US school, Japanese methods

Something exciting is happening at School 2 in Paterson, N.J. Students are starting to understand math concepts.

In 1998, at the end of the first year of an experiment in math education, eighth-graders at this struggling school saw their scores on standardized math tests jump 20 percent. Not only that, but their pass rate was 77 percent - much closer to the statewide pass rate of 86 percent. Scores from 1999 were similar.

Teachers are also making strides. "It's changed the way I feel about teaching," says 20-year veteran Beverly Piekema. Students are "articulating concepts in ways I never thought they'd be able to."

It's encouraging feedback just a year after School 2 adopted a new approach to math. What makes it particularly remarkable is that School 2 is taking its cues from Japan.

It all started when William Jackson, an eighth-grade math teacher, and Lynn Liptak, the school's principal, attended a workshop on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in the spring of 1997. They saw videotapes of Japanese teachers engaging their students in lively and substantive math classes.

Both were intrigued. They knew Japanese students routinely outperformed US students, and now they saw evidence that something quite powerful took place in Japanese math classrooms. Both wondered why it couldn't happen here.

They weren't the first to ask that question. But Mr. Jackson and Ms. Liptak have been among the few US educators to put Japanese ideas to the test. Although the Japanese scores on TIMSS excited much interest in the US, as did the videotapes of Japanese math classes, most teachers and administrators have found the cultural differences between the two systems are a barrier to implementation.

But School 2 - a low performer, even in the context of a failing district - was clearly in need of new ideas. Principal Liptak was brought in specifically to engineer a turnaround. When Jackson told her he'd like to consider melding the Japanese math curriculum with the New Jersey state standards to create a new program, she encouraged him.

Jackson began "reading everything [he] could find" on Japanese math education. That summer, he and Liptak rewrote the school's eighth-grade math curriculum. They worked to devise lessons that would focus more on increasing student understanding, incorporating what they saw on the videotapes.

Basically, Japanese math teachers begin by presenting students with a problem. In groups, the kids search for a solution. Each group then presents ways of solving the problem. Methods are compared, and then the class reaches consensus as to the best solution.

Related activities are assigned, and the class is summarized. Japanese teachers also rely on visual aids and manipulatives. Jackson worked to integrate all these strategies.

Another essential part of the program was their decision to adopt "lesson study" - the Japanese practice of requiring teachers to continually critique, review, and revise lesson plans as a group. They even enlisted the support of Japanese teachers from a Japanese school in Connecticut to make sure they were practicing lesson study correctly.

The results of these efforts have been quietly impressive. Last year, School 2's eighth-graders passed the state math test at a higher rate than the Paterson average, and enrolled in both Honors Algebra and Algebra I in larger numbers than students from any other Paterson school.

Many of the 14 teachers involved with the project say that they feel more engaged with their subject matter now that they are being called on to make curricular decisions and to think through problems in a way they rarely did before.

Yet a number of hurdles remain. Revising curriculum, for one thing, is a long and slow process. The seventh- and eighth-grade programs are fully revised, and the sixth-grade will be revised this summer. Converting the entire K to 8 program remains a distant prospect.

In addition, the work remains a fairly isolated experiment. District-wide decisions about curricula and texts don't necessarily support School 2's direction. Teachers are uncomfortably aware that if one day Liptak were no longer principal, the work they've done could disappear.

The school is not all alone in its efforts. A program sponsored by Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has yielded significant improvements with similar reforms. Schools in Bellevue, Wash., and Lake Shore, Mich., are trying similar experiments.

But for many educators, the piecemeal and far-flung nature of such efforts prevents them from resembling any kind of meaningful reform.

Jerry Becker, a professor of mathematics education at SIU-Carbondale, says he has been thrilled to see the way the math teachers he works with in Belleville, Ill., embrace the Japanese concept of lesson planning. "It transforms them," he says. "They become more comfortable with mathematics, because in the planning they're doing mathematics."

But Professor Becker says he does not see necessary steps being taken to change math education nationally, in a substantial way. "In the next decade, there will be a turnover of half of all the teachers that will be in the classroom," he says. "We have a great opportunity. But I don't think we'll be positioned to take advantage of it."

Meanwhile, at School 2, math classes roll along in the new style. Nick Timpone can't hold back a smile at the end of a lesson on finding the area of a triangle, during which several of his sixth-graders participated enthusiastically, found innovative solutions to the problem he posed, and even went on to explore relationships beyond the bounds of the lesson itself.

Mr. Timpone was pleased, but admits that not every class succeeds to that degree. Partly, he says, he's fighting a cultural battle. "There's still a stigma about being good in math not being cool," he says. He'd like to extend the Japanese model of cooperation rather than competition into his classroom, but he says it's hard. "I still have kids who get it but aren't willing to help anyone else."

But Liptak says she's not discouraged by battles that remain to be fought in changing the math program. "Deep change takes time," she says. "You're going to have to struggle with it."

*E-mail: marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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