School Reform: Where Less May be More in the Refinement of Teaching

Summary: Teachers in countries that surpass the US in student test scores spend half or less the time in direct instruction than do American teachers. Regular collegial consultation and feedback, for novice and veteran alike, is part of how that released time is used to refine the quality of teaching.
A typical day in the life of a teacher, or counselor, or administrator in a school is a blur of people and situational decisions, ever diminishing time to complete ever accumulating tasks, a balance of the mundane and the crisis, and satisfying successes with individual kids against the background of too many kids and too many problems.
At the end of the day, so rushed as it has been, with too little time along the way to reflect on the intensity of what has just happened, there is often numbness, even a partial amnesia, as to what has just occurred over the last eight hours. Clearly, much has happened, even of quality and sometimes depth, but it is lost to memory unless painstakingly reconstructed, so imminent are the demands of the next school day on the near morrow.
Sara Mosle’s useful article in a recent Atlantic, “Building Better Teachers,” revisited for me the turmoil of living a professional life in schools, always on the edge, the level of psychic endurance and quick response never enough no matter how adept or weathered one becomes.
Mosle’s article spends much of its analysis on a review of Elizabeth Green’s educational book du jour, Building a Better Teacher, and Green’s assertion that good teachers are made by intentional training, not born.
It is a thesis with which I basically agree, though having seen some teachers whose ability to connect with students is minimal and whose professional commitment to excellence is wobbly I would say trainers of teachers are better off if they start out with the right stock.
Whatever, Mosle arrives for my purposes on fertile ground as she rounds into discussion of Green’s book and its perspective on teacher training.
Primary exhibit is the work of Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan School of Education and her efforts to reform teacher education, in large part by “rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.” Further, “Green likens the approach to the Japanese Practice of jugyokenkyu,” “the main form of teacher training in Japan.” This conception of “lesson study” occurs as a matter of course in the Japanese school day, by which colleagues sit in on one another’s classes to afterwards dissect what they have seen in detail, in order to derive guidance for ongoing instruction.
The lesson for the American reader from Green’s, Ball’s, and ultimately Mosle’s point of view is that the success of Japanese schools vis a vis American schools can be laid substantially to the ongoing dialectic within a teaching staff and the consequent sharpening of the skills of veteran and neophyte alike.
Mosle claims her bonafides as a current teacher (charter, private) by seeming to laugh at the unlikely occurrence of similar pedagogical learning in American schools under current practice. In the US, where teachers typically teach five of six periods of the high school day, limited time remains for meeting with students and parents, extra-curricular responsibilities, and phone calls — let alone planning for the next day and (god help us) regular consultation (lesson study) with colleagues. The same time crunch is common in middle and elementary schools in the US.
In fact, Mosle reports, developed countries that outperform the US on the standard international test of academic progress (PISA) require of their teachers half to even a third of the amount of time in direct instruction than does the US. To use two countries often used to compare our outcomes, Finnish and Japanese teachers spend 500 or so hours in the classroom in a typical year against more than a thousand hours for the typical US teacher.
To anticipate the cynic: this is not an argument to make life easier for the teacher in US classrooms, but to rethink how our teachers spend their time, on the argument that their professional refinement is blunted by too many “duties as assigned,” ultimately to the sacrifice of student learning.
Yet even with this revelation, the questions multiply. The US already spends more per student on education (with lesser results) than peer nations in the developed world.
If we are to sharply reduce the hours in direct instruction per teacher in line with the practice in nations such as Japan and Finland, something has to give. Either the number of teachers increases (which raises cost considerably), or class sizes go up steeply, or students spend less time in class overall.
It is not at all clear to me in which of these or other variables those countries that outperform us differ from our own formulas, and still manage to keep their per capita student expenditures below our own. The quandary deepens with recognition that American student/teacher ratios are not greatly out of line with those countries that outperform us, though some differences are significant. For primary grades the US actually has slightly lower student-teacher ratios than Japan and Finland, the two countries I have used for comparison, at least in 1992, which may or may not be a useful comparison in the present, over twenty years later.
Does the rising income inequality in the US play a role? Put another way, do we have a disproportionate number of low income students, which require more resources per student and which present a more costly curve to full skills? Does the American commitment to special education pull resources from the mainstream classroom, or perhaps skew the student/teacher ratios for “regular” classrooms? Are we somehow more clogged by bureaucratic expenses than our economic peers?
The pertinent reality is that there are other cultures that require much less direct instruction from their teachers, and in the bargain get strikingly better results. Unlike the scenario that I paint in my opening, or the similar portrait drawn by Sara Mosle, where teachers are hounded by demands beyond reasonable bounds, teachers in select other countries have time to hone their craft to a fine and widespread degree, year after year.
It is not clear that these educators in other countries have a less hectic day or experience any less craziness than I once did, but their students prosper in their care. As American test scores stagnate, this parallax view from overseas focuses perspective on our own efforts at school reform.

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2 Responses to School Reform: Where Less May be More in the Refinement of Teaching

  1. Deb says:

    Brother Bruce, you articulate the role of a school faculty perfectly. I read your opening paragraph at our all district counseling meeting this morning. A few individuals requested the print and/ or link because it so encapsulated their job as a counselor. I’m real good PR for you! 🙂 I often like to referred to you as the “Wise One”. I’m so grateful to have worked with you in my beginning years.

  2. Bruce Brand says:

    Thank you! Consider yourself hired as my honorary PR person! May your colleagues keep the faith.

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