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.

Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage “ from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
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When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

It’s a smart world after all

Journalist Amanda Ripley’s “riveting” new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, shows why U.S. students don’t perform as well as many European and Asian students, writes Dana Goldstein in The Daily Beast. It’s the culture, stupid.

According to the OECD, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, our children rank 17th in reading and 31st in math. Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement.

Ripley follows three American teenagers studying abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. They discover “high schools that are deeply, even shockingly, enamored of intellectualism,” writes Goldstein.

In the U.S., most teachers earned about average grades and test scores when they were in high school and college. But in Finland, it is as competitive to become a public school teacher as it is to gain acceptance into an Ivy League university. There are no shortcuts into the classroom—prospective teachers must earn a master’s degree, write a research-driven thesis, and spend a full year in a teaching residency, observing master educators at work and practicing lessons and classroom management.

While few of us would want to subject our children to South Korea’s insane levels of testing stress, that nation at least shows kids that academic achievement is valued. On the morning of the national college entrance exam, the stock market opens an hour late, to clear the roads for 600,000 nervous students. Younger kids line up outside schools to cheer as their peers enter to take the nine-hour test. The scene, Ripley observes, is “like boxers entering a ring for a fight.”

In all three nations, schools don’t sponsor sports teams, Ripley writes. Kids who want to play a sport organize their own games, join a community program or hire a coach. Schools are for academics.

Children who can’t meet high expectations are allowed to fail.

Ripley believes that compared with their counterparts abroad, too many American educators rely on poverty as an excuse for poor student achievement. . . .

A  Finnish teacher tells Ripley that he doesn’t feel empathy for his immigrant students, “because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

Compassion is “what really matters in education,” writes Carol Lach, who just retired from the Massachusetts Department of Education, in Ed Week.  She quotes a junior high student she taught 40 years ago:  “Why should I care about your math if you don’t care about me?”

In Asian schools, boys behave

School boys in China, South Korea and Taiwan aren’t more disruptive than girls, while there’s a large gender gap in behavior in the U.S., according to a University of Pittsburgh study.  Yet U.S., Korean and Taiwanese teachers see girls as better behaved, notes Ed Week.

Generation jobless

Youth unemployment is a worldwide problem, reports The Economist in  Generation jobless. Yet many employers in countries from the U.S. to Morocco say they can’t find entry-level workers with the right skills.

Poor basic education is only part of the problem.

Countries with the lowest youth jobless rates have a close relationship between education and work. Germany has a long tradition of high-quality vocational education and apprenticeships, which in recent years have helped it reduce youth unemployment despite only modest growth.

Countries with high youth unemployment are short of such links. In France few high-school leavers have any real experience of work. In north Africa universities focus on preparing their students to fill civil-service jobs even as companies complain about the shortage of technical skills. The unemployment rate in Morocco is five times as high for graduates as it is for people with only a primary education.

Employers do much less training on the job.

Many countries are trying to improve vocational schools and develop apprenticeships, reports The Economist.

In 2010 South Korea created a network of vocational “meister” schools—from the German for “master craftsman”—to reduce the country’s shortage of machine operators and plumbers. . . . In Britain some further-education colleges are embracing the principle that the best way to learn is to do: North Hertfordshire College has launched a business venture with Fit4less, a low-cost gym. Bluegrass College in Kentucky and Toyota have created a replica of a car factory, where workers and students go to classes together.

Bluegrass is a community and technical college, so job training is part of the mission. Many community colleges work closely with employers on workforce development.

Via Meadia has more thoughts on practical vs. academic education.

Study: Disadvantaged students in U.S. are gaining

U.S.15-year-olds fare better on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam when the data is adjusted to compare similar students concludes a study by Stanford Graduate School of Education and Economic Policy Institute researchers. Low-income students in  the U.S. are gaining on disadvantaged students elsewhere, the study found.

Overall, the U.S.  ranked 14th in reading and 25th in math out of the 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), notes the Hechinger Report.

The United States has a larger proportion of economically disadvantaged students than do higher-performing countries. Finland, for example, reports that 4 percent of its students live in low-income families. In the United States, nearly a quarter of children live in poverty.

(Stanford Professor Martin) Carnoy and his coauthor Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute also contend that low-income students were oversampled in the U.S. results on the 2009 PISA test. About 40 percent of American PISA-takers attended a school where half or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, although nationwide only 23 percent of students attend such schools.

The most educationally disadvantaged U.S. students, as measured by the number of books in children’s homes, have been improving in reading and math since PISA was first given in 2000, the new analysis concludes. Test scores among similar students in Canada, Finland and South Korea have been dropping.

