Hong Kong protests ‘brainwashing’

Poverty gap widens

The achievement gap is widening between high-income and low-income children, even as the black-white  gap is narrowing, reports the New York Times, citing research at Stanford and the University of Michigan.

. . . wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. By 2007, upper-class parents were spending twice as much on their children as wealthy parents in 1972; spending by low-income parents grew by 20 percent.

While low-income children are watching TV, affluent children are visiting the museum, the aquarium and the library.

The cultural divide between well-educated and less-educated Americans is growing, argues Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. “When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.

Update: On his new blog, Dan Willingham suggests another possible explanation for the poverty gap. Poor parents and children live under constant, debilitating stress. He also finds cause for optimism:

Some countries, (e.g., Hong Kong), despite an enormous disparity between rich and poor, manage to even the playing field when the kids are at school. The US does a particularly poor job at this task; wealthy kids enjoy a huge advantage over poor kids.

Yes, Hong Kong is different from the U.S., Willingham concedes. But we should try to learn what they’re doing right.

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.

Knowing and reading

Teaching reading skills isn’t enough to produce a good fourth-grade reader, writes Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog. Good readers know things, so they can understand what they’re reading.

He cites a new study on Hong Kong 10-year-olds, who’ve shot up to second in the world in reading on PIRLS. Four instructional practices were critical:

  1. the frequency with which the teacher used materials from other subjects in reading instruction.
  2. using assessment to assign grades.
  3. the frequency with which students took a quiz or test after reading.
  4. using assessment to provide data for national or local monitoring.

The first factor — teaching subject matter knowledge — was the most important.

Once students can decode, background knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension. Ensuring that students have wide-ranging knowledge of the world ideally begins at birth, through a rich home environment. Schools must do everything possible to support and expand that knowledge base, and integrating material from other subjects into the reading curriculum is an important step in the right direction.

In USA Today, Willingham talks about Why Don’t Students Like School and why well-taught students do like school.

We get a snap of satisfaction when we solve a problem. But solving a problem that is trivially easy is not fun. Neither is hammering away at a problem with no sense you are making progress.

So the challenge for a teacher is to find that sweet spot of mental difficulty, and to find it simultaneously for 25 students, each with a different level of preparation. To fight this problem, teachers must engage each student with work that is appropriate for his or her level of preparation. This must be done sensitively, so that students who are behind don’t feel like second-class citizens. But the fact is they are behind, and pretending that they are not does them no favors.

Intelligence is malleable, Willingham says.

. . .  data have shown that moving kids from low-quality to high-quality schools boosts IQ scores.

The secret to getting smarter is really not a big secret: Engage in intellectual activities. Read the newspaper, watch informative documentaries, find well-written books that make intellectual content engaging.

And watch less TV.

Confused, bothered and befuddled

Everyday Math left Barry Garelick’s daughter confused, he writes on Education News. New ideas came from nowhere and there was no textbook and no way for parents to figure out what had been taught in class.  “Spiraling” meant students half-learned concepts again and again without reaching mastery. Garelick set out to tutor his daughter and her friend, using Singapore Math. They were sixth graders but had to start at Singapore’s fourth-grade level to learn what they’d never mastered. He thought it was going well till the friend asked:

“How do you get from a number on top and number on the bottom of a line into a number that has a point on it?

… she was asking how you convert a fraction to a decimal. Now, Laura was bright and she knew what a numerator and denominator were, and what a fraction was, but apparently the EM lesson they were working on sprung this on them without warning.

Singapore Math teaches decimals in the context of fractions, he writes. Everyday Math introduced decimals without context.  

Garelick plans a second career as a math teacher.

Hong Kong fourth graders outperform  Massachusetts students in math on international tests, concludes an AIR study. The Hong Kong students, who were far more likely to display advanced skills, are expected to learn more complex number  and measurement skills. Hong Kong’s internal tests require high-level computation and deeper mathematical understanding. Tests in Massachusetts, considered the highest performing U.S. state, require much less.