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The Practice of Teaching: Japan and the United States

by Chad M. Barrett
November 2001november 2001 

Last year, the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the Twenty-First Century (also known as the Glenn Commission, for its chair, Senator John Glenn) published a report titled Before It's Too Late. This report sets three national goals for improving mathematics and science teaching in the United States:

  1. Establish an ongoing system to improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching in grades K–12.
  2. Increase significantly the number of mathematics and science teachers, and improve the quality of their preparation.
  3. Improve the working environment and make the teaching profession more attractive to K–12 mathematics and science teachers.

Since Japan, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), appears to be doing an excellent job educating its students, I sought to identify key issues surrounding the role of the teacher that might help explain this success. From what I know of Japan's educational system, I believe that the Japanese are meeting at least two of the three goals set by the Glenn Commission. Japanese success in improving the practice of teaching and in luring highly qualified people to the profession may contribute to the success of Japanese students in international comparisons with students in the United States.

The Japanese seem to have a professional development system in which new teachers are effectively mentored and in which veteran teachers improve their skills. "Novice teachers are assigned formal mentors during their first year on the job" (NISACA 1998). These mentors introduce new teachers to the practice of teaching and provide guidance, encouragement, and advice. Veteran teachers can improve their skills or share their expertise by participating in research groups in which they "share lesson plan ideas, observe or present model lessons, and learn about new teaching ideas through reading and speakers" (NISACA 1998).

Japanese educational administrators have no shortage of talent awaiting the opportunity to teach in their schools. "The ratio of applicants to those accepted as high school teachers is recently as high as 30 to 1" (NISACA 1998). With so many applicants to choose from, administrators have the luxury of selecting the most qualified people to fill teaching positions.

As the Glenn Commission stated, "It is abundantly clear from the evidence already at hand that we are not doing the job that we should do—or can do—in teaching our children to understand and use ideas from these fields" (National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the Twenty-First Century 2000). The Japanese system offers a glimpse of what American performance might be like if we implemented the recommendations of the Glenn Commission.

References 

National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the Twenty-First Century. Before It's Too Late: A Report to the Nation from the Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the Twenty-First Century. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2000.
National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment (NISACA). The Educational System in Japan: Case Study Findings (DOE Publication No. SAI 98-3008). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1998.
 

 

Chad Barrett currently assists in the development of statewide mathematics assessments. He has also taught mathematics at a rural high school in south Texas and worked as a teacher and as a school administrator.

 

 

 

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