Geniuses teach themselves

“Gifted” education doesn’t do much for geniuses, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. “An occasional pullout class is likely to be less interesting to them than their own research in their parents’ bookcases, kitchens, the local library and the Internet,” he writes.

Our schools have more than they can handle in helping other students become fully functioning adults. There may be something to the view that socially awkward geniuses need a safe place to be weird, but the better approach is to focus on stopping bullying of all kids. Public schools are mostly successful at finding people who know how to teach English, math, history and science, but we don’t know how to encourage creativity very well and might find it better to let the gifted do their own exploring.

He offers a counter-example: In her 1977 book, Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, Julie Ray profiled a Houston sixth-grader she called Tim.

He was in an ambitious public school’s gifted-education program that would later be called Vanguard. Tim was reading dozens of books and had several science projects underway. He was surveying classmates in order to rate all the school’s teachers. He loved the school’s small group discussions, where he was free to share his wildest ideas.

“Tim” appears in Brad Stone’s new book, The Everything Store. His real name is  Jeff Bezos. His store is Amazon.

Checker Finn is researching how other countries educate high-ability students. No country does it very well. Singapore is the best — but only for the top 1 percent.

“Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents,” though Hungary is trying hard to reach disadvantaged students.

Beehives inspire Learning Towers

Singapore’s new Communal Learning Towers were inspired by beehives, reports My Modern Metropolis.

The new Learning Hub for Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University was designed to encourage students and teachers to interact easily.

Ivy League shuns teaching — except for TFA

Nearly one in five Harvard students apply to Teach for America, but very few want to train as teachers, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. “He hopes that eventually between five and 10 percent of the class will go through the undergraduate teaching program,” reports Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. 

There’s “a long-standing institutional snobbery” about teaching writes Barkhorn.

As Walter Isaacson put it at this year’s Washington Ideas Forum, there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.”

Teach for America has helped change that perception. “I think TFA has done a lot in terms of elevating the profession of teaching and elevating the importance of public education and education generally,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in conversation with Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, and Ryan.

Cornell has dropped undergraduate teacher-training, said Weingarten, a Cornell alum. “We say education is really important, but here you have the land grant institution of New York State that has eliminated teacher-training programs. If we don’t actually have real preparation like Finland and Singapore do that really teaches teachers how to teach … then what are we doing?”

In Finland and Singapore, only the best students can qualify as teachers. Finland combines master’s degree studies with supervised practice. In Singapore, master teachers mentor novices for several years.

U.S. is above average in math, science

U.S. eighth graders in 36 states outperform the international average, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In science, U.S. students in 46 states outscored the global competition.

However, even in the top-performing states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer U.S. students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries, notes the New York Times.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

While 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level in math, close to 50 percent were advanced in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Twenty-four percent of Massachusetts students achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore.

France, Germany, Denmark, China and India did not participate, notes Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor.

This global math achievement graph, via Education Week, shows the U.S. tied with Britain. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan — you sense a pattern perhaps — do the best.

In science, the top seven performers globally are: Singapore, Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan and New Hampshire.

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.”

Your kid’s school vs. the rest of the world

The U.S. may not ace international tests, but what abour your child’s school district? The Bush Institute’s Global Report Card 2.0 lets you rank 14,000 U.S. districts against 25 other developed countries, including high-scoring Singapore and Finland.

“Many of the school districts that we traditionally think of as high performers are found to rank near the middle of the pack when we compare them to international peers,” said Jay Greene, who conducted the study.

Americans are in denial about education problems, Greene tells The Atlantic. “When you tell people there are problems in education, elites will usually think, ‘Ah, that refers to those poor kids in big cities. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.’”

I checked out Palo Alto Unified, which educated my daughter. Palo Alto students outscore 83 percent of California students in math and 87 percent in reading. On a national level, Palo Alto kids earn a 75 percent in math and 80 percent in reading.  Compared to the rest of the world, scores slip to 67 percent in math, 79 percent in reading.

The comparison is “discouraging,” says The Atlantic.

. . .  if one of the wealthiest and most reputable districts in America, right in the cradle of Silicon Valley, can’t break the 70th percentile in math, what does that say about the rest of the country?

Dropped into Singapore, Palo Alto students would outscore 47 percent in math, 72 percent in reading.

Over the last 50 years, nations’ growth rates have correlated very well with math performance on basic tests, says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist.

In an article last year ominously titled “Danger: America Is Losing Its Edge in Innovation,”Forbes reported that 70 percent of the engineers who graduate from U.S. universities are now foreign-born. According to a 2007 study at Duke University, more than a quarter of all U.S. tech start-ups between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder.

