Years ago, when he was working as an English teacher in Japan, David Folmer watched with curiosity as his colleagues spent time huddling in common areas before their classes, planning lessons. After their classes, his Japanese co-workers would often meet again to talk about what worked well, and what didn’t.
Mr. Folmer didn’t understand those teachers’ methods at the time. But now the mathematics teacher and a group of fellow educators at Middleton High School, in Tampa, Fla., are using a variation of that model, called “lesson study,” to plan and refine their daily instruction.
Over the next few years, schools across Florida will be following the example of Middleton High School and implementing lesson study. Those schools’ efforts will be funded through the federal Race to the Top program. They are part of a raft of state and local efforts financed with relatively little fanfare through the $4 billion national competition, better known for the large-scale school improvement efforts it is supporting in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
Much of the public and political attention surrounding the Race to the Top has focused on sweeping—and often contentious—state plans to make changes in teacher pay and evaluation, improve data systems, expand charter schools, and overhaul other aspects of education.
But other, mostly overlooked Race to the Top projects are rolling out in winning states, and state and local officials argue that those initiatives have the potential to create lasting improvements in schools.
In Georgia, a portion of the state’s $700 million award is paying for a mini-competition for schools and districts to test new approaches in teacher recruitment, the cultivation of students’ problem-solving skills, and other areas.
In Maryland, the state is using a piece of its $250 million grant to support the development of a new elementary-teaching certificate in science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM subjects—as well as to build schools’ use of world languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi.
In Florida, dozens of districts for years have been using some form of lesson study in either a broad or limited way, in some cases as part of efforts to help struggling schools, state officials say. One district using the model is the 195,000-student Hillsborough County school system, where Middleton High School is located. The state was sufficiently encouraged by lesson study to support its growth through Florida’s $700 million Race to the Top award, said Diana Bourisaw, the state’s deputy chancellor for school improvement and student achievement.
“It takes the teacher out of isolation,” said Mr. Folmer, who has helped implement the model at his school. “We learn from each other. We know each other’s teaching styles, what works, what doesn’t. We share ideas.”
The Race to the Top program, which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the federal stimulus program) was designed to encourage and reward states for making improvement in four big-picture areas: standards and tests; the collection and use of data; teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of teaching talent; and turnarounds of low-performing schools. The Obama administration later established criteria for judging states on a 500-point scale during the competition, which fleshed out those relatively broad priorities.
Critics of the program have said it places too great an emphasis on relatively unproven educational strategies and ignores more effective or promising approaches. But one observer, who has voiced doubts about the Race to the Top scoring priorities, said the smaller, state-specific projects included in winning states’ applications seemed to fit what he regarded as the program’s original goals.
“It was always my impression at the beginning that it was for experimentation—rigorous experimentation,” said Sean P. Corcoran, an associate professor of educational economics at New York University. “In some ways, it’s kind of encouraging that states are putting these things out there.”
Lesson study originated in Japan, a nation that traditionally scores near the top on international exams—and well above the United States. American researchers began introducing lesson study in the United States in the 1990s, and its popularity has grown. Today, variations of it are used in many states and school districts around the country, and in many subjects, though those approaches may only loosely resemble the original Japanese version, noted James Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the approach.
Lesson study asks teachers to work together in planning, reviewing, and improving instruction, usually with guidance from a “knowledgeable other,” such as a university professor, who brings a depth of expertise in a content area. Teachers sit in on a colleague’s class and record data—sometimes videotaping the session—analyze students’ responses, suggest improvements, and sometimes repeat the process.
At Middleton High, Mr. Folmer and teachers from different academic areas have beenobserving one another’s lessons, with the expectation that they will later introduce lesson study to their colleagues in their specific content areas.
This semester, small group helped plan, and then observe, a colleague’s literature class, in which students studied the relationship between plot, character, and other elements of a story. The group recorded data on students’ responses to the lesson. Which students were reading or highlighting paragraphs during the assigned times? Did students work collaboratively, or in isolation?
At another Florida school that has used lesson study, Amos P. Godby High School, in the 33,000-student Leon County district, the response from teachers was skeptical at first, recalled Robin L. Oliveri, the school’s science coach.
But over time, teachers’ support has grown, Ms. Oliveri said. That’s because lesson study gives teachers specific and useful information, rather than general, “hang in there” encouragement. It also provides educators with often-surprising insights on how students are responding to lessons, she said, without directing criticism at the teacher.
“Teachers can’t see every student,” Ms. Oliveri said, noting that lesson study is “about the practice, not the person.”
In other winning Race to the Top states, officials are taking distinctive approaches to trying to carry out some of the competition’s core priorities.
For instance, in addition to supporting new efforts in elementary STEM teacher certification and foreign-language study, Maryland’s award is paying for teams from all the state’s schools—an estimated 6,000 eductors in all—to attend workshops this summer to help them implement new, common academic standards, said James V. Foran, the assistant superintendent for the state’s division of academic reform and innovation.
Other winning states are trying to encourage experimentation at the local level.
Georgia is devoting $19.4 million to a mini-competition, called an Innovation Fund, in which districts and charter schools will be invited to develop new strategies to recruit and support teachers, build students’ problem-solving skills, and develop STEM-focused charter schools. They would compete for awards of $50,000, $100,000, or $350,000.
Projects like Georgia’s Innovation Fund, which have the potential to touch a lot of schools, bring an additional benefit to federal and state officials, Mr. Corcocan suggested: They can foster a lot of buy-in for Race to the Top in school districts and communities.
Another Georgia Race to the Top project will support the replication of a program in the 161,000-student Gwinnett County schools to prepare future principals and assistant principals in four other districts around the state.
Glenn Pethel, the executive director of leadership development in the Gwinnett district, who is helping guide the project, said the goal is to create a successful pipeline for developing school leaders in each of the four school systems—while also tailoring the approach to individual districts’ needs.
Districts will be able to “size up, size down, or right-size what they’re doing,” Mr. Pethel said, “and make this work for them.”
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Funds Nurturing Grassroots Efforts