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.”

Koreans achieve, despite schools

Korean students are high achievers “not because of Korea’s schools, but often despite them,” writes Michael Horn in Forbes.

Teachers lecture, while students sleep.

Students spend long hours studying after school, then go to private hagwons for their “real” learning.

. . . if public education remained widely and freely available but not compulsory, many middle- and upper-class parents would stop sending their students to their current schools and instead send them to hagwons for what is often a truly customized and personalized—but quite expensive—learning experience.

That might trigger attempts to customize education in the public schools, writes Horn.

Korea (and Japan) have super-high scores on OECD’s creative problem-solving exam, writes Brandon Wright on Flypaper. There is a “strong, positive correlation between creative problem-solving performance and straightforward, traditional, familiar (if often bleak) math, science, and reading scores,” he writes. “Subject scores seem to buttress problem-solving skills—or at least to originate from the same source, sort of like twins.”

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.

Asian parents pay for ‘shadow’ education

“Shadow education” – not schools — is responsible for students acing international exams in Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, writes Manabu Watanbe. Parents supplement their children’s schooling by paying for tutors, cram schools or distance learning, according to Watanbe.

Maybe it’s not the shadow schools either. It’s the parents who care so much about their children’s education.

U.S. is above average in math, science

U.S. eighth graders in 36 states outperform the international average, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In science, U.S. students in 46 states outscored the global competition.

However, even in the top-performing states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer U.S. students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries, notes the New York Times.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

While 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level in math, close to 50 percent were advanced in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Twenty-four percent of Massachusetts students achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore.

France, Germany, Denmark, China and India did not participate, notes Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor.

This global math achievement graph, via Education Week, shows the U.S. tied with Britain. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan — you sense a pattern perhaps — do the best.

In science, the top seven performers globally are: Singapore, Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan and New Hampshire.

‘I’m too educated for my job’

Nineteen percent of U.S. workers say they’re overeducated for their jobs, notes Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic. That’s below the average in developed countries, according to an OECD report. In Japan and the UK, 30 percent say they’re overeducated. Italy is the lowest at 13 percent.

However, the report concludes that “most workers who claim to be overqualified for their jobs are probably well suited for them” in terms of their literacy skills, Weissmann points out.

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.

A mom decides: Gun play is good for boys

When her sons were young, Christine Gross-Loh gave them blocks, puzzles and cooperative games, but no guns. She’s changed her mind about toy guns, she writes in The Atlantic.

When her older son was four, he got a plastic toy gun in a birthday party goodie bag.

My son was utterly riveted. I tried to coax it away from him. “Bang bang!” he shouted, running around with the other kids. Just days later my shy little two year old fixated upon a toy sword that came with a pirate toy someone had given him, and would not go anywhere without it. I could see that the ludicrously small sword made him feel brave.

When the boys were three and five, the family moved to Tokyo, where boys play “all sorts of rough-and-tumble war games.”

Our Japanese public elementary school even gave out water guns to all the kids at a summer festival every year. Every single child got one — even three-year-old siblings. The first time I saw the kids screaming with laughter as they shot at each other over and over in the schoolyard, I was surprised by how the adults could be so blasé. They didn’t just tolerate the play: the teachers and even the principal helped fill the kids’ guns with water and ran around shooting and battling alongside their students. They actually encouraged the children, both boys and girls, to play with toy guns.

Almost no Japanese adults own firearms, Gross-Loh writes. There are very few shooting deaths.

. . . ever since living abroad in a society where young kids are allowed so many outlets for their energy, I have come to believe that one of the secrets of Asian boys’ self-regulation is the way that aggressive play is seen as a normal stage of childhood, rather than demonized and hidden out of sight.

Research doesn’t show that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, Gross-Loh writes. “Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy.”

Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play.

Worried about boys falling behind girls in school, the British education ministry has urged preschool teachers to allow boisterous play, including play with toy weapons, Gross-Loh writes.

OECD: U.S. lags in college completion

Fifty-two percent of U.S. students who start postsecondary education go on to graduate, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance 2013. The OECD average graduation rate is 70 percent with Japan leading the pack at 90 percent.

On average, OECD countries employ one teacher for every 14 students in upper-secondary school. Portugal hires one teacher for every eight students, while “Mexico breaks the scales at 28″ students per teacher, notes Education Gadfly.

Asian culture: Struggling shows strength

A Marxist slogan popular in my college days — Dare to struggle, dare to win! — applies to education, according to an NPR story. Struggling in school is seen as a problem in the U.S., but not in Asia.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. . . . struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

In a study, Stigler asked first-grade students to solve an impossible math problem to see how long they’d struggle with it. In the U.S., the average was less than 30 seconds.  The Japanese students worked for an hour, until researchers told them to stop.

U.S. teachers should teach students to struggle, Stigler believes.

 . . .  in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through the students hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

Getting parents to change their beliefs about learning will be difficult. Americans try to build their children’s confidence by telling them they’re smart or talented. “As soon as they encounter a something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates,” says psychologist Carol Dweck. Praising the struggle –  “Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it” — gives children the confidence to cope with difficulties.