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.

[click to enlarge]:

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.”

The death of vocational ed — and the middle class

The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.

That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.

I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community.  With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades.  Now, he told me, “That’s all over.  Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with.  I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.”  He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board.  He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.

Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.

By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”

They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills.  And they designed programs that could deliver those skills.  They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them.  They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment.  Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.  No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life.  But those students have a range of attractive choices.

Tucker links to descriptions of vocational education in the NetherlandsAustralia and Singapore.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.

 

NCEE: U.S. reforms don’t match Korea, etc.

U.S. education policy should emulate the world’s top performers — Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Ontario, Canada — concludes a report (pdf) by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the United States is to figure out how the countries with top student performance are doing it, build on their achievements and then, by building on our unique strengths, figure out how to do it even better,” Marc Tucker, NCEE’s CEO, said in a statement.

While none of the top performers test students annually, they require students to pass a national, comprehensive, standardized “gateway test” at the end of middle school and again at the end of 10th grade. “Because the exams are very high quality, they cannot be ‘test prepped;’ the only way to succeed on them is to actually master the material,” NCEE says.

Other recommendations include the reallocation of money — spending more on paying quality teachers and less on state-of-the-art school facilities, new textbooks, and administrators. The report also recommends that states take more of a responsibility for funding schools, moving away from the majority local-funded system the country uses now.

After praising the new Common Core Standards in math and English, the report calls for adding more subjects to create a national curriculum, notes the San Jose Mercury News.

In the five exemplary countries, national curricula also cover science, social sciences, arts, music and often religion, morals or philosophy.

Improving teacher quality is critical, the report finds, suggesting moving credential programs to high-status universities and raising entrance requirements.

In Finland, for example, only one in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher-training programs, which take five or more years to complete. By contrast, in 2008, U.S. high school graduates intending to major in education scored in the bottom third on their SAT college-entrance exams. “We cannot afford to continue bottom fishing for prospective teachers while the best-performing countries are cream skimming,” the report said.

Small classes are a waste of money, the study says. “Of all the strategies available to improve student performance, decreasing class size is among the most expensive and least effective.”

Ed Week has more on the report and the debate it’s set off.

I like the idea of gateway exams — but what’s the plan if lots of students fail? Most top-performing countries use those exams to decide who should go to a college-prep high school and who should go to a career-prep school.  That would be a humongous change for the U.S.

Recruiting teachers only from the top of the class would reduce the number of black and Hispanic teachers. Are we OK with that?

NCEE doesn’t like change on the fringes, such as charter schools. It calls for aligning the education system. A national curriculum in all subjects backed by national gateway exams would do that. The top performers tend to have a college-entrance exam too. We could stop sending high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade math. Are we ready to make all public schools march to the beat of the same drummer? I can see the attraction, but it makes me nervous.

Report: Raise teachers’ status, pay

Raise U.S. teachers’ status by recruiting only high-performing college graduates, training and mentoring them well and paying them more, advises a new report (pdf) by Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA international achievement test. In top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland, teaching is a high-status occupation, Schleicher says. From the New York Times:

“Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”

The report was released to kick off an Education Department conference on teaching that included education ministers and leaders of teachers’ unions from 16 countries as well as state superintendents.

“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders,’ and I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on education on Monday.

Schleicher, an official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, wrote, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” with Steven L. Paine, a CTB/McGraw-Hill vice president and a former West Virginia schools superintendent.

The report lists “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, including raising the status of teachers, adopting common academic standards, developing better tests to diagnose students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.

The average salary of a veteran elementary teacher in the U.S. is higher than the OECD average, but U.S. teachers earn 40 percent less than other college graduates here, while teachers elsewhere are closer to the median.

In an interview, Mr. Schleicher said the point was not that the United States spends too little on public education — only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but rather that American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.

“You can spend a lot of money on education, but if you don’t spend it wisely, on improving the quality of instruction, you won’t get higher student outcomes,” Mr. Schleicher said.

Linda Darling-Hammond expresses a similar vision — top students, excellent training, higher pay — in a piece that calls for melding Teach for America’s recruitment expertise with training for career teachers.