Finland: Girls read well, but not boys

Finnish boys don’t read significantly better than U.S. boys, according to the international PISA exam.

For all those sick of hearing about how great Finnish schools are, here’s a fun fact from the new Brown Center Report: Finnish girls do well in reading, but boys do not. The gender gap is “an astonishing 62 points,” writes Tom Loveless. That’s twice the U.S. gap.

Finnish girls scored 556, and boys scored 494.  To put this gap in perspective, consider that Finland’s renowned superiority on PISA tests is completely dependent on Finnish girls.  Finland’s boys’ score of 494 is about the same as the international average of 496, and not much above the OECD average for males (478).  The reading performance of Finnish boys is not statistically significantly different from boys in the U.S. (482) or from the average U.S. student, both boys and girls (498).

. . . Consider that the 62 point gender gap in Finland is only 14 points smaller than the U.S. black-white gap (76 points) and 21 points larger than the white-Hispanic gap (41 points) on the same test.

Finland’s PISA success has been cited by advocates of various policies such as “teacher recruitment, amount of homework, curriculum standards, the role of play in children’s learning, school accountability, or high stakes assessments,” writes Loveless.

Advocates pound the table while arguing that these policies are obviously beneficial.  “Just look at Finland,” they say.  Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland’s high PISA scores—which the advocates assume but serious policy scholars know to be unproven—the policies also may be having a negative effect on the 50 percent of Finland’s school population that happens to be male?

Usually, critics care whether a policy hurts some social groups, even it benefits others, he writes.

Where is the reading gender gap relatively small? Japan and South Korea.

Boys are catching up in reading

Girls do better than boys at reading, especially as they get older, but the gap is narrowing, writes Tom Loveless in the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education.

It’s not just the U.S. “Across the globe, in countries with different educational systems, different popular cultures, different child rearing practices, and different conceptions of gender roles,” girls read better than boys, writes Loveless. 

However, gender gaps are closing, he writes. “On an international assessment of adults conducted in 2012, reading scores for men and women were statistically indistinguishable up to age 35.” After that age, men had higher scores in reading.

Still, women are much more likely than men to be avid readers.  Of those who said they read a book a week, 59 percent were women and 41 percent were men. By age 55, the ratio was 63 percent to 37 percent. “Two-thirds of respondents who said they never read books were men,” notes Loveless.

The report also found that fourth grade reading scores improved more in states with strong implementation of Common Core standards than in non-Core states. Last year’s report found an edge in eighth-grade math for strong Core states. However, the differences are quite small and may be due to other factors.

Liberals, stop ‘awfulizing’ my kids

Schools can’t defeat poverty by ignoring it, writes Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher in Oakland, in an exchange with the Gates Foundation. “In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems,” he writes. “It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.”

Dear Lord, Stop These Liberals From Awfulizing My Kids, responds Chris Stewart on Education Post.

Every possible chart, graph, study and statistic paint an ugly picture where all poor kids of color live in violent urban neighborhoods and suffer from PTSD. Exposure to violence has reduced their test scores. Bad parents have not taught them to speak enough words. Indeed, their parents are socially, emotionally or intellectually unfit.

One in six of these kids is in “extreme poverty.” This breaks their brains and leaves them developmentally delayed.

The numbers “receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly,”  “one child in ten has been foreclosed upon” and more “than one million students are homeless.”

All this encourages teachers to lower expectations, writes Stewart. “Why is it failing teachers so often discuss poverty and successful teachers discuss pedagogy, curriculum, instruction and learning?”girl_englewood-716x320

Cody slams “education reformers” for pretending that teachers can “push students to new heights with our high expectations.”

Teachers account for no more than 20 percent of the variance in student test scores, writes Cody, while more than 60 percent correlates to out-of-school factors. “We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.”

Stewart wonders: “How does it feel to be a ‘teacher’ who sees teaching as futile?”

It may feel compassionate to enumerate all the life problems of our children, but it isn’t. It is limiting and hurtful. Bright poor kids are as likely to be discounted as struggling ones.

Stewart teaches only his own five children, he writes. “Still, I interview talented teachers and committed administrators often, and they speak differently than the fatalists . . . They are students of success, not experts on failure.”

In The Smartest Kids In The World, Amanda Ripley recounts a conversation with a Finnish teacher.

When she asked him about educating poor students, he was “visibly uncomfortable labeling his students,” she says. He responded, “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”

. . . “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them, because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this [their poverty] too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

That attitude does more to help children who live in poverty than “awfulizing” them, concludes Stewart.

On the move in Finland

More Recess

Worried about passive, phone-tapping kids, Finnish schools are trying to get students moving, writes Tim Walker in The Atlantic. An American, Walker lives in Helsinki and teaches in a bilingual school.

Kids in Finland have short school days and frequent 15-minute breaks — typically there’s one after each 45-minute lesson. And even though the breaks keep them more focused in the classroom, they don’t necessarily keep them more active at school.

Under the “On the Move” initiative, his school has turned sixth graders into “recess activators” for first and graders. Older kids lead the younger ones in games, such as Banana Tag.

