Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the Achievement Gap

This is likely to be one of my more heretical posts. I think heretical well chosen here since the notion that all demographic groups of significant size should ideally produce equal achievement test results is so broadly accepted and so little debated in American education as to be the equivalent of canon law. But I will open that debate here with three related theses: (1) I'm not sure the gap can be eliminated, (2) I'm pretty sure it can't by any other than unjust means, and (3) I don't understand why anyone thinks this would be a good thing to achieve in the first place.

The achievement gap is not some new discovery; its investigation goes back to the Coleman Report of 1966, and I have read historians' estimates of it having been far more pronounced, at least between Americans of African ancestry compared with Americans of European ancestry, in 1900 than it was in 2000; and indeed, if you want to see a gap, visit those two continents consecutively, and then reflect on how far the gap has narrowed in this country. But pretty intense efforts to close it have been taking place in American schools for 40 years, with discouragingly little evidence of recent success. I am not here asserting that it cannot be eliminated, merely observing that it doesn't appear that it will happen soon.

Achievement gaps are apparent even before children enter compulsory schooling (first grade), and unless we are willing to have some theoretical totalitarian government control all human reproduction and seize all infants at birth for placement in orphanages, we are unlikely to eliminate those gaps prior to first grade. So the only way to eliminate a pre-established gap would be to (1) eliminate all private education, including homeschooling and tutoring, and then (2) make unequal distributions of public educational resources (such as time allowed for and quality of instruction) so as to favor those who enter school behind, to enable them to catch up. Now look at the next bright six-year-old you see from an education-loving family, and then look at that child's mother or father, who has perhaps been diligently reading in bed to the child and playing educational games with her or him since she or he was a toddler; do you really want to discriminate against such young human beings so early in life, for the sin of growing up in a family that values education highly? Or are you going to wait until later to start handicapping that child so as to achieve your social vision?   

My parents valued education highly; evidence of such was the subscription to National Geographic which appeared on the glass coffee table in our middle class living room, and I used to read it periodically as I was growing up. I remember reading about travelling on the Siberian Express when the Soviet Union was showing periodic glimmers of opening up to the rest of the world. During the Glasnost period of the 1980s, this journey sounded at first like one of the most romantic in the world; but through the account of the Western journalist undertaking the trip, we learned that it was one of the dreariest. Town after town, village after village, station after station, for 8000 miles (13,000 kilometres), through what in a non-totalitarian state should have been nine time zones, came and went, all exactly alike, the achievement of a Soviet state that prized equality, not just of opportunity but also of condition and outcome, before all else, at least in theory (less so in fact, we later learned).

Isn't the idea that there should be no achievement gap; that people of all races and ethnicities, of all backgrounds, linguistic, religious and otherwise, that all their family cultures should be rendered irrelevant and counteracted, and that all students should achieve exactly alike in every subject, a Soviet theory of education?  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On AB 440, UC, Double Standards, and Dr. King's Dream

I have opposed AB 440 in this and other forums, and do so energetically largely because, combined with the pitiful funding for chartered and other schools in California, it will drive my school of dreams for my son and for any and all other like-minded families into the independent school sector, thus leaving poor families behind, which is something I am deeply against, or out of California in search of more truly liberal (freedom-loving) states, which is something that also rankles me, being hounded out of my home state by a coalition of status quo special interests who have consistently opposed putting students first and some well meaning friends who I am convinced have not thoroughly thought through their positions.

AB 440 would outlaw the current demographics of the University of California if they happened to develop in a California charter school. It is therefore deeply ironic that its supporters are so frequently alumni of the University of California or of elite private universities with similar demographics. These demographics, in which some ethnicities appear overrepresented and others under, would still be legal at private schools and in magnet schools, but try to open or run a charter school which would establish high standards for academic progress in its upper secondary division in California and you will quickly discover how fake and hollow any claims of this being the land of the free led by liberals really are.

Of course, if any such demographics were to evolve, by accident rather than by design, on a chartered school campus, it would not be automatically shut down; it would be given time to fix the problem. The solution would be to go off into neighborhoods from which the school had thus far been relatively unsuccessful in drawing its clientele and to recruit heavily there. But then problems arise: what business in its right mind would spend time and money trying to attract the people thus far shown least likely to want its services? Wouldn't this time and energy be better spent serving those people already in the school who do? Doesn't virtually every other business concentrate its marketing efforts, at least while it is trying to grow, on the people most likely to want to patronize it? And yet we don't propose that; we just don't want to be forced to spend time on recruiting activities that traditional public schools don't have to engage in.

