Merit pay international

Achievement is higher in countries that pay teachers for outstanding performance, concludes an analysis of PISA data by Ludger Woessmann, a University of Munich economics professor.

(Students in performance-pay countries) score approximately one-quarter of a standard deviation higher on the international math and reading tests, and about 15 percent higher on the science test, than students in countries without performance pay. These findings are obtained after adjustments for levels of economic development across countries, student background characteristics, and features of national school systems.

. . . Since one-quarter of a standard deviation is roughly a year’s worth of learning, it might reasonably be concluded that by the age of 15, students taught under a policy regime that includes a performance pay plan will learn an additional year of math and reading and over half a year more in science. However, this conclusion depends on the many assumptions underlying an analysis based on observational data.

Twelve of 27 OECD countries with PISA data report incentive pay for outstanding teachers, but the pay schemes vary considerably.  For example, outstanding performance may be measured “based on the assessment of the head teacher (Portugal), assessments performed by education administrators (Turkey), or the measured learning achievements of students (Mexico,” Woessmann writes. Countries in Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic and Hungary)  are the most likely to use performance pay.

Students struggle with science

Most American students aren’t “proficient” in science, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress  (NAEP) report, known as the Nation’s Report Card, released today. Only 34 percent in fourth grade, 30 percent in eighth and 21 percent in 12th grade scored proficient or higher; one percent of high school seniors have the advanced science knowledge and skills that lead to careers in science and technology.

Seventy-two percent of fourth graders, 63 percent of eighth graders, and 60 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the basic level.

Alarming numbers of students are scoring below basic, said Alan Friedman, a member of the board that runs the exam. Forty percent of students in twelfth grade lack even basic skills.

“That means that a double-digit percentage of our students are just nowhere: They’re uncomfortable with science, they don’t understand it, they can’t do it, and they probably don’t like it.”

The science exam was redesigned in 2009 to stress students’ understanding of science concepts and their ability to apply scientific knowledge and solve problems.  Students are tested in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences. Because of the redesign, NAEP didn’t try to chart trend lines, but Friedman said students’ science mastery is not improving.

Basic students can:

  • Explain the benefit of an adaptation for an organism (grade 4).
  • Relate oxygen level to atmospheric conditions at higher elevations (grade 8).
  • Solve a design problem related to the electric force between objects (grade 12).

Proficient students can:

  • Recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object (grade 4).
  • Relate characteristics of air masses to global regions (grade 8).
  • Evaluate two methods to help control an invasive species (grade 12).

Advanced students can:

  • Design an investigation to compare types of bird food (grade 4).
  • Predict the Sun’s position in the sky (grade 8).
  • Recognize a nuclear fission reaction (grade 12).

The 2009 PISA results placed U.S. students in the middle of the pack with  Poland, France, and Portugal, well below students in Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong and Canada.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the U.S. can’t continue as an international science leader without educating more students to higher levels. President Obama has called for recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years. Of course, many schools are laying off teachers — usually by seniority rather than ability to teach math, physics and chemistry.

Asian and white students did much better than blacks and Hispanics, AP notes.

The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared to 46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even more bleak, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.

Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic 12th-grade students scored below basic, as did 21 percent of whites.

Boys outscored girls.

Most states in the south and southwest (plus California and Nevada) scored below the national average.

No Child Left Behind has pushed schools to emphasize math and reading over other subjects, Friedman said.

Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust disagreed, saying schools with high reading and math scores also have high science scores.

“Yes, we have to be intentional about science education, and we have to ensure that all schools have working science labs, but you can’t introduce a kid to a science lab and expect them to do well if they can’t read the text,” she said.

Students with wobbly math skills aren’t likely to go far in science either.

Go here for sample questions.

And here’s Ed Sector’s handy NAEP Explainer.

It’s the Confucianism, stupid

What can the U.S. learn from China’s Winning Schools? Asians make education a priority, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who’s lived in Asia.

While Shanghai students are world beaters, the city has China’s best schools. Rural schools are not nearly as good — but they’re improving.

