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If the SYSTEM is Flawed, Fix the SYSTEM, Don’t Privatize It!

February 21, 2017

The title of this post is the implicit conclusion of Michael Easterday’s post in The Hill titled “The Japanese Education System May Solve the Problems of US Public Education”. After describing the pushback Betsy DeVos faced in her appointment based on her “solution” of privatization, Mr. Easterday offers a different approach to “fixing” public education: adopting the teaching methods used in Japan… methods that were developed in the US!

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. 

Reading these paragraphs brought to mind the work of W. Edwards Deming, an engineer who travelled to Japan to teach his approaches of total quality management to their automobile factories, approaches that resulted in Japan producing superior products that ultimately outsold US products. Deming’s methods, which called for continually revision and rethinking, were not embraced in our country where volume was deemed more important than precision. When volume is valued, a “specific technique” is applied and once it is in place within a system it is difficult to unseat. In Japanese manufacturing, the continuous improvement ethos requires that each and every technique be reviewed to determine it’s efficacy. This means that lesson plans and teaching techniques are deconstructed to see if they are achieving the intended purpose. Mr. Easterday describes this Japanese system, called “lesson study”, with the last paragraph echoing the experience of our auto industry who failed to adopt the methods Mr. Deming advocated:

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.

And, as Mr. Easterday notes, the privatization of our flawed system is unlikely to yield any change in our system:

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.

As noted in many posts on this blog, the biggest flaw of the “reform” movement and its ultimate endgame of privatization is the implicit embrace of the factory school model that batches students by age cohorts and uses standardized norm-referenced tests as the basis for determining “success”. Privatizing a flawed system will do nothing to improve our public schools. Changing the system itself is the best way forward.

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