We like to talk about American innovation, but many of the people doing the innovating here were in fact born elsewhere,” says Hanushek. If America’s high schools could match the math scores of our top competitors, our GDP could increase five- to sevenfold, he estimates.

It’s a big if.

U.S. students lag Asians in math, science, reading

Despite some gains, U.S. students continue to trail Asian students in math, science and reading, according to two international tests, the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, known as PIRLS, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, referred to as TIMSS.

U.S. fourth-graders’ math and reading scores improved since the last time students took the tests several years ago, while eighth-graders remained stable in math and science. Americans outperformed the international average in all three subjects but remained far behind students in such places as Singapore and Hong Kong, especially in math and science.

In fourth-grade math, for example, students in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Ireland and the Flemish region of Belgium outperformed U.S. students.

. . . In eighth-grade science, children in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia, Russia and Hong Kong beat U.S. students.

Some U.S. states participated. Florida, the only state that volunteered to take the fourth-grade reading exam, did very well, virtually tying Hong Kong, the top scorer. Third graders must pass Florida’s state exam to move into fourth grade.

Massachusetts’ eighth graders excelled in science and math. The state’s students placed fifth in math, behind  Singapore. South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan, and second in science, below Singapore.

U.S. students do well in the early grades, but don’t improve as much over time as students in other high-scoring countries, notes Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post.

“When we start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time,” said Jack Buckley, who leads the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The U.S. ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading, seventh in fourth-grade science and ninth in fourth-grade math; that dropped to 13th in eighth-grade science and 12th in eighth-grade math. (Reading wasn’t measured in eighth grade.)

“These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained in eighth grade, where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve.”

The diamond economy

The U.S. economy resembles an hourglass with a pinched middle, writes Marc Tucker. Singapore has a diamond economy, thanks to its educated workforce.

(Singapore) built a very high floor under the entire workforce by providing a world-class academic curriculum to all their students and creating a world-class teaching force to teach that curriculum.  They built a system of polytechnics as good as any in the world to provide very highly skilled senior technical workers for a wide range of industries.  Perhaps most impressive, they created a set of post-secondary vocational schools for the bottom quarter of their students as fine as any I have seen anywhere in the world, with facilities that rival those of many American universities.  They turned vocational education and training from a dumping ground into a sought-after alternative that attracts more and more students every year.

Ninety percent of Singapore’s vocational graduates have job offers in their chosen fields within six months of graduation, Tucker writes.  Youth unemployment is very low.

‘Best practices’ says who?

Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, which looks at “best practices” of schools in Shanghai, Japan, Finland Singapore and Canada, exemplifies the worst practices, writes Jay Greene in Education Next.

Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy colleagues describe characteristics of high-achieving countries’ schools, but there’s no proof they’ve picked the key factors, Greene writes.

Worse, Tucker’s recommendations ignore the “best practices” identified by his colleagues. He co-wrote the chapter on Japan and concludes that centralized control of education is a key to success. But every other case study highlights the importance of decentralization, writes Greene.

In Shanghai the local school system “received permission to create its own higher education entrance examination. This heralded a trend of exam decentralization, which was key to localized curricula.”

The chapter on Finland describes the importance of the decision “to devolve increasing levels of authority and responsibility for education from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and schools…. [T]here were no central initiatives that the government was trying to push through the system.”

Singapore is similarly described: “Moving away from the centralized top-down system of control, schools were organized into geographic clusters and given more autonomy…. It was felt that no single accountability model could fit all schools. Each school therefore set its own goals and annually assesses its progress toward meeting them…”

And the chapter on Canada teaches us that “the most striking feature of the Canadian system is its decentralization.”

Tucker also writes that high-achieving countries don’t use the market mechanisms favored by U.S. education reformers, such as charter schools and vouchers, notes Greene. However, the Shanghai chapter describes what it calls “the Chinese version of school choice.”

Canada also offers an “extensive system of school choice,” Greene writes.

Homework for parents

Parents are tasked with teaching measurement to their third graders by TERC’s Investigations, complains Katherine Beals of Out in Left Field. In high-scoring Singapore, she points out, third graders’ parents don’t get homework to do.

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In the comments, FedUpMom writes:

Oh man, if there’s one phrase I never want to hear again, it’s “parent involvement.” Involve me out!

Notice the confident assertion that “kids find these activities fun.”  Not my kids.

Cranberry objects to Everyday Math’s family activities, which tell parents to “spend chunks of valuable time on poorly planned make work.”