Monday, December 15, 2014

Common Core Mathematics Will Damage the Competitive Position of the United States

I was an early supporter of the Common Core, and signed a public statement of support for the standards on behalf of One World Secondary School some time in 2010, if I recall correctly. The basic concept is right: we live in an increasingly mobile society, and my international experience (I taught overseas for seven years, and have visited 23 countries) has made me keenly aware of the differences in educational attainment between Americans and other people. This has motivated my long struggle to start an international secondary school for my son and for as many students who want to be educated like him as I can find.

A consequence of this long (and still ongoing) attempt to start an international school for everyone has been extensive study of the world's educational systems, including their mathematical standards. Really top level standards can be easily accessed through the website of APEC, the awkwardly named Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and its human resource development group wiki.

I am sorry to say that I have withdrawn support for the Common Core, largely because of the lack of international competitiveness of its mathematical standards. Common Core mathematics will leave American students roughly three years behind their Chinese, and two years behind the other leading Asian mathematics students, who are increasingly arriving on American shores to take the SAT, a test whose mathematics are laughably easy (they really laugh at them; I have tutored many such students over the years) compared with what they have studied during their secondary school careers. And the problem is getting worse, as an article I've just read today from the Pioneer Institute makes clear; and it will likely lead to the dumbing down of the SAT, a test already terribly inferior to the university entrance examinations most of the rest of the developed world's students study for, with malignant consequences for the future of the U.S. voting public and its engineers, in particular.

A parent I work with who is concerned about her son's future prompted me to write something on this topic. I wish I had something more encouraging to say to her. My only message to her, and to other parents like her who are worried about their children's future, is to find a way, if at all possible, to withdraw your children from their state schools, enter private education to the extent you can afford to (but check out their mathematics curriculum, which may be no better), and press for vouchers to help you afford this better alternative (like One World Secondary College!), at least until the Common Core mathematics standards are withdrawn for revision; and don't listen to any reactionary siren songs favouring a return to some imaginary good old days: those have never existed, in American secondary education, and our children need to be prepared for a competitive future, not for some fantasyland of the past, nor for an unreachable No Child Left Behind national state that at present is cut off from the realities of the other 95 percent of the people who inhabit our planet.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In Today's World, Geography is More Important than History

This is the follow-up post I promised to write in my last, a review of Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error.

I like history. I read history books (occasionally) in my free time, and I include the subject in my (mostly English) teaching. But in The New History of the World, which I rely upon as one source for a general overview, author J. M. Roberts argues that the pace of change has increased since the Neolithic era and that that increase continues, and this is something we can feel almost daily, rendering the lessons of history steadily more remote.

Last year two important new education books appeared at almost the same time, Amanda Ripley's the smartest kids in the world and Professor Ravitch's Reign of Error. I wanted to read both, have now completed both, am glad I read both, since they both make valuable points -- but at the time I was unsure of which to read first. I ultimately chose to read Ms. Ripley's book first, largely because my career in international and domestic education has led me to conclude that, in today's world, geography is more important than history -- that is, knowing more about the way the world is today is more important than knowing how one's country was yesterday; and a corollary of this is that being able to see where today's American education stands in relation to that overseas is more important than understanding how it compares today with what it was in the past. Finishing both books has confirmed me in that opinion. Professor Ravitch does not ignore international educational data, but the value of Ms. Ripley's work continues to shine, for example in a new Slate article published today.