In the fall, a new schedule will combine short recesses into at least one 30-minute break. Students in grades seven through nine will choose activities, such as yogalates, floor hockey, or gymnastics.

Teachers also are looking for “strategies for getting students to be more active during lessons,” writes Walker. These include “energizers” (short breaks from sitting), allowing kids to complete work while standing or while sitting on large bouncy balls.

He’s replaced oral presentations, which tend to be dull and time consuming, with the “gallery walk.”

Students fasten their presentations to the walls of the classroom or hallway as if they were exhibiting their work in an art gallery. Each display is numbered and the children rotate from exhibit to exhibit systematically, spending a minute or two carefully studying each one. To make this experience more meaningful, students provide written-feedback to each other as they’re visiting each display. Before they start the active gallery walk, I hand out sticky notes in two different colors. On one color, my sixth graders write questions about the work for the presenter to consider and on the other, they jot down positive observations.

On the Finnish Report Card 2014 on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Finnish kids received a “D” for physical activity levels, reports Walker, U.S. children earned a D- on the 2014 United States Report Card.

U.S. teachers teach more, but not much more

U.S. teachers spend more time in front of their classes than teachers in other developed countries, but not much more, concludes a new Columbia study,  The Mismeasure of Teaching Time.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated U.S. teachers spend 50 to 73 percent more time instructing classes, notes Education Week. The new study says that’s way off.

• Primary school teachers in grades K-6 spend 12 percent, not 50 percent, more time leading class each year than the average in the 34 OECD member countries.

• Teachers in grades 7-9 teach 14 percent, not 65 percent, longer than their global peers.

• Upper-secondary teachers spend 11 percent, not 73 percent, longer on instructional time.

The report recommends “reducing instructional time for students by following the Finnish model,” which gives students 15-minute breaks between lessons for fresh air, play and relaxation.

Why edutourists go astray

A math class in Shanghai

Edutourists often go astray, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times declared the “Shanghai secret” is teacher training and a work day that allows for professional development and peer interaction.

After touring schools in Japan, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green endorsed lesson study and “pedagogical reforms from the 1980s and 1990s” to boost math learning.

High-scoring Finland is a prime edutourist destination, writes Loveless. “The Education Ministry of Finland hosted at least 100 delegations from 40 to 45 countries per year from 2005 to 2011.”

Singling out a top achieving country—or state or district or school or teacher or some other “subject”—and then generalizing from what this top performer does is known as selecting on the dependent variable.  The dependent variable, in this case, is achievement.  To look for patterns of behavior that may explain achievement, a careful analyst examines subjects across the distribution—middling and poor performers as well as those at the top.  That way, if a particular activity—let’s call one “Teaching Strategy X”—is found a lot at the top, not as much in the middle, and rarely or not at all at the bottom, the analyst can say that Teaching Strategy X is positively correlated with performance.  That doesn’t mean it causes high achievement—even high school statistics students are taught “correlation is not causation”—only that the two variables go up and down together.

Edutourists routinely go to top-scoring countries, but rarely check whether their favored strategy is used in middle- and low-scoring nations, writes Loveless.

In addition, edutourists visit a selected sample of the best schools, he writes.  Confirmation bias makes it likely they’ll see what they expect to see.

Zhao: Don’t follow the dragon

The U.S. shouldn’t try to “catch up” with China, argues Yong Zhao in  Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

 China’s test-obsessed, authoritarian schools aren’t a model, says Zhao, who was raised in China and is now a University of Oregon education professor.

Shanghai students ranked at the top in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, test twice in a row.

But the Chinese system “ignores children’s uniqueness, interests and passion, which results in homogenization,” Zhao tells the New York Times. “It forces them to spend almost all the time preparing for tests, leaving little time for social and physical activities.”

U.S. schools are following China’s example by becoming “more centralized, standardized and test-driven,” says Zhao.

Finnish schools “let down” two-thirds of students, according to Maarit Korhonen, a primary teacher. Those who aren’t academically minded and don’t do well on exams are “thrown away,” writes Korhonen in Herää, Koulu! (Wake Up, School!) There’s little to challenge the talented, she adds.

Finland’s top PISA scores have led to complacency, charges Korhonen.

Efficiency Index: U.S. overpays teachers

U.S. schools overpay teachers, according to the international “Efficiency Index” released by GEMS Education Solutions.

The report was created with the support of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which created the PISA exam. leader

The U.S. ranked 19 out of 30 OECD countries, because teachers earn higher salaries than necessary to attract competent teachers and classes are smaller than necessary. (I don’t know how they calculate this.)

Yet the U.S. rates as “more efficient than effective,” along with countries such as Hungary, France, Britain and Sweden.

Finland, Japan and Korea do the best in efficiency and quality (as measured by PISA scores). Finland and Korea achieve excellent results with relatively large class sizes – the 3rd and 5th largest of the OECD countries – and pay teachers moderate wages, the report noted.

Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and others were effective, but not very efficient.

Brazil, Chile, Greece, Indonesia and Turkey were both inefficient and ineffective.

Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

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.”