Todday’s NYTimes Magazine features an article by Elizabeth Green titled “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?”, an article well worth reading because it provides a good description of what it would take to make Americans perform at a higher level but an article that underemphasizes or overlooks some of the subtle reasons that contribute to our deficiencies.
Ms. Green contrasts the Japanese methods of teaching mathematics with those used in the US, focussing on Akihiko Takahashi, an education reformer from Japan, and Takeshi Matsuyama, an elementary teacher affiliated with a university-based lab school who was his mentor. Together, they transformed mathematics instruction in Japan. Like Deming before them, Takahashi and Matsuyama implemented the recommendations of US experts, recommendations that our country rejected because they did not fit the hierarchical “factory model” of management that blinds us to new and different ways of thinking. Surprisingly Ms. Green overlooked the parallel to Deming’s experience, which mirrored that of Takahashi and Matsuyama and continues to limit our ability to innovate.
Ms. Green also contrasts the Japanese method of teacher training, which is ongoing and organic, with the virtual absence of training in our country. Instead of stand-alone workshops or the accumulation of graduate credits, Japanese teachers engage in “lesson study”, which is time provided for teachers to meet and discuss their teaching methods and to observe each other’s instruction. But she fails to emphasize the funding that would be required to provide the time needed for teachers to have the time for lesson study nor does she note that shift in thinking that would be required to move away from our credential-based method of measuring teacher learning, a method that is often based on seat time.
As one who led school districts from 1980 through 2011 I saw two other factors that Ms. Green overlooked or underemphasized: our country’s obsession with standardized tests and the unwillingness of parents and school boards to accept “non-traditional ways” of teaching mathematics and scheduling teacher time.
Ms. Green described how the emphasis on standardized tests reinforced “traditional” methods of teaching when she noted that while “…lesson study (in Japan)is pervasive in elementary and middle school, it is less so in high school where the emphasis is on cramming for college entrance exams”. In our country, the emphasis is on cramming for examinations from the very outset… and that emphasis is deleterious. Especially since to date, standardized tests have NOT measured the kinds of mathematics instruction valued by NCTM: they have focussed on the “skills” traditionally taught to parents and school board members, skills that are easy to test (see yesterday’s post for evidence of this).
Ms. Green made no mention of how any effort to introduce “non-traditional” methods of mathematics instruction meets with resistance from parents who complain that “they can’t help their children with homework” because they “don’t understand” the work assigned. And when that attitude is combined with our obsession with test scores, if the scores don’t jump immediately the “new math” books are soon be abandoned in favor of the worksheets that match the tested curriculum and the meme about the “failure of new mathematics” is reinforced.
School boards not only face resistance from parents, they also face budget challenges, which can pose the biggest obstacle to introducing innovation. When administrators contemplate the implementation of something akin to “lesson study” they need to hire additional staff to provide release time for teachers to engage in such a program. One way to provide more release time is to increase class sizes (Japan has much larger class sizes than the US), a recommendation that flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the US and meets resistance from teachers as well as parents.
Finally, as noted repeatedly in this blog, we need to stop thinking of our schools as factories that pour information into students who progress along an assembly line in lockstep based on their age and whose progress is measured by standardized tests and hours spent in the classroom. The bottom line: until we stop thinking of our schools as factories we will see no meaningful change or improvement.
In two “Dog Bites Man” stories, Valerie Strauss’s July 24 and June 27 describe the flaws inherent in NYS’s Common Core tests— flaws that illustrate the inability of a pencil and paper test to measure the high-minded outcomes expected if the Common Core was implemented.
The July 24 article features a letter from the 3rd and 4th grade teachers at Shaker Road School which is part of the South Colonie School Dstrict, a district that serves relatively affluent parents in the Albany area. The letter describes the flaws in the writing section of the tests administered to grades they teach and notes concerns about “…badly constructed questions and arbitrarily determined cut scores for what constitutes student proficiency on the tests”… flaws that are inherent in ANY standardized test. Indeed, it is the setting of cut scores that determines expectations far more than the standards that serve as the basis for the test questions.
The earlier June 27 post, which can be accessed via a link in the July 24 article, describes the flaws in the Algebra Regents test used to determine if a student can graduate from high school. When the “Regents-For-All” initiative was launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was suspicion that the cut scores might be lowered to guarantee higher pass rates. The advent of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards combined with the Blame Teachers First movement (see yesterday’s post), the cut scores were increased and the failure rate increased… which will add fuel to the fire that “public schools are failing” and need to be replaced by private schools that. presumably and contrary to all evidence, will do a better job.
I am glad that Valerie Strauss continues covering the flaws in standardized testing. I only wish her findings were gaining traction in the mainstream media who appear to believe the “schools-are-failing-and-can-be-fixed-without-money” fantasy spun by the privatizers.