U.S. math lag: It’s not just other people’s kids

Don’t blame poor kids for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on international math exams, write researchers in Education Next.  When the children of college-educated parents are compared, U.S. students do even worse than our international competitors.

Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Some states — notably Massachusetts — compare well to OECD students, but they represent a small share of the U.S. population.

In Korea, 46 percent of the children of high school dropouts reach proficiency in math compared to 17 percent of U.S. children with poorly educated parents.

The U.S. ranks 30th in teaching the children of “moderately” educated parents. “The math proficiency rate (26%) for this group is again around half the rate enjoyed by Switzerland (57%), Korea (56%), Germany (52%), and the Netherlands (50%).”

Forty-three percent of U.S. children with college-educated parents are proficient in math. That’s lower than the rate for Koreans whose parents didn’t finish high school. “Countries with high proficiency rates among students from better-educated families include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Switzerland (65%), Germany (64%) and Canada (57%).”

“The U.S. education system is . . . weak at the bottom, no less weak at the middle, and just as weak with respect to educating the most-advantaged,” the analysis concludes. Or, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, our educational shortcomings are “not just the problems of other person’s children.”

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.”

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.

Korea: High scores, unhappy kids

South Korean students are among the best in the world, according to PISA. They’re also the world’s least happy school children reports Quartz.

Economic growth rates are high in South Korea. So are suicide rates. Some blame the intense academic pressure.

High math scores correlate –somewhat — with unhappiness, notes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. Those happy Indonesians score near the bottom in math. (Qataris are depressed and bad in math, however.)

Core to kids: You’re not so smart

At an Albany middle school, angry parents told New York Commissioner of Education John King what they thought of the new Common Core standards, writes Marc Tucker on Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog.

Kathryn Biel described her fourth-grade son’s response when he came home from Forts Ferry Elementary School in the North Colonie school district.  “New York State thinks we’re stupid.  We did not pass the test,” Biel said recounting his frustration and loss of self-esteem.  Deirdre Kelly, whose children attend Albany School of Humanities, said she is opting her children out of the testing and will urge other parents to take the same action.  “It hurts them. They go home feeling bad,” said Kathy Neuffer, a teacher at Greenville Central School District in Greene County.  “The new curriculum is not enjoyable,” said Reeve Churchill, age 13, an eighth-grade student at Myers Middle School.

U.S. parents and students expect school to be easy and fun, writes Tucker. “We are reaping what we’ve sown.”

Over the last 20 years or so, the reading grade level of upper division high school textbooks has fallen from 11th and 12th grade to 8th and 9th grade.  We have seen widespread grade inflation in our high schools.  When our children get to college they can expect more of the same.  At many, perhaps most institutions, B+ is, in effect, the lowest passing grade, and, in many institutions, college administrators effectively prevent college instructors from giving grades lower than that except in rare cases.  The record shows that our colleges are providing fewer and fewer hours of instruction with every passing year and students are spending less and less time studying.  But they still get the same degrees.

. . . Consistently given higher and higher grades for ever-more-mediocre work, our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess.

“It feels a lot like the housing market before the market crashed and brought on the Great Recession,” writes Tucker.

In Asia, especially in Korea, parents push their children to work hard in school, he writes. Standards are rising. Students expect they’ll need to work hard to get ahead.

The Common Core is our best chance to face reality, Tucker concludes.

Responding to the challenge is going to require both students and teachers to work a lot harder.  It may not be fun.  Maybe New York State does not think you are so smart because you have not demonstrated that you know and can do what millions of kids in other countries know and can do at your age.  Maybe it’s time to do something about that instead of reflexively doing what we have always done—lowering the standards, once again.

Comments?

Korea’s higher ed obsession peaks

South Korea’s obsessive pursuit of higher education has peaked, reports The Economist. The proportion of high-school graduates going on to college soared from 40 percent in the early 1990s to almost 84 percent in 2008. Now it’s going down slightly. Still, 93 percent of parents say they want their children to go to college.

Education — including private tutoring to prepare for the “brutally competitive” university exam — accounted for nearly 12 percent of consumer spending last year.

In 1971 (the government) abolished the entrance exam for middle school, but that only heightened the competition for high-school places, so a few years later it replaced the high-school entrance exam with a lottery. The result was the insanely competitive university entrance exam. By easing competition at one stage of education, it only intensified it at the next.

In 1980 the government outlawed private out-of-school tutoring, which drove the industry underground. The ban was declared unconstitutional in 2000. Since then efforts to soothe the education fever have been more modest. Seoul imposes a 10pm curfew on cramming schools, but pupils can dodge the curfew by learning online after hours. The government will introduce test-free semesters in all middle schools by 2016 to give pupils some relief from rote learning.