“We’re making progress with the kids at the bottom,” said Carnoy.  However, the most economically advantaged U.S. students in America are slipping compared to similar students in the countries analyzed.

To “go after the academic issues in the U.S. schools,” it’s necessary to tackle Poverty, Carnoy argues. “If you do policy that significantly reduces poverty in the U.S., I guarantee you, you will reduce the distance between top and bottom in our own country … and you’ll certainly raise those kids relative to kids in Finland, [South] Korea and Canada.”

Perhaps we can’t be Korea or Finland, but it would be nice to up there with Canada.

Massachusetts beats Finland

Finland is an education “miracle story,” according to one set of international tests, but nothing special on others, reports Ed Week’s Curriculum Matters. “If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average on the 2011 TIMSS, or Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, released last month. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as “benchmarking education systems” on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana.

. . . “Finland’s exaggerated reputation is based on its performance on PISA, an assessment that matches up well with its way of teaching math,” said Loveless, which he described as “applying math to solve ‘real world’ problems.”

He added, “In contrast, TIMSS tries to assess how well students have learned the curriculum taught in schools.”

Finland’s score of 514 on TIMSS for 8th grade math was close to the U.S. average of 509 and well below Massachusetts’ score of 561. Finland was way, way below South Korea on TIMSS but nearly as high on PISA.

Finland beat the U.S. average on TIMSS science section, but was well under Massachusetts.

In 4th grade reading, Finland beat the U.S. average on PIRLS (Progress in International Reading, Literacy Study), but scored about as well as Florida, the only U.S. state to participate.

Finland’s seventh graders dropped from above average to below average on TIMSS math. Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture said this was “mostly due to a gradual shift of focus in teaching from content mastery towards problem-solving and use of mathematical knowledge.”

Teachers matter — now what?

Teachers Matter. Now What?, writes Dana Goldstein in The Nation, citing the Chetty study on the long-term effects of high value-added teachers.

Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process.

What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay?

That’s the sort of teacher “career ladder” that has been so successful in high-performing nations like South Korea and Finland, and that would guarantee that excellent teachers aren’t just reaching twenty-five students per year but are truly sharing their expertise in a way that transforms entire schools and districts.

Reformers have been advocating teacher career ladders for a long time. Why aren’t they used more widely?

Class time isn’t shorter in U.S.

U.S. schoolchildren spend as much time in school as kids in high-scoring countries, concludes a report by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a longer school day and year, notes the Washington Times.

“Right now, children in India … they’re going to school 30, 35 days more than our students,” he said at an education forum in September, explaining one reason he thinks the American education system is falling behind those of global competitors.

“Anybody who thinks we need less time, not more, is part of the problem,” Mr. Duncan said.

Students in India spend more days in school, but fewer hours in class, totaling 800 “instructional hours” at the elementary level. Forty-two states require more class hours, the report found. Texas requres 1,260 hours a year for elementary students.

High-scoring South Korea requires 703 hours for elementary students, though many parents pay for after-school lessons. Hungarian students score at nearly the U.S. level despite requiring only 601 hours.

U.S. high school students average 1,000 hours in class each year.

In Poland, high school students need 595 hours in the classroom, the lowest of all the countries in the study, yet they top U.S. students on the math and science portions of the PISA exams, the most widely used measuring sticks for international comparisons.

Finland, Norway, Australia and other nations also show higher levels of student achievement while requiring less instruction.

Of course, it’s not just the time spent at school, but how it’s used.

 

Forget Finland: Reform K-12 the U.S. way

Forget Finland, writes Rick Hess. Stop trying to be South Korea. We can “tap into uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity” to reform our schools.

America is a really big country. By population, it’s the third largest in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history. This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity, like Finland. However, this makes the U.S. capable of embracing and supporting many models of teaching and schooling, with each still able to reach critical mass.

“Grandiloquent international best practice reports . . . identify a couple of homogenous nations the size of Minnesota that produce good test scores, cherry-pick a few of their educational practices, and then draw broad prescriptions,” Hess writes. We need to embrace America’s comparative advantages instead of trying to copy the competition.

When it comes to utilizing new tools and technology, the U.S. is “a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving,” he writes.

Non-profits like Teach For America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem, and Citizen Schools are showing new ways to recruit and utilize educators. For-profits like Wireless Generation, Tutor.com, Pearson, Discovery, and Rosetta Stone are offering up a range of ways to harness new tools and technology to support teaching and learning.

Leveraging these new problem-solvers is the challenge, Hess writes.

And keep an eye on Qatar and India, which may be the world leaders in the future.