Samuel Betances

Samuel Betances

American schools are in a downward spiral. Year after year, our schools fail to measure up to the academic performance of other developed countries. We do have excellent educational goals. They are laudable and on point.

They align nicely with the goals of the best school systems in the world. So why is it that American students, especially those who need education the most, continue to significantly lag behind students from other advanced nations?

The blame game rages unabated. Some claim that teachers are at fault. “If only we had better teachers, we would reach our goals,” they lament. A recent research on the topic states teachers are not the problem. It is the American teaching methods that must be improved dramatically. The existing teaching gap that contributes to the learning gap can be narrowed.

This goal will, however, require a cultural transformation.

In their well-researched, seminal book “The Teaching Gap,” authors Stigler and Hiebert explain why American schools are failing while schools in other developed nations are not.

“The teaching gap we describe refers to the differences between the kinds of teaching needed to achieve the educational dreams of the American people and the kind of teaching found in most American schools. Although many of the American teachers we observed were highly competent at implementing American teaching methods, the methods themselves were severely limited.”

Their book exposes the fallacies of the self-contained classroom as one of the primary pitfalls derailing the achievement of educational goals. This exaggerated individualism that does not welcome peer review and critical feedback lies at the heart of the teaching gap.

“The United States is always reforming but not always improving. It is not how we are teaching now but that we have no mechanism for getting better.” That’s the rub. We focus too much on our teachers and not enough on our teaching. In their words “… while other countries are continually improving their teaching approaches, the United States has no system for improving.”

We need to learn from countries whose educators have found ways to help their teachers continually grow and develop their skills. These high performing nations foster an educational culture that focuses on motivating and empowering students to learn how to learn. Successful teachers are rewarded for creating opportunities for sharing their expertise with their colleagues. Teachers learn from each other. The process is deliberate, purposeful and consistent. This interactive process encourages continuous improvement in real time.

Colleagues grow each other’s competencies by sharing honest truths about what needs to change and affirmation and praise for best practices.

My nephew visiting from New Jersey shared a best practice that illustrates the point. In a state where only 10% of urban high school graduates attend college, North Star Academy Charter School, where his friend is a teacher, is beating the odds. Fully 99 % of their graduates, largely from poverty and dual-language homes, are accepted into colleges and universities. The reason for their success is that senior teachers oversee, analyze and mentor younger teachers on a regular basis. They engage in a weekly evaluation meeting which focuses on their strengths and weaknesses. Wow! Stigler and Hiebert would be proud. Teachers learning how to improve from each other is essential.

I’m mindful that there are many factors, such as summer learning loss, the reading gap, the parental engagement gap, the lack of culturally relevant curriculum, which contribute to this downward spiral in American education. Nonetheless, this highly successful continuous improvement model has promise for those working to reduce the achievement gap. These kinds of collaborative interactions are key to our future success here on Guam.

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