Sunday, April 19, 2009

Rising sons

What Japanese Schools are Doing Right

In March, I had the opportunity to visit a Japanese school. Kadena Elementary School is located on Okinawa Island in the town of Kadena, and is not to be confused with the school of the same name operated by the U.S. Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS). The purpose of my visit was to research successful aspects of the Japanese school system that could be used to improve the American school system. As an educational researcher, I believe that cultures should borrow the best practices from each other.

During my visit to Kadena Elementary, I observed several practices that worked well and could be adopted by American schools. First, Kadena Elementary has a social curriculum in addition to an academic curriculum. For example, the students clean the school every day by themselves; there is no janitor. They sign up for chores on the blackboard. The Japanese custom of removing street shoes at the front door of the school and replacing them with shoes that are only worn indoors makes cleaning somewhat easier.

Also, the students serve the school lunch to the teachers and themselves; there are no cafeteria workers. After lunch, the students clean up after themselves. The social curriculum helps students develop autonomy, responsibility, and a strong work ethic. It's an idea that could work well in American schools.

The second practice I observed that worked well is that the students eat a healthy diet. There are no soda vending machines at Kadena Elementary. The school lunch is planned by a dietician and prepared at a central location in the school's district. It is then delivered daily to every elementary school, middle school, and high school in the district. Japanese schools do not have cafeterias. Students eat lunch in the classroom with their homeroom teacher.

The school lunch I ate at Kadena Elementary consisted of rice, soup, broiled fish, and milk. By comparison, the American school lunch typically consists of processed foods that are higher in fat and sugar.

Third, the students stay active at Kadena Elementary. They have recess every day and participate in a rigorous physical exercise program. In contrast, American schools are cutting back or completely eliminating recess and physical education. Besides recess and physical education, the students also stay active in the classroom. I observed classrooms wherein students were not just passively sitting still listening to the teacher; they stood up and moved around while learning. They played educational games and learned by seeing, hearing, and doing.

Studies show that proper nutrition and increased physical activity lead to higher academic achievement. American schools can improve student learning by serving a healthier school lunch and giving students more opportunities to stay active during the school day.

Japan has outperformed the U.S. in math and science on several international assessments of educational achievement. For example, the average math achievement score for 15-year-old Japanese students was 523 on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).American students only scored 474. In science, Japanese students outperformed American students 531 to 489.

The Japanese school system is teaching math and science to students more effectively than the American school system, and it still has enough resources left over to implement a social curriculum, offer healthy food, and allow students to stay physically active during the school day. These are all great practices that American schools should consider borrowing.


Broken English immersion

BOSTON SUFFERS from a garbled approach to education for students with limited English - an approach that is widening achievement gaps at all grade levels and driving students to drop out. A change of course is needed to ensure opportunity for the 24,000 Boston students who aren't native speakers of English.

A report released this week by the Gastón Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston revealed the system's inability to adjust to changes in state law on how to teach students with limited English ability. The high school drop-out rates for so-called English language learners nearly doubled, to 12 percent, between 2003 and 2006, according to the report. The school district's family resource centers routinely fail to assess students' language skills. And fearing stigma, parents often make matters worse by withholding information about their native tongues.

It would be tempting to blame this entire mess on a 2002 ballot initiative mandating English immersion as the primary means of instruction. Previously, schools offered a broad array of classes for students in their native languages. But the authors of the UMass study wisely chose to focus on ways to improve the current system rather than on reigniting an old political debate. Immersion can work for many students. And for those who struggle with it, the law still offers various waivers and alternatives, including opportunities for students to attend classes in their native languages.

Boston has suffered from a lack of leadership within the school department on how to teach English language learners. The top post in the department has been empty for about a year. That changed yesterday when the school department tapped Eileen de los Reyes, a former education professor at Harvard. She'll have plenty to do, starting with the study's recommendation to hire staffers with enough knowledge and expertise to implement the immersion program.

Much smaller school systems, including Framingham, have managed to recruit on an international level for effective teachers of English learners, according to a 2007 Rennie Center report on best practices in the field. Brockton High School also has found ways to hasten the academic progress of non-native English speakers with the use of English language texts and teachers who use English and a foreign language interchangeably for instruction. Administrators in Boston should take some field trips to these and other smaller districts that do the job better.

There is also a dearth of statewide data on how school systems are progressing - or regressing - since the passage of the English immersion law. Boston is probably not alone in the beginners' category when it comes to teaching its bilingual students.


UK: Unruly pupils to be removed from lessons

Too little too late

Pupils who misbehave should be sent to "sin-bin" support units until they calm down, a government inquiry will recommend this week. The report, by former headteacher Sir Alan Steer, will say that more use should be made of "withdrawal rooms" for disruptive pupils. The move is designed to tackle low-level misbehaviour which falls short of demanding that a pupil be excluded.

The Schools Secretary Ed Balls will unveil the measure on Wednesday when he addresses the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers conference.

Sir Alan's report will also stress the need for adults to set a better example. In a leaflet being sent to schools, heads are urged to get parents to sign contracts promoting good behaviour and to attend parenting classes if their children are disruptive. If they fail to attend, the school has the power to fine them up to £100 with the further threat of prosecution for non compliance.

The leaflet makes it clear that teachers have the right to search pupils for weapons, drugs or alcohol.


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