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?

Poor kids do worse in Baltimore than India

It’s harder to be a poor teenager in Baltimore than in Nigeria or India, according to a Johns Hopkins study, reports Vocativ.

Researchers analyzed health challenges faced by 2,400 15- to 19-year-olds from impoverished areas in Baltimore, Shanghai, Johannesburg (South Africa), Ibadan (Nigeria) and New Delhi.

Baltimore's slums are not far from skyscrapers (AP Photo)

Baltimore’s slums are not far from affluent areas (AP Photo)

In Baltimore, “adolescents exhibited considerably high rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, sexual risk-taking, sexual violence and teen pregnancy.” Johannesburg teens also fared poorly.

Baltimore and Johannesburg teens “don’t feel safe from violence,” said Kristen Mmari, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor. By contrast, Shanghai adolescents had little to fear from violence.

Half of young females in the Baltimore study said they’d been pregnant.

I suspect it’s harder to be poor in a wealthy country.

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.

U.S. teens are so-so at financial literacy

Most U.S. 15-year-olds don’t understand personal finance issues such as taxes, loans or savings, according to an international test of financial literacy.

U.S. students were about average on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment. Shanghai-China students showed the most financial savvy, followed Belgium (Flemish), Estonia, Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Students did not do better in countries that teach financial literacy in school.

Sample questions are here. The shares question is “level 3″ out of 5.

This graph shows the price of one Rich Rock share over a 12-month period.
Financial graph

Which statements about the graph are true?

Statement Is the statement true or false?
The best month to buy the shares was September.
The share price increased by about 50% over the year.


Shanghai students aren’t so smart

Shanghai aces the PISA exam because it excludes rural migrants and their children from high schools, writes Tom Loveless on Chalkboard.

Shanghai, “the wealthiest, most educated province in China,” is not a “model of equity,” as PISA claims, argues Loveless.

The Chinese aren’t cheating, responded Andreas Schleicher of OECD-PISA. Shanghai Normal University President Zhang Minxuan also responded. Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote a third response with Schleicher.

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.

In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors

In high-scoring Shanghai, all teachers have mentors — not just novices — and teachers collaborate in lesson and research groups, writes Marc Tucker in an interview with Ben Jensen, of Australia’s Grattan Institute, in Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog. (A longer version is here.)

Every teacher has a mentor and new teachers have two, one for subject matter and one for teaching, says Jensen. The mentors observe and provide feedback.

Only .2 percent of teachers reach the “master teacher” level and then they don’t have mentors, but they will still work together and have their work evaluated and appraised.

In Shanghai, you will struggle to get promoted if you receive poor feedback from the people you mentored. That means the people who get promoted are collaborative and committed to helping teachers, and they have a proven track record in this area.

In most schools in Shanghai, teachers form lesson groups that discuss students’ progress and research groups that explore new strategies, says Jensen.

In Shanghai, you don’t get promoted as a teacher unless you are also a researcher. You have to have published articles, not in academic journals but in professional journals or even school journals. In fact, one of the first stages in a promotion evaluation is to have one of your articles peer reviewed. Every teacher will work in a research group with about half a dozen other teachers, often of the same subject area but not always. If there is a young teacher, that teacher’s mentor will often be in that group as well. They will meet for about 2 hours every 2 weeks.

At the start of the year, the group choses a topic—a new curriculum or pedagogical technique or determining how to help out a particular student—and the principal will approve that topic. The first third of the year is spent on a literature review. The second third of the year is spent trying out strategies in the classroom that the group identified as promising during the literature review. As they try these strategies in the classroom, other members of the research group will observe.

Senior teachers with strong research experience serve as leaders.

About 30 percent of Shanghai teachers’ salary is performance pay, reports the New York Times. “Teacher salaries are modest, about $750 a month before bonuses and allowances — far less than what accountants, lawyers or other professionals earn.”

Myths of testing

The U.S. never was first in the world on international achievement tests, according to the latest Report on American Education from the Brown Center at Brookings. The report also debunks the “myth” that “Finland leads the world in education, with China and India coming on fast.”

Finland has a superb school system, but, significantly, it scores at the very top only on PISA, not on other international assessments. Finland also has a national curriculum more in sync with a “literacy” thrust, making PISA a friendly judge in comparing Finnish students with students from other countries. And what about India and China? Neither country has ever participated in an international assessment. How they would fare is unknown.

Finnish students scored very well in 1964, “decades before many of
the policies targeting professionalism, equity, decentralization, and de-streaming were adopted,” the report notes. Cultural and societal factors “may be the real drivers of success.”

Shanghai’s success on PISA proves nothing about Chinese students, researchers argue.

For centuries, Shanghai has been the jewel of Chinese schooling, far ahead of its urban peers and light-years ahead of rural schools. Shanghai’s municipal website reports that 83.8 percent of high school graduates enter college; the national figure is 24.0 percent.

The report also asks: Which states are racing to the top? Judging by National
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, it’s not necessarily the ones that got federal Race to the Top grants.

Brown looked at both short- and long-term gains on NAEP and controlled for changes in the demographic characteristics of each state’s students.

Eight states—Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania—stand out for making superior gains. At the other end of the distribution, Iowa, Nebraska, West Virginia, and Michigan stand out for underperforming. Five of the eight impressive states won grants, but three did not.

A previously part of the report looks at how well NAEP’s eighth-grade math exam matches up with the Common Core Standards adopted by most states. NAEP’s test covers math concepts that are supposed to be learned by eighth grade; the average question is two to three years below Common Core’s eighth-grade content.  The new core-based exams are expected to test whether students have learned the standards for that grade. Scores will be much, much lower, researchers predict.

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.

Life’s a carnival

The first 2011 Education Buzz Carnival is up at Bellringers.

Why do Shanghai students outperform U.S. students (and the rest of the world) in math? It Isn’t the Culture Stupid, argues Barry Garelick.