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.

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.