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.”

Finns: Equality works

“We Created a School System Based on Equality,” Finnish education and science minister Krista Kiuru tells The Atlantic.

Finnish children start school at age 7, notes Christine Gross-Loh. “They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation.”

Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.

Finnish schools “have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others,” says Kiuru.

Students participate in “handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits, and sports,” she says. “Academics isn’t all kids need.”

We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. 

. . . Teachers have a lot of autonomy. They are highly educated–they all have master’s degrees and becoming a teacher is highly competitive. We believe we have to have highly educated teachers, because then we can trust our teachers and know they are doing good work. They do have to follow the national curriculum, although we do have local curriculums as well. But we think that we’ve been able to create good results due to our national, universal curriculum.

We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge. But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.

Students don’t take national exams.

“In Finland we are starting to have some issues … in some suburban schools with more immigrants or higher unemployment,” says Kiuru. “We support those schools by investing more in them.”

At age 16, half of Finnish students choose technical-vocational training and the other half choose an academic track.

Finns slip

After acing international exams 12 years ago, Finland’s PISA rankings are slipping in reading, math and science. The Finns stopped trying to improve, educator Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, tells Marc Tucker. “The huge flow of foreigners from all over the world to visit the remarkably successful Finnish schools made the authorities fearful of changing anything.”

In addition, “non-Finnish speaking immigrants are coming to Finland in larger numbers than ever before.”

Why do Asian students rank high?

Asian students outscore Americans on international exams — and it matters, says Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, in a New York Times interview. He’s now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

We live in a world in which our children aren’t competing for jobs against people in the next town — they’re competing for jobs against people in other countries. It’s critical that we understand how our students compare to those students. . . . We now live in an information economy in which what matters are brains and knowledge. So those tests are critically important.

Asian countries ace the exams because they “start earlier,” Levine says. “They work longer. They work better.”

Kids are capable of learning about mathematics much earlier than we thought. Yes, we can begin earlier, but we also need to spend more time on those subjects, and make them more comprehensible to students. We don’t do well in that. We have much to learn from those countries about when to teach math and science, how long to teach it, and the best ways to teach it.

Finland, which also ranks high, limits the number of people who can enter teaching programs, says Levine. Only the top candidates are accepted. The U.S. sets low requirements, then turns out too many elementary school teachers and too few STEM teachers.

School’s outside

In a town in northern Switzerland, 4- to 7-year-olds spend the day outside in “forest kindergarten,” writes Emily Bazelon.

It’s autumn. A few kids splash through a muddy creek. One boy falls down in the water, gets up, squawks, keeps going. A larger group sits and jumps in a makeshift-looking tent that consists of a tarp hung over a pole, with low walls made from stacked branches. A teacher tootles on a recorder. Later, the teacher describes the daily routine: Singing, story time, eating, and “then the children can play where they want in the forest.” She continues, “During the play time, the children have a lot of space. They can go where they want. Usually I know where they are playing but I cannot see them always.” The camera pans to a girl on a rope swing, swinging shockingly high into the tree canopy.

Academics usually don’t begin until age 7 in Switzerland, Bazelon writes. Swiss kids soon catch up, say the filmmakers.

In their new book, The App Generation, education professors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis argue that kids today are becoming more risk averse. “Rather than wanting to explore, to try things out by themselves, young people are always pushing to find out exactly what is wanted, when it is wanted, how it will be evaluated, what comes next and where we end up,” they said in a recent Q-and-A.

When Bazelon was on a panel with Gardner, he made a related comment: Many American kids today never have been lost.  “They have never been outside, in an unfamiliar place, without a parent or a GPS or a phone app to guide them. They don’t know what it’s like to lose your way in the world around you and to make do until you find it again.”

An American teaching in Finland was surprised that elementary school kids get themselves to school on their own. Children get frequent breaks — 45 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of recess — and play outside, rain or shine.

Ivy League shuns teaching — except for TFA

Nearly one in five Harvard students apply to Teach for America, but very few want to train as teachers, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. “He hopes that eventually between five and 10 percent of the class will go through the undergraduate teaching program,” reports Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. 

There’s “a long-standing institutional snobbery” about teaching writes Barkhorn.

As Walter Isaacson put it at this year’s Washington Ideas Forum, there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.”

Teach for America has helped change that perception. “I think TFA has done a lot in terms of elevating the profession of teaching and elevating the importance of public education and education generally,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in conversation with Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, and Ryan.

Cornell has dropped undergraduate teacher-training, said Weingarten, a Cornell alum. “We say education is really important, but here you have the land grant institution of New York State that has eliminated teacher-training programs. If we don’t actually have real preparation like Finland and Singapore do that really teaches teachers how to teach … then what are we doing?”

In Finland and Singapore, only the best students can qualify as teachers. Finland combines master’s degree studies with supervised practice. In Singapore, master teachers mentor novices for several years.

Let adolescents grow up

Let’s give adolescents a chance to grow up, writes Ted Kolderie of the Center for Policy Studies in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Adolescence “infantilizes” young people, he writes, citing psychologist Robert Epstein, author of Teen 2.0, on adolescent stupidity.

Deny them serious responsibilities, keep them out of real work, give them virtually no contact with adults, tell them they have no function except to be schooled (and marketed to): Why wouldn’t they behave as they do?

(Check out School punishes sober driver.)

High schools are filled with disengaged students, writes Kolderie. “Though not everyone’s aptitudes are verbal/conceptual/abstract, today only academic success is rewarded.” There are few vocational schools or opportunities to learn from experience.

Young people can do amazing things when they’re challenged, he writes. “In his history of the Battle of Britain, Michael Korda writes that by late summer 1940, more and more of those flying the British Spitfires and Hurricanes were, in our terms, high school seniors.”

How could we tap the talents of the young?

We’d begin by changing school to let young people advance as fast and as far as their efforts and abilities will take them, in every field.

In traditional school, students are sorted by age and “instructed” as a group. Most students move a grade a year, however much (or little) they’ve learned.

If learning were personalized, those who needed more time would get more time and would learn more. Those who could go faster would go faster and would learn more.

. . . Finland, much praised for its students’ success, ends compulsory education at 16. Students move to “upper secondary,” almost half of these into vocational school that leads on to postsecondary “polytechnics.”

A competency-based system would let young people “test out” of conventional schooling, Kolderie suggests. Some might start college early. (“Dual enrollment” in college classes is a growing trend for high school students.) Others might start learning a job, like young Finns.

U.S. adults lag in numeracy, literacy

U.S. adults are dumber than the average human, proclaims the New York Post. A new international study doesn’t quite say that. But it’s not great news.

art“In math, reading and problem solving using technology – all skills considered critical for global competitiveness and economic strength – American adults scored below the international average,” the Post reports.

Adults in Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland and other countries scored higher than the United States in all three areas on the test, reports the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Americans ranked 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy and 21 out of 23 in numeracy. In a new test of “problem solving in technology rich environments,” the U.S. ranked 17 out of 19. Respondents were tested on activities such as calculating mileage reimbursement due to a salesman, sorting email and comparing food expiration dates on grocery store tags.

American baby boomers outperformed people of the same age overseas, reports the Wall Street JournalYounger Americans lagged behind their international peers “in some cases by significant margins.”

The results show that the U.S. has lost the edge it held over the rest of the industrial world over the course of baby boomers’ work lives, said Joseph Fuller, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who studies competitiveness. “We had a lead and we blew it,” he said, adding that the generation of workers who have fallen behind their peers would have a difficult time catching up.

“We have a substantial percentage of the work force that does not have the basic aptitude to continue to learn and to make the most out of new technologies,” Mr. Fuller said. “That manifests itself in lower rates of productivity growth, and it’s productivity growth that drives real wage growth.”

Workers in Spain and Italy posted the lowest scores.

Teachers valued most in China

Teachers aren’t valued highly in 21 countries in the Varkey GEMS Foundation’s Global Teacher Status Index. China ranks first in respect for teachers. The U.S. is about average. Israel is last. Except for China, high status for teachers doesn’t correlate with high academic performance. Greece and Turkey respect their teachers, but post low scores on international tests. The Japanese are low on teacher status, high in test scores.

Status isn’t linked to salaries. In Greece the status of teachers is high, but their compensation is low. In Germany and Switzerland, teacher earnings are relatively high, respect is low.

The Chinese compare teachers to doctors. Americans see teachers as similar to librarians. In most countries surveyed, teachers are equated with social workers. However, in France and Turkey, they’re seen as most like nurses.

teacher status findings

Pay-for-performance is supported strongly just about everywhere, notes John Merrow of Learning Matters TV. In the U.S., 80 percent said teachers should be “rewarded in pay according to their pupils’ results.”

While most people said teachers should be paid more, they didn’t know how much teachers earn. Americans think “teachers make about $36,000 a year but believe they should paid about $40,000,” writes Merrow. “However, the true average salary, the study says, is $46,000.”

Would you want your child to be a public school teacher? A third of Americans would “probably” or “definitely” encourage their child to become a teacher. That’s higher than in 14 other countries. Half of Chinese, but only 8 percent of Israelis, would urge their children to consider teaching. I always thought Finns were high on their teachers, but only 20 percent said they’d want their own kids to be one in this survey.

If there are any Finns — and Israelis — reading, does this ring true?

Where high school is taken seriously

High school is serious business overseas, say U.S. students who’ve studied in Korea, Finland and Poland. PBS NewsHour interviews the three students featured in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Finnish teachers rely mainly on lectures, said Kim. “There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.”

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

All three countries provide alternatives to college prep. Polish students decide at 16 whether they want to attend an academic high school or start vocational training. Nearly half of Finnish 16-year-olds choose the vocational track. In Korea, 20 percent are in vocational high schools.