THE BLOG
09/15/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Japanese Educators Learn From American Teachers and Schools

The story the American public keeps hearing is that United States schools, students, and teachers are all failures and that massive change is needed. George Bush and the Republican Party contributed to the attack on schools with a "No Child Left Behind" policy that promised to create world-class schools but provided no additional funding or support. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party continued the assault on schools with "Race to the Top" promoting the high-stakes testing of students and teachers. A major cheerleader in the war on schools is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He recently declared a California court decision undermining teacher tenure a "mandate" to fix a broken educational system.

Who would have thought that educators from Japan, whose school system is always paraded before the American public as one that the United States should emulate, would actually visit New York City to learn how to improve education in Japanese schools?

From September 8 through 11, I hosted two Japanese educators, Tomohito Harada of Hyogo University of Teacher Education and Masahiro Nii of the Japanese National Institute for Educational Policy Research who are part of a multi-nation project examining world history and social studies education in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Germany. They were ably assisted on visits to four New York metropolitan area high schools and the Hofstra University teacher education program by Marie Iida, a New York-based Japanese-English translator.

On previous trips, research teams from Japan have visited Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York, Franklin High School in Reisterstown, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, and Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, California. After the New York visit, Harada and Nii moved on to observe in Seattle, Washington schools.

According to Dr. Harada and Mr. Nii, history education in Japanese schools tends to be teacher-centered and lecture-based. Students are largely passive recipients of information. While students do very well on standardized tests, they rarely interact with each other and the classrooms lack spark and interest. Harada and Nii are studying the methods employed by social studies teachers in American classrooms to engage student interest in history, especially world history, and to make them more active participants in the learning process. According to a study of Japanese college students released in April 2013, "university reforms aimed at promoting active learning have yielded few results. Although universities have introduced more interactive courses, students tend to be passive in their attitude toward learning." Professor Tatsuo Kawashima of Kobe University supervised the survey. In his report he argued that it is essential that Japan " develop an education system that helps students get accustomed to a more active learning approach."

For this visit, Harada and Nii met with teachers and observed social studies classes at Bayside High School and the High School for Law Enforcement located in the New York City borough of Queens and Uniondale and Massapequa High Schools in suburban Nassau County. The schools were selected because of their diverse student populations, their commitment to academic quality, and because of their relationship with the Hofstra University School of Education.

Bayside is one of the more diverse and largest high schools in New York City with a student population of over 3,500 students. Almost half of the students at Bayside are first or second-generation immigrants from Asian countries including Korea, China, and India. European American, Latino, and African American students all make up between 15 and 20 percent of the student body. Bayside has a reputation for meeting the needs of all of its students. Over 90% of its students graduate on schedule after four years and move onto college. In addition, Bayside has received recognition for its success working with English Language Learners (ELL) and Students with Special Needs.

At Bayside the Japanese delegation met with assistant principal Jonathan Hirata, who is fluent in Japanese, and Social Studies Department chair Marc Cercone. They also observed an introductory geography lesson taught by Sara Yazdanfar. It was a large class, New York City high school classes are capped at 34 students, with many students who recently transferred from the ELL program to regular academic classes. For most of the lesson, Ms. Yazdanfar circulated around the room assisting student teams locating rivers, mountains, lakes, and deserts on maps of the United States.

One of the interesting discoveries made by students was that Alaska, which was pictured on the lower left hand corner of the map, was actually north and west of the continental United States and much larger than depicted. The class ended with heated student discussion of the positive and negative impact of rivers, mountains, and deserts on European settlement in the "New World" and a debate on whether rivers should be considered barriers or highways.

At the High School for Law Enforcement the delegation were greeted by Principal Laura Van Deren and observed a law elective taught by a new teacher, Mark Robins. They also met with social studies teachers Mr. Robins, Dr. Michael Pezone, and Vance Gillenwater. The student population at Law Enforcement was very different from Bayside. It is over 85% Black and Latino and approximately 20% of the student body has special academic needs. The average reading level for incoming students at Law Enforcement is below grade level and the four-year graduation rate is about 75%. The staff at Law Enforcement is grappling with ways to improve student performance on state standardized exams. The passing rate on state assessments in United States history is less than 70% and in Global history below 60%.

