Anxious Tunisians, math-mellow Dutch

Tunisian 15-year-olds are the most math-phobic, writes  Matt Phillips in The AtlanticArgentina, Brazil and Thailand are next on the “math anxiety” list compiled by the OECD as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

U.S. students are less anxious than the OECD average, though not as math-mellow as the Danes and the Dutch.

In the high-scoring Asian countries, there’s no particular pattern. Japanese kids are anxious, Singapore is moderately anxious, Shanghai is a hair above the median.

Math anxiety correlates with poor performance, writes Phillips. “Some believe this is because the mind is so occupied with worrying about math that it has less bandwidth” to solve problems.

“Combining a manageable amount of worry” with perseverance and a strong work ethic seems to work the best, according to an OECD analysis.

April madness

Forget about March madness, writes Pia de Jong. April is the craziest month for high school students and their parents. College admissions is an insanely stressful game, she writes in the Washington Post.

De Jong and her husband moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 2012. Their 15-year-old son is being courted by colleges already. Friends urged them to visit a private college counselor, who asked the sophomore about  his goal in life. He doesn’t have one.

His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox.

Afterward, the consultant said: “Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life.”

De Jong wants her son to have a chance to drift, “mess around, make mistakes” and enjoy himself. “The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training,” she writes.

The Dutch do it differently.

When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools.

. . . if you’re on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. . . . There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.

De Jong admits the Dutch system “closes off opportunities early.” Late bloomers can try to switch to the university track, but it’s not easy.

Determining children’s futures based on a test taken at age 12 . . . That’s not a minor glitch.

All U.S. high school graduates can go to college, if they wish. Nearly half go to low-cost, open-admissions community colleges. Another large group go to unselective or not-very-selective colleges and universities. Only the best students — perhaps the top 20 percent — are competing for places in very selective colleges and universities. They may not get into a top-choice school, but they get in somewhere. (Can they afford it? Good students usually can get scholarship aid.)

For those trying to get into elite colleges, the system may favor “cautious careerists” over mistake-making drifters. But at least non-conformists aren’t put on the trade-school track at 12.

ADHD diagnoses surge overseas

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses are surging overseas, as well as in the U.S. Children may be taking powerful drugs needlessly, warn researchers in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

In Australia, prescriptions for the stimulant Ritalin and other ADHD drugs rose by 72 percent between 2000 and 2011, while in Britain and the Netherlands prescriptions roughly doubled between 2003 and 2008, said the paper.

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in 11 American children aged 13-18 and one in 25 adults are affected by ADHD.

Ritalin and other drugs are appropriate only for “severe” ADHD symptoms, which occur among about 14 percent of children with the condition, the study noted. Yet 87 percent of U.S. children diagnosed with ADHD in 2010 received medications.

The death of vocational ed — and the middle class

The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.

That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.

I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community.  With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades.  Now, he told me, “That’s all over.  Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with.  I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.”  He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board.  He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.

Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.

By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”

They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills.  And they designed programs that could deliver those skills.  They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them.  They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment.  Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.  No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life.  But those students have a range of attractive choices.

Tucker links to descriptions of vocational education in the NetherlandsAustralia and Singapore.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.

 

Dutch test

Teaching to the test is the norm in the Netherlands, writes Joep of Dancing Crocodile.  Students conclude secondary education by taking the national exam. If the don’t pass it, they retake it the next year. He’s all for it.

The results for the exam are proof of the student’s level per subject, regardless the school where he has studied. The results of all students per school give relevant information about the school’s efficacy. And I have to accept that the results of my students at the national exam for my subject gauge the quality of my teaching.

It goes without saying that school has to offer more than just a highway towards an exam. The exam result is only one of many features that make a good school. But our national exam definitely makes the teacher accountable for intellectual attainment measured with a yardstick that is not homespun.

I do not trust teachers, nor schools, for that matter, to devise their own goals and have them decide which level is sufficient. I would not entrust myself with such responsibility.

I have to deliver the goods and services that society needs. School is not a playground in which we are given leeway to implement our best intentions for the benefit of other people’s children. Education at school is an essential part of the real world.

Joep teaches art and design in an English immersion school. Note that English is his third language after Low Saxon and Dutch. And he does not, as he fears, write “Dunglish.”