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Q&A: Sociologist Discusses Teachers' Role in Math Achievement

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While several studies have compared the mathematics achievement of American and Japanese students, few have examined how the ways teachers organize their classrooms might affect that achievement.

In a new study, David P. Baker, a professor of sociology at Catholic University of America, examined data from the Second International Mathematics Study and found that many of the organizational methods used by Japanese teachers--such as eschewing individual seatwork--allow them to produce a fairly uniform performance among all students in mathematics.

This, in turn, may account for the relative advantage in math that the Japanese students enjoy over their American counterparts, he says.

Mr. Baker, who is currently an American Educational Research Association fellow at the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, discussed his findings with Staff Writer Peter West.

Q. How much of what Japanese teachers are doing in the classroom accounts for the overall success of Japanese students in math?

A. There's a lot of simple, quick explanations out there [for] why Japan does better than the U.S., like "Japanese kids are just smarter than American kids,'' and they tend not to work.

We went though the literature and more or less dismissed those and said, "They're too simple.''

Another way to think about this is, how does the actual teaching process work? And how is achievement produced? And there do seem to be some differences there.

It's not that there's something completely exotic in Japan. A lot of the things [we] mentioned, American teachers do, too. But Japanese teachers do it more often and more of them do it.

We have some very effective classrooms, but we have a lot of classrooms where [students] actually lose knowledge from fall to spring. The Japanese have far less wildly effective classrooms, but they have none of the ineffective classrooms.

The other part of the story, then, is that little more homogeneous model that the Japanese teacher corps uses produces a more standard product.

Q. Then why is it that those methods are used not more universally in the United States?

A. I think there are several reasons.

One is that we have a teaching system that tends to be quite different across classrooms and across schools. There's a lot less formal and informal control of what teachers do in the classroom.

For Japanese teachers, there are a lot of officially prepared materials in the classrooms for them to verify what might be good [ways] to teach. And the more experienced Japanese teachers are more likely [to teach] the harder classes.

In the United States, we have this funny situation where you give your toughest challenges to your most inexperienced teachers.

And we don't give them a whole lot of control and support. So it's not surprising that we get a wider variation.

Q. But might these differences stem from the admittedly stereotypical view that the Japanese system fosters collectivism, while the American system focuses on the individual?

A. I don't think the American teacher walks into the classroom and says, "I want to produce individuals and therefore I'm going to have them work alone at their desks.''

Having students work individually at their desks is the "black hole'' of classroom instruction. And the American teachers do it significantly more than the Japanese.

I think that these [differences] are direct outcomes of organizational issues of the way in which teaching is taught and controlled in the system.

Now, is that a function of culture? Well, maybe. But it's an organizational form that anybody can use.

Q.. What are the implications of your data for American teacher training and school-personnel programs?

A. I think the first message is that there are no quick fixes.

But the good news is that, ... within our system, and among our better teachers, we know exactly what works.

The question really is, as a country, we have to decide: Do we like our local variation in schools or not?

If we want to change that, then we maybe can move more toward a Japanese system. If we want to be like Japan, we would have to give up things that we cherish. And I'm not so sure that we want to do that.

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