And if, while we're busy recruiting in the underrepresented neighborhoods that have been shunning us, students from neighborhoods or ethnicities with whom we have proved popular (they might be younger siblings of current students, or their friends, or merely neighbors who have heard good things about us) approach us and try to sign up, are we supposed to say, "Sorry, the legislators in California insist that, because you're green and we already have a lot of green students, we can't take you, but have to pursue purple students instead"? Wouldn't that be illegal, under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution?

And won't another  result be that every young man resembling Barack Obama, because classified as coming from a highly underrepresented demographic, will be courted and feted and pursued by schools prospecting desperately for required golden nuggets? And then perhaps later be promoted on a fast track to the highest positions because his appearance heralds, like a nova in the firmament, the coming of a new, golden age of enlightenment and racial harmony? And won't there be a tendency for such young people to feel smug and truly deserving, the legitimate members of a new meritocracy better than any that came before? (This is by no means meant to be a reflection on the President himself; rather it is an expression of a fear of the perverse consequences that may result from well intended policies of affirmative action.)

And won't other hard-working young people from overrepresented ethnicities (and I don't mean my own) feel resentful, when this hypocritical country, through the legally enforced educational recruiting practices of its largest state, insists on judging people by the color of their skin and rejects their educational aspirations, because hard work is incapable of overcoming that overrepresented skin status?

I am confident that, if we chose to test this proposed law in court, it would ultimately be thrown out, as it requires judging people (applicants) by the color of their skin, in direct contradiction to the dream of the man whose memorial's opening we were planning to celebrate this weekend; he too was once accused of being on the fringe, but answered that argument well in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail". We are far from living in accordance with that dream. The socially analytical mind that categorizes human beings by skin color and language and insists other people do so as well, that divides up Americans and teaches the young to build their personal identities on these divided bases, regardless of the effects of such teaching on the scores those students produce on tests those educators insist the students take again and again, until school becomes a dreary ritual of endless bubble sheets and truncated discourse; the mindset that chants and drowns out or excludes and ignores dissenting voices, will not be easily changed; and some of us only want good schools to which we can send our own, not just somebody else's, children, because we have children of secondary school age, and believe that our chartered schools ought to be good enough for everyone, not just the poor; we too want schools more satisfactory to us than those we have available today, and are willing to accept and will welcome any child from any similarly minded family of any background whatsoever; which I think has to be closer to what the original charter school dreams were in the 1990s. Some of us educators are educators not because we didn't score high enough in school and therefore had no choice but because we chose not to be lawyers or politicians (or doctors, or members of other professions of higher status in the United States) and didn't want to have to spend our whole lives fighting battles in courts or political arenas, but instead only want to dedicate our careers to helping the young become fine people of whom we can all be proud; and why should we lose our freedoms and our dreams and be hounded out of our homes by the political calculations of social planners whose visions will prove rather clouded in practice five years from now, when the status quo, newly armed, will have still more weapons to shut down our best charter schools as well as our worst? But this is the future we are now preparing in California, where the sun always shines with a golden promise, and then sets on its people's dreams.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Third Option for Upper Secondary: Higher Schools

This post picks up where yesterday's left off, with tenth grade having been eliminated in comprehensive high schools (after ninth grade has been transferred back to middle school, in the old junior high school age structure common in east Asia).

Some students will opt for vocational schools and then change their minds, deciding that the job prospects for what they were thinking of doing don't look too good and that college might prove worthwhile after all. And others will opt for our upper secondary school, but discover that the standards are really higher now than they had expected, and will also be looking for another way.

So I propose a third option for students we now refer to as 11th-graders, those who in general have recently reached sweet 16. I envision a model comprehensive higher school, for students aged 16-19, resembling those now found in Norway; they would offer a mixed variety of general academic and vocational programmes, for students unsure about what they want to do with their lives (as so many of ours currently are) and wanting to keep as many options as possible open.

How is this different from our current high schools? Two differences are immediately apparent: with the grosser immaturity of the 14-16-year-old years having been spent elsewhere, these are likely to be calmer, more serious, more mature institutions, for people who chose to go there, rather than having landed there via a natural default mechanism, following mindlessly on the elementary and middle school trail, with no particular differences immediately expected. Forcing 15-year-olds to make a choice, and then to live with that choice for at least one year, is likely to result in any re-entrants to comprehensive schools being a bit more thoughtful in their initial attitudes towards the new institution, and this is likely to prove very helpful.

