Chapter One: The Teaching Gap
Conditions for improving education in the United States are more favorable today than they have been in a generation. Both politicians and the public recognize that education needs to be improved. Bad news from international comparisons of student achievement is no longer seen as esoteric by the American public; these days it is on the front page and a linchpin of many politicians' stump speeches. In our increasingly global economy, citizens see direct evidence that America's future will depend on the education of its workforce, and they are determined to compete. Education has become a high priority among the electorate.
But the real reason for optimism is that all this attention to education is not just rhetoric. We are witnessing a tidal wave of educational reform that appears to gain momentum with each passing year. Virtually every state in the nation is working to develop high standards for what students should learn in school, along with means for assessing students' progress. In a field where fads have ruled, we are seeing something new: a growing commitment to the idea that clear and shared goals for student learning must provide a foundation on which to improve education and achievement. Without clear goals, we cannot succeed, for we cannot know in which direction to move.
Yet it is equally important to recognize that standards and assessments, though necessary, are not enough. What must be done now is to find ways of providing students with the learning opportunities they need to reach the new standards. Making higher standards a reality for students will require more than just the status quo inside our nation's classrooms; curriculum, assessments, and -- above all -- teaching must improve dramatically. In our view, teaching is the next frontier in the continuing struggle to improve schools. Standards set the course, and assessments provide the benchmarks, but it is teaching that must be improved to push us along the path to success.
Our contention that standards alone are not enough is shared by many politicians and school reformers, and they stand ready to help. President Clinton has successfully pushed through legislation that will pour millions of dollars into reducing class size in elementary schools nationwide. Many states are actively considering making vouchers and school choice a central part of their educational systems. And many school districts are embarking on additional initiatives, such as creating charter schools, outfitting schools with new technologies, and sanctioning new forms of school management.
We believe that these highly visible efforts, though well intentioned, miss the mark, because they leave out the one ingredient most likely to make a difference in students' learning: the quality of teaching. Reducing the class size from thirty to twenty certainly will make teachers happier. But if teachers continue to use the same methods they used with larger classes, learning opportunities for students will change little. Similarly, implementing a voucher system might increase competition among schools and spur their desire to improve. But desire alone does not provide teachers with the knowledge they need to implement more effective methods. Class size reductions, vouchers, and most other popular efforts to improve schools will end in disappointment if they do not fundamentally improve what happens inside classrooms.
We are not the only ones to decry this lack of attention to the improvement of teaching. Jerome Bruner, an elder statesman in educational psychology, made the same point in his 1996 book, The Culture of Education:
It is somewhat surprising and discouraging how little attention has been paid to the intimate nature of teaching and school learning in the debates on education that have raged over the past decade. These debates have been so focused on performance and standards that they have mostly overlooked the means by which teachers and pupils alike go about their business in real-life classrooms -- how teachers teach and how pupils learn.
Our goal in writing this book is to convince our readers that improving the quality of teaching must be front and center in efforts to improve students' learning. Teaching is the one process in the educational system that is designed specifically to facilitate students' learning. Of course, there are many other factors that influence learning in a significant way, such as students' home and social life, and the resources of the school and community. We do not want to minimize the importance of these for the well-being of children. But much of what our society expects children to learn, they learn at school, and teaching is the activity most clearly responsible for learning. Robert Slavin, long a leading educational researcher, made a similar observation in a recent article:
The problem, I would argue, is that reforms so often debated in the media, in the White House, in Congress, and in statehouses across the country do not touch on the changes needed to fundamentally reform America's schools....These reforms ignore a basic truth. Student achievement cannot change unless America's teachers use markedly more effective instructional methods.
What makes this argument compelling is that not only is teaching essential, it is a process we can do something about. Overemphasizing the importance of nonschool factors that often are, frustratingly, beyond the reach of public policy can become an excuse for not trying to improve. Teaching lies within the control of teachers. It is something we can study and improve.
The Learning Gap and the Need to Improve
Good questions to ask at this point are "Why is it so important to improve teaching?" and "How do we know that improvement is needed? Maybe we are doing fine." Surprising as it may seem, there is considerable controversy about the answers to these questions. Influential educators and writers disagree. One answer is simply that there is always room for improvement; no matter how well our students are doing now, it would be foolish not to try to improve.
The truth, as we see it, however, is that the situation in the United States demands improvement, not just because improvement is possible but because it is needed. Our students are being shortchanged. They could be learning much more and much more deeply than they are learning now. In the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, a periodic thermometer of students' learning, only 38 percent of America's eighth-graders could figure out a 15 percent tip on the cost of a typical meal, even when given five choices from which they could select the correct answer. Is this good enough?
Beyond the surveys of our own country's students, there are a number of sobering international reports. Several years ago, one of us coauthored a book called The Learning Gap. That book presented a study of schooling and achievement in Japan, Taiwan, China, and the United States. The findings were cause for concern: As early as fifth grade, U.S. students lagged far behind their counterparts in the other countries. On a test of mathematics achievement, for example, the highest-scoring classroom in the U.S. sample did not perform as well as the lowest-scoring classroom in the Japanese sample.
