Singapore parents push math

U.S. students are below average in math skills, according to PISA, while Asian countries excel. Parents’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviors make a difference, concludes a study of parents in the U.S., England and top-scoring Singapore.  From Curriculum Matters:

Parents in Singapore are far more likely than those in the United States and England to engage a math tutor to help their child, they’re more likely to get assistance from teachers and others in how to help their child, and their children more often take part in math competitions and math/science camps.

. . .  75 percent of Singapore parents said it’s important to provide math learning opportunities outside the school curriculum, compared with 53 percent in the U.S. and 49 percent in England.

Compared to Singapore parents, U.S. parents are much more confident they can help their children in math, noted the study, which was conducted by Eduventures for Raytheon. “Whether this U.S. confidence is well-placed is hard to say, but the report suggests that one explanation may be that the middle school math curriculum is more advanced in Singapore than in the United States.”

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.

Few teachers come from top of the class

Singapore, Finland and South Korea, all countries with high-performing school systems,  recruit teachers from the top third of college graduates.  In the U.S.,  only 23 percent of teachers are top graduates; that falls to 14 percent in high-poverty schools. A majority attend colleges that admit virtually all applicants.  So concludes a report by the McKinsey consulting firm.

For top U.S. graduates, teachers salaries aren’t competitive with other careers.  The average teacher starts at $39,000 and peaks at $67,000.

In contrast, starting salaries in Singapore are more competitive, and teachers can receive retention bonuses of $10,000 to $36,000 every three to five years, the report says. Teachers also receive merit-based bonuses and increases, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent of their base salaries. In South Korea, teachers receive salaries that would translate to between $55,000 and $155,000 in the United States, it says.

Teaching lacks prestige in the U.S., the report adds.

“Smart, capable people have to feel confident they will work with other smart, capable people,” responded Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality,

By contrast, in Finland, the process for becoming a teacher is “extremely competitive,” and “only about one in 10 applicants is accepted to become a teacher,” according to the McKinsey report. Applicants to education schools are drawn from the top 20 percent of high school classes and must pass several exams and interviews. In Finland, “teaching is the most admired profession among top students, outpolling law and medicine,” it says.

Teacher attrition is very low in Singapore and even lower in South Korea, the report notes.

The U.S. could attract more top graduates by “subsidizing teacher-preparation tuition costs; ensuring more effective administration and training opportunities in high-need schools; improving teachers’ working conditions; and providing performance bonuses of up to 20 percent,” McKinsey suggests. A pricier alternative would be to raise pay substantially, starting new teachers at $65,000 and offering a maximum salary of $150,000.

Keeping top-level teachers is another challenge. If working conditions are lousy, smart people with options won’t stick around, even for high pay.

Half of current teachers are expected to retire in the next 10 years. Who will replace them?

China, Singapore are 'ugly models'

Americans should stop envying the education system in Singapore and China, argues Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosophy and law professor, in The New Republic. For any nation that aspires to remain a democracy, Singapore and China are ugly models, she argues.

Rote learning and teaching to the test are so common in Singapore and China that both nations are worried their graduates lack the “analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation,” Nussbaum writes.

In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”

The reforms haven’t been implemented: Teacher pay is  linked to test scores and teachers find it easier to “follow a formula.”

In both nations, there is no freedom to criticize the government or the political system.  Singapore’s citizenship education consists of analyzing why the government’s policy is correct, she writes.

Singapore and China aren’t producing the innovators their economies will need, Nussbaum argues. They suppress “imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.”

Nussbaum recommends South Korea and India for those looking for an Asian education model. I thought both put a lot of emphasis on tests.


Singapore math in Kentucky

Singapore math is working in Fayette County, Kentucky, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.  Nine schools are using textbooks based on the curriculum used in high-scoring Singapore.

So-called “Singapore math” features problems that often are more complex than American textbooks contain. It demands deep mastery of a few math concepts, rather than an overview of many different ideas.

Jessica Alt, a fifth-grade teacher, says some students who were two years below grade level in the fall scored at or above grade level half way through the year.

Singapore math “is expected to fit nicely with new, narrower and deeper math standards that Kentucky education leaders will be adopting soon.”

“Before, we would touch on a math concept, get the kids comfortable with it and then move on to something else,” (teacher Polly Anna) Cox said. “We went so fast that sometimes it could be frustrating. But with Math in Focus, we might spend a couple of months on just one concept. The students really understand it before we move on.”

Teachers are getting nearly 100 hours of training in how to use Singapore math.

Singapore does voc ed too

Known for high scores in math and science, Singapore also offers high-quality career training in 11th and 12th grade to students who aren’t academically inclined, reports Education Week.

“Streaming” works in Singapore partly because all students receive a strong grounding in core academic subjects, such as math, early in school, said Alan Ginsburg, the director of policy and program studies at the Education Department. As a result, students enter career-oriented classes with skills that help them in class and on the job, said Mr. Ginsburg, who has studied math curriculum in Singapore.

. . . Too many American students with a strong career focus, by contrast, do not receive sufficient academic content, and thus “never get the skills they need to be employable,” he said.

Singapore’s vocational schools work closely with employers so students graduate with marketable skills.

Smart teachers, successful students

Countries with high-scoring students tend to have high-quality teachers, reports the Christian Science Monitor, looking at Finland and Singapore. In both, teaching is a prestige profession open only to top students.

Only the top third of secondary-school graduates in Singapore can apply for teacher training. The National Institute of Education winnows that field down more and pays a living stipend while they learn to teach. Each year, teachers take an additional 100 hours of paid professional development. And they spend substantial time outside the classroom to plan with colleagues.

Singapore’s teachers earn as much as scientists and engineers.

Other successful education nations may: mentor new teachers; give teachers time to collaborate with colleagues and design lessons, work within a national curriculum and invest in improving teachers’ skills.