Marie Reed Elementary Embraces Japanese 'Lesson Study'

Eric Bethel, a fifth-grade math teacher, helps Akele Carpentier, left, as Maritza Romero works on her assignment at the District's Marie Reed Elementary School, which has embraced a development model known as lesson study.
Eric Bethel, a fifth-grade math teacher, helps Akele Carpentier, left, as Maritza Romero works on her assignment at the District's Marie Reed Elementary School, which has embraced a development model known as lesson study. (By Michael Temchine -- The Washington Post)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Third-grade teacher Andy Gomez stood at a whiteboard before 10 of his colleagues on a recent Thursday afternoon at Marie Reed Elementary in Adams Morgan. His students were stumbling over subtraction problems like 700 minus 369, he said -- the zeros were tripping them up.

The solution to their difficulties was coming. By way of Japan.

For the next half-hour, the group discussed -- down to nitty-gritty details about vocabulary to use or avoid -- what the students' fundamental misunderstandings about numbers might be and how to address them.

This collaborative examination of the mechanics of teaching is part of the school's embrace of "lesson study," a model of professional development for teachers that was developed in Japan. It was pioneered in the District by five teachers at Marie Reed, who began meeting weekly two years ago to study math content and pedagogy.

It is a wholly different approach from the workshop-with-an-outside-expert model that dominates professional development for U.S. teachers, according to a February report by Stanford University researchers. And although its effect on student achievement has not been well-documented by researchers, there is some promising evidence: A 2006 study showed that the increase in test scores over four years at a California school where teachers engaged in lesson study was triple that of other schools in the same district. A broader study of 15 schools in California showed that at schools in which teachers met two or three times a month to address students' specific academic struggles, test scores rose relative to the district average.

"Lesson study is a way for teachers to get better. It provides a vehicle to grow," said Eric Bethel, a fifth-grade teacher at Marie Reed who is beginning his eighth year in the classroom. "I've never, ever been involved in any professional development that's been as enriching."

At Marie Reed, math scores on the District's Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test have risen substantially since teachers began practicing lesson study: Proficiency rates have more than doubled since 2007 to 74 percent. However, the school was one of six in the District with high concentrations of erasures on the 2008 tests. Principal Dayo Akinsheye attributed that to students having two hours to complete each 20-minute test, leaving plenty of time to check work and change answers.

Education researchers James Stigler and James Hiebert first popularized lesson study in the United States in 1999, when they published the book "The Teaching Gap," in which they compared education in cultures around the globe. They described a Japanese system in which teachers are constantly examining and tweaking their practice rather than attempting wholesale reform, as has failed so many times in America.

"The evidence is pretty good that the only kind of improvements in teaching that are going to be sustainable are going to be small, incremental improvements," Stigler said in an interview.

Lesson study is a way to organize those small improvements. Teachers work together on a "research lesson," sometimes over the course of an entire year. They identify an objective, come up with a way to teach it and then script students' likely misunderstandings and the teacher's response to those misunderstandings.

One member of the group teaches the lesson in front of observers, who are instructed to record students' responses and reactions. They don't evaluate the individual teacher; the lesson has been created by a group, after all, and the purpose is to discover how it is received by students.

"We're looking at the child and the thinking that you see evolving as the lesson progresses," said Akinsheye, who is a member of the lesson study group. "That takes away a lot of the concern that teachers have."

After a post-lesson discussion among the teacher and observers about what worked and what didn't, the group revises and re-teaches.

Gomez, who taught the first lesson in February 2008, discovered that he needed to spend more time reinforcing basic concepts before diving into two-digit multiplication. One of his students was matched with a tutor after observers noticed that she was adeptly faking her way through class.

What eventually bleeds from discrete research lessons into everyday practice, teachers said, is noticing whether students get it -- learning to ask questions that elicit what a student is thinking, where that student is going wrong and therefore what it will take to correct the misconception.

"In the U.S., frequently students are trying to figure out what is in the teacher's mind. What answer is the teacher looking for?" said Patsy Wang-Iverson, a consultant who has studied and written about the Japanese method for a decade and who now acts as the Marie Reed teachers' mentor. "In Japan, teachers are trying to figure out what is in the student's mind -- how they're thinking, what they're thinking and the source of their misunderstanding."

At Marie Reed, lesson study was spurred by Akinsheye, a former math resource teacher. Three years ago, she sent two teachers to observe a research lesson in Paterson, N.J., at the first public American school to adopt lesson study in the late 1990s. When they returned wanting to try it at Marie Reed, Akinsheye got a $47,000 grant from the school system and hired Wang-Iverson. This year, the program is expanding to include teachers in every grade.

The culture at Marie Reed has changed as a result of the weekly meetings, faculty said. Teachers don't feel isolated as they face the daunting challenge of raising achievement in a school where 94 percent of the 319 students are poor and two-thirds struggle with English. They chat at the copy machine about partitive division. Bethel called Gomez after 10 p.m. last week to talk about multiplication arrays.

"You don't stay in a corner there wondering, 'How do I teach this?' " said Elinor Stephens, a fourth-grade teacher.

Lesson study also bolsters a teacher's grasp of math concepts during a stage in the research lesson cycle called kyozaikenkyu, or intensive learning. Teachers at Marie Reed have assigned each other math homework. Last spring, they all took an online math course through M.I.T., and in addition to deepening their content knowledge, they learned humility.

"We all had gaps in our understanding of elementary mathematics," Bethel said.

The larger benefit of lesson study, proponents say, is to push the conversation about improving teaching beyond luring more highly qualified people into schools to helping teachers grow once they have landed in the classroom.

"If we believe all students can learn, then the corollary to that is all teachers can improve," said Wang-Iverson. "That is at the heart of lesson study."

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