I agree with Professor Ravitch's opinion that American K-12 education has gotten worse in recent decades, especially because of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. I also agree with those who believe the Common Core standards are better than those state standards that were taught to in the previous decade. But unless American educators know that, for all the ballyhoo accompanying the Common Core, once implemented their students will still be 2-3 years behind their peers in east Asia in mathematics, or understand that pursuing the strategy of Wendy Kopp's followers to prepare all children for college in spite of the enormous financial and opportunity costs involved, which Marc Tucker's commendable blog post in Education Week yesterday, which highlights vocational education in Switzerland, which like Singapore, which has a still better education system, only prepares 20-30% of any cohort for tertiary education but ends up with a better educated, more employable population -- until Americans get out of their limited domestic box and are aware of these real options that are being successfully implemented overseas now, our nation will continue to blunder down fruitless reform paths while other countries leave our young in the dust, an outcome surely no one in America's education debates wants.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Diane Ravitch's Most Important Point in "Reign of Error"

This post should be read as a companion to one I wrote in review of Amanda Ripley's the smartest kids in the world: both books appeared at almost the same time last year, and I was torn as to which to read first. I believe I read them in the right order, a point I will return to in my next post.

I believe Professor Ravitch's most important point in Reign of Error, which I think a better book than its predecessor, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, since this offers positive solutions rather than merely the insightful criticisms of her previous book, is found on page 310, where she discusses out-of-state contributions to school board races across the country:

"It is a troubling pattern that raises questions about who is bundling the money and why it is sent to certain races. It is not illegal to give campaign contributions to races in other districts and states, but local and state school board races should be determined by those who live in those districts and states, not by the organized power of big donors.
     "The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase education policy in this nation".

This is precisely on point. A fascinating expose last weekend in The Washington Post revealed how Bill Gates apparently purchased education policy in the form of support for a common core of standards throughout the majority of the states in this country in just two years, in at least one case before they had even been written. Not that this was some evil plot to get rich, an absurd charge, or was otherwise ill-intended; but the extra political access available to the world's richest man, a genuine philanthropist but also one without a record of solid returns on his educational investments made so far (although I continue to be thankful for his support in our attempt to turn around Locke High School in 2007) -- a man able to convene 80 senators to hear a speech on education he gave in March -- should trouble anyone who reveres America's democratic traditions, including Professor Ravitch.

Barack Obama was the first candidate to turn down public financing of a presidential campaign, and the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court has made a bad trend worse. American democracy has morphed into plutocracy. This should trouble all who care about America's civic traditions, and in this respect Diane Ravitch speaks clearly and forcefully for a dwindling breed of Americans who (adapting the words of President Kennedy) ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Student Outcomes Success for One World Lyceum

At breakfast this morning, I read an Epoch Times article depicting a former teacher at one of Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy Charter Schools. In the article we are treated to an account of how hard the teachers and pupils work, the Success Academy system's potential for teacher burnout (which is true of the systems of many charter management organizations), and the striking success of the Academy's pupils on New York's state tests. One is left asking oneself if all the time and effort are worth the results, and this leads inevitably to the question of what "success" means in relation to a school.

I believe that defining school success must begin with student outcomes. In the case of primary schools like the Success Academy, scores on state tests are a reasonable proxy, since they have predictive value for how well Success pupils will perform in middle school, whether in other Success schools or outside the network. In the case of an upper secondary school like One World Lyceum, a model my trustees and I are proposing to start, success will be defined as the families of the students I am teaching define it: by college admissions, in particular admissions to top colleges.

The Wall Street Journal, Worth, and other publications have produced rankings based on how successful North America's college-preparatory high schools are in gaining access for their graduates to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford, the most common answers to requests for defining "top colleges" on this continent. But One World, as the name makes apparent, is envisioned as an international school, with global outreach (and an educational programme that prepares its graduates for success anywhere in the world); so what is our answer to defining the schools we are targeting for our students?

Our school model calls for graduating classes of 180 students, which we consider to be an ideal size, neither too large nor too small. In reality, college matching decisions will be made between the colleges and our students and their families; but insofar as we play (as I am currently playing in guiding students towards colleges likeliest to help them fulfill their aspirations) a role in this match-making, it is in our lyceum's interest to establish ongoing relationships with the top 180 university colleges in the world; and I have devoted considerable effort to defining what these are, I share this information with the students I am charged with overseeing, and I am also willing to share my results privately with those who are interested.  

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.