In my Chinese-American wife’s ancestral village — a poor community in southern China — the peasant children are a grade ahead in math compared with my children at an excellent public school in the New York area. That seems broadly true of math around the country.

Chinese principals get extra training for ineffective teachers or push them into other jobs. “Bad teachers can always be made gym teachers,” a principal in Xian tells Kristof.

The Chinese aren’t satisified with their schools, Kristof writes.

Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.

In Xian, I visited Gaoxin Yizhong, perhaps the city’s best high school, and the students and teachers spoke wistfully of the American emphasis on clubs, arts and independent thought. “We need to encourage more creativity,” explained Hua Guohong, a chemistry teacher. “We should learn from American schools.”

One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a “creativity-killer.” Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to “programs for trained seals.” Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.

For all their faults, Chinese schools benefit greatly from the Confucian reverence for education, Kristof writes. Teachers are respected. The class brain is admired, not the jock or the class clown.

Higher education is China’s weakness, he writes. But a self-critical, education-valuing culture can identify and fix its problems.

From Whitney Tilson via Matthew Ladner, here’s a chart of  PISA “combined literacy” scores for 15-year-olds in various subgroups. (FRL means “free and reduced lunch” eligibility, i.e., a school’s poverty rate.) Asian-American students do slightly better than Korean students; U.S. whites score a bit lower.

Non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. match scores for Canada, New Zealand and Australia, points out Robert Samuelson. The very low scores for Hispanics and blacks pull the national average down. “Persistent achievement gaps demonstrate the limits of schools to compensate for problems outside the classroom — broken homes, street violence, indifference to education — that discourage learning and inhibit teaching,” he writes in the Washington Post.

In high-level math performance, which correlates with economic growth, U.S. children of white and college-educated parents are lagging, writes Eric Hanushek, who thinks Samuelson is way too optimistic.

Sixteen countries actually produce twice the proportion of advanced math students that we do.  And there are more highly talented math students in the whole population of 18 countries than in U.S. families with a college educated parent.

The U.S. is an innovative society capable of attracting very bright people from around the world, Hanushek writes. But relying on the brain drain is not a sound long-term strategy.

Boys aren’t learning to read

Boys aren’t learning to read — and it’s a global problem, write William Brozo and Richard Whitmire in a New York Daily News op-ed.

According to a Center for Education Policy report that looked at 40 states, boys “lag well behind girls in literacy skills – while only tying them in math.” And it’s not just an issue in the U.S.

Earlier this month, results of 65-country comparison called the Program for International Student Assessment revealed that girls tie boys in math while soaring ahead of them by an astounding 39 points on reading skills. SportsCenter, last time we checked, has a limited audience in Albania, the country with the largest gender gap in reading.

And that’s not even the worst news. In 2000, the last time we had comparable international reading scores, boys were only 32 points behind. In only nine years, boys – around the world – have slipped another seven points further behind girls.

Boys are somewhat better than girls at reading text printed on computer screens, according to PISA.

But does screen-reading prowess balance out the inability (disinterest would be a better word) to read words printed on pulverized trees? Based on college enrollment and graduation rates, the answer has to be “no.” Truth is, college has become the new high school. Jobs ranging from bank tellers to policing to sophisticated machine shop work require post-high school studies that were not needed two decades ago.

The global economic race to produce the most educated workforce will be won by the nation that figures out how to teach boys to read, Brozo and Whitmire argue.

Why China excels

Shanghai;s 15-year-old students are way better than the rest of the world in reading, science and, especially math, notes Education Gadfly’s Amber M. Winkler, looking at the latest PISA results. “In math, they scored nearly a full standard deviation above the OECD average.” And it’s not just rote learning: PISA asks students to apply knowledge to real-world problems.

As an authoritarian regime, China “can force educational change in ways that are unthinkable in democracies,” Winkler writes. Still,  “despite our vastly different governments and cultures, there may yet be a few lessons that America can learn from China.”

