NCEE: U.S. reforms don’t match Korea, etc.

U.S. education policy should emulate the world’s top performers — Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Ontario, Canada — concludes a report (pdf) by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the United States is to figure out how the countries with top student performance are doing it, build on their achievements and then, by building on our unique strengths, figure out how to do it even better,” Marc Tucker, NCEE’s CEO, said in a statement.

While none of the top performers test students annually, they require students to pass a national, comprehensive, standardized “gateway test” at the end of middle school and again at the end of 10th grade. “Because the exams are very high quality, they cannot be ‘test prepped;’ the only way to succeed on them is to actually master the material,” NCEE says.

Other recommendations include the reallocation of money — spending more on paying quality teachers and less on state-of-the-art school facilities, new textbooks, and administrators. The report also recommends that states take more of a responsibility for funding schools, moving away from the majority local-funded system the country uses now.

After praising the new Common Core Standards in math and English, the report calls for adding more subjects to create a national curriculum, notes the San Jose Mercury News.

In the five exemplary countries, national curricula also cover science, social sciences, arts, music and often religion, morals or philosophy.

Improving teacher quality is critical, the report finds, suggesting moving credential programs to high-status universities and raising entrance requirements.

In Finland, for example, only one in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher-training programs, which take five or more years to complete. By contrast, in 2008, U.S. high school graduates intending to major in education scored in the bottom third on their SAT college-entrance exams. “We cannot afford to continue bottom fishing for prospective teachers while the best-performing countries are cream skimming,” the report said.

Small classes are a waste of money, the study says. “Of all the strategies available to improve student performance, decreasing class size is among the most expensive and least effective.”

Ed Week has more on the report and the debate it’s set off.

I like the idea of gateway exams — but what’s the plan if lots of students fail? Most top-performing countries use those exams to decide who should go to a college-prep high school and who should go to a career-prep school.  That would be a humongous change for the U.S.

Recruiting teachers only from the top of the class would reduce the number of black and Hispanic teachers. Are we OK with that?

NCEE doesn’t like change on the fringes, such as charter schools. It calls for aligning the education system. A national curriculum in all subjects backed by national gateway exams would do that. The top performers tend to have a college-entrance exam too. We could stop sending high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade math. Are we ready to make all public schools march to the beat of the same drummer? I can see the attraction, but it makes me nervous.

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Comments

  1. The report also recommends that states take more of a responsibility for funding schools, moving away from the majority local-funded system the country uses now.
    Across the US, local sources supply less than half of K-12 revenue, according to NCES.

  2. “The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the United States is to figure out how the countries with top student performance are doing it.”

    Maybe the most important thing they are doing is having a classroom full of Korean or Finnish students.

    So I guess we should focus on having more immigration from those countries, and less from countries where educational performance is worse.

  3. North of 49th says:

    Interesting that Tucker picked Ontario, Canada, as an exemplar, when it in fact contradicts some of the observations and recommendations cited above:
    –MAJOR emphasis on class size reduction, especially in the early grades (goal to have 90% of K-3 classes under 20 pupils, none with more than 23)
    – as for “In the five exemplary countries, national curricula also cover science, social sciences, arts, music and often religion, morals or philosophy Canada has NO national curricula of any kind
    – the “gateway” exams are neither national nor comprehensive. There is a 10th grade literacy test, but students who fail it can substitute a course and portfolio in order to graduate. The test results have no consequences for students. There is no “gateway” test in any other subject. 3rd and 6th graders take a “performance assessment” in reading, writing and math, but these most certainly CAN be “prepped.”.
    – teachers are unionized much like teachers in the U.S., with seniority and LIFO contracts in place. A difference is that unions are small and local (there are 5 or 6 in Ontario alone: one for elementary teachers in the English-language schools, one for elementary teachers in the French language schools, one for teachers in the Catholic schools, etc) No union here has the clout of AFT or the NEA. Actually they are often at odds with each other.

    What the report seems to have accurately described about Ontario is that teacher candidates must have a strong academic background and a degree in a subject before applying for teacher training (no “education majors” here). The pay is reasonable but not on a par with states like New York.. Teacher autonomy is very limited, so a “professional model” is still in the future.

    The other factor that the report highlights as important that is true of Ontario is that funding has been equalized across the province and removed from local control. A central formula provides for varying factors like low-income areas, rural/northern locations, transportation, special education. Local districts cannot top up their allotment through the local tax base. There has been a lot of emphasis on standardizing teaching practice, assessment, evaluation and reporting across the province, which is about the size of Texas.

    I’m not aware of any hard data that student achievement has improved significantly but maybe Tucker knows something I don’t.

  4. My family is of Finnish descent. I’ve lived there and I also went to school there for a number of years.

    There are several cultural differences that never seem to make it into news about the education system of Finland, but they are worth mentioning here because they impact the lives of Finnish students and, indirectly I believe, influence educational outcomes.

    1. Kids in Finland spend a lot of time outdoors. Most of them walk, bike, or take public transportation to school, for starters. Second, even in the big cities such as Helsinki and Tampere, there are parks and grassy walkways on nearly every street corner. Bike trails and walking trails are built concurrently with roadways. If you’re a teen and you want to meet your friends, you’ll need to walk somewhere, because it’s too expensive to own a car. Babies are taken downtown in minus Celsius weather, and kids grow up in the extremes of light and dark.

