Saturday, November 26, 2005

Should We Be Turning Japanese?

From The Ole Volk Gallery

About a week ago Brent Staples wrote the following NY Times Editorial, Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools. Staples starts off with pointing out that too many of our students are scientifically, mathematically, and in areas of overall literacy falling behind the power curve in a comparison with like nations, such as Japan. He points to a number of problems which contribute to this, to include a fractured education system which allows individual states to set standards and proficiency levels, a system overly dependent on property taxes which introduces inequity in how individual school systems within a state are funded, and, interestingly enough, how teachers are cultivated, trained, and encouraged to do their job.

No Child Left Behind was intended to correct for a lack of a national standard but the implementation of the law has been seriously undermined by virtue of allowing each state to determine on its own whether its students are meeting the expectations for their specific grade (I won't even get into whether the program is adequately funded). The problem with this was highlighted in today's Times by Sam Dillon with Students Ace State Tests, but Earn D's From U.S. . Here we find Tennessee serving as the poster state for the problems with the way NCLB is set up. Tennessee's state tests show 87% of its eight graders meeting or exceeding the state standards for math, while the Federal Government's National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national assessment exam mandated by NCLB, shows that only 21% of Tennessee eight graders were considered to be proficient in math. This mismatch in performance is in no way restricted to Tennessee, it was just an easy example. Similar problems can be found in a slew of southern or otherwise what are considered to be "poor" states, and in a few you just have to wonder about, like Alaska where residents used to (they may still, I'm just not up on the largess of Alaska these days) receive an annual check from the state as a share of what the state receives for its oil resources, yet for some reason they seem to be out of synch with national standards, go figure.

The Dillon article finds administrators trying to scramble to explain the divergence in results between their state proficiency exams and that of the NAEP, and we're given the following to chew on from a Standards & Poor report assessing education:

The report noted that the National Assessment is given to a sampling of students, whereas schools administer state tests to nearly all students. The tests serve different purposes, with the federal one giving policy makers a snapshot of student performance across the nation, while state tests provide data about individual performance. Because of these differences, some state officials say it is unfair to compare the test results.

Maybe it's me, I'm just not seeing it for some reason, but if all states run their own proficiency exams and they all find themselves in a position to be compared to the NAEP, then how is this inherently unfair? I mean it seems states are either using the NAEP as their measure of performance (that would certainly save money, you'd think), or their state assessments are
mimicking those of the NAEP and there's no cause for having to come up with explanations for why they're so out of synch. It seems to me that on the whole this is pretty fair, and it does beg the question as to why there should be such a large divergence between the two test results regardless of whether the testing populations are exactly matched - but of course "It's just unfair" is an excuse more than one administrator has heard from more than a few students, so
maybe it's just one of those learned responses. In case you're wondering whether all states miss the bar, Dillon shares with us the following:

Not all have a low bar. In South Carolina, Missouri, Wyoming and Maine, state results tracked closely with the federal exam.

Giving the states a back door through which to escape accountability for low performance, such as having to meet state standards does, allows politicians to maintain the status quo and blaming the whole mess on things just being unfair, and in the end, as always, it's the students who are shortchanged in the process.

The Staples article talks about how teachers are brought into the Japanese system and cultivated as they move through it. That's something that only in the past ten years or so has become somewhat normative in school systems, but to what extent it's really true or helpful is something else. Assigning a new teacher a mentor to look out for them is one thing, but what
more can and should be done to cultivate standards of practice and a team effort? The latter consideration differs not only in every state, but within individual school districts in each state. Of course this is also driven by how much or how little money is invested in education and the poorer the state the less money is going to be poured in to try and pull the state up to a level of learning that might actually change things for the state as a whole.

I don't know that "turning Japanese" is the answer, and in fact I'm a bit leery of such a suggestion when I recall the 1980's when the concern here was that Japan was going to own the U.S. and a good part of the world because of their superior business practices and perspectives, which was then followed by the 90's and a Japan mired in what has seemed to be a nearly unshakeable recession. That said, it's not that the students in Japanese schools don't perform better than their American counterparts, indeed they do. So the question is what can we cull from there, and anywhere else for that matter, that will indeed help us here? Of course we're a bit xenophobic in this country when it comes to giving credit to other countries for better practices, in law, medicine, science, and surely education, so it's more a question of when common sense will ever kick in to change what we now have into something that actually serves to best prepare our students for a future that will strongly depend on a learned and learning population.


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