Sunday, March 16, 2014

Singapore Has the World's Best School System, According to Current Data

A reader who is also a teacher wrote to me last month about a post I wrote in 2011 that claimed Norway had the world's best school system. I let him know that I have since updated my methods, and Norway is nowhere near the top, largely because employers claim that it's difficult to find an appropriate labour supply there, and one of my criteria is the system's ability to supply a modern economy's labour needs. I also wrote him that my updated rankings put Singapore on top, and that I would write something soon to explain why, which I am now doing.

As I have explained in earlier posts, the five criteria I use to assess education systems have been (1) average attainment (years of schooling successfully completed by the average student in the system); (2) average achievement (formerly indicated primarily by PISA scores, but more recently by PIAAC -- more on that below); (3) the employment rate of the disabled, as a proxy for outcomes for a society's least advantaged; (4) top university rankings, as a proxy for the services provided to a society's most educationally gifted; and (5) the ability of the system to supply a modern economy's labour needs, as reported by the International Institute of Management Development (IMD).

The most important recent innovation related to this activity of mine (which supports my general activity in education advocacy, and supplies me with useful intellectual capital for the development of One World Lyceum, potentially the flagship of a One World system of schools) was last year's release of PIAAC data, and specifically that for the competences of young adults, released by the OECD. This helped me to combine points 1 and 2 above, since PIAAC measures, better than any other currently available assessment, the knowledge and skills (competences) the young people of various developed countries have at the end of their formal educations. While 21st century life definitely rewards lifelong learners, many people don't progress much in their competences once they leave formal schooling, so PIAAC is a crucial source of data for how education systems are doing.

On these bases, my assessment of the available data indicate that Singapore has the world's best education system. While precise rankings are calculable based on my formula, I think they would suggest a spurious precision which I do not claim, and therefore I will merely suggest, on the basis of the above evidence, that, in alphabetical order on the next tier down below Singapore, I would rank the education systems of Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland; and below these, still quite respectable, I find (also in alphabetical order) those of Australia, England, Finland, Germany, (South) Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Amanda Ripley's Most Important Point in "the smartest kids in the world"

As someone who studies comparative education continuously, I have no end of things I could write about Amanda Ripley's interesting book, including criticisms;  but I prefer to stay positive, and focus on what we can learn from the book, and I learned much.

The subtitle of "the smartest kids in the world" is "and how they got that way", and most readers of the book most want that last bit, the secret formula that can make their own kids, and those throughout the U.S. school system, be similarly smart. I will focus on her best answer to that question.

Ms. Ripley follows American high school students to Finland, South Korea (where I taught for seven years; my wife is a former Korean high school science teacher), and Poland, and does some extra research in attempting to find out what the students in the "highest performing systems" do. She defines, conventionally, a "high performing system" as one with high PISA scores. Since her book's publication, new PISA scores have appeared, and a more important set of data from PIAAC, the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, has also been released; and despite the information available at the time of her writing, she never considers attainment, which can be roughly defined as the number of years of schooling successfully completed (important because education doesn't end at 15), nor outcomes (such as employment) for society's least fortunate (such as those with disabilities), nor outcomes (such as the discovery of new knowledge) for society's most gifted, nor the ability of an educational system to fill the needs of a modern economy, which in addition to achievement, are the five factors I include in calculating my own assessment of educational system performance; therefore our definitions of "highest performing systems" differ.

My latest calculations put Singapore on top, as having the best educational system in the world; below it I establish a tier of other leading systems, which, in alphabetical order, are Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland; and below these I have established a third tier of systems still at least above average, if lower performing than those above: in alphabetical order these are Australia, England, Finland, Germany, (South) Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States. And as I went through the many iterations of "the best schools and school systems do x" in the book, the point she makes that is most consistent with what these real best systems do is on page 212, in appendix I, "how to spot a world-class education":

"In the world's education superpowers, parents agreed that a rigorous education was critical to their kids' life chances.
     "Wherever you live, if you can find a community or school where parents and educators share this baseline belief, then you have found something more valuable to more children than the best football program on earth."

Or, as I prefer to put it in the note I made at the end of the book, "Empirically optimized rigour --> the best school(s)"

Sunday, October 6, 2013

WYSIATI and the Assessment of School Systems

For me, it seems like Amanda Ripley is everyplace right now. This morning, when I went out for breakfast, I carried a copy of The Atlantic with me into Panera and consumed her cover story "The Case Against High-School Sports" along with a pastry and a latte. In the afternoon, I listened to a radio interview she recorded with Bloomberg Radio. And tonight I finished chapter 3 of her book The Smartest Kids in the World. I'm finding this increased exposure of comparative education, a passion of mine, stimulating, and in spite of some critical remarks I have been making here and there (most notably in a review that was published in August by Whitney Tilson, in one of his periodical newsletters and on his blog, of her Wall Street Journal article "The $4 Million Teacher"), I am enjoying all this Ripley, believe it or not.

