Lessons From Japan

From the dismal results of Massachusetts' first teacher-certification exam, it's clear that the path to becoming a teacher needs to be more challenging. But where's the discussion about what happens once candidates have arrived?

A single test (which 59 percent of hopefuls failed) has made it clear there's lots to be done to develop good teachers: Improve K-12 classes, beef up education schools, use tougher tests to weed out poor prospects.

But what's equally important is creating a career path interesting enough to attract and keep good people. If states want teachers to be like other professionals who get certified, after all, they must establish ways to allow them to grow in expertise and stature. It's an area where the United States could take some cues from abroad, and one country that comes to mind is Japan.

Professional development is taken very seriously in Japan. It's not just an issue, say, of taking additional classes toward a master's degree. It's an ongoing sharing and networking that connects new teachers with veterans, helps struggling teachers elicit tips from colleagues, and can give a faculty an esprit de corps that tempers feelings of isolation.

An interesting window on this emphasis is the "research lesson." When Catherine Lewis, senior researcher at the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, Calif., undertook a study on how innovations occur in Japanese science education, she focused on this technique. For an in-school lesson, a group of teachers might meet for months to talk, watch each other, and plan a lesson for the entire faculty, which ultimately watches the lesson and follows up with a discussion.

Another approach is the public research lesson. A school with a grant to develop some aspect of the curriculum, notes Dr. Lewis, might be expected to follow up with a lesson open to teachers from other districts or cities. Lessons conducted by selective public primary schools - often on the cutting edge of innovation - cut an even wider swath, attracting huge numbers.

The lessons are but one aspect of a system that builds in hours of preparation per class (versus minutes for US teachers) and offers significant guidance to new teachers. That system suggests a view of teaching quite different from that typically held in the US. Build in professional training and intellectual exchanges with colleagues, and respect their views of what works in the classroom, and you may attract and hold a more varied group of people. Testing and better pay are important to getting good teachers. But as Japan's efforts indicate, keeping them is far more complex.

* Comments? e-mail newcomba@csps.com

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