Commentary | Education

Lessons—Lessons From Afar, Some Worthwhile

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON JANUARY 31, 2001 ]

Lessons From Afar, Some Worthwhile

By  Richard Rothstein

WHITTIER, Calif. — At Longfellow Elementary School in this Los Angeles suburb, Danny Espinal, a fourth-grade science teacher, handed out kits with a battery, a toy motor, copper wire, aluminum foil, a nail, a marble and a piece of wood.

Pupils experimented to complete a circuit, making the motor run. They recorded observations in two notebook columns: one for attempts that worked (using metal objects), the other for those that failed.

The next day Mr. Espinal asked the pupils to write essays describing their efforts. On the chalkboard he posted a set of requirements for the essays. He led a discussion about how many points each requirement should earn, with a perfect essay getting five points.

The 9-year-olds agreed that they should get up to two points for describing conductivity and giving examples of conductors and insulators, a point for clarity, another for using correct scientific words, and a point for neatness, proper punctuation and correct spelling.

The circuit experiment came from Whittier’s curriculum, but the scoring guide was an idea Mr. Espinal got from a fourth-grade teacher in Palatine, Ill. Both take part in a project where teachers from seven American cities and towns and eight other countries share lessons and student work. The participants have to decide what to reject as well as what to emulate.

The project, called Schools Around the World, is the creation of Christopher T. Cross, who was an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration. Subsequently, Mr. Cross has headed the Council for Basic Education, a group pushing for higher academic standards. In 1997, he began to wonder if anyone really knew what “world-class standards” meant, and how to translate them to classrooms.

So he convened an international conference of educators. They agreed to organize teachers to confer in their own school districts about exemplary lessons and how actual student work met their standards. The work samples were to be posted on a council Web site to which participating teachers in each nation would have access.

Most American teachers who enter the project do so feeling defensive, because other nations have higher test scores. But to their surprise, the Americans have often been unimpressed with science work they have seen posted by the higher-scoring nations. Mr. Espinal, for example, was shocked at some assignments that Hong Kong teachers considered to be of high quality—fill-in-the-blank work sheets that teachers at his school have rejected.

Educational leaders in Hong Kong, however, would understand Mr. Espinal’s concern. Hong Kong joined Schools Around the World so its teachers could learn how to move away from excessive test drill toward experimentation like that in Whittier. The Hong Kong Institute of Education has called for “fundamental changes” in its teachers’ beliefs so that students can engage in independent inquiry.

But while unimpressed with the content of other nations’ science learning, Rebecca Ward, a teacher in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was inspired by how students abroad were required to present their work. Like many other American teachers, Ms. Ward has been more concerned with whether students understand a science concept than with how well they express their understanding. Now she is being influenced by French student work, graded as much on penmanship and grammar as on the accuracy of science answers.

Perhaps, Ms. Ward now thinks, students elsewhere post high scores partly because they are better at expressing what they know. She has begun to pay more attention to student writing in her science classes.

Despite such insights, the international exchange is mostly a gimmick. The project’s most important feature is the requirement that teachers meet locally to evaluate one another’s lessons and develop common expectations of students. Participating schools must finance regular daylong meetings for this purpose, assigning substitutes to classrooms. Curriculum specialists from the Council for Basic Education travel to these meetings, guiding curricular discussions and showing teachers how to format student work for the Web site.

Critics of American education maintain that one of its flaws is excessive autonomy among teachers, with no expectation for them to collaborate; more than three million American teachers work in virtual isolation. At the other extreme is Japan, where despite a longer school day there are fewer instructional hours, because teachers spend so much time designing lessons and evaluating student work in common.

After nearly two years, Schools Around the World has enlisted some 150 American teachers in 28 schools. While this is not the only effort to promote collaboration, there is a long way to go before the standards movement makes the leap from politicians and policy makers to the teacher level, where it matters.

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