We’re not Chinese

Chinese “super-schools” are a myth, writes Diane Ravitch in a New York Times review of Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Obama and legislators want to be like the Chinese, Ravitch writes.

Why should we be number twenty-nine in the world in mathematics when Shanghai is number one? Why are our scores below those of Estonia, Poland, Ireland, and so many other nations? Duncan was sure that the scores on international tests were proof that we were falling behind the rest of the world and that they predicted economic disaster for the United States. What Duncan could not admit was that, after a dozen years, the Bush–Obama strategy of testing and punishing teachers and schools had failed.

China can’t maintain its economic growth without innovation, argues Zhao. That won’t “unless it abandons its test-based education system, now controlled by gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams.”

Zhao “does a wonderful job of challenging the lazy nostrums peddled by those suffused with China envy,” writes Rick Hess.

The Chinese education system is “an effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn,” Zhao writes. Students excel because of “families’ high expectations” and students’ “hard work and diligence.”

Chinese immigrant workers’ children study in Shanghai. Photo: Nir Elias / Reuters / Corbis

It’s true that the U.S. has been a world leader despite mediocre scores on international tests, writes Neerav Kingsland on relinquishment. And “rote learning and high-pressure cultures” are nothing to emulate. However, Ravitch presents no evidence that testing reduces innovation and creativity, he writes.

If China isn’t innovative, is it the testing? “It’s more plausible that China’s rote learning and testing regimes are manifestations of their culture,” writes Kingsland.

While Ravitch argues against top-down reforms, she thinks her vision of schooling “will be good for everyone,” he writes. Ravitch and Zhao call for:

schools where students produce books, videos, and art, where they are encouraged to explore and experiment … the individual strengths of every student are developed, not under pressure, but by their intrinsic motivation … schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be … confident, curious, and creative.

Not every family sees creativity as the highest value, responds Kingsland. While innovation, creativity, originality and invention are “core values of our nation,” so is liberty.

“Educators should be able to develop . . . different types of schools that meet the different needs of the millions of children in our country,” he concludes. Some schools will have creativity as the highest value. Others may not.

U.S. schools rank low in innovation

U.S. schools are below average in innovation, according to an international report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Denmark, Indonesia and high-scoring South Korea are the most innovative, according to the study. 

“Innovation led to improved math scores for eighth-graders, a narrowing of the achievement gap and happier teachers,” researchers concluded.

U.S. innovation centered around more use of test data, external evaluation of secondary school classrooms and parental involvement, the report found.

Teaching innovations included requiring secondary science students to explain and elaborate on their answers and to observe and describe natural phenomena.

Primary teachers offered more individualized reading instruction and were more likely to ask students to interpret texts and explain their math answers.

Math and science teachers were more likely to ask students to relate what they’d learned in class to their daily life.

Poland have moved into the top ranks in school performance, writes Marc Tucker. He looks at what changed in Poland, which now outscores the U.S.

Hard working, high scoring — and creative

“Let others have the higher test scores” on international exams, says anti-reformer Diane Ravitch. “I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people.” 

It’s a false tradeoff, argues Brandon Wright on Flypaper. Those hard-working, high-scoring Koreans and Japanese could be just as innovative as Americans.  

Bloomberg News lists the most innovative countries in the world based on factors including R&D intensity, productivity, high-tech density and percentage of researchers. The U.S. is third, but look at who’s number one.

  1. South Korea (score: 92.10)
  2. Sweden (score: 90.80)
  3. United States (score: 90.69)
  4. Japan (score: 90.41)
  5. Germany (score: 88.23)

Yes, it’s those cram-schooled, stress-crazed Koreans who’ve built a thriving economy out of the ruins of war.

South Korea — often ridiculed for working its students too hard and robbing them of creative, independent thought — might be the most innovative country in the world. Japan, subject to similar derision, slides in comfortably at number four.

“Rigid” Germany — one of only three countries whose PISA math and equity scores have improved since 2003 — is number five on Bloomberg’s list.

“No trade-offs between academic performance and innovation are obvious,” Wright concludes.

Let your kids fail

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success

Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg. Her new book, The Up Side of Down advocates “learning to fail better.” That includes taking on challenges and being ready “to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out.”

After a book talk, a 10th-grade girl said she understood about “trying new things, and hard things,” but she couldn’t risk it. “I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?” 

High school shouldn’t be about perfection, writes McArdle.