Nonetheless, her dismissive evaluation of Switzerland's education system, which I think the best in the world, in the Bloomberg interview and her valorizing of the Korean and Polish school systems on account of their improvement shown in the results of PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment, the best known international tests that allow for comparison between different countries' educational systems) is indicative of an especially problematic instance of WYSIATI, a cognitive malady diagnosed by Daniel Kahneman and especially prevalent in educational evaluation, to the great harm of us all.   

A couple of years ago I read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of psychology at Princeton and, most unusual for a psychologist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Among the fascinating chapters in that book is chapter 7, "A Machine for Jumping to Conclusions", which introduces readers to WYSIATI, which stands for "What You See Is All There Is", the cognitive fallacy that is the "machine" referred to in the chapter title. The fallacy is well illustrated by a cartoon I saw once, which shows a man searching desperately under a streetlight at night for his glasses, which have fallen off. When asked why he has been searching in the same place for so long rather than looking elsewhere, the man responds, "Because under the light is the only place I can see." Similarly, when asked, "What's the best education system?" even well-informed researchers in comparative education often engage in question-substitution, another habit of our inherently lazy minds, and convert that question into the much more easily answered "Which country [or school, or teacher, or student] has the best test scores?" and then provide the answer to that in substitution for the answer to the original question, whose answer would necessarily require the human use of qualitative judgement in addition to the machine-like use of memory for relevant quantitative data.

Too many pundits convert the hard question, "Which countries, and which aspects of their systems, might serve as useful models for the United States [or another country] in improving our educational [or health care, or other] system?" into the more easily answered, "Which countries [or states, districts, schools, teachers, students] have better scores than ours?" Those of us with first-hand experience in such jurisdictions are well aware of the tradeoffs required for higher test scores, and avoid publishing such simplistic evaluations, even if experts with power, influence, and overconfidence (most prominently the PISA datameister at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher) are regularly provided with audiences for broadcasts of similar spurious claims and arguments.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why Families Should Be Attracted to a Lyceum in the United States

Culture. In a word, that's why families should prefer lyceums to high schools. In two words, school culture.

I have criticized American high school culture in several other posts, including yesterday's. By contrast, the culture of a lyceum is serious, and is focused on academic success, to the near exclusion of everything else. This is the atmosphere one finds on the campuses of secondary schools of nations around the world that are leading in student attainment and student achievement, an atmosphere missing even from some of America's most elite high schools, and clearly missing from the environments of relatively successful high school campuses in privileged suburban communities like Irvine, California, where I live.

Many Asian immigrant families flock to Irvine and to similar communities around the United States, repeating in their residential choices the patterns established in their home countries. Many of these families lack the English and the cultural knowledge necessary to properly evaluate the schooling their children are receiving. If they had the wherewithal necessary to make these evaluations, they would know how overrated the schools their children are attending are, and might well feel cheated. And the American residents of these communities, who see high scores on the easy tests given to our children, also rest in an unwarranted cocoon of comfort. Wait till their children apply for college, or until they experience their freshmen years once inside, if they have to face real international competition, especially in mathematics or a science: a rude awakening from that comfort is coming.

A lyceum exists only to prepare students for the baccalaureate examination that looms at the end of its three-year term (the best French lycees also offer post-baccalaureate instruction for which they are particularly famous, but I think our top students would be better off on our best university campuses than they would be inside any dungeon-like prepas institutions). In France this is the baccalaureat, in Germany the Abitur, in Switzerland the Matura: these examinations go by different names, but in all cases they coordinate secondary school leaving and tertiary entrance standards, minimize disjunctions, and maximize the likelihood of student success once these young people leave their secondary schools and enter adulthood, something we are doing a poor job of. But the serious school culture that makes this higher standard of learning achievable is unlikely to flourish in America unless it pays off in a qualification that justifies all the hard work spent with a clear advantage over those unwilling to work as hard; and our current college admissions policies do not reward hard work so much as they favour a compact between established legacy privilege and the alleviation of inherited upper class guilt via charity towards youthful members of groups historically discriminated against. But the easing of the guilty consciences of the historically advantaged is no sound basis for a social policy, whereas establishing a lyceum like One World Lyceum could fundamentally change the culture of American secondary schooling.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Why a Lyceum is Preferable to a High School

The recently released data from the 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessments show no progress among America's 17-year-olds over four decades, in spite of substantial increases in our rate of public investment in our schools and of improvements in the testing data of our 9- and 13-year-olds. This implies that progress in high school has actually decreased, compared to that made during the 1970s, in spite of our spending over twice as much, in real terms, per student!

The traditional American comprehensive high school model is outdated and needs replacing, wherever possible (most rural communities may be too stretched to afford to build more than a single high school and so will have to limit themselves to providing choices for students within their comprehensive settings).

