Do teachers have it rough?

So I was reading an article this morning about how U.S. Teachers have it so much worse than most of the rest of the world. This conclusion is drawn on the basis of a survey:

Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

The article is interesting, as far as it goes — though one might quibble with the jump that gets made from “teachers think they have harder jobs” (which is what the survey actually measures) to “teachers have harder jobs.” I’m certainly open to the idea that at least public school teachers have a raw deal in this country in terms of their working conditions and the sort of bureaucratic structures in which they are forced to operate.

There were two things in this article in particular that caught my eye. The first was an almost casual reference to something rare and wonderful.

Along with these challenges, U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development. This schedule — a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s — makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with their colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents.

The emphasis is mine. What sort of wonderful world would we live in where we depended on the teachers themselves to design the curriculum (or curricula)? But isn’t that exactly what everyone seems hell-bent on killing these days?

A seocnd thing that jumped out at me was this statistic:

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate.

That seems like an awful lot. Unless *all* the disadvantaged kids are smashed into schools with insanely high student:teacher ratios (not an entirely implausible notion), that means that there are a LOT of disadvantaged students to go around. I can’t do the math without knowing the student:teacher ratio data, but just intuitively it would seem that you’d need somewhere between 40 and 50% of students to be disadvantaged.

I suspect this has something to do with response bias. But when I tried to go into the survey itself and see the data (here) I was unable to either export a working data file or to find the United States’ results on the webpage. It seems much more trouble than it’s worth for a blog post.

If anyone has more success, please leave notice in the comments!

More school, less summer?

Top-performing South Korea requires 220 days of school, “22 percent more than our measly minimum of 180 days,” writes the New York Post. Are the lazy days of summer too lazy in the U.S.?

“More advantaged families . . . travel to Civil War battlefields, visit foreign cities and their art museums, and learn about the geography of the Grand Canyon,” says Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas education professor. “I’m convinced that my own kids and those of many other upper-middle-class families learn far more from those summer experiences than they do during the rest of the school year.”

But low-income kids lose a lot of learning over the summer, says Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

That’s why high-performing charter schools like KIPP, Democracy Prep and Success Academy have significantly longer school days and longer school years.

“When it comes to learning math and science,” Pondiscio says, “more is more.”

If school isn’t working well, more may mean more boredom. I’d prefer to see fun, educational summer programs for kids who aren’t going to be visiting the Grand Canyon.

Swiss: Voc ed is key to prosperity

In Switzerland, which has one of the strongest economies in the world, 70 percent of high school students are in their vocational education system, while only 20 percent prep for universities. All vocational students spend part of their time in multi-year apprenticeships.

How to make teaching an elite profession

Seven percent of teacher training programs receive a top ranking in National Council on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Prep Review. “With only 1 in 15 programs providing first-year teachers with solid preparation, it is clear we, as a nation, have a long way to go if we are going to do right by teachers as well as their students,” said Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president.

Among the top teacher training programs in the country — according to NCTQ — is Utah’s Western Governors University , which is online and competency based.

NCTQ recommends setting higher standards for teacher candidates, making it tougher to be recommended for licensure and holding teacher training programs accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates.

American schools need better teachers, so let’s make it harder to become one, argues Amanda Ripley in Slate. The “world’s smartest countries” treat teacher selection and preparation “the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots,” she writes. Some U.S. states are raising standards for teacher education programs.

Rhode Island, which once had one of the nation’s lowest entry-bars for teachers, is leading the way. The state has already agreed to require its education colleges to admit classes of students with a mean SAT, ACT, or GRE score in the top one-half of the national distribution by 2016. By 2020, the average score must be in the top one-third of the national range, which would put Rhode Island in line with education superpowers like Finland and Singapore.

Sonja Stenfors, 23, is a teacher-in-training from Finland, worked as a classroom aide for a year to raise her odds of getting into a teacher-training program, writes Ripley. Only 10 percent of applicants are accepted.

After three years at a Finnish university, Stenfors is studying at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.  “Here it’s not cool to study to be a teacher,” she wrote in Finnish on her blog. “They perceive a person who is studying to be a teacher as a little dumber.”

The University of Missouri–Kansas City admits two-thirds of those who apply, writes Ripley. There is no minimum SAT or ACT score. Students have to have a B average, sit for an interview, and pass an online test of basic academic skills.

They do two semesters of student teaching, compared to Senfors’ four semesters in Finland, and receive “less rigorous, hands-on classroom coaching from experienced teachers.”

Ranking the U.S. in soccer, education

If you think the U.S. is bad at soccer, “we’re even worse in education,” writes Fordham’s Brandon Wright.

Exam stress is higher overseas

U.S. students take lots of tests, but exam stakes are higher overseas, reports NPR.

In England, 16-year-olds take “15 or 20 substantial examinations” as part of a test deciding whether they’ll finish high school, says Dylan Wiliam, a professor emeritus of educational assessment at the University of London.

For those who do well and go on, they get two more years of high school. And each of those years ends with another big round of tests, saving the worst for last.

“And your grades on those examinations will determine which universities you’re offered places at,” Wiliam says.

Grades don’t matter. It’s all about the tests.

Finland has no standardized exams — until the end of high school, when students spend 40 hours taking a half-dozen daylong exams. Students know their futures depend on doing well on the exam, says Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Japanese students have to take entrance exams to get into an academic high school.

 “It’s a lot of pressure,” says Akihiko Takahashi, an associate professor of math education at DePaul University who knows the Japanese testing system well. “If you do not pass exam, you cannot go anywhere, even high school.”

Japanese (and Finnish) universities also give their own entrance exams.

Around the world, except for the U.S., high school grades, teachers’ recommendations, extracurriculars and essays don’t determine college admissions, says Wiliam. “Basically, it’s how well you do on those exams.”

U.S. math lag: It’s not just other people’s kids

Don’t blame poor kids for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on international math exams, write researchers in Education Next.  When the children of college-educated parents are compared, U.S. students do even worse than our international competitors.

Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Some states — notably Massachusetts — compare well to OECD students, but they represent a small share of the U.S. population.

In Korea, 46 percent of the children of high school dropouts reach proficiency in math compared to 17 percent of U.S. children with poorly educated parents.

The U.S. ranks 30th in teaching the children of “moderately” educated parents. “The math proficiency rate (26%) for this group is again around half the rate enjoyed by Switzerland (57%), Korea (56%), Germany (52%), and the Netherlands (50%).”

Forty-three percent of U.S. children with college-educated parents are proficient in math. That’s lower than the rate for Koreans whose parents didn’t finish high school. “Countries with high proficiency rates among students from better-educated families include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Switzerland (65%), Germany (64%) and Canada (57%).”

“The U.S. education system is . . . weak at the bottom, no less weak at the middle, and just as weak with respect to educating the most-advantaged,” the analysis concludes. Or, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, our educational shortcomings are “not just the problems of other person’s children.”

‘Test and punish’ threatens Common Core

“When people talk about Common Core, they often mean the high-stakes tests attached to the standards and not the Common Core itself,” says Linda Darling-Hammond in an American Prospect interview, Pencils Out

The tests are a step in the right direction for most states in that they include more open-ended items. In most cases, they include at least one or two performance tasks, which require the kids to take up a problem, do an analysis, write a response, and sometimes revise that response. There’s real engagement in the work.

Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor, is senior research advisor to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which is developing core-aligned tests.

(Under Common Core) students will be asked to collaborate, engage in the use of technologies for multiple purposes, communicate orally and in writing, do extensive research, apply mathematics and English language arts in complex problem-solving situations. The tests are not designed to reach all of those Common Core standards. They tackle the ones that are closest to what traditional sit-down tests can accomplish. Many of the answers will still be close-ended—that is, pick one answer out of five, or drag and drop your answer, or identify it from something that is already provided.

Many high-achieving nations have fewer assessments, says Darling-Hammond. Some use only open-ended questions, such as writing an essay, designing a scientific investigation or inquiring into a social-science problem. 

Only in the U.S. are tests used, without other measures, to decide on promotion, high school graduation and teachers’ pay and employment, says Darling-Hammond.

“To move forward we have to change the accountability paradigm” from “test and punish” to “assess and improve,” she concludes. “If we try to pour the Common Core standards into the old No Child Left Behind accountability framework, it will be like pouring new wine into old bottles.”

Most top-scoring nations give high-stakes “gateway” exams that decide who goes into a college-prep or vocational program and who gets into college, reports NCEE.

Anxious Tunisians, math-mellow Dutch

Tunisian 15-year-olds are the most math-phobic, writes  Matt Phillips in The AtlanticArgentina, Brazil and Thailand are next on the “math anxiety” list compiled by the OECD as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

U.S. students are less anxious than the OECD average, though not as math-mellow as the Danes and the Dutch.

In the high-scoring Asian countries, there’s no particular pattern. Japanese kids are anxious, Singapore is moderately anxious, Shanghai is a hair above the median.

Math anxiety correlates with poor performance, writes Phillips. “Some believe this is because the mind is so occupied with worrying about math that it has less bandwidth” to solve problems.

“Combining a manageable amount of worry” with perseverance and a strong work ethic seems to work the best, according to an OECD analysis.

Koreans achieve, despite schools

Korean students are high achievers “not because of Korea’s schools, but often despite them,” writes Michael Horn in Forbes.

Teachers lecture, while students sleep.

Students spend long hours studying after school, then go to private hagwons for their “real” learning.

. . . if public education remained widely and freely available but not compulsory, many middle- and upper-class parents would stop sending their students to their current schools and instead send them to hagwons for what is often a truly customized and personalized—but quite expensive—learning experience.

That might trigger attempts to customize education in the public schools, writes Horn.

Korea (and Japan) have super-high scores on OECD’s creative problem-solving exam, writes Brandon Wright on Flypaper. There is a “strong, positive correlation between creative problem-solving performance and straightforward, traditional, familiar (if often bleak) math, science, and reading scores,” he writes. “Subject scores seem to buttress problem-solving skills—or at least to originate from the same source, sort of like twins.”