Secondly, because the age range starts at 16 and includes 19-year-olds (in Iceland, the Nordic upper secondary school goes to age 20), it is easy to expect not only a more generally mature campus culture, but also better connections with both higher education and employment, because of the age overlap with existing institutions. These upper secondary schools perform many of the functions of our community colleges, only they start at a somewhat younger age; and because increasing numbers of our high school students are electing dual enrolment in these upper secondary years, the shock of any change to our customs needn't be so great after all.

Of course, we don't have to change at all--we can keep doing things the same old way--but as Albert Einstein might have pointed out, wouldn't that be an insane way to pursue school improvement?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Eliminate Grades 9 and 10

Most self-exclusion (defined in my last post) occurs in grades 9 and 10. We all acknowledge this as a problem. I suggest we solve it by blowing up these two grades, at least as commonly conceived.

But our kids have to go through these middle teen years; we can't just put them to sleep for two years, and wait for them to mature a bit more. What to do?

My vision of an ideal educational system, providing world-wide mobility and including worker qualifications, and towards which we are already moving (although I suspect few in America are conscious of this at this point), is to provide our children with nine years of high quality, basic, comprehensive education of the kind common in the Nordic countries; to make the tenth year also compulsory, though not necessarily in a comprehensive school; to require (as under new Australian legislation) that the eleventh year be also compulsory unless the teenager (now aged 16-17) is already working; and to make the 18th year also free and non-selective, at least somewhere inside the school system; but I would not require, and do not envision, a single path for all beyond that ninth school year.

Therefore the system, with multiple paths, would look like this for the ten years of compulsory education: a single comprehensive primary school organized at the municipal level (think Helsinki, although I think we should start at age six or earlier, not seven as in Finland); three-year middle schools providing single-sex education, like those I saw in Korea, although more attractive and better resourced (that accounts for ninth grade); and then a split, with roughly half of the students electing to attend (coeducational) upper secondary schools providing general academic education preparing for universities, and the other half (or so) electing vocational secondary schools like those in Japan, and through them acquiring apprenticeships like those in Germany and in similar systems in and around the German speaking world (that accounts for grade ten).

No more mindless following of the bells and the herd into high school! And no immature shenanigans like running the halls from authority figures in the utterly disconnected, artificial, distracting world of the traditional American high school (try to explain, to non-Americans, having young people spend thousands of hours practicing for putting on attractive, sexually exaggerated [cheerleader, drill team, or football] uniforms and then marching to music while twirling a baton, while nearly simultaneously being told that they should abstain from sexual activity and instead should study so as to secure good futures for themselves; try to explain the logic of cash-strapped schools funding such distractions, and see if you can keep from feeling foolish). Just imagine, educators being able to go back to educating, instead of herding cats who thrill to the mischief-making of teasing the man while precious time, money, opportunities, and lives are lost. There has to be a better way; we need higher schools.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Place for Everyone

The metaphor that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top share in common is that of the single path: there is an assumption that all our little Lilos start off in a single place (kindergarten, first grade?) and need to stay together on their field trip as they advance together towards a single destination ("the top", some mythical Elysian high ground where all the self-congratulating members of the relevant mutual admiration societies end up--perhaps resembling the halls of Congress, the last several administrations in Washington, a Teach For America reunion, or the Gates Foundation, where such notions are cooked up and mutually reinforced?).

The French education sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (or more accurately his translator, Richard Nice) has a particularly apt term for dropping out (from the group on this field trip), "self-exclusion". In my years of watching hundreds of kids drop out from Locke High School, it was strongly reinforced for me that this was exactly what these young people were doing: excluding themselves, in spite of the bent-over-backwards attempts of many very socially minded young adults to make sure they felt included (our old school's slogan was "Locke High School, where students come first", replaced in 2002 with "Locke High School, home of the successful Saints, where each and every student is expected to go to college", repeated ad nausem like a mantra over the public address system, as if its mere repetition would make it come true).

One of the most profound statements regarding education I've ever run across came from the 18th-century economist Adam Smith, of all people. He observes, in The Wealth of Nations, "No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given." 

We have millions of young