Interest in international studies has grown since publication of The Learning Gap, heightened recently by release of the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). As the name implies, this was the third in a series of international studies. The first was conducted in the 1960s and the second in the early 1980s. In both of these studies, U.S. students performed quite poorly compared with their peers in most Asian and many European countries. But neither of these two earlier studies came close to matching the size and quality of the TIMSS, by far the most comprehensive and methodologically sophisticated cross-national comparison of achievement ever completed. TIMSS investigated mathematics and science achievement among fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students in forty-one nations.
The results from TIMSS have garnered a great deal of media interest and have caught the attention of politicians, policymakers, and the general public. The results are dramatic, and they do not paint a flattering picture of American education. For example, in eighth-grade mathematics, twenty of the forty-one nations scored significantly higher, on average, than the United States, while only seven nations scored significantly lower than the United States. The seven nations scoring lower than the United States were Lithuania, Cyprus, Portugal, Iran, Kuwait, Colombia, and South Africa. Nations scoring significantly higher than the United States included Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada, France, Australia, Hungary, and Ireland.
Of course, the results of large international studies are always open to question. So much differs across cultures and educational systems, it is hard to know where to find the most meaningful comparisons. Are the samples comparable? Do we even have the same goals for education across cultures? Although the answers to these questions are important for interpreting the differences, the gap in achievement between U.S. students and those in other countries is simply too wide to be dismissed on methodological grounds. U.S. education is in need of improvement.
Beyond the Learning Gap
Americans increasingly are aware of this learning gap and are seeking ways to address it. The international comparisons grab the front-page headlines, and officials try to infer recommendations from how one country performs compared with the performance of another. Policymakers carefully study, state by state, scores on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, as if one could divine a strategy, from the scores, for improving performance. Scores of all local schools are printed in the newspaper, and school boards and parents discuss why students in some schools score much lower than others.
As important as it is to know how well students are learning, examinations of achievement scores alone can never reveal how the scores might be improved. We also need information on the classroom processes -- on teaching -- that are contributing to the scores. Unfortunately, many policymakers have ignored this fact, making decisions about the future of education without even the most rudimentary information about what is happening in classrooms. In 1995, faced with low reading and mathematics performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, California's superintendent of public instruction formed two task forces, one for mathematics and one for reading, to study the situation and propose solutions. California, after all, was highly respected for its Curriculum Frameworks that guide reading and mathematics instruction in the state. The Frameworks provided a comprehensive outline for what students should learn and guidelines for appropriate instructional methods. If the Frameworks were so good, why was achievement so low?
In meetings of California's mathematics task force, the discussion often turned to the Frameworks. Were the teaching methods or curricular emphases recommended in the Mathematics Framework perhaps to blame for students' low achievement? A debate ensued among members of the task force, a debate that has been reflected more broadly in public debate around the country between proponents of "reform" teaching and those in favor of more "traditional" teaching methods. Some believed that the Frameworks were not working and should be changed; others believed that the state should stay the course. But often lost in the discussion was a key fact: the state of California had collected no data on the extent to which the Frameworks had been implemented in the state's classrooms. This did not stop the state, however, from undertaking a revision of its Mathematics Framework. But on what basis could the Framework be revised? Without knowing what teachers were doing, how could the effectiveness of the Framework be determined?
We do not mean to single out California; no state that we know of regularly collects and uses data directly related to instructional processes in the classroom. Policymakers adopt a program, then wait to see if student achievement scores will rise. If scores do not go up -- and this is most often what happens, especially in the short run -- they begin hearing complaints that the policy isn't working. Momentum builds, experts meet, and soon there is a new recommendation, then a change of course, often in the opposite direction. Significantly, this whole process goes on without ever collecting data on whether or not the original program was even implemented in classrooms -- or, if implemented, how effective it was in promoting student learning. If we wish to make wise decisions, we need to know what is going on in typical classrooms.
Fortunately, the same TIMSS that generated a new wave of concern about students' achievement also collected a wealth of information about educational factors that might help us understand the different levels of performance in different countries. TIMSS researchers analyzed textbooks; asked administrators, teachers, and students about their beliefs and practices; and videotaped teachers teaching typical lessons. The TIMSS video study of teaching, which forms the basis for this book, is especially significant because it provides a penetrating and unparalleled look into classrooms in three different countries. For the first time, we had a full video record of a representative sample of U.S. classrooms. More than that, we had the same kind of information from Germany and Japan. We could now compare more than achievement scores. We could examine similarities and differences in the instructional methods that lay behind these scores.
A Unique Opportunity
The data collected in the TIMSS video study allow us to answer questions that we could not answer previously yet are crucial for the formation of education policy in the years to come. What are the instructional methods that most teachers currently use? Are the highly publicized reform recommendations being implemented in the classrooms of the United States? Are there alternative ways of teaching in other cultures, or is mathematics teaching pretty much the same everywhere? As was pointed out earlier, a major obstacle in our efforts to improve education is the dearth of information about what is happening in our nation's classrooms. Video provides us with a unique way of gathering the information we need to examine our current practices and then improve them.
