Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

A Public Proving Ground for Standards-Based Practice

By Catherine C. Lewis — September 10, 2010 6 min read

As states and school districts across the country embrace common-core standards, U.S. educators are in need of a public proving ground where standards-based instruction can be enacted and studied. What might such a proving ground look like?

In Japan, changes in national education standards cause ripples of activity across the country, as practitioners and researchers collaborate to bring their ideas to life in “public research lessons.” Here’s a simple example of how this process works:

When the topic of solar cells was added to the Japanese elementary curriculum, national guidelines specified only the basic objectives for student learning, not the specific teaching methods. Teachers and researchers, working collaboratively in dozens of small groups across the country, studied the available research and curricula (much of it from the United States). These teams then tried out their ideas in a local elementary school, progressively refining teaching materials and approaches based on student responses. After a year or so of experimentation, they opened up their instruction to others in large public research lessons.

The tens of thousands of educators, researchers, and policymakers who attended these public research lessons could see and discuss live instruction designed to enact the standards. They were able to question the teachers and researchers about the rationale for their choices, scrutinize the entire unit plan and records of student learning across the unit, and offer their own ideas and critiques. Each team focused on the needs of their own local students, but also drew on work by other teams when useful.

Over the first year or two of public lessons, information on how to teach about solar cells spread rapidly. A store of shared knowledge developed about practical aspects of teaching the subject—for example, which solar toys were inexpensive and made important ideas visible—as well as about the kinds of student thinking to expect, how to handle it, and the subject matter itself. One teacher observing a public research lesson, for example, asked about the scientific significance of some student strategies, including moving a solar cell closer to a light source, adding a second light source, and using a magnifying class to “concentrate” light.

“I want to know whether the three conditions the children described—'to put the solar cell closer to the light source,’'to make the light stronger,’ and to ‘gather the light'—would all be considered the same thing by scientists. They don’t seem the same to me. But I want to ask the teachers who know science whether scientists would regard them as the same thing.”

The Japanese system of distributed, local, collaborative lesson-study work, culminating in public research lessons, enables educators to develop and share the many intertwined types of knowledge needed to implement standards well in the classroom—knowledge of instructional materials, teaching strategies, student thinking, and content. Such a public proving ground has several advantages over the processes of standards enactment currently familiar in the United States.

First, it recognizes that translating standards into practice is demanding, important, intellectual work. The final product of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, now being adopted here, represents an enormous accomplishment. But the standards are only splotches of ink on paper until a teacher brings them to life in a classroom. Their enactment in the classroom requires continuing experimentation, intense scrutiny, and the development of shared knowledge about what works and does not—in many different settings.

Second, it allows teachers to take the initiative in the implementation of standards and to bring their own important knowledge to bear. Public research lessons provide a natural incentive for collaborative between teachers and researchers, who share the desire to create effective lessons and document them in ways that enable others to learn from their work.

Third, it places students and student thinking at the center of reform. Although U.S. policymakers talk about “a marketplace of good materials,” how well can materials be judged without actually seeing students and teachers use them in diverse settings?

Fourth, it recognizes that the knowledge needed for standards-based instruction cannot be captured entirely in written documents such as frameworks and teacher manuals. Much of the knowledge for teaching is embodied in the instruction itself, and is spread and refined as teachers watch each other teach.

Fifth, it recognizes that improvement needs to be continuous. A static set of “best practices” on paper or video is insufficient because students are not static.

Sixth, it exerts much-needed pressure on textbook content and design. In the work leading up to public research lessons in Japan, teachers and researchers together review existing textbooks and research and choose what they believe to be the best approach. Plans written by lesson-study groups explain why they chose—and rejected—various textbook approaches.

Japanese publishers notice the conclusions emerging from public research lessons and revise textbook content to reflect what is being learned. That may explain why our recent study of two U.S. and two Japanese elementary textbook series found that the Japanese texts use the same four models to represent fractions, while the U.S. texts use 15 different models.

Finally, public research lessons provide an opportunity for policymakers to see how teachers and students actually respond to the standards in a best-case scenario in which teachers have adequate time and support to enact them. Because the policymakers who write the national standards attend public research lessons and see what aspects of the standards need further support or revision, the lessons also allow formative research on policy.

Moreover, policymakers, teachers, and researchers develop a shared understanding of the standards, based on instruction they have all seen and discussed. For example, after a recent public research lesson in California, something startling happened. While many of the nearly 100 observers thought that the mathematics lesson they had seen brilliantly realized the mathematician George Polya’s ideas about problem-solving, a few, including some influential state policymakers, could not see any relationship between the lesson and the state’s problem-solving standards. This gap in perception sparked useful conversations about the meaning of “problem-solving” in the state standards, and helped lead to eventual consensus: that solving novel problems—not just solving word problems with known procedures—was an important facet of the standard.

How feasible is such a public proving ground in this country? Experienced lesson-study groups already exist over most of the United States, and some of them hold regular public research lessons one or more times a year, using video and audio projection to accommodate large audiences. Many of these groups center on close collaboration between classroom teachers and university-based subject-matter specialists. And evidence is accumulating to show that the groups help their members build content and instructional knowledge, enhance student learning, improve collegial work, and spread teaching knowledge across the boundaries of schools and districts.

In the quest to bring common-core standards to life, we should consider the power of public research lessons. In a recent Education Week article on the implementation of common standards, a researcher described the process of developing curriculum frameworks this way: “When people go into a room and come out with solutions, it’s typically about money or politics. … So the question is, why are people going into that room? What are they after?” (“How to Move From Standards to Curricula?,” May 19, 2010)

What would happen if “that room” were a classroom? By using classrooms all over the United States as the public proving ground to enact, analyze, and refine standards-based practice, we could come out of the room with solutions that are not about money or politics, but about what and how students are learning.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as A Public Proving Ground for Standards-Based Practice

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