Better than Shanghai

“While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China’s academic gem in the dust,” writes June Kronholz on Education Next.

How do they do it?

“We do an incredible amount of work,” said Alia Gilbert.

Founded in Arizona by economists Michael and Olga Block (she’s Czech), BASIS admits any student — anyone who’s willing to do the work.

Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

Students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score of 3.9 out of 5

BASIS teachers said that they offer slower learners abundant extra help, and that kids rise to meet the schools’ expectations. But at the same time, those expectations may scare off the less-able, less-interested students, which can mean a test-score bump for BASIS. (Sophomore Charlie) Murphy told me that his class had 120 students when they arrived as 5th graders, but the group has dropped to 40, as youngsters have transferred to schools with bigger sports programs, more social offerings, or an easier course load.

The Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the funding for a child in a traditional public school, writes Kronholz. Classes are large. Technology is minimal. With highly motivated and capable students, it doesn’t matter.

A new Washington D.C. school, which enrolls a high percentage of disadvantaged, poorly prepared students, is struggling to accelerate the curriculum, but test scores are far higher than in district schools.

BASIS teachers, who are expected to be “scholars,” start at about $40,000 and peak in the “mid-80s.”  They receive “bonuses based on the number of their students who pass AP exams—$200 for each student who passes with a score of 5; $100 for a 4—but schools must raise money themselves for other performance bonuses.”

BASIS Schools, Inc., a for-profit, “secures the charters, employs the teachers and handles centralized functions.” Each school is a nonprofit that owns its building. New BASIS schools use pre-fab buildings that can be assembled in four months for about $8 million, including the land. That’s half the cost of a typical Phoenix school.

SAT: 43% are college ready

Forty-three percent of SAT takers were prepared for college-level work, according to this year’s SAT Report on College & Career Readiness. Overall, scores were the same, but black and Hispanic students improved slightly.

Students who score 1550 or above on the three-part exam are likely to complete their degree.
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Blacks and Hispanics took less rigorous courses and earned lower grades. Only 27 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanics said they’d earned an A average compared to 60 percent of Asian-Americans and 53 percent of whites.

College Board officials aren’t blaming a larger, more diverse testing pool for the stagnating scores, notes CollegeBound. Diversity is an “excuse,” said David Coleman, president of College Board. “It’s time to really consider how to get many, many more students into rigorous coursework that will enable them to break through a performance freeze that is limiting opportunity.”

NY raises bar for future teachers, principals

Would-be teachers will need a 3.0 grade point average and higher test scores for admission to teacher education at the State University of New York. Standards also will be raised for prospective principals.

“The quality of New York’s higher education system depends on having the best and brightest teachers in our classrooms teaching our students,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. “These new admission requirements will help ensure that we are recruiting from exceptional candidates to educate our state’s students.”

A new Education Trust report, Preparing and Advancing Teachers and School Leaders, calls for “requiring more useful information on teacher and leader preparation programs, promoting meaningful action to improve low-performing programs and sparking innovation in how districts and states manage educator pipelines.”

 “Large numbers of educator preparation programs all across the nation are consuming considerable amounts of public dollars and in turn are pushing out teachers and leaders that are underprepared to meet the needs of today’s students,” said Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust.

Ed Trust calls for changes in federal policy. To qualify for federal student aid, states would have to evaluate teacher and principal education programs on outcomes, such as “tying student learning to graduates.”

The American Federation of Teachers’ 2012 report, Raising the Bar,  had similar recommendations, the union says. These include “the need to raise the rigor of teacher preparation programs, support prospective teachers with effective clinical experiences to assure their readiness to enter the profession, and apply standards equally to traditional and alternative programs. Where we differ is on how to hold teacher preparation programs accountable.”

Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage “ from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
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When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

Critics hit remedial ed reforms

States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education to boost graduation rates. But some say remedial reforms will doom many college students to failure.

Instructors are trying to increase the rigor of developmental classes so students will be prepared to succeed in credit-bearing classes.

Common tests lose support

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia are moving forward on Common Core Standards, but support for common testing is eroding, reports StateImpact.

Georgia will use its own exam, instead of the costlier test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Two of Florida’s top elected leaders want Florida to leave PARCC, even though Florida is the fiscal agent for the testing consortium.

Already Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have left the consortium. Oklahoma plans to design its own test, and Indiana isn’t participating in PARCC governing board meetings right now. State education officials say they’re waiting until after a mandatory legislative review of the Common Core academic standards.

That brings the number of states participating in PARCC down to 18 plus the District of Columbia.

Pennsylvania, Utah and Alabama quit the other testing group, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which now has 24 members. (Some states had joined both groups.)

The crumbling of the testing consortia is a “disaster,” writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.

At this point, I won’t be surprised if we end up with 20 or more different testing systems in 2014–15. So much for commonness, so much for comparability. Rigor and alignment with tough standards are likely the next to fall.