(Shanghai) unabashedly closed or merged its lowest-performing schools with its highest-performing ones (of which there are apparently enough). It also transferred—involuntarily, mind you—a number of outstanding urban school teachers and principals to low-performing rural schools and a number of rural staff to high-performing urban sites in order to learn the ropes. Under “commissioned administration,” they can assign a good public school to take over a bad one.

The Chinese create consortia of strong and weak, old and new, and public and private schools with one exceptionally strong school at the core, which is charged with sharing best practices, Winkler writes.

Virtually all teachers are subject-matter experts, not generalists; effective classroom practitioners gain a higher “professional status;” and China has common curriculum standards. It also has a rigorous framework for teaching that includes small groups of instructors engaged in lesson preparation and teaching demonstrations. And in a policy alien to Americans, municipalities in China funnel more money and better teachers to “key schools” which serve high-performing students.

The Chinese rank schools and publish the ratings.

Of course, Chinese schools benefit from the reverence for education, which started with Confucius, Winkler writes. The culture includes a belief that academic success is a matter of effort, under the student’s control, rather than the result of inborn talent.

Unrelenting practice is the secret to the Chinese education system, writes Yuan Tian, a master’s student in philanthropic studies at Indiana University, in a letter to Gadfly.

As a student in China, I was told since my first day of elementary school to focus on my studies, to achieve high scores on all tests, and to go to a respected university. Similarly, teachers are instructed to cover only the content needed to guarantee their students obtain scores worthy of university admittance. The reason is simple: A solid university education means a good job in the future . . .

My participation in the Chinese educational system came with a price — I paid for my acceptance into a good college with twelve years without free choice or the ability to develop personal interests.

She spent four to five hours a day on homework. China’s obsession with tests comes “at the expense of producing well-rounded, thoughtful, independent-minded people,” she writes.

What parts of NCLB should be left behind?

No Child Left Behind should be rewritten in pieces, not in a comprehensive overhaul, says Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who will chair the House Education and Labor Committee in January.  National Journal asks:

Which “pieces” of the No Child Left Behind puzzle can be worked out on their own? What changes can be widely agreed upon? Benchmark reform? Special education funding? Teacher assessments? School accountability? Does it make sense to rework the law in small bites? If lawmakers manage to take the pressure off schools by adjusting the 2014 proficiency benchmarks, does that destroy the momentum for other changes that are harder to implement?

Scrap NCLB and start over, writes Diane Ravitch.

We’ll never beat the Asian tigers on PISA if we give up on getting all our students over NCLB’s grade-level achievement bar, writes Sandy Kress.

Expect a NCLB patch to avoid labeling schools as failures, predicts Rick Hess.

Korea’s school secrets

Korean students ranked first in the world in reading, third in math and fifth in science on the PISA exams. In South Korea for five months on a fellowship, Washington Post reporter Michael Alison Chandler is blogging about the Korean education system on Confucian Times.

Anthony Jackson, vice president for education at the Asia Society, explained why he thought Korea and other East Asian countries scored so well. The top-scoring countries have some things in common:

*An emphasis on teacher quality – Hiring teachers from the top of their class, and training them well

*An emphasis on equity — Making sure that all schools have access to quality teachers

*Longer school days and/or longer school years — By the time they are ready for college some of these students have logged an extra year in the classroom (And were are talking about public schools, not private tutoring here.)

*Greater coordination of academic standards and higher standards for all students (In the US, it’s traditionally been every locality and state for himself).

In addition, as many as three-quarters of Korean students attend cram schools or tutoring, Chandler writes. korean culture makes success in school very, very important.

By the way, some commenters have suggested PISA tests the top students in foreign countries but tests a wide range of U.S. students. That’s not true. A lot of effort goes into testing a representative sample of students in each participating country.

Thanks to Alexander Russo for pointing out Chandler’s blog.

Exceptionally average

Is it OK to be average?

U.S. students were average in reading and science, and below average in math, in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) rankings. What’s so awful about being average? asks National Journal.

