Notebook

Harold Stevenson Remembered

Harold Stevenson, a developmental psychologist and pioneer in cross-national studies of student achievement, passed away in July 2005. A recipient of the AFT QuEST Award in 1995 and author of three articles for American Educator ("The Asian Advantage: The Case of Mathematics" in Summer 1987, "How Asian Teachers Polish Each Lesson to Perfection" in Spring 1991, and "Lessons from Abroad: The Learning Gap" in Summer 1993), his work continues to influence the debate over education reform.

Stevenson became interested in comparisons of U.S. and Asian educational practices in the early 1970s, after joining the first delegation of American child development experts to visit China after the communist takeover. Stevenson's surveys were the first to show that U.S. students lagged behind their Asian counterparts in reading and, even more so, in mathematics from the time they entered school.

In 1992, Stevenson and his colleague James Stigler published The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education, a book that illuminated some of the many reasons for this achievement gap. Among their other findings, Stevenson and Stigler concluded that different cultures place a significantly different value on the role that hard work plays in achievement. In Japan and China, the belief is that "people are basically the same and that the difference between success and failure lies in how hard you work," said Stevenson. "Americans give more importance to native ability, so they have less incentive to work hard in school."

Stevenson also reported that American students tend to do less homework, devote fewer hours to studying in school, and spend more class time engaged in "academically irrelevant" behavior—such as whispering to classmates or wandering around the room. At the same time, he found that high-performing Asian nations tend to have common, clearly defined academic standards, high expectations, large heterogeneous classes, and a cadre of highly trained teachers who are given ample time to work together to perfect lessons that include a lot of hands-on exercises for students.

These findings, as Al Shanker said in a 1992 New York Times column, challenged us "to take a new look at some education practices that we have come to take for granted.... If teaching is a performing art, as Asian teachers seem to think it is, teachers don't have to worry about composing a new concerto—or painting a new picture—for every class. They can practice and perfect ones they develop together with other teachers. They can rethink the questions that led to deep silence, instead of a lively discussion, and they can discard examples that failed last year or yesterday and think up new ones. And as they collaborate with other teachers, they can break out of the isolation in which they now work. It's worth thinking about."


Celebrate World Teachers' Day October 5

World Teachers' Day is an annual event celebrated in over 100 countries around the globe. On that day, teachers carry out a range of activities, attend public meetings, and meet and lobby political leaders in order to draw attention to teachers and the valuable role they play in society. The celebration is coordinated by Education International (EI), of which the AFT is an affiliate. The theme this year is "Quality Teachers for Quality Education," with a special focus on "training for a stronger teaching force." EI offers a lot of ideas about how to celebrate the day—examples include organizing school plays, parades, and media events.


Send Wal-Mart Back to School

AFT members shopping for school supplies are invited to sign a pledge that they will not purchase supplies at Wal-Mart in support of a nationwide union campaign to convince the retail giant to become a responsible employer and corporate citizen.

In the past year alone, Wal-Mart has repeatedly violated child labor laws, abused sweatshop labor in third world countries, and exploited immigrant labor. A notoriously anti-union company, Wal-Mart also has a record of discrimination against its 2 million female workers and has failed to provide company healthcare coverage to more than 600,000 employees.

This summer, AFL-CIO convention delegates adopted a resolution endorsing campaigns to change Wal-Mart's corporate behavior. In 2004, the AFT convention adopted a "Shop Union, Not Wal-Mart" resolution pledging to support Wal-Mart workers. Part of this effort is the "Send Wal-Mart Back to School" campaign, asking teachers, school staff, and parents to sign a pledge to buy their back-to-school supplies somewhere other than Wal-Mart.


The Federal Role in Education: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Forty years ago, former school teacher Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. As one of the law's pioneers, Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, reflected on ESEA and its successor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), in his remarks to the AFT's QuEST conference on July 9, 2005. In this excerpt, he calls on the AFT to take a leading role in fixing NCLB's flaws.

The early 1960s were a time of great concern about poverty, civil rights, and social inequities. The country was grappling with how to implement the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Politicians, including Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, expressed great interest in reducing poverty. Education was a major focus, with the hope that better educational opportunities could provide American families with a way to escape poverty. Head Start, Title I, the Bilingual Education Act, programs for disabled children that later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, grant and loan programs to help poor and working-class students attend college—all were created to help level the playing field for the poor, disadvantaged, and disabled by providing extra services and some legal protections.

These programs survive to this day, making assistance for the more disadvantaged in our society the federal government's primary concern in education for the past 40 years.

Three years ago, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law. Despite its problems, the equity goals of the 1960s remain at its core. The law is exactly right to hold schools accountable for the education of every racial and ethnic group, for poor children, for children with limited English, and for children with disabilities. Requiring that all children in America be proficient by 2014 is a civil rights goal. Requiring that all students be taught by highly qualified teachers helps disadvantaged students, who today are more likely to have less experienced teachers.

As a result of these goals in NCLB, schools in thousands of districts around the country are more focused on raising the achievement of disadvantaged students and on closing the achievement gap. I know that many educators have been working hard to improve education for decades, but this law has certainly focused additional attention on the students who need the most help.

In addition to its 40-year tradition of addressing equity concerns, the law now serves the newer purpose of trying to raise overall student achievement. In 2002, when it was signed into law, NCLB became the latest version of the nation's support for standards-based reform—a cause long championed by the AFT and Al Shanker, its late president.

The timelines, penalties, and funding of this legislation are all highly controversial, as is the question of whether it intrudes on state and local control of education. These controversies should not distract us, though, from seeing that there is general national agreement that all students must be held to higher academic standards, that there must be some way to measure how students are doing, and that schools where students aren't doing well must be improved.

I believe that agreement on these principles will survive and, as a consequence, the basic contours of the No Child Left Behind Act will be retained when it is reauthorized in 2007 or 2008. The more significant question is: How will its defects be corrected?

If NCLB is to be changed for the better, two steps must be taken, sooner rather than later. First, several basic questions must be answered and the answers used to fashion new policies. Some of these questions are:

• How do you design a good assessment and public accountability system?

• What does it take to turn around a failing school? Additional funds can help, but what more is needed?

• If nearly all students are to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, what will it cost in terms of extra programs and services?

• What does it really mean to be a "highly qualified" teacher?

• What will it take to get more experienced teachers into impoverished, low-performing schools?

There is an old political principle that you can't beat something with nothing. That means that critics of NCLB have to show how the worthy goals of this law can be attained by improving schools, not penalizing them. After better answers are found, a second step must be taken. Educators will have to fight for their ideas. Another basic political principle is that good ideas, alone, are not good enough. You also have to know how to fight effectively to get those ideas accepted.

If the AFT can take the lead in meeting this challenge, you will be providing millions of youngsters with the opportunity to lead a better life. You will also be strengthening the fabric of American society and honoring the memory and legacy of a great leader, Albert Shanker.

Share This
Print