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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The incalculability of education

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: Opinions

At the end of last year, a group of Ivy League-affiliated economists published a study discussing the relationship between “good” teachers, higher test scores and the future success of elementary and middle school students, titled “The Long Term Impact of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood.” Education is an undeniably important and complicated social institution that cannot be understood simply in terms of facts and figures. In these economically and socially unstable times, many academics and politicians look to percentages and ratios in order to vindicate the cost-cutting “reforms” they seek to impose on our education system while shooting down true reform efforts that have potential, yet cannot promise the same short-term “results.”

Studies such as this most recent one ignore the incalculable aspects of education and place the burden of success on individual teachers without giving them the benefit of the doubt. As an aspiring teacher and critic of standardized testing, I think that studies such as these will lead to the death of American education.  According to “No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America’s Children”—a  2003 study, published by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future 2003—more than 46 percent of teachers leave within their first five years on the job. With statistics like this becoming more and more common in the world of American education, we must recognize the importance of not only determining who “good” teachers are, but how to help those who don’t quite yet fit the bill.

Within education, we must create a community of educators that supports new teachers and gives them the tools to succeed, rather than an institution that—as a recent New York Times article put it—seeks to “fire people sooner rather than later.”

This winter break I visited Japan with some of my relatives who are educators, touring the sites as well as some schools. While there, I was able to begin to understand the great differences between American and Japanese culture, particularly in terms of our education systems and how we evaluate students and teachers. Before I visited, I researched a bit about Japanese education and was extremely impressed by what I found. In Japan, there is no standardized testing that dictates funding and firing, as there is in America; instead teachers participate in the process of “lesson study” in order to improve their own teaching as well as the students’ experience of the class. Lesson study is a collaborative and constructive process that allows teachers of all grades and experience levels to work together for the betterment of the student experience.

The first step of lesson study is developing a well-considered and original lesson plan. Rather than using a lesson plan that is handed down from the administration or the previous teacher of the class, all of the teachers in the school work together as a team to brainstorm and create fresh, relevant and effective lesson plans for each others’ classes. By bringing so many voices to the table and creating a community atmosphere, new teachers are able to gain insight from experienced teachers, while veteran teachers gain new perspectives from those just beginning their educational careers. Teachers are also able to give their colleagues more insightful advice because they participate in what the lesson study process calls “observation and evaluation.”

In the observation phase, the actual teacher of the class steps back to observe, allowing another teacher to perform the lesson plan for the day. Instead of having an external administrator, essentially a stranger, come in and judge the students and teachers as we do in America, the teachers themselves, the ones who know the students and lesson plans the best, are those to evaluate their own classes. By observing their own classes, teachers are able to understand dynamics of the class that are difficult to see from the front of the room; they take painstaking notes on student behavior, lesson plan effectiveness and other factors that impact the success of their teaching. After observing their own classes and getting the opportunity to teach other classes, the teachers come together as a team to discuss any problems and possible solutions. Instead of developing a lesson plan based on standardized test scores, teachers in Japanese schools brainstorm together to determine what their students should learn and how they will best learn it.

Despite the rising uncertainty of the times, we must do more than try to protect American education, we must continue to try and perfect it. Using standardized testing to judge “intelligence” and crunching numbers to determine “good” teaching will create nothing but an unbalanced education system that can be fooled by high scores. Japan went through a similar economic hardship in the mid-to-late 1980s; however, the quality of Japanese education did not suffer as ours does today. America should reevaluate our great emphasis on standardized testing and embrace collaborative methods such as lesson study in order to create school communities that understand the importance of communication rather than competition.