The Japanese education system may solve the problems of US public education

The uproar over the new Secretary of Education’s first days in the cabinet and the state of American public education K through 12 ignores the challenge of how we might actually improve teaching. And it can be a relatively simple fix.

Blocked by protesters from visiting a Washington, D.C. school recently, newly confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an avid support of privatization, met with public school officials eventually.

Yes, DeVos had faced a historically close vote — the first ever cabinet confirmation when a vice president cast the tie-breaking vote.

Opponents of DeVos cited her lack of experience, the poor performance of the Michigan Charter schools and her financial contributions to many of the senators voting for her confirmation.

Secretary DeVos revealed alarming misunderstandings about education policy and resisted calls to maintain funding for public education or to hold private schools and charter schools to the same standards as public schools. She remains a supporter of privatization.

However, as Diane Ravitch argues in her 2013 book “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” there is scant evidence privatization works.

If privatization approaches, such as vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and abolishing tenure haven’t provided the magic bullet to improving education, it is because they don’t directly address how we improve teaching.

What may solve the problems of American public education is what already works in Japan.

In researching the K-12 Japanese educational system, typically compared favorably to ours, Catherine Lewis, senior research scientist at Mills College, asked Japanese teachers how they learned problem-solving approaches to teaching mathematics. Reportedly Lewis reacted in disbelief when they told her that were developed by American researchers.

Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and how to Teach it to Everyone) found a similar pattern when she interviewed Akahiko Takashi, once one of Japan’s leading teachers and now Associate Professor of Elementary Math Teacher Education at DePaul University.

As Green describes in her book, Takashi came to Chicago to observe classrooms using the innovative teaching approaches of John Dewey, George Polya and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He had read about the teaching models and applied many in his own classroom, but he couldn’t find them.

“The Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them,” Green wrote in the New York Times in 2014.

Of course, improving teaching isn’t about improving a specific technique, it’s about creating a system that can continuously design these improvements.

In most industries, the burden of providing better products and services is shared by practitioners and designers. For example, pilots fly the plane and engineers design it. In U.S. education, we ask teachers to do the equivalent of flying the plane and designing it. This would be challenging enough except that we give teachers no time to design.

In a new study by Takashi and colleagues and a classic 1999 book,The Teaching Gap, researchers describe how Japanese teachers improve teaching through a collaborative design process called lesson study.

In lesson study, teams of teachers research, design and test a single new lesson over several weeks. The team teaches this lesson publicly in front of the whole school, sometimes in front of hundreds of other teachers, who observe and provide feedback. Teachers share their lessons, which are aligned to a shared course of study, so that other teachers can build upon the lessons through lesson study journals.

Innovators will immediately recognize the similarity of lesson study to other design processes, such as that used by Google Ventures to develop new products, agile software development, and lean manufacturing.

This should be no surprise — the lesson study approach has many of the same intellectual roots about improving quality that Japan has applied for more than half a century. The systematic application of the lesson study design process has allowed Japan to relentlessly improve its teaching, incorporating pedagogical insights still sit on the shelf in the U.S.

If anything, privatization advocates’ proposals undermine the conditions needed for this sort of collaborative design. Improving teaching requires supporting teachers’ design collaboration, rather than having them compete for merit pay. It promotes the sharing of instructional insights across schools, rather than protecting intellectual property.

This collaborative design provides a stable work environment where teachers have autonomy to make long-term improvements, rather than eliminating due process so teachers can be fired based on the whims of a principal, administrator or an angry parent.

Privatization has not succeeded in improving education, because it does not directly address the root causes of improving teaching. We need to stop trying to do more of what doesn’t work, and start investing in improving teaching.

Written by Matthew Easterday, Opinion Contributor for The HIll ~ February 20, 2017.

~ The Author ~
Matthew Easterday is an assistant professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and an NU Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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