I have been advocating, and am trying to open, an alternative institution, which I call a lyceum, an anglicization of the French lycee, the model nearest what I am trying to introduce to the United States; although more precisely that model might be termed, or envisioned as, in succession, a general lycee (lycee general), a private lycee (lycee prive), a lycee international school, a  French-German lycee, a French-German Matura school, or a French-German Matura school in the Netherlands, which also uses the term lyceum in a similar way. I use it to denote "an upper secondary school offering a general education preparatory only for tertiary education, for students inclined towards and likely to succeed in such studies." By "upper secondary" I designate the last three years of secondary school, for students roughly between the ages of 15 and 18, in keeping with the world's most common grade configuration for students of this age, according to UN data.

Now we come to the important issue of justification of the model, referred to in the title to this post. The American high school lacks focus: it tries to be all things for all young people, and succeeds at many things badly. It has also developed a trickle-down college culture inappropriate for youth of this age, one that distracts them with features like proms, marching bands, drill teams, and football homecoming, features meant, according to the principles of the original high school movement, to increase the popularity of staying in school, but now wholly out of date, since the work alternatives to staying in school are presently almost non-existent: like their counterparts in our overpopulated third world, American youth today have to stay in some kind of school, like it or not.

But what kind of school? Why a lyceum? I'll tackle that issue tomorrow, in my next post.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Admissions to Higher Education in the United States (and elsewhere)

The Supreme Court's recent ruling with respect to the University of Texas's affirmative action programme raises the general question of how the limited public resource of access to our most attractive university placements ought to be allocated. The plaintiff in the Texas case, as in previous cases (for example Bakke in 1978), felt wronged by her own state's preference for another candidate more to the liking of the university's race-aware admissions committee, and sued for redress of grievance. The Court has sent the Texas case back to the appeals court with instructions to investigate the possibility of using race-based (and, by logical extension, perhaps other) discriminatory preferences more narrowly, while still pursuing the goal of campus diversity.

As in the Bakke decision, the court appears to continue to fail to distinguish between public and private universities, and to be willing to grant public university admissions committees the same degree of discretion that private universities enjoy. But public universities are taxpayer-funded, and taxpayers have a reasonable expectation from legally established state institutions of equal protection under the law; while by contrast, individual applicants and their families have paid essentially nothing into establishing the private universities they may be applying to, and can expect less from them since they are owed less.

Therefore our public universities need a new system on the basis of which they might practice race-based (and income-based, culturally based, and perhaps other forms of) discrimination in favour of some of their citizens at the expense of others, in pursuit of the goal of campus diversity. In America, the proper basis for such tie-breaking discrimination is the American Baccalaureate Certificate I have been advocating. This certificate, which would establish a legal right to a free, three-year bachelor's degree at public expense, would resemble the European Baccalaureate that is itself a synthesis and compromise from the similar certificates that are commonly used for university entrance in many parts of Europe, and would be further modified in the direction of the International Baccalaureate, which has been making rapid progress in gaining its popularity throughout the United States in recent years. In fact, under the Ameribac proposal developed for One World Lyceum, the final mark would be arrived at by a formula multiplying the rough equivalent of IB points accumulated by the EB percentage achieved; then, in the case of any ties, race-based and other forms of discrimination favouring candidates with a history of overcoming unequal odds might be properly applied, as they are sometimes being improperly and unjustly applied at the present time.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

21st Century Schools

"Why our kids need them, what they look like, how we create them."

A friend of a friend has just today posted an entry on a local Venice-Mar Vista blog, and asked, "Who wants to be the first to post?" I'm not that shy, and so am taking up the gauntlet.

A fine book is Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai, published by Harvard Education Press. Chapter 4's "Singapore: A Journey to the Top, Step by Step", written by Vivien Stewart, asks, "What can be learned from Singapore", and answers, finally,

"Eagerness to learn from other countries and an orientation toward the future matter.  The design of Singapore's education system owes a lot to lessons from other parts of the world. Focused and universal use of educational benchmarking and, more recently, significant funds for research have enabled Singapore to move up the value chain and foster a culture of never standing still. This is a system that recognizes the rapidity of change around the world and that has the capacity and inclination to learn and adapt. Singapore fosters a global outlook for everyone -- teachers, principals, and students, who are expected to have 'global awareness and cross-cultural skills' and to be 'future-ready'" (135).

Leading educational organizations such as the International Baccalaureate and APEC (the ill-named "Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation") have oriented themselves towards our global future, and the ideal 21st century school would serve as the flagship to found a system of schools similarly oriented. I have been working on such a school for years now, and while it has developed through various versions, its essential vision and purpose have remained the same: 

“By synthesizing best practices from around the world and throughout time, and without depending upon selective admissions or extraordinary resources, One World Secondary School’s purpose is to demonstrate a world-class model of education so that diverse students succeed in colleges of their own choosing.”