Test-crazy China seeks innovators

China’s education system turns out students who are great at memorizing but not at thinking, writes Helen Gao, who moved from China to the U.S. for her senior year of high school.

In 2010, an international standardized test found that junior high school students in Shanghai had outperformed their peers in rest of the world in math, science, and reading, beating the U.S. averages by a wide margin. . . . (The) nine-year compulsory education system, installed in 1986, has boosted the country’s literacy rate to around 92 percent (it was 67 percent as of 1980) and prepared millions of eligible young people for the rapidly expanding workforce. Now, however, as the economy shows signs of cooling, Chinese leaders are trying to engender more domestic innovation.

They hope to see an educated workforce, rather than toiling on factory floors or sitting in the cubicles of Western companies’ Chinese branches, found their own businesses or brands that will sell to domestic as well as international buyers. They want domestic moviegoers to stop purchasing bootleg DVDs of Western blockbusters, and for foreign viewers to start raving about Chinese films. But the nation’s education system, instead of channeling the youthful energy of China’s next generation, seems to be blocking it.

The gao kao, the college admissions test, determines students’ futures. It’s all multiple choice, Gao writes.
Chinese students spend years cramming for the big test, reports the New York Times.

. . .  new research by the workplace manager Regus shows that Chinese employers are now favoring graduates with internship experience, winning personalities and foreign language skills. Just 9 percent of employers, especially at large companies, now put educational background as the top priority in hiring.

That probably means acing the gao kao, getting into a prestigious university and offering experience, personality and language skills.

Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.

Critical thinkers who don’t criticize

NYC Educator headlines this Innovation in the Era of Evaluation.

Employers see higher ed as costly, stodgy

The nation’s higher education system is costly, unaccountable and unwilling to change, say business leaders interviewed for a Public Agenda report.

For-profit colleges whose students are eligible for federal aid charge 75 percent more than for-profits that don’t participate in aid programs, a new study finds. That confirms a theory that increasing student aid leads to increases in tuition.

Urban superintendents collaborate with charters

More than 20 urban districts have adopted a “portfolio” strategy, holding district-run and independent charter schools to the same performance standards, reports Hopes, Fears, & Reality, the Center on Reinventing Education’s 2011 charter school review.

In 16 cities, leaders have pledged to work together for student success by “creating common student enrollment systems, sharing facilities, equalizing funding, encouraging teachers and principals to share instructional strategies, and sharing responsibility for students with special needs.”

“Urban school superintendents across the country are realizing that a centrally delivered, one-size-fits-all approach simply is not viable, and that they need partnerships to bring in entrepreneurial talent and mission-driven teams,” writes editor Robin Lake.

Charters are expanding in rural areas, small towns and small states; and are serving a growing share of Hispanic and low-income students. Free-standing charter schools are growing faster than those run by charter management organizations.

Collaboration can sap charters’ ability to innovate, warn several analysts in the commentary section.

Don’t assume that practices and routines that “work” for one school will work everywhere, warns Rick Hess.

As I see it, the real power of charter schooling is that it presents “greenfield” in which new cultures and models can be established on fresh turf, rather than painfully injected into resistant, calcified systems. The closer charters start to work with existing districts, the more they seem bound to import norms, expectations, and routines from those systems.

Charter success 2.0 will require rethinking “long-held assumptions about the shape of teaching and schooling,” he writes.  “Linking charters more closely to entrenched systems threatens to make that process less likely.”

It’s not the education, stupid

A large “creative class” determines economic prosperity, not merely the number of people with college degrees, writes Richard Florida in The Atlantic.

While most economists measure human capital by levels of educational attainment, my colleagues and I utilize a different measure: the share of a country’s workforce in high-skill, high wage Creative Class jobs spanning the fields of science, technology, and engineering; business, management and finance; design and architecture; arts, culture, entertainment, and media; law, healthcare, and education. A series of studies have found that these occupations, rather than college degrees, provide a more accurate measure of the key skills that comprise human capital. . . . In the U.S., for example, nearly three-quarters of adults with college degrees are members of the Creative Class, but less than 60 percent of the members of the Creative Class have college degrees.

Singapore ranks first in the world on this measure with 47.3 percent of the population in the creative class, followed by the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Germany. The United States ranks 27th in the world, just behind Slovakia.

Russia ranks 20th (38.6 percent), ahead of the U.S. Russia? Really? China lags far behind at 75th (7.4 percent).

The U.S. ranks 7th on the scale for technology and innovation, according to Florida.

Here’s more on the creative class.

Badges? Do we need badges?

“Digital badges” certifying skills and knowledge to prospective employers could loosen colleges and universities’ grip on credentials and force innovation.

Woz: Ask for new answers

To encourage innovative thinking, schools should let students work on semester-long projects, said Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in a speech, reports Computerworld.

“A really innovative person is known for something that usually took an awful lot of thinking, maybe even over years, and a lot of development in a laboratory putting it together and getting it to work. And it’s new and it’s different. And it’s not something you read about in a book,” he said.

“In school, intelligence is a measurement,” he continued. “If you have the same answer as everyone else in math or science, you’re intelligent.”

In English class, students write essays that express their own ideas, Wozniak said. (He may be overestimating the creativity of  assigned essays.)  Computer science students also should seek “different answers than what I’ve known in the past or what I’ve read or heard,” he said.

Technology development projects reward innovators with a feeling of personal pride of accomplishing something no one else has done before, and “that’s the sort of thing that inspires you to believe in yourself as an inventor type, not just an engineer who knows the equation.”

“The value of these big projects is you learn diligence, lot of repetition. A lot of hard work results in something that’s your own. Your own. You built it. You have personal pride,” he said. “Personal pride is the strongest motivating force there is.”

Wozniak taught computer science for years in the public schools his children attended in Los Gatos, a wealthy suburb of San Jose.

As an example of what Wozniak is talking about, I highly recommend Neal Bascomb’s The New Cool, subtitled “A Visionary Teacher, his FIRST Robotics Team and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.”

How innovative is i3?

The Education Department will give $650 million to Investing in Innovation (i3) winners. How innovative are i3 winners? asks National Journal of its Education Experts.

With the i3 program, has the administration invested enough in proposals that bring truly innovative practices to the education system? Is America doing enough to leverage the benefits of modern technology in the education sector?

Stop chasing innovation, writes Diane Ravitch. Look for “systematic improvements” in curriculum, instruction and assessment.

The history of education-in-search-of-innovation is a story of big ideas, big egos, and no results. We are looking for change in all the wrong places. It is not innovation that we need, but an effective educational system, where teacher recruitment and preparation are highly valued, where the teaching profession is respected, where principals are known as master teachers, where the curriculum is rich and broad, where assessment eschews bubble-guessing, and where attention is paid to the quality of children’s lives.

Instead of  “innovation,” call it Nonprofit and District Stuff That Seems to Work, writes Rick Hess. “Pound-for-pound, the $650 million for i3 is likely to do far more good than is the $4.35 billion for Race to the Top or the tens of billions showered upon K-12 through ARRA and edujobs,” he predicts. But “by narrowly drawing rules of evidence, emphasizing models that plug cleanly into conventional classroom-school-district structures, and stiff-arming for-profits, Congress and ED pretty much barred the door against potentially transformational innovations.”

This matters because i3 winners are going to be soaking up matching funds, climbing up foundation priority lists, and reaffirmed as the federally approved go-to’s for media stories on innovation. This will make it that much more difficult for truly game-changing efforts to gain support or attention, and will fuel the ED storyline that for-profit provision is an unnecessary distraction when it comes to scaling transformational innovation.

“Steering money to effective programs is loads better than mailing ten billion bucks to districts so they can keep doing the same old thing,” Hess writes. But transformative it’s not.

Innovating with online learning

Online learning will help schools innovate and save money, argues Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO and charter school advocate. Hastings bought the education software company DreamBox Learning for $10 million and donated ownership to the non-profit Charter School Growth Fund, reports Educated Guess. He believes tech-savvy charter schools will expand, showing school districts how to use “innovative technologies that will improve learning.”

Rocketship Education, a San Jose charter school organization, is Hastings’ model. Rocketship’s first elementary school, which serves low-income minority students, earned a very high 916 Academic Performance Index score last year.

Rocketship has incorporated a learning lab into a quarter of the school day;  the savings from the hybrid model of online and direct instruction reduces the number of  certificated teachers from 21 to 16,  saving each school $500,000 annually – a huge amount in low-funded California. That money is plowed back to raise teacher pay, improve instruction and pay for the next Rocketship’s building. Rocketship is opening a third school this fall, with the fourth in 2011.

At a Rocketship strategy meeting, Hastings said DreamBox offers adaptive math software for grades 1 to 3. “It can identify areas that individual students aren’t getting, then diagnose and break down the problem areas into pieces that the students will understand. Students go at their own pace.” Rocketship hopes “improved online software and assessments can provide close to 50 percent of instruction.”

But Don Shalvey,  the co-founder and board chair of Aspire Public Schools and now  deputy director of the Gates Foundation, cautioned that students will still need the social and emotional support of adults in school in ways that cannot be done from distance learning. Non-teaching adults in schools will play larger roles. School culture will remain critical.

Some teacher unions will see online education as a threat to their jobs and fight its inclusion in district schools.

But Shalvey said online learning, by freeing teachers to teach critical thinking and problem solving and by creating savings that can be directed to teachers’ pay, has the potential to “raise the dignity” and respect for teaching as a profession – an exciting opportunity.

The Gates Foundation is looking for high-performing charter schools that serve as “lighthouses of cooperation,” Shalvey said.

Online schooling is attracting special education students, especially those who have trouble functioning in a classroom, reports Education Week.