If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time?

Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines.

Too many achievers are trying to get into a small number of elite colleges, writes McArdle. Upper-middle-class parents are pushing their children “harder than ever — micromanaging their lives.”

PISA denial

U.S. educators are downplaying PISA results that show Asian countries excel, while the U.S. rank is slipping, writes Marc Tucker in PISA Denial. After all, few Asians are winning Nobel prizes or “starting game-changing business like Apple, Oracle, Google or Microsoft,” they argue. Maybe PISA measures things that aren’t very important, while U.S. schools are teaching creativity and innovation.

That’s sophistry, responds Tucker.  Those game-changing entrepreneurs are highly educated and innovative and creative. Their companies don’t hire creative people with mediocre reading, writing and math skills.

 They do not have to choose between well-educated and highly competent people, on the one hand, and creative and innovative people on the other. They demand and can get both. In the same person.

PISA measures “the ability to apply what is learned to real world problems” and increasingly is focusing on applying knowledge to “unanticipated, novel problems,” writes Tucker.

Creativity does not take place in a knowledge vacuum. It is typically the product of the rubbing together, so to speak, of two or more bodies of knowledge, of holding up the framework associated with one body of knowledge to another arena that it was not designed to illuminate. When that happens, odds are that the new insights, born of the application of the old framework to the novel problem, will emerge. The literature tells us that this means that you are most likely to get the kind of creativity we are most interested in from highly educated people who are deeply versed in very different arenas.

Asian educators are working hard to learn from U.S. schools, writes Tucker. They want to place more stress on individual initiative without accepting the “violence and chaos” they see as the cultural price. Some Americans want Asian achievement levels with less social conformity, but we’re not really trying to get there. Instead, “we are working hard at denial.”

PISA matters, agrees Eric Hanushek, who disposes of several excuses for U.S. mediocrity.

 While our low ranking has been seen on earlier international assessments, there are many reasons to believe that low cognitive skills (as assessed by PISA) will be increasingly important for our economic future.

We don’t have to be Singapore or Korea. If the U.S. could reach Canadian achievement levels, the average worker would earn 20 percent more, Hanushek writes.

BTW, Silicon Valley, where I live, is filled with entrepreneurs educated in India, China and elsewhere.  Forty-four percent of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs in 2012, down from 52 percent in 2005.

Inside the box

Teacher torture devices

Entrepreneur Cheong Choon Ng, who created Rainbow Loom, shows innovation still thrives in the U.S., writes New York Times columnist Bill Keller.

Rubber band bracelets, are teacher torture devices, writes Mrs. Lipstick on Organized Chaos.

Tiny rubber bands are knitted together to form a bracelet. When it’s pulled apart — which isn’t difficult — “a child suddenly has what feels like hundreds of little bands all over his desk.”

Of course this only happens at the exact moment you are trying to transition the class and the student suddenly finds himself in a panic because he is worried he will lose one precious tiny rubber band. Or worse, the student becomes worried that a friend will steal the bands, which of course involves lots of yelling and “hey, that’s mine! Nobody touch it!” Both scenarios ultimately ends with a total class disruption and involve a very frustrated teacher.

“The amount of drama behind these bands could drive a daytime soap opera,” concludes Mrs. Lipstick.

Creativity meets technology

 Innovation:Where Creativity and Technology Meet.

Innovation? Feds side with status quo

The same day President Obama called for innovative approaches to online education to save students’ money, the Justice Department told Altius Education, an innovator in online education, that it is under investigation.

New frontiers for charters in 2013

Innovation is the theme of the 2013 Hopes, Fears & Reality report by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. Are charter leads fully using their autonomy to experiment with new ways to teach? asks Robin Lake.

It includes:

Charters Branch Out: Do Moves Into Affluent Areas Signal an Important Trend? Jeffrey Henig of Columbia University explores the issues around the growth of charter schools in suburban and affluent neighborhoods.

Incubate For America? Ethan Gray of the CEE-Trust examines a new breed of organizations—charter school incubators—emerging in cities across the U.S., bringing some private-sector strategies to the charter school start-up scene.

Tech-Based Learning: The New Frontier for Charters? Michael Horn of the Christensen Institute writes about charter schools in California that have innovated through technology and asks what it will take for more to follow nationwide.

To Survive, Charters Cannot Ignore the Bottom Line.Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University urges the charter sector to get innovative about designing a more sustainable cost structure.