Sunday, December 11, 2011

Response to Jay Mathew's Post "U.S. school excuses challenged"

I taught in a Japanese high school for many years and am very concerned when I hear people compare US education to the Japanese system, because frankly, people are reporting on it incompletely and incorrectly. 

First of all, in terms of spending and class size, yes it is true that Japanese classes, especially in high school, are significantly higher than the AVERAGE US classroom (Although many poor urban US schools have equivalent or higher numbers).  The average class size at the school where I worked was around 40 or 41 students.   That is far from the whole story, however.  The reason class sizes could be so large is partially due to tracking students into more elite college-prep “academic high schools” or into the non-college bound vocational tracks in “commercial, agricultural, or technical” high schools.  Students are separated by academic ability level and therefore teachers do very little differentiation in lessons. 

In addition, and this is a fact no one ever mentions, there are NO SPECIAL EDUCATION teachers in high schools.  All students with significant disabilities are put into separate Special Education schools and then any students with minor disabilities are not helped in Japanese schools.   (They usually end up in the vocational tracks.)

Between class size and no special education services, there is a lot of money to be saved.  I suspect that other Asian countries share similar stories.  As a special education teacher here in the US, I applaud the US for deciding to give equal educational opportunity to ALL students regardless of ability through IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.)  But that choice is certainly more expensive.

Also, in Japan, many students literally sleep through their (large) high school classes because they know they will learn the material in their exceptionally SMALL classes at a private cram school that night.  So while the government doesn’t pay for small class sizes, all families who are able skimp and save in order to afford these cram schools.  Luckily, Japan has very low income inequality compared to the US and most families can afford these expensive educational experiences.

Lastly, the Japanese system focuses on lecture-style classrooms with little room for debate or discussion.  For decades, Japan has looked to the US for ideas on how to increase creativity and critical thinking in their schools over the traditional rote memorization.  Ironic that the US is now heading down the Asian path of test-prep and thoughtless memorization which Asia has been trying to end.

Some other points brought up in this post that bothered me.
1)  No one is arguing that “suburban kids do fine”, they are arguing that children from economically advantaged backgrounds do fine.  Today, suburbs are incredibility diverse places.  Here in Chicago, the North Shore is a very different story compared to say Cicero or other southern or western suburbs.  To lump all “suburbs” together seems exceptionally misleading.  When income alone is considered, the kids from low poverty schools DO do better in international comparisons.

2)  When are we going to stop comparing ourselves to Chinese CITIES?  Notice how the international tests always look at individual cities and never China as a whole.  I have been to Shanghai.  It is a mecca for the wealthy and elite in China.  What would the scores say if we included the vast peasantry throughout the Chinese countryside?  Perhaps many 15-years-olds would not even take the PISA as they would have already dropped out to work in a factory manufacturing the products we use here in America. I don't know, no one ever talks about those kids. 

3)  I don’t see how the PISA index about “resilient” students answers the question of “If top-performing countries had to educate as many disadvantaged students as we do, they would not perform as well”.  This measure seems to point to the gross inequalities in the US system which cripple low income schools which receive criminally fewer resources.  Within that unequal system, of course the US is below the PISA average.  Isn’t that the point of that index?  To show inequalities?  Students who start with less and then are given less naturally end up with less. 

I do agree, however, that our money should be spent on different priorities including teacher compensation.  I also think we need far fewer consultants, test prep curricula, administrators, and other central office people.

1 comment:

  1. Great job, Ms. Katie! I just wish that the main stream media and our government would see some of these concepts. As a teacher in Taiwan for three years, I saw the same things there. We are comparing two totally different groups.

    See you on Tuesday!