[xmca] unions and reform/improvement

From: Tony Whitson (twhitson@UDel.Edu)
Date: Sun Jan 07 2007 - 08:43:09 PST

Reading the thread, it occured to me that one place to look for union
involvement is the experience with "lesson study" in localities all over
the US. I formulated the question in a blog post at
and then wrote to the lessonstudy email list soliciting input from anyone
   Below is a response from Alice Gill of the American Federation of

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 7 Jan 2007 11:15:15 -0500
From: "Alice Gill, Ed Issues" <agill@aft.org>
To: Tony Whitson <twhitson@UDel.Edu>,
     Lesson Study Listserv <lessonstudy@listserv.tc.columbia.edu>
Cc: "John Mitchell, Ed Issues" <jmitchel@aft.org>
Subject: RE: [lessonstudy] 2 questions about lesson study

Hi, Tony,

I just saw your question "What roles have teacher unions played in
lesson study?"
Lesson Study is one of my areas of work at AFT, the American Federation
of Teachers. Thank you for referring to AFT's involvement on the other

As a staff member in our Educational Issues department I have been
involved in learning about and promoting Japanese Lesson Study for
almost 10 years. As I learned about the process through the work of Jim
Stigler, Harold Stevenson, Catherine Lewis, James Hiebert, the
conferences Patsy Wang-Iverson put together for RBS and the involvement
there of Makoto Yoshida, Akihiko Takahashi and Tad Watanabe, visits to
the Stamford Japanese School, and the Japan/U.S. conference on
professional development sponsored by NCTM in Japan, I became convinced
that this was a process of great value to teachers. AFT created its own
professional development program for teachers in 1981 (the Educational
Research and Dissemination program known as ER&D). The courses have
their foundation in sharing the best research available along with its
classroom implications for the course topics. So the idea of examining
what works and what doesn't has been part of our culture for more than
25 years.

What struck me about Lesson Study is the fact that it could provide two
things that were somewhat difficult for us to provide from a national
office: (1) a way to ensure that the kind of examination of practice and
research we promote in ER&D, and the striving to continually improve,
had a vehicle members could use throughout their teaching careers, long
after they participated in our courses; and, (2) LS was a way for
practitioners who had learned new strategies or validated intuitive ones
could get together in a productive way to understand how such strategies
could be woven into their everyday work in their own schools with their
own students. Lesson Study was the perfect follow-up to integrate new
knowledge and old and to build stronger communities within schools that
were searching for answers to common problems of instruction. Further,
the process honored teachers as professionals.

So we began to promote lesson study, first in Rochester, NY and then in
Volusia County, Fla. We provided list serves so we could facilitate the
groups' initial efforts even though we were not onsite, engaged
knowledgeable others to work with the groups, were present when the
lessons were taught and continue to be engaged with their continuing
efforts. We have promoted lesson study in Florida, Minnesota, and
Montana, Chicago, San Antonio (which is on the verge of getting
started), Toledo (which had their first study last spring), and Lake
County, Florida (which is working on their first), as well as at our own
QuEST and ER&D Conferences.

I advise you to read my chapter in the RBS publication on Building Our
Understanding of Lesson Study; it describes our involvement in detail.
Pay particular attention near the end of the article where I talk about
conditions of trust that must be present in order for this to work.

History. AFT's very first brush with lesson study (although a bit
misinterpreted at that time as a process that led to "perfect" lessons)
was the publication of the article "The Polished Stones" by
Stigler/Stevenson in the American Educator in 1991. These researchers
talked in more detail about what they had observed in Japan at an
AFT/DoE International Conference on TIMMS in 1997--referring to teachers
walking around with clipboards that had notes about what to do if
students made certain errors. AFT published Catherine Lewis's "A Lesson
Is Like a Swiftly Flowing River" in 1998, an article which shed a great
deal more light on the process. The Shanker Institute was behind the
publication of The Teaching Gap which devotes an entire chapter to
Lesson Study.

That publication leads me to comment on Tony's second question, although
I have not read the arguments elsewhere about whether the translation
should be "lesson study" or "teaching study." Every time I speak about
Lesson Study I refer to it as a powerful study of "teaching, not
teachers." It is that. It is also a study of how students are thinking
in relation to an enacted lesson. In all instances, what we learn is
learned through the lessons that must be thought about, crafted, and
played out. Otherwise we cannot observe how students grasp or do not
grasp what we want them to. My fear is that if the phrase becomes
"teaching study" it will more easily lead to abstract, amorphous
discussions that are not connected to that vital venue when the rubber
hits the road. And they will more likely morph to focus on teachers.
So while LS is really a study of teaching AND learning, "Lesson Study"
provides focus on how the complexity of a lesson plays out with
students. Teachers teach lessons every day! I have learned the power of
FOCUS when we talk about lessons for students. Focus is also important
for teachers.

Returning to the role of unions in good schools, AFT also has programs
to help new teachers, to Restructure Schools to Raise Achievement, to
work with English language learners, to increase Teacher Quality and
retention, and many more. Tony refers to charges that unions hinder good
schools. We know that unionized states have better student achievement
than non-unionized ones. One accusation that continually surfaces is
that contracts are responsible for the neediest schools not having the
most experienced teachers. Here's a recent factual report.

I apologize for this being so long for an e-mail, but the AFT is very
involved in promoting Lesson Study and in other efforts to improve

Alice J. Gill
Associate Director
Educational Issues Department

555 New Jersey Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
T: 202/393.6384
F: 202/393.6371
E: agill@aft.org

-----Original Message-----
From: Tony Whitson [mailto:twhitson@UDel.Edu]
Sent: Sunday, January 07, 2007 1:35 AM
To: Lesson Study Listserv
Cc: Lesson Study Listserv
Subject: [lessonstudy] 2 questions about lesson study

2 qustions:

1) What roles have teachers' unions played in places where lesson study
is being implemented?
(On the xmca list, a question has been raised about the view that the
unions are the obstacle to improvement of education. I want to suggest
that the experience with lesson study around the country could provide
examples of unions contributing to improvement. It's my guess that this
is so, but I don't know myself, so I thought I could ask the people

I have a post at
that elaborates more on the question. If anybody has examples of union
involvement, if you add a "comment" to that page I can direct the xmca
folks to see it there.

The second question is related to the first one in a way that's
indicated in that post, but is otherwise not obvious. It's a question
about "lesson study" as the English translation of the Japanese term,
rather than "teaching study." I'm very interested if anybody here has
anything to say about that. Again, it's elaborated more on the post
linked above.

What do you think?

Tony Whitson
UD School of Education


"those who fail to reread
   are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
                    -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)

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