Korea has created vocational Meister schools. For example, one high school trains students to program and design mobile apps.

Where high school is taken seriously

High school is serious business overseas, say U.S. students who’ve studied in Korea, Finland and Poland. PBS NewsHour interviews the three students featured in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Finnish teachers rely mainly on lectures, said Kim. “There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.”

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

All three countries provide alternatives to college prep. Polish students decide at 16 whether they want to attend an academic high school or start vocational training. Nearly half of Finnish 16-year-olds choose the vocational track. In Korea, 20 percent are in vocational high schools.

The $4 million teacher

South Korea’s “rock-star teacher” earns $4 million a year, writes Amanda Ripley in the Wall Street Journal.  Kim Ki-Hoon teaches in a private, after-school tutoring academy or hagwon.

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

“The harder I work, the more I make,” he says matter of factly. “I like that.”

Some 150,000 students watch Mr. Kim’s lectures online each year, hoping to raise their college admissions scores. He employs 30 people and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

Hagwons compete to hire top teachers and pay them based on the number of students they attract, students’ progress and student evaluations.

In a survey, teenagers gave their hagwon teachers better scores than their regular teachers.

Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students’ academic performance.

Private tutors are also more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional forms of teaching.

Nearly three of every four South Korean kids use hagwons, writes Ripley. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on tutoring.

South Korean students rank at the top on international tests.

Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way follows Americans going to school in South Korea, Finland and Poland, The book will come out Aug. 13.

Tiger Rhee

In Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Michelle Rhee touts her skills at firing people — and buying them off — writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in a Wall Street Journal review of the book.

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To get union approval for performance pay and a new teacher evaluation system, Rhee raised millions of dollars from foundations.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty backed Rhee — and lost his bid for re-election. Rhee resigned from the chancellorship and founded StudentsFirst to lobby for school reform.

The daughter of Korean immigrants, Rhee “was urged by her Tiger Mom to go to law school,” writes Riley. Instead, she volunteered for Teach for America.  She almost quit after her first year at a tough Baltimore school, but her father told her to finish what she’d started. In her second year, she asked for advice from the best teachers and found new ways to “push her students harder and keep them interested.”

As chancellor in D.C., Rhee “became livid” when she learned a sign at a Washington school that read: “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do,” Riley writes. As a Tiger Reformer, Rhee thinks effort always pays off.

When she was a child, Rhee attended school in Seoul, South Korea for several months, she writes in Radical. Every child in her class of 70 was ranked, publicly. “Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished, the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder.”

The vast American lumpenproletariat

Taking social class into account, U.S. students are doing better than it seems on international tests, compared to students in France, Germany, Britain, Canada, Finland and Korea, according to a study by Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein. “U.S. students’ scores are low in part because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students come from disadvantaged social class groups,” they argue.

Stuff and nonsense, responds Paul Peterson in Education Next.  The Carnoy-Rothstein studied ignored family income, which is just as high in the U.S. as in the comparison countries. It uses one factor to determine social class:  The number of books 15-year old students estimate are in their home.

Only 18 percent of U. S. students say they have many books in their home; in the other countries this percentage varies between 20 percent and 31 percent. In the United States 38 percent say they have few books in their home. In the other countries, this percentage varies between 14 percent and 30 percent.

Students’ estimates of book in the home is a good predictor of student achievement, writes Peterson. But there’s a chicken-and-egg issue.

. . . reports of books in the home may be as much a consequence of good schools and innate student ability as an independent cause of student achievement. Students who find it easy to read are likely to report more books in their home, because they are more aware of them. Students attending an effective school are more likely to be good readers who are then aware of the resources at home. Countries that expect students to perform well on a national examination when they finish secondary school may induce higher rates of reading than countries that do not set clear standards for high school students.

Only 14 percent of Korean students come from few-book homes, compared to 38 percent of U.S. students, and 31 percent of Korean students come from homes with many books, while only 18 percent of American students do. It’s “bizarre” to assert that Korea’s upper class is nearly twice as large as in the U.S., and that our lower class is nearly triple the size of Korea’s, writes Peterson. The U.S. does not have a vanishing bourgeoisie and a vast proletariat.

The study encourages people to think that U.S. schools are just fine — except for inner-city schools, which face an impossible challenge because the kids’ homes are no good, Peterson writes. Good reading habits — which schools can do something about — “are much more important to achievement than family income and other measures of social class.”