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Professionalizing Teaching

The start of the fall semester is the time for banal articles about the importance of teaching.  This school year is no different, with the exception of one essay ("Building Better Teachers," The Atlantic, Sept.).  It's about the need to restructure the school day so that teachers have time to collaborate with their colleagues.

Unlike other countries, whose students outperform ours on tests of international competition, teachers here rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to practice what the Japanese call jugyokenkyu, or "lesson study."  Under this policy, teachers are given time to observe other teachers in action, and then spend hours analyzing what worked and what didn't.  I wrote about the importance of this strategy in The Japan Times ("Japan has a word to add about teaching math," Aug. 3).

I pointed out that teachers in the U.S. are too exhausted at the end of the school day to be receptive to even the most helpful presentations.  That's not surprising.  American teachers spend on average 1,051 hours in the classroom.  This compares with 500 hours for Japanese teachers and 553 hours for Finnish teachers.  The lockstep schedule in this country makes it nearly impossible for teachers to collaborate.  

Today, the situation is even worse.  The accountability movement has taken the fun out of teaching.  Pressure to produce ever-higher test scores means that all else becomes secondary. Frankly, I don't know how teachers handle the stress. 

Yet corporate reformers persist in arguing that teachers have a sinecure, and are well paid in the process ("Public school teachers aren't underpaid," USA Today, Nov. 15, 2011).  If teaching is such a plum, then why aren't more college graduates choosing it as a career?  Moreover, why are about 1 in 6 teachers teachers absent 18 days or more?  There's something about the present system that is responsible.  

I'm not saying that an American version of jugyokenkyu is a panacea. There are too many other factors that are contributing to burnout and other afflictions.  But I urge policymakers to consider the Japanese model. Teachers need to be treated like professionals.


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