In our meeting, Robins, Pezone, and Gillenwater, all graduates of the Hofstra teacher education program, stressed the importance of connecting academic knowledge with things that students find interesting. Law Enforcement is considered a themed school and it offers students law-related social studies and science electives. Mr. Robins introduced legal vocabulary in his lesson by having students act out a mock trial of Goldilocks for breaking and entering the home of the Three Bears. In a final discussion, students, referencing television detective shows, wanted to know whether there was DNA evidence to connect Goldilocks to the bowls of porridge.

Dr. Pezone, who has been a cooperating teacher and adjunct in the Hofstra teacher education program, began the United States history curriculum with two lessons on recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, where an African American teenager was killed during an encounter with a White police officer. He made this lesson choice in part because many of his students are deeply concerned about police-community relations, and some even have had hostile run-ins with police officers or have friends and family members who have had negative experiences.

Pezone used the lessons to define segregation, profiling, and racial disparity, and to discuss with students the impact of race and racism on American society today and as a defining theme in the past. Conscious of the need to develop student academic skills, Pezone had students read and analyze the lyrics to a song by Lauryn Hill on "Black Rage," interviews with people from Ferguson, news reports on events following the death of the African American teenager, and excerpts from a statement issued by United States Attorney General Eric Holder. As a final "Common Core" and civic engagement activity, students wrote and sent letters to Holder where they expressed their beliefs about ongoing racism in the United States. During our discussion Mr. Gillenwater, who is also a Hofstra cooperating teacher, explained to the Japanese visitors that pressure to prepare students for standardized tests might be undermining the ability of teachers to engage students in the type of learning and teaching that they had come to see.

Uniondale High School, like the High School for Law Enforcement, is also a predominately minority school, although it is located in a suburb of New York City. It is a large school with over 2,000 students, approximately 65% of whom are Black, both African American and Caribbean, and 35% are Latino, mostly from families with ties to Central America. The Japanese delegation was interested in Uniondale because two of the social studies teachers, Adeola Tella-Williams and Michael Mullervey, contributed to a book on Teaching Global History.

At Uniondale, Harada and Nii met with Principal Florence Simmons and Mark Sippin, the Director of Social Studies. They also observed a highly interactive lesson taught by Mr. Mullervey on the concept of government and a dramatic lesson by Mark McCaw on the development of agriculture and animal husbandry in river valley civilizations that engaged students debate over the positive (milk, meat, and work) and negative (disease) contributions of cows to human societies. Ms. Tella-Williams showed the team a bulletin board her global history students had created with a list of the essential questions about world history they wanted to explore during the school year.

The final school visit was to Massapequa High School where the social studies coordinator Brian Dowd is active in local and regional social studies organizations and a number of staff members have received awards for excellence in teaching. Much of the visit was spent with Dana Robbins, a veteran teacher, who has been a recipient of a Long Island Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year award and was selected as a Gilder-Lehrman New York State History Teacher of the Year. Ms. Robbins was recognized for her use of project-based instruction to engage students in the study of history including the creation of thematic student "magazines" on the 1920s, student made videos where they express historical conclusions, and a town meeting where students came as historical figures and debated, from the perspective of their character, whether Andrew Jackson was a hero or a villain.

Massapequa High School is in a solidly middle-class suburban community and the student population, which is 96% White, was very different from the other schools visited by the team. The visit to Massapequa High School was on September 11, so Ms. Robbins introduced her classes with discussions of the events from 2001 and how they contributed to the growth of nationalistic feelings in the United States. She then smoothly transitioned to lessons on the role of nationalism in promoting unity during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

At Hofstra University Dr. Harada and Mr. Nii were able to observe and participate in three lessons, one for history majors, one for pre-service teachers, and one for certified teachers seeking advanced degrees. In honor of their visitors, the history class on Immigration and American Society focused on Japanese immigration to the United States. The "advanced" class examined the relationship between new state social studies "frameworks," state assessments, and Common Core requirements. The Japanese delegation was most interested in the class for pre-service teachers where the students examined how to define essential historical questions using current events and replicated the lesson Ms. Tella-Williams had done with her Uniondale High School students.

Dr. Harada and Mr. Nii visited four different high schools in four very different communities. But the most important thing they observed was what the classrooms and teachers in these schools shared in common. In each of the schools, social studies teachers promoted active student involvement in their own learning as they worked together to make discoveries about American society and our global world.

I eagerly await Dr. Harada and Mr. Nii's report on the research trip. Who would have guessed that Japanese educators were learning from American teachers and schools?