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Perspectives from the Other Side of the Fence

August 23, 2010

My grandmother often repeated the familiar adage, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  I kind of got the point, which was that things possessed by others tended to look a bit better than what I had, even though they really weren’t.

We are used to hearing that the American public school system is “failing” or “broken.”  There is a constant drone of criticism from multiple mouths that we are losing a global race to excellence; that we are being passed by cultures that should not be passing us.  Politicians, commentators, researchers, and wonks of every size and shape point to countries like Japan, whose students consistently score better in math and science on international exams such as the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), as an education system that really works.

Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) conducts PISA.  It is a survey of 15-year olds in industrialized countries that attempts to quantify the necessary knowledge and skills students have acquired to participate fully in a global society.  When the last PISA survey was conducted, the results included the following:

  • The six highest scoring countries (with mean scores of 530-542) were Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, and Estonia.
  • On average, United States students scored lower than the OECD average of 498 points on the mathematics literacy scale with a score of 474.
  • On average, United States students scored lower than the OECD average of 500 points on the combined science literacy scale with a score of 489.

In light of these results, on a recent trip to study the Japan education system, I was prepared to do a lot of observing and ask a lot of questions about the structure of collaboration among teachers, the assessments used to measure student growth, the teaching strategies and methods implemented by teachers, and the types of learning taking place in the classroom.  I was less prepared for the keen interest Japanese educators have in our own education system and their desire to model what we are doing so well in the United States.

There were some basic common traits among the many middle school and high school classrooms we visited in Japan.  Most classroom desks were set in rows.  The average class size was forty to forty-five students.  Teacher-centered and lecture-based instruction was most commonly used.  Just like classrooms everywhere, some students were taking copious notes, some students were clearly inattentive, and a few students were either passing notes to friends or text messaging on a cell phone.  Unlike many schools in the United States, the students were very homogenous ethnically and rarely were second language learners in the classroom.

When we met with teachers, administrators, and ministers from the Department of Education they asked many questions about what they see as the strengths of the school system in the United States.  As one teacher commented to our group:  “Yes, we score well on standardized international math and science tests, but do our students know how to think, how to be innovative, how to be creative?  We admire the way American students are taught to express themselves, question, and analyze.”  Comments and conversations such as these filled our two weeks in Japan.

On paper, Japan may be outscoring the United States in math and science.  However, teachers there are admittedly perplexed about what those scores really demonstrate.  Do they really reflect how well students can think and analyze?  Do they give any insight into how well students will contribute and function in a growing global society?  Do they measure the ability for students to be innovative and creative?  The resounding conclusion made by both Japanese and American educators sitting around a table discussing these questions was that the PISA scores, and other such standardized testing data, tell only part of the story.

While there is definitely room for improvement in our education system, it took a journey half-way around the world to be reminded that there is plenty we as American educators should be proud of as well.  From an ocean away, our students are viewed as more independent, creative, and innovative learners.  Such attributes come from much more than multiple choice exams and reems of standardized test results, and should not be diminished when we compare our education system to those of other countries in an alleged race to somewhere.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2010 11:30 am

    Thanks for this post… it always troubles me when people use other countries’ education systems and practices to illustrate “what’s wrong” with American education. To me, whenever we compare countries, we ought to also compare cultures. I believe that American culture (and politics) gives lip service to valuing education, but actions speak louder than words. Also, I’d be curious whether education in other countries (including Japan) is compulsory and whether there are multiple tracks (vocational, university, etc.) and multiple exit points.

  2. Kelly Kovacic permalink
    August 23, 2010 8:31 pm

    Mark – Thank you for your comment. I agree that often in the United States we talk about valuing education but do not allocate our resources accordingly. In Japan, education is compulsory through the middle grades and heavily tracked after the 8th grade, when students take an intense exam to determine if they will be on the university track and attend particular high schools. As a result, high schools are much less heterogenous than American schools. Drawing a comparison of achievement based on standardized test data, when the high schools and education systems are designed differently, seems terribly flawed.

  3. August 24, 2010 8:02 pm

    To me those are HUGE differences. Yet, these are not mentioned in any of the reports I’ve seen held up to illustrate just how poorly American schools are doing.

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