Can the United States, one of the most diverse of the world’s developed countries, really compete with much smaller and homogenous countries like Finland and Korea? . . . With the United States’ broad range between rural and urban, rich and poor populations, what can it realistically expect in worldwide educational comparisons?

Homogeneity isn’t educational magic, responds Kevin Carey of Education Sector.  PISA champion Finland has a sparse, overwhelmingly white population who practice the same denomination of Christianity and are concentrated near the capital city. So does Utah, which produces mediocre test scores.

That state would be Utah, whose results are decidedly mediocre.

Finland isn’t successful because it’s homogenous. (Albania is homogenous.) It’s successful because it has clear, well-implemented national standards, equitable school funding, a strong social safety net, high-quality early childhood education, and smart, highly-trained teachers. We could have those things in America, too.

“Learning is the entry ticket to the idea economy,” writes Tom Vander Ark of Revolution Learning.  The uneducated will be stuck in the service economy, unable to qualify for a middle-class job.

David Kirp, a Berkeley professor, points out that high-achieving countries all have highly centralized systems with a national curriculum and “well-trained, comparatively well-paid teachers.” Strategies range from “skill-and-drill to a Dewey-influenced constructivist approach.”

PISA: U.S. is mediocre in reading, math, science

Compared to other developed countries, U.S. 15-year-olds are average in reading and science literacy and below average in math, according to study released today by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is coordinated by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

PISA tries to measure the reading, math and scientific literacy skills and knowledge “essential for full participation in society.”

In reading, Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia posted the highest scores with the U.S. in the middle, tied with  Iceland and Poland. The U.S. had average percentages of students scoring below level 2 (can’t find the main idea) and above level 4 (capable of critically evaluating a text) compared to other OECD countries.

In math, the U.S. was below average, on a par with Ireland and Portugal, but well below Korea, Finland and Switzerland. Top-scoring countries — and cities — included Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland and Switzerland.  The U.S. was similar to the OECD average in low-scoring students but had only 27 percent of students scored at or above level 4 compared to the 32 percent for the OECD average.

In science literacy, the U.S. matched the OECD average for both low-scoring and high-scoring students.  The usual suspects — Asian countries plus Finland and New Zealand– topped the charts.

U.S. scores for white and Asian-American students were above the OECD average, as were scores for students attending low-poverty schools.  Girls scored higher in reading but lower in math and science literacy.

Does it matter? Some argue the U.S. has more high-scoring students — because we have more people than Korea, Singapore, Finland or New Zealand — so it doesn’t matter if our students’ average performance can’t match the high flyers’ performance.

Eighteen percent of U.S. students scored poorly in reading and science and 23 percent scored poorly in math.  On the other end of the scale, 30 percent of U.S. students scored 4 or better in reading, 27 percent did well in math and 29 percent were strong in science literacy.  Can we afford to write off 18 to 23 percent of the population and rely on the top 27 to 30 percent?

The report is “an absolute wake-up call for America,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

“Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, looks at the education systems in top performers, such as Finland, Singapore, Japan and Canada, and fast improvers, such as China and Poland.

Though there are many differences between Finland and Singapore, for example, NCEE president Marc Tucker pointed to commonalities, including “clear, rigorous standards for what students should know” closely tied to a curriculum aligned with “high-quality assessments that measure complex, higher-order thinking.”  Students don’t move on till they demonstrate they’ve mastered the curriculum.

The top performing systems ensure that they get high quality teachers by aggressively raising the standards to get into pre-service teacher education programs, concentrating teacher education in major universities, raising teacher pay (U.S. teachers’ pay is very low compared to the top performing countries), providing prospective teachers with the skills they need to diagnose student problems early on and prescribing the appropriate remedies, raising the standards to enter the teaching force, providing new recruits with master teachers who can mentor them, and creating career ladders for master teachers that will enable them to earn at high levels and stay in teaching.

“While many Americans believe that other countries get better results because those countries educate only a few, while the United States educates everyone, that turns out not to be true,” NCEE concludes. Compared to the U.S., most top-performing countries do a better job of educating students from low-income families.