    2. In general, the teachers and adults trust kids. In school – and this was a middle school in Helsinki – we were given a full hour to practice orienteering skills in a foresty part of the city, *without adult supervision*. And we all came back to class. My parents would let me ski in winter for hours, unsupervised, with siblings and cousins. Groups of neighborhood kids hang out at the park, by the lake, and do things like spontaneously go fishing or bike riding because it’s safe, and nature is abundant. Of course kids get into trouble sometimes, but the amount of freedom that kids have there would send most American parents into fits of fear.

    3. Kids grow up with “Aku Ankka” or Donald Duck comics. Honestly, I think that is one of the secrets to the high literacy rate. I learned how to read Finnish that way as a kid. Every single relative, cousin, or friend over there with kids has Donald Duck comics on their bookshelves, and the library is a part of most every child’s life growing up. Also, television programs don’t even start until around 5:00 PM, so kids cannot sit and watch tv all day.

    4. The culture supports schools and academics. There is far less time spent on football games, cheerleading, carnival or festival days, — those are not part of academics! American schools waste too much time on such extra events, and not enough on interesting, topical academic ones. American schools also celebrate athletics far too much.

    I have made some sweeping generalizations and there are many good American schools. It is also important to supply cultural context to the success of Finnish schools.

  5. Nana – How many Finnish kids come from several generations of unmarried teenagers and live in the kind of dysfunctional households so many American kids do? Kids living with biological parents in stable households do better on most measures.

  6. momof4,

    Many kids in Finland come from divorced or alcoholic homes. What mitigates those destabilizing factors somewhat, though, is the presence of extended families, teachers who frequently loop for 3 or even more years with the same classes of kids, classes that stay together (and don’t move kids around) for 5 or more years, and parents who generally don’t move much. Families tend to be more settled. You don’t see the kinds of absenteeism and mobility in Finland that you frequently see in the States.

    The social services network is also extremely strong. There is help for all of these kids, and schools really swoop in and surround troubled children with counselors, social workers, and frequent staff meetings to talk about help for troubled kids.

  7. Ted Craig says:

    Has there been a study that proves students from the top of the class make the best teachers? Or is it just assumed that they would make the best teachers?

    I know in one field, sports, the best performers often make the worst instructors.

    I don’t know. I’m just asking.

    P.S.

    Canada may not have a national curriculum, but it has a de facto version if Ontario has a provincial curriculum.

  8. Joanne’s post and all the comments above are excellent.

    “Recruiting teachers only from the top of the class would reduce the number of black and Hispanic teachers. Are we OK with that?”

    The answer is no.

    And it’s a very good question.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nana has chicken/egg problems. The Finnish schools can do those things with the students because…they can do those things with the students.
    Read a thread on poverty. A guy who does maintenance in public housing recalled a time when a woman called him to her apartment for furnace problems.
    It kept going on and off. He tried to explain what a thermostat is for–skipping the bimetallic strip thingy–and she was getting hostile. Her rights to a furnace were being taken away or something. Her neighbor, who was visiting,said she didn’t have a problem. When it got too hot, she opened her windows.
    I think the term “intellectually curious” is frequently referred to when insisting Sarah Palin doesn’t have it–how would anybody know–but not in other, sweatier venues when having Bad Thoughts might be implied. My Bad Thought is how a kid raised in such an environment–remember that not only did these two morons not know from thermostats, they grew up in an environment which had not taught them–are likely to do in school.

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    “Has there been a study that proves students from the top of the class make the best teachers? Or is it just assumed that they would make the best teachers?

    I know in one field, sports, the best performers often make the worst instructors.”

    I think we need to be careful not to mix “top 30% (or 20% or 10%) or so” with “top 200 in the world.”

    In sports it is often the case that superstars do not make good coaches, although this is mostly, I think, based on the observation that so few good coaches were former superstars. The good coaches in baseball, however, were often former major league or minor league players. To be in the minor leagues puts you in the top 3,000 or so in the world. Or, in other words, easily in the top 0.1%.

    So it may be the case that for sports, good coaches tended to have been in the top 0.1%, but not the top 0.001%.

    I don’t think that the problem with recruiting better teachers will be to many in the top 0.001% of academic ability. Getting lots in the top 0.1% would probably be difficult.

    So … I don’t think a sports analogy here is a good one.

    As to whether there have been studies on whether kids from the top, say 25%, of the academic spectrum are better teachers than kids at the 50th percentile academically, I don’t know.

    The answer, though, is probably, “Yes.” But this isn’t probably the right question either! Kids at the 50th percentile of academic ability are unlikely to graduate college, and will have a very difficult time becoming teachers in the first place [plus, they probably don't *WANT* to be teachers ... I expect that lots of time in a classroom is not their ideal job].

    I think the question you want answered is something like, “Are college graduates from the top 1/3 to 1/4 in academic ability/talent/whatever nationally better K-12 teachers than college graduates from the middle 1/3?” I don’t know if there have been any studies on this either.