Blinded by “technocratic hubris,” common assessment advocates “underestimated how difficult it would be to undo decades of state policy and practice on tests,” writes Smarick. Governors and state chiefs will be reluctant to spend lots of money for a testing system that will make their schools and teachers look bad, he predicted six months ago.

The Common Core sky isn’t falling, responds Checker Finn, also a Fordhamite. This is “right sizing.”

The forty-five-state thing was always artificial, induced by Race to the Top greed and perhaps a crowd mentality. Never in a million years were we going to see forty-five states truly embrace these rigorous academic expectations for their students, teachers, and schools, meet all the implementation challenges (curriculum, textbooks, technology, teacher prep, etc.), deploy new assessments, install the results of those assessments in their accountability systems, and live with the consequences of zillions of kids who, at least in the near term, fail to clear the higher bar.

It’s “better for states to drop out in advance than to fake it, pretending to use the Common Core standards but never really implementing them,” Finn writes. “That’s long-standing California-style behavior (fine standards, wretched implementation), in contrast with Massachusetts-style behavior (exemplary standards and serious implementation—and results to show for it).”

Most of the drop-out states will keep the standards, but write their own tests or sign up with ACT. They’ll give comparability, “one of the major benefits of commonality,” Finn writes. Some may change their minds later “or face up to the fact that (like Texas and Virginia) they don’t really want to use the Common Core at all.”

The AP/IB challenge gap

Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses could help close the “high-end achievement gap” —  if more low-income, black and Latino students take these rigorous courses, concludes Finding America’s Missing AP and IB Students. The report is by the Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools.

Low-income students are one-third as likely to enroll in AP as their middle and high-income classmates. While 25.1 percent of Asian-American students take at least one AP course, that drops to 11.9 percent for whites, 9 percent for Latinos and 6 percent for blacks.

Ninety-one percent of public high school students attend schools that offer AP courses.

. . .  preparation prior to high school is part of the problem, and the nation’s schools need to work hard on that. But a recent analysis of PSAT scores by the College Board suggests there are far more students who have the potential to be successful, but are not enrolling. The College Board found that 72 percent of black students and 66 percent of Hispanic students whose PSAT scores suggested they had the potential to be successful in an AP math course, as well as 69 percent of black students and 65 percent of Hispanic students whose scores suggested they had the potential to be successful in an AP science course, were left out of the program.

San Jose Unified has doubled AP participation rates for under-represented subgroups, the report finds.

In Washington state, the Federal Way went beyond open access to AP and IB courses. Now  automatically enroll students who scored proficient or better on the state exam are enrolled automatically in AP or IB.

Teachers found that some of the new AP/IB students didn’t need additional supports to be successful in AP/IB — they had been ready all along — but others did. Schools relied on the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program that was already in place . . . the district extended instructional coaching support to ensure teachers were capable of meeting the demands of their new classes, offering techniques and strategies for differentiating lessons to reach all their students.

The Road to Equity: Expanding AP Access and Success for African-American Students, a new report by the Broad Foundation, looks at six urban districts where more black students are passing AP exams.

Britain looks East for better schools

Longer school days and shorter holidays would help British students catch up with  Asian students, Education Secretary Michael Gove said at an education conference in London.

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Gove should “know how boring and soul-sapping rote-learning can be,” responds Clarissa Tam, a graduate of Singapore schools.

Does he know how the emphasis on science, maths and IT can turn students into little robots, affecting particularly those of a more creative bent?

. . . The intense pressure to excel means students often study not for the joy of succeeding, but from the fear of failing. In Singapore they have a term for it — kiasu, which means ‘scared to lose’.

And yet, the drive for excellence can be empowering, Tam writes. When she faces challenges, she recalls that “my parents, my teachers, even my schoolmates have always expected more of me than I have of myself.”

I have even, somewhat to my own disgust, come to appreciate the emphasis on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top, free as you please. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

Gove’s “Look East” policy comes at a time when many Asian countries are looking West in search of “inventiveness, originality and lateral thinking,” she writes. Singapore has created arts and drama schools and is “introducing more project- and team-based work as well as teaching formats such as show-and-tell.”

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  ”gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

After 30 years, still at risk?

Thirty years ago, the Nation At Risk report warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” -- low educational standards — “threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

High schools pushed students to take more rigorous college-prep courses. Students now earn significantly more science and math credits, notes the Washington Post.

Other recommendations, such as extending the school year to 220 days and paying teachers for 11 months of work, were ignored.

A Nation At Risk kicked off the education reform movement

Where Are We Now? asks Education Week.

Rigor is the answer writes Core Knowledge’s Lisa Hansel on the Shanker Blog. “Progressive educators’ misunderstandings of the essential role of specific, relevant knowledge in reading comprehension and critical thinking resulted in weak curricula being the norm and pockets of excellence typically being reserved for our most advantaged youth,’she writes.

Here’s an analysis from Fordham and the American Enterprise Institute: