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Daily Howler: Know-nothing pundits love this script about American schooling
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UTTERLY MISSING IN FINLAND! Know-nothing pundits love this script about American schooling: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2005

NORTH OF BOSTON: We’re going out to clean the pasture spring! The HOWLER returns on Monday.

UTTERLY MISSING IN FINLAND: Next week, we’ll return to Making Schools Work—an iconic example of mainstream press coverage of low-income American schools. For decades, middle- and upper-class mainstream press types have performed much as this program does—pretending the answers to our problems are much simpler than they really are.

On Monday, we thought we saw the same ingrained tendency in this piece by the New York Times’ Brent Staples. According to Staples, the Japanese are “beating the pants off us in the educational arena;” indeed, Japan “stands light years ahead of us in international comparisons,” the gloomy pundit says. And Staples has figured out why that is. It’s because the Japanese have better teaching methods:

STAPLES (11/21/05): 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 classroom.

Etcetera, and so forth and so on. According to Staples, “[t]here are two other things that set [the US] apart from its high-performing peers abroad.” Those two factors? “One is the American sense that teaching is a skill that people come by naturally.” And the other thing that sets us apart—that drags us down—is the lack of a national curriculum. “The countries that are leaving us behind in math and science decide at the national level what students should learn and when.” In the US, we leave that to the states.

Let’s start by saying this: It actually matters if Staples is right. No, Japan isn’t leaving the US behind to quite the extent that Staples describes. But large subsets of our student population are, in fact, being left far behind. As we have often noted, many low-income and minority kids are years behind traditional “grade level” by the time they reach fourth grade. It greatly matters how we address this. More specifically, it matters if we adopt perspectives which make us feel good, but fail to address the actual problems which actually exist in real schools.

We’d guess that Staples has done something like that. Here’s why we’re so inclined:

First, is Japan really beating us blue? We’ll suggest that Staples overstates a tad—and we’d also note that he fails to identify a major source of the difference that does exist between the US and Japan. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is probably the most highly-regarded international comparison of student achievement; in 2003, Japan outscored the US by a fairly substantial margin in math, but by a much smaller amount in science. (For the record, the US exceeded international averages in both subjects, at both the fourth-and eighth-grade levels.) In fourth-grade science, for example, the US finished sixth out of 25 countries, just seven points behind Japan (543-536), on a scale which ranged from a low of 304 (Morocco) to a high of 565 (Singapore). Japan outscores the US on these measures. But here, the difference is clearly less vast than purple prose might make us think.

Nor does Staples ever acknowledge one obvious cause of our shortfall. A few months ago, the Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser was heaping praise on the schools in Finland—the world’s best schools, he excitedly said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/05). It fell to us to note the obvious—Finland is a uni-cultural, middle-class nation with almost no immigrant population and few kids with second-language issues. But then, American schools get good results from middle-class, majority-culture students; on any measure like the TIMSS, the American average is brought down by the very low achievement levels which exist in substantial pockets of the US student population—among second-language kids, Hispanics and blacks. No, Finland never enslaved one-tenth of its population, then spent centuries denying literacy (by force of law) to that oppressed subgroup. Today, we Americans deal with the deadly effects of our ancestors’ benighted conduct. But because we ourselves have taught in low-income, minority schools—schools where delightful, deserving kids can be three years behind by the start of fourth grade—we don’t believe that those Japanese teaching techniques are likely to fix this American problem. Nor does Staples present any evidence to suggest that these techniques will help in these deeply-challenged schools—the schools where our educational disaster is occurring. Presumably, it is in these schools that American averages are dragged down on international surveys. Do we think that Japanese teaching techniques are likely to transform such schools? No, we don’t, and Staples offers no evidence to the contrary. His ruminations are wishful thinking—wishful thinking from a million miles away

When we start our new web site in the new year, we’ll try to suggest things that might work in our low-achieving minority schools. But it was silly when Kaiser made his simple comparison of US schools to those of Finland, and we can think of no reason to assume that those “Japanese teacher-development strategies in which teachers work cooperatively and intensively to improve their methods” (yawn) will produce any real results inside our most challenged schools.

Finally, if there’s one thing wrong with analyses like Staples’, it’s found in paragraphs like this—paragraphs which always appear in such critiques, as if by hypnotic force of strange law:

STAPLES: 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.
For foppish, upper-class press corps savants, it always comes back to statements like this; it always comes back to the foolish claim that those benighted “school officials” (i.e., proletarian teachers) are cruelly holding back “millions of children” by dint of their lack of high expectations. It’s very easy to type that stuff up—from a perch at an upper-class aerie like the Times. But guess what? When a child is three grades behind by the start of fourth grade, then no—that deserving American child won’t be doing much “high-level learning” that year. It’s infuriating to read the scripts of foppish, inexperienced elites who routinely disparage experienced teachers. (And if you don’t hear the class bias involved here, you may not know how to read simple English.) But press elites have typed this cant for forty years—damning low-income kids from low-literacy backgrounds to continued distress in the process.

As we’ll explain in some detail next week: When we watch Making Schools Work, we get the feeling—the quite distinct feeling—that Hedrick Smith lacks the first idea about what goes on in our low-income schools. Staples, dreaming dreams of Japanese revision-and-refinement, gives us the same sinking feeling. Such facile efforts want to deny the tragedy of American history. That tragedy plays out every day in our schools (although it’s utterly missing in Finland), and no—it won’t go away because know-nothing scribes type high-minded scripts calling for high expectations.

EXTRA CREDIT: Here too we see a standard script. It’s very familiar, and very important:

STAPLES: 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.

That highlighted script is very familiar—and it’s built on a critical act of denial. But we’re already on the road, heading out to clean the pasture spring. We’ll discuss it in the months ahead. Don’t worry—it always returns.

SOLVING FOR X: Meanwhile, here’s a piece from Monday’s Post about algebra in Maryland’s middle schools. Note: If this article really says what it seems to say, middle school kids did better on the Maryland state algebra test than their (older) peers in high school did. Counterintuitive? No, not at all. Indeed, we’ll make it Exhibit A when we return to Sweet Charlotte next week, evaluating Superintendent Eric Smith’s allegedly brilliant “reforms.”