U.S. kids do more homework, learn less

 U.S. teens spend more time on homework, but learn less than students in other developed countries, according to the Programme of International Scholastic Asessment (PISA).

American 15-year-olds do about six hours of homework per week. In most countries, students who spend more time doing homework also score higher on the math exam, reports Libby Nelson on Vox. But, in the U.S., “doing more homework correlated with slightly lower scores.”

I wonder if math homework is different in the U.S. than math homework in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, where math scores are high and doing more homework seems to pay off.

Are U.S. students more likely to exaggerate how much they actually study?

And why is the homework payoff so much lower in high-scoring Shanghai?

Village of the dolls

Only 35 people still live in Nagaro, a village in the mountains of southern Japan, reports AP. They’re outnumbered three-to-one by life-size dolls created by Tsukimi Ayano.

Scarecrow students filled the closed elementary school in Nagaro, Japan (Photo: Elaine Kurtenbach

Scarecrow students filled the closed elementary school in Nagaro, Japan (Photo: Elaine Kurtenbach)

At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. After decades away, she returned from Osaka to care for her elderly father.

Japan is aging rapidly. Young people are deferring marriage and children.

The village elementary school closed two years ago. Ayano has filled the school with “scarecrow” students and teachers.

Other dolls are “crowded into corners of her farmhouse home, perched on fences and trees, huddled side-by-side at a produce stall, the bus stop, anywhere a living person might stop to take a rest,” writes Elaine Kurtenbach.

“That old lady used to come and chat and drink tea,” says Ayano. “That old man used to love to drink sake and tell stories.”

Why edutourists go astray

A math class in Shanghai

Edutourists often go astray, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times declared the “Shanghai secret” is teacher training and a work day that allows for professional development and peer interaction.

After touring schools in Japan, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green endorsed lesson study and “pedagogical reforms from the 1980s and 1990s” to boost math learning.

High-scoring Finland is a prime edutourist destination, writes Loveless. “The Education Ministry of Finland hosted at least 100 delegations from 40 to 45 countries per year from 2005 to 2011.”

Singling out a top achieving country—or state or district or school or teacher or some other “subject”—and then generalizing from what this top performer does is known as selecting on the dependent variable.  The dependent variable, in this case, is achievement.  To look for patterns of behavior that may explain achievement, a careful analyst examines subjects across the distribution—middling and poor performers as well as those at the top.  That way, if a particular activity—let’s call one “Teaching Strategy X”—is found a lot at the top, not as much in the middle, and rarely or not at all at the bottom, the analyst can say that Teaching Strategy X is positively correlated with performance.  That doesn’t mean it causes high achievement—even high school statistics students are taught “correlation is not causation”—only that the two variables go up and down together.

Edutourists routinely go to top-scoring countries, but rarely check whether their favored strategy is used in middle- and low-scoring nations, writes Loveless.

In addition, edutourists visit a selected sample of the best schools, he writes.  Confirmation bias makes it likely they’ll see what they expect to see.

Artificial intelligence outscores 12th graders

A Japanese student celebrates her admission to an elite university.

A Japanese student celebrates her admission to the elite Tokyo University.

An artificial-intelligence program outscored the average Japanese high school senior on the English section of the college-entrance exam, reports the Wall Street Journal.

To-Robo earned a 95 (out of 200)on the multiple-choice English test, compared to 93.1 for the average test-taker. That’s nearly double the software’s score last year.

Japan’s collegebound students take two days of very high-stakes exams  in geography, history, civics, Japanese, foreign languages, math and science to qualify for public and private universities.

Developers are grooming To-Robo to qualify for the prestigious Tokyo University. (And then? Take classes?)

On the English portion, the AI program was able to choose the answer that best fits this conversation:

A: I hear your father is in the hospital.
B: Yes, and he has to have an operation next week.
A: ????. Let me know if I can do anything.
B: Thanks a lot.

To-Robo correctly picked “That’s too bad” to fill in the blank, rejecting “Exactly, yes,” “No problem” and “That’s a relief.”

The technology may be used for translations some day, developers said.

Efficiency Index: U.S. overpays teachers

U.S. schools overpay teachers, according to the international “Efficiency Index” released by GEMS Education Solutions.

The report was created with the support of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which created the PISA exam. leader

The U.S. ranked 19 out of 30 OECD countries, because teachers earn higher salaries than necessary to attract competent teachers and classes are smaller than necessary. (I don’t know how they calculate this.)

Yet the U.S. rates as “more efficient than effective,” along with countries such as Hungary, France, Britain and Sweden.

Finland, Japan and Korea do the best in efficiency and quality (as measured by PISA scores). Finland and Korea achieve excellent results with relatively large class sizes – the 3rd and 5th largest of the OECD countries – and pay teachers moderate wages, the report noted.

Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and others were effective, but not very efficient.

Brazil, Chile, Greece, Indonesia and Turkey were both inefficient and ineffective.

Japanese learn math in cram schools

Japanese teachers teach math for understanding, while U.S. teachers drill students on procedures, writes Elizabeth Green in “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” in the New York Times Magazine.

Increasingly dissatisfied with their schools, Japanese parents are turning to “shadow education” known as juku in Japanese or “cram school” in English, responds Watanabe Manabu on the Juko blog.

Forty percent of elementary students and more than 70 percent of junior high students use jukus, reports the Japan Times in Cram schools cash in on failure of public schools.

Don’t blame teachers for math failure

Americans stink at math because U.S. teachers aren’t trained to teach for understanding, argues Elizabeth Green in the New York Times.  Teaching “mind-numbing” routines bores students and sets them up for failure, she writes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese math classes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese classes.

By contrast, Japanese teachers embraced the “vibrant” 1980s math reforms that failed here. Their students “uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves,” enjoy math and excel on international tests.

Wrong, responds Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

Most Japanese parents send their children to private, after-school jukus, cram schools that focus “on basic skills, drill and practice, and memorization,” writes Loveless.

. . . perhaps because of jukus, Japanese teachers can take their students’ fluency with mathematical procedures for granted and focus lessons on problem solving and conceptual understanding.  American teachers, on the other hand, must teach procedural fluency or it is not taught at all.

On international surveys, U.S. students are more likely than Japanese kids to say they enjoy math class, Loveless points out.

Japan’s math achievement has declined since 1995, he writes. They do well, but not as well as in the pre-reform era, when it was all “rote learning,” according to Green.

The U.S. education establishment went all out for math reform in the 1990s, Loveless writes. Ed school professors backed it. “The National Science Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars training teachers.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rewrote its math framework and redesigned its test.

Math reform in the U.S. is typically the offspring of government power wedded to education school romanticism. . . math reform movements have repeatedly failed not because of stubborn teachers who cling to tired, old practices but because the reforms have been—there are no other words for it—just bad ideas.

Green also is wrong to imply that Common Core standards require her preferred method of teaching, Loveless writes. “These standards establish what students need to learn, but do not dictate how teachers should teach,” proclaims the Common Core web site.

Barry Garelick shows how to teach the new standards using traditional math instruction. He’s got examples from a book published in 1955:

Can we teach like the Japanese?

Elizabeth Green’s Why do Americans Stink at Math? didn’t go far enough, writes Dan Willingham. Improving math instruction is even harder than she thinks.

The nub of her argument is this. American stink at math because the methods used to teach it are rote, don’t lead to transfer to the real world, and lead to shallow understanding. There are pedagogical methods that lead to much deeper understanding. U.S. researchers pioneered these methods and Japanese student achievement took off when the Japanese educational system adopted them.

. . . Traditional classrooms are characterized by the phrase “I, We, You.” The teacher models a new mathematical procedure (“I”), the whole class practices it (“We”), and then individual students try it on their own (“You”). That’s the method that leads to rote, shallow knowledge. More desirable is “You, Y’all, We.” The teacher presents a problem which students try to solve on their own (“You”). Then they meet in small groups to compare and discuss the solutions they’ve devised (Y’all). Finally, the groups share their ideas as a whole class (“We”).

Reform math comes around every 30 years, but never gains traction, writes Willingham.  Green blames “lack of support for teachers, and the fact that teachers must understand math better to use these methods.”

Green’s take is that if you hand down a mandate from on high “teach this way” with little training, and hand it to people with a shaky grasp of the foundations of math, the result is predictable; you get the fuzzy crap in classrooms that’s probably worse than the mindless memorization that characterizes the worst of the “I, We, You” method.

True enough, writes Willingham. But there’s more.

Green’s preferred method requires teachers to make quick decisions in class when a group gets on the wrong track. “Do you try to get the class to see where it went wrong right away, or do you let them continue, and play out the consequences of the their solution? Once you’ve decided that, what exactly will you say to try to nudge them in that direction?”

Japanese teachers discuss individual lessons in detail to prepare for this. They agree on the best way to teach each lesson down to what numbers are best for examples. And they expect all students to learn the same content with no regard for individual differences.

U.S. teachers are used to teaching autonomy.

Superwoman doesn’t teach here

In Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, Elizabeth Green argues that Japanese teachers are teaching math for understanding, while U.S. teachers haven’t been able to make reform math work.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

“This observation, that poor teacher preparation turns everything to garbage, strikes me as the skeleton key that unlocks so much of our failure to make and sustain gains in American education,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

Want to play a drinking game? Every time someone blames sloppy implementation for their pet reform’s poor results, take a drink. You may never be sober again. Drink every time someone says the answer is “more professional development,” and you might die of alcohol poisoning.

This needs to stop. Your preferred pedagogy, curriculum, approach, or technology has to be within the skills of ordinary teachers to implement well and effectively. If it takes a superstar teacher it’s a nonstarter.

Green’s upcoming book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that good teaching can be taught.

Pondiscio has high hopes for the book, because of Green’s “clear-eyed” New York Times Magazine profile of Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov. The story launched him as a teaching guru.

Lemov changed the conversation from “teacher quality” to “quality teaching,” Pondiscio wrote in a review of his book, Teach Like a Champion.

“The difference is not who the teacher is, but what the teacher does,” he writes. “And what the teacher does has to be learned, practiced, and mastered by the teachers we have, not the teachers we wished we had.”

We “lionize” teaching super stars, who never will exist in sufficient numbers, Pondiscio concludes. “Teaching has to be a job for millions of well-trained men and women of good will and general sentience.”

“You don’t need to be a genius,” Green told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. “You have to know how to manage a discussion. You have to know which problems are the ones most likely to get the lessons across. You have to understand how students make mistakes — how they think — so you can respond to that.”

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.”