teach. These issues get a great deal of attention in
    high-performing systems abroad - especially in Japan, which stands
    light years ahead of us in international comparisons.

    Americans tend to roll their eyes when researchers raise the Japanese
    comparison. The most common response is that Japanese culture is
    "nothing like ours." Nevertheless, the Japanese system has features
    that could be fruitfully imitated here, as the education reformers
    James Stigler and James Hiebert pointed out in their book "The
    Teaching Gap," published in 1999.

    The book has spawned growing interest in the Japanese
    teacher-development strategy in which teachers work cooperatively and
    intensively to improve their methods. This process, known as "lesson
    study," allows teachers to revise and refine lessons that are then
    shared with others, sometimes through video and sometimes at
    conventions. In addition to helping novices, this system builds a
    publicly accessible body of knowledge about what works in the

    The lesson-study groups focus on refining methods that improve student
    understanding. In doing so, the groups go step by step, laying out
    successful strategies for teaching specific lessons. This reflects the
    Japanese view that successful teaching is the product of intensive
    teacher development and self-scrutiny. In America, by contrast, novice
    teachers are often presumed competent on Day One. They have few
    opportunities in their careers to watch successful colleagues in
    action. We also tend to believe that educational change would happen
    overnight - if only we could find the right formula. This often leaves
    us prey to fads that put schools on the wrong track.

    There are two other things that set this country apart from its
    high-performing peers abroad. One is the American sense that teaching
    is a skill that people come by naturally. We also have a curriculum
    that varies widely by region. The countries that are leaving us behind
    in math and science decide at the national level what students should
    learn and when. The schools are typically overseen by ministries of
    education that spend a great deal of time on what might be called
    educational quality control.

    The United States, by contrast, has 50 different sets of standards for
    50 different states - and within states, the quality of education
    depends largely on the neighborhood where the student lives. No Child
    Left Behind was meant to cure this problem by penalizing states that
    failed to improve student performance, as measured by annual tests.

    The states have gotten around the new law by setting state standards
    as low as possible and making state tests easy. This strategy was
    exposed as fraudulent just last month, when states that had performed
    so well on their own exams performed dismally on the alternative and
    more rigorous test known as the National Assessment of Educational

    No Child Left Behind was based on the premise that embarrassing test
    scores and government sanctions would simply force schools to improve
    educational outcomes for all students. What has become clear, however,
    is that school systems and colleges of education have no idea how to
    generate changes in teaching that would allow students to learn more
    effectively. Indeed, state systems that have typically filled teaching
    positions by grabbing any warm body they could find are only just
    beginning to think about the issue at all.

    Faced with lagging test scores and pressure from the federal
    government, some school officials have embraced the dangerous but
    all-too-common view that millions of children are incapable of
    high-level learning. This would be seen as heresy in Japan. But it is
    fundamental to the American system, which was designed in the 19th
    century to provide rigorous education for only about a fifth of the
    students, while channeling the rest into farm and factory jobs that no
    longer exist.

    The United States will need a radically different mind set to catch up
    with high-performing competitors abroad. For starters we will need to
    focus as never before on the process through which teachers are taught
    to teach. We will also need to drop the arrogance and xenophobia that
    have blinded us to successful models developed abroad.

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