Video data, such as that collected in TIMSS, also help us discover new ideas about teaching. If alternative ways of teaching exist, video will capture them, even when they lie completely outside our society's current theories of teaching and learning. And because the new ideas are illustrated through actual classroom teaching, they can have immediate practical significance for teachers. Video information can shake up the way we think and let us take a fresh look at classrooms.
What We Have Learned from the Video Study
As we look back over what we have learned from the TIMSS video study, several things stand out. We foreshadow these things here because they form the basis for the book you are reading.
Teaching, Not Teachers, Is the Critical Factor
Americans focus on the competence of teachers. They decry the quality of applicants for teaching positions and criticize the talent of the current teaching corps. But we come away with a different conclusion: Although variability in competence is certainly visible in the videos we collected, such differences are dwarfed by the differences in teaching methods that we see across cultures. (In Chapters 2, 3, and 4 we present our analyses of teaching and describe what teaching looks like in each country.)
We have watched many examples of good teachers employing limited methods that, no matter how competently they are executed, could not lead to high levels of student achievement. Although there are teachers using extraordinary methods in all cultures, the extraordinary is not what defines most students' classroom experiences. Students' day-to-day experiences are mainly determined by the methods most commonly used by teachers within a culture. Cross-cultural differences in these commonly used methods are what we have termed the "teaching gap."
What we can see clearly is that American mathematics teaching is extremely limited, focused for the most part on a very narrow band of procedural skills. Whether students are in rows working individually or sitting in groups, whether they have access to the latest technology or are working only with paper and pencil, they spend most of their time acquiring isolated skills through repeated practice. Japanese teaching is distinguished not so much by the competence of the teachers as by the images it provides of what it can look like to teach mathematics in a deeper way, teaching for conceptual understanding. Students in Japanese classrooms spend as much time solving challenging problems and discussing mathematical concepts as they do practicing skills.
Teaching Is a Cultural Activity
To put it simply, we were amazed at how much teaching varied across cultures and how little it varied within cultures. When we started, we believed there would be great variability in teaching methods within the United States. Political battles between advocates of, among other teaching techniques, phonics and whole language, and basic skills and conceptual understanding, would lead most Americans to assume that there are many different paths that teachers can follow. But these differences paled when we looked across countries from a cross-cultural, comparative perspective. Although we saw variation in the U.S. videos we collected, comparing them with videos from Germany and Japan allowed us to see something we could not see before: a distinctly American way of teaching, which differs markedly from the German way and from the Japanese way.
Teaching is a cultural activity. We learn how to teach indirectly, through years of participation in classroom life, and we are largely unaware of some of the most widespread attributes of teaching in our own culture. (In Chapters 5 and 6 we pull together what we have learned about teaching and argue that if we are going to improve teaching, we must appreciate its cultural character.) The fact that teaching is a cultural activity explains why teaching has been so resistant to change. But recognizing the cultural nature of teaching gives us new insights into what we need to do if we wish to improve it.
A Gap in Methods for Improving Teaching
Finally, we have learned a great deal from the video study about the results of efforts to improve teaching in the United States. Earlier in this chapter we pointed to the dearth of information about the effects that educational policies have in the classroom. The videos provide us with this kind of information, and it is quite striking. Although most U.S. teachers report trying to improve their teaching with current reform recommendations in mind, the videos show little evidence that change is occurring. Furthermore, when teachers do change their practice, it is often in only superficial ways.
This will not surprise those who have worked in the field of teacher professional development. The problem of how to improve teaching on a wide scale is one that has been seriously underestimated by policymakers, reformers, and the public in this country. The American approach has been to write and distribute reform documents and ask teachers to implement the recommendations contained in such documents. Those who have worked on this problem understand that this approach simply does not work. The teaching profession does not have enough knowledge about what constitutes effective teaching, and teachers don't have a means of successfully sharing such knowledge with one another.
To really improve teaching we must invest far more than we do now in generating and sharing knowledge about teaching. This is another sort of teaching gap. Compared with other countries, the United States clearly lacks a system for developing professional knowledge and for giving teachers the opportunity to learn about teaching. American teachers, compared with those in Japan, for example, have no means of contributing to the gradual improvement of teaching methods or of improving their own skills. American teachers are left alone, an action sometimes justified on grounds of freedom, independence, and professionalism. This is not good enough if we want excellent schools in the next century. (In Chapters 7, 8, and 9 we discuss the problem of how to improve teaching, and offer a proposal to make improving teaching the focus of our efforts to close the achievement gap.)
We opened this chapter by describing the opportunities that exist at present for improving education. In this positive environment, the challenge that awaits our nation is to find a way to improve classroom teaching so that our educational goals can be realized.
Copyright © 1999 by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert