‘Best practices’ says who?

Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, which looks at “best practices” of schools in Shanghai, Japan, Finland Singapore and Canada, exemplifies the worst practices, writes Jay Greene in Education Next.

Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy colleagues describe characteristics of high-achieving countries’ schools, but there’s no proof they’ve picked the key factors, Greene writes.

Worse, Tucker’s recommendations ignore the “best practices” identified by his colleagues. He co-wrote the chapter on Japan and concludes that centralized control of education is a key to success. But every other case study highlights the importance of decentralization, writes Greene.

In Shanghai the local school system “received permission to create its own higher education entrance examination. This heralded a trend of exam decentralization, which was key to localized curricula.”

The chapter on Finland describes the importance of the decision “to devolve increasing levels of authority and responsibility for education from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and schools…. [T]here were no central initiatives that the government was trying to push through the system.”

Singapore is similarly described: “Moving away from the centralized top-down system of control, schools were organized into geographic clusters and given more autonomy…. It was felt that no single accountability model could fit all schools. Each school therefore set its own goals and annually assesses its progress toward meeting them…”

And the chapter on Canada teaches us that “the most striking feature of the Canadian system is its decentralization.”

Tucker also writes that high-achieving countries don’t use the market mechanisms favored by U.S. education reformers, such as charter schools and vouchers, notes Greene. However, the Shanghai chapter describes what it calls “the Chinese version of school choice.”

Canada also offers an “extensive system of school choice,” Greene writes.

‘Alternate’ math confuses kids, parents

Canada’s K-8 schools are teaching a math curriculum that’s too confusing for parents to understand, reports Maclean’s.

Children are using  alternative methods, such as using grids, blocks, or strips of paper to multiply.  “We’re talking about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It shouldn’t be so overly complicated that even parents can’t understand it,” said Anna Stokke, a professor math at the University of Winnipeg. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Stokke began speaking out and soon parents from all over Canada were sending her similar stories of discontent: kids who couldn’t do their homework without help, parents who couldn’t make heads or tails of the assignments so they were hiring tutors, or spending hours looking up math sites on the Internet because the textbooks are so vague. She heard from teachers who felt pressured not to teach the traditional methods. . . . “I don’t have a problem with alternate strategies,” Stokke says. “But I fear they’re learning so many, that in the end they’re not mastering any.”

Many schools now offer Math Nights to show parents how to help their children with homework. A Catholic school offered an online course — 20 minutes a night, four nights a week for eight weeks — to get parents up to speed.

Thirty percent of Canadian parents now supplement their children’s education, reports Maclean’s.

But even students with good grades are confused, says Kim Langen, who runs an after-school enrichment program called Spirit of Math. “They’re really creative—but they don’t know what to do with it,” says Langen.

. . . Grade 5 students . . .  don’t know multiplication facts, have never encountered division, and just look at you blankly when you ask them what 23 + 7 is. In order to build students’ math facts, the ?rst 10 minutes of the 90-minute session is dedicated to drills—then, explains Langen, because they’re not bogged down on simple calculations, they can handle the high-level conceptual work.

Some teachers also have trouble understanding the new math, says Langen.

Training is job one at Canada’s two-year colleges

Canada’s community colleges, which focus on job training, are drawing students away from universities. Graduation rates are high in the two-year system.


Korea’s worry: too many college grads

The U.S. trails much of the developed world in young adults with college degrees. South Korea is number one, but 40 percent of new college graduates can’t find jobs. The government is trying to push vocational education.

Also on Community College Spotlight: More unprepared students are enrolling at New York City’s community colleges:  74 percent of city high school graduates require at least one remedial class and 22.6 percent require remediation in reading and writing and math.

Study: U.S. students lag in math, reading

Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete? asks Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson and colleagues in Education Next.  In math, 32 percent of U.S. students test as proficient. Students in 22 countries perform significantly better.

. . .  58 percent of Korean students and 56 percent of Finnish students performed at or above a proficient level. Other countries in which a majority—or near majority—of students performed at or above the proficiency level included Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands.

Massachusetts is the only state in which (slightly) more than half of students are proficient in math.

Fifty percent of Asian-American students, 42 percent of whites, 15 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks test as proficient in math.

All students in 16 countries outperform U.S. whites, the study finds. In addition to the usual suspects, that includes Germany, Belgium, and Canada.

I’d like to see more analysis of Canadian schools. The culture is a lot closer to ours than Korea or Finland. If Canadians can learn math, Americans should be able to learn math.

The U.S. does better in reading.  Whites read about as well as all students in Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Once again, Massachusetts’ students are the most likely to be proficient.

Parents, chill

Hockey Canada’s ads urging parents to think before they scream, nag, bully and whine are featured on Principals Page. Via Ricochet.

Unsportsmanlike parents are a U.S. problem too.  After two basketball rows, Pittsburgh’s Catholic school parents have been warned that out-of-control spectators will be banned from athletic events.

Ontario plans school for poor kids

A special school for low-income students planned by the Niagara (Canada) school district amounts to “educational apartheid,” charges Peter Kormos, who serves in Ontario’s parliament. Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky worries about “stigmatization.”

The school board plans to open a middle school in the fall for low-income students whose parents aren’t college educated; eventually the school will go up to 12th grade.  From the Toronto Star:

The school would spend extra time with students on developing learning skills and building self-confidence during an extended day aimed at giving children support they might not get at home if parents are working extra jobs, (school board vice chair Dale) Robinson added.

The district worked with a nearby university, the local YMCA and the elementary teachers’ union to develop the school.

I wonder what the district plans for high-achieving students from poor families or low achievers with middle-class parents?

Obama: A new ‘Sputnik moment’

Our generation faces a “Sputnik moment,” said President Obama in a speech at a North Carolina technical college. He called for investing in math and science education, as the U.S. did in response to the Soviet challenge.

But the Sputnik-inspired National Defense Education Act, which increased federal math and science spending after Sputnik, did not raise math and science scores, writes Andrew Coulson on Cato @ Liberty. He’s got graphs.

I remember Sputnik. There was lots of talk about Ivan being smarter than Johnny. The “new math” was supposed to fix that by teaching conceptual understanding — lots of Venn diagrams — instead of rote learning.

Now Korean and Finnish kids are beating Ivan and Johnny.  (See the PISA story.)  If it was just the Asians excelling in math and science (and reading), we could say it’s Confucian culture and the willingness to work very, very hard. But the Finns are notoriously mellow. And what about those Canadians and New Zealanders? It shouldn’t be all that hard to emulate Canada.

PISA: U.S. is mediocre in reading, math, science

Compared to other developed countries, U.S. 15-year-olds are average in reading and science literacy and below average in math, according to study released today by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is coordinated by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

PISA tries to measure the reading, math and scientific literacy skills and knowledge “essential for full participation in society.”

In reading, Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia posted the highest scores with the U.S. in the middle, tied with  Iceland and Poland. The U.S. had average percentages of students scoring below level 2 (can’t find the main idea) and above level 4 (capable of critically evaluating a text) compared to other OECD countries.

In math, the U.S. was below average, on a par with Ireland and Portugal, but well below Korea, Finland and Switzerland. Top-scoring countries — and cities — included Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland and Switzerland.  The U.S. was similar to the OECD average in low-scoring students but had only 27 percent of students scored at or above level 4 compared to the 32 percent for the OECD average.

In science literacy, the U.S. matched the OECD average for both low-scoring and high-scoring students.  The usual suspects — Asian countries plus Finland and New Zealand– topped the charts.

U.S. scores for white and Asian-American students were above the OECD average, as were scores for students attending low-poverty schools.  Girls scored higher in reading but lower in math and science literacy.

Does it matter? Some argue the U.S. has more high-scoring students — because we have more people than Korea, Singapore, Finland or New Zealand — so it doesn’t matter if our students’ average performance can’t match the high flyers’ performance.

Eighteen percent of U.S. students scored poorly in reading and science and 23 percent scored poorly in math.  On the other end of the scale, 30 percent of U.S. students scored 4 or better in reading, 27 percent did well in math and 29 percent were strong in science literacy.  Can we afford to write off 18 to 23 percent of the population and rely on the top 27 to 30 percent?

The report is “an absolute wake-up call for America,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

“Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, looks at the education systems in top performers, such as Finland, Singapore, Japan and Canada, and fast improvers, such as China and Poland.

Though there are many differences between Finland and Singapore, for example, NCEE president Marc Tucker pointed to commonalities, including “clear, rigorous standards for what students should know” closely tied to a curriculum aligned with “high-quality assessments that measure complex, higher-order thinking.”  Students don’t move on till they demonstrate they’ve mastered the curriculum.

The top performing systems ensure that they get high quality teachers by aggressively raising the standards to get into pre-service teacher education programs, concentrating teacher education in major universities, raising teacher pay (U.S. teachers’ pay is very low compared to the top performing countries), providing prospective teachers with the skills they need to diagnose student problems early on and prescribing the appropriate remedies, raising the standards to enter the teaching force, providing new recruits with master teachers who can mentor them, and creating career ladders for master teachers that will enable them to earn at high levels and stay in teaching.

“While many Americans believe that other countries get better results because those countries educate only a few, while the United States educates everyone, that turns out not to be true,” NCEE concludes. Compared to the U.S., most top-performing countries do a better job of educating students from low-income families.

Data-driven in D.C.

On Community College Spotlight:  A new college grows in Washington, D.C. with a focus on collecting and analyzing data to see what works. In Canada, university graduates are seeking job training in two-year colleges.