US School, Japanese Methods

Article excerpt

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. …