Singapore up, Finland down

Singapore’s students are the best in the world in math, science and reading, proclaims Quartz, which has been crunching the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) numbers. “Finland has fallen from its perch (though it remains a very high performer).

Singapore students earn very high scores on international tests in math, science and reading.

Singapore students earn very high scores on international tests in math, science and reading.

You can compare U.S. results to other countries here.

Massachusetts and North Carolina students were tested separately.

In science, Massachusetts teens scored far above the U.S. and international average in science, and also were above average in reading and math.

The U.S. isn’t going to turn into Singapore, but perhaps more states could emulate Massachusetts.

Canada also does well on PISA, while spending less on education than the U.S.

How to do vocational ed right

Finland does vocational education right, writes Elizabeth A. Radday in Education Week. Ninth graders choose an academic or vocational high school: Nearly half choose the vocational path. It’s not considered the second-class track, writes Radday, who spent six months in Finland on a Fulbright.

Students at the Lahti circus school.

Students work on a certificate in “circus arts” at a school in Lahti, Finland.

Vocational schools offer certificates in a wide range of fields from plumbing and electricity to “tourism, business and entrepreneurship, health services, natural resources, technology, social services, and catering,” Radday writes. She visited a school where students learn to be circus performers.

Each year, vocational students spend at least six to eight weeks as apprentices. Employers are willing to provide training and evaluation.

After earning a certificate, typically at age 19, young people can find a job, train for a higher-level certificate or pursue a degree at a university of applied sciences. Those who wish can take the admissions exam for entry to a traditional university.

“College for all” has been the U.S. mantra for a long time now. Yet only a minority will complete a college degree. Few high schools offer high-quality vocational education and even fewer link students to apprenticeships.

The Obama administration tried to promote partnerships between employers, high schools and community colleges. I hope Trump’s education people can go farther to strengthen career-tech education and end the college (or nothing)-for-all philosophy.

Apprenticeships are expensive for employers — but worth it, reports New America’s Michael Prebil. A new federal report, The Benefits and Costs of Apprenticeship: A Business Perspective, discusses 13 case studies.

Helsinking: Finns’ scores slide

Finland’s much vaunted school system is Helsinking, reports the Economist. PISA scores are falling, especially for boys and the children of immigrants.

Furthermore, surveys should Finnish students are “glum” and more prone than other Europeans to say their classroom environment is bad for learning, reports the Economist. “About half of 14- and 15-year-olds feel that their teachers do not care about their lives.”

Finns worry that test scores are falling and students are unhappy.

Finns worry that test scores are falling and students are unhappy.

Starting in August, a new national curriculum is meant to restore the “joy and meaningfulness of learning.”

In addition to more art, music, teachers will assign more multi-disciplinary team projects, such as a module on Earth’s origins “combining the Big Bang with religious lessons and Finnish poetry.”

Critics say this will worsen the rising inequality “by reducing the time poorer pupils spend on core subjects.”

Both defenders and opponents of the new curriculum think children are less motivated, reports the Economist. “Ten years ago education was highly valued among all Finns,” says Ilppo Kivivuori, deputy head teacher at Hiidenkivi school in Helsinki. “Now that is less clear.”

U.S. teachers feel undervalued

From National Center on Education and the Economy:

How Society Values Teachers

To help the poor, give them money

To prepare children from low-income families for school success, U.S. policy and funding has focused on Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. But research shows that giving more money to low-income parents is more cost effective, he writes.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which raises the income of  low-income working parents, is more effective than providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, he writes. The chart also shows the modest effects of class-size reduction and Head Start.

Northern European countries focus on supporting family incomes rather than providing preschool or pre-K, writes Whitehurst. “A policy midpoint” could be giving families more money, but limiting it to expenditures on their young children. He envisions something like food stamps.

In Finland, working parents of young children can choose from a variety of child-care providers or “opt to receive a financial subsidy that allows them to reduce their work hours in order to be home more with their child,” he writes. “They can also take unpaid leave.” The rate of enrollment in child-care centers is very low for children under four.

Overtested? Not really

“The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” says Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher

Analyzing PISA survey data from more than 70 countries, Schleicher concludes that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the frequency of standardized tests, writes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

High-performing Asian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium test often, he said. “More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month,” reports Barshay. “In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test.”

Only 2 percent of U.S. students take standardized tests every month, while the OECD average is 8 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said they took a standardized test once or twice a year. That’s “about the same share as in Finland,” writes Barshay.

Perhaps Finnish schools spend less time on test prep.

Illiteracy isn’t as joyful in the U.S.

Teaching reading in kindergarten is a mistake, argues an expatriate teacher in an Atlantic paean to the “joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland.

We’re not Finns, responds reading expert Timothy Shanahan. The “whistle a happy tune” approach won’t work here.

Most Finnish parents are well-educated and literate, he writes. More than one-third of children enter school already reading, according to a government study.

Most U.S. kindergartens teach reading.

Most U.S. kindergartens teach reading.

In addition, the Finnish language may be the easiest language to learn to read, writes Shanahan. “The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode.”

The Atlantic story quotes Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education, who claims, “There isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it.” The quote comes from a Defending the Early Years video.

As chair of the National Early Literacy Panel, Shanahan looked at the research, he writes. “We found long-term benefits from early learning.”

Where kindergarten is the new preschool

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In Finland, kindergarten is known as “preschool,” writes Tim Walker, an American who’s taught there. Children start school at six and learn by playing.

Once, Morning Circle—a communal  time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop.

“I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) 10€ bill to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.

. . . After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and the 10€.

Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.

Many of her 15 students will learn to read by the end of the year, Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah told Walker. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it.”

Kindergarten is “the new first grade” in the U.S., according to a University of Virginia study. As more time is spent on literacy, children spend less time on arts, music and child-selected activities, such as rotating between “stations.”

“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas told Walker in an e-mail.

(She described) three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math — on the fourth week of school.

. . . (She) has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes  “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.”

Last year, the district tried to remove the “house station with dolls and toy food” from the classroom.

Sir Ken’s well-meant twaddle

http://sirkenrobinson.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/skr_creative_schools_3d-cover.jpgSir Ken Robinson, known for a 2006 TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?,  has a new book out called Creative Schools about “transforming” education.

“Think of it as a jukebox cranking out all of the anti-reform hits,” advises Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly. “Nod your head like, yeah, as Sir Ken critiques not just standards, but competition, corporatization, back-to-basics, ‘industrial model education,’ and, inevitably, the school-to-prison pipeline.” Or, perhaps, it’s a “greatest hits album.”

Naturally, there’s praise for a certain country:

a)      Finland.

b)      Obviously Finland.

c)      Of course it’s Finland! It’s a freakin’ Sir Ken Robinson book!

d)     All of the above.

“In terms of knowledge, the standards movement favors direct instruction of factual information and skills and whole class teaching rather than group activities,” Robinson writes.

No, it doesn’t, responds Pondiscio.  “Teachers are expected to ‘differentiate instruction’ at all times, and students sit in pods … because group work.”

Sir Ken’s oeuvre is well-intentioned, but it is almost entirely nonsense—a warmed-over Rousseauian fantasy suggesting all children are “natural born learners,” defying what cognitive science tells us about how knowledge and practice drive skill and competence.

It is also much easier to divine what Sir Ken dislikes about schools than what he proposes we should do about it.  At several points, he compares education to organic farming. “Plants grow themselves,” he writes. “The job of the gardener is to create the best conditions for that to happen. Good gardeners create those conditions, and poor ones don’t.”

Standards and curricula aren’t the problem with education, writes Pondiscio. “They are the point.”

From time immemorial, schools have existed to transmit—consciously and unconsciously—the language, knowledge, and values of their societies at any given time and place.

It worked for Sir Ken, freeing him to think creatively, he concludes. “For those on the outside looking in—whose very existence seems lost upon Sir Ken—it’s not quite the same.”

“Robinson rightly makes the case for the rigour of creative learning – ‘creativity in any field may involve deep factual knowledge and high levels of practical skill’ – but we always need to guard against the soft bigotry of low expectations,” writes Tristram Hunt in a more positive Guardian review.  Hunt fears “the worrying trend of play and expression being adequate for working-class pupils, while leaving the tough stuff, the physics and history, for their better-off peers.”

What can the world learn from Finland?

fl_coverMarc Tucker looks at two very different takes on Finland’s education system.

Finland has aced PISA exams by trusting first-class teachers to teach well, not by hold them accountable for test scores, argues Pasi Sahlberg in Finnish Lessons: What can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

In Real Finnish Lessons, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren argues that long-standing policies and practices caused Finland’s 2000 rise.

Teachers are respected in Finnish culture, which is more conservative than other Nordic countries, Sahlgren writes. Finland was a poor country until recently.

. . . as in most Asian countries, (Finnish) children were taught to defer to and obey their elders; obedience in this very hierarchical society was a cardinal virtue. . . . well after many other countries had adopted more progressive methods, Finnish teachers lectured and their students wrote down what they said in notebooks and learned it. Period. None of this currently fashionable student-as-constructor-of-knowledge and teacher-as-guide stuff. The increasing autonomy granted Finnish teachers under the new regime was used, he says, by many, if not most teachers to persist in their old ways.

Finns used to be known for their determination to succeed in the face of adversity, Sahlgren writes. Prosperity has eroded that grit. “Finnish students, who used to do what they were told, however boring and difficult it might have been, are now much harder for Finnish teachers to control. Finnish teachers may have no choice but to adopt more progressive attitudes and teaching methods.”

And Finland’s PISA scores are slipping somewhat.  On a new international ranking, which uses PISA, TIMSS and Terce scores, the top five countries for math and science achievement for 15-year-olds are Asian, followed by Finland and Estonia.

Tucker has some doubts about the thesis.

As it happens, I’m on my way to Finland, though not to check up on their schools. We’re visiting Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn (Estonia).

Darren Miller of Right on the Left Coast has graciously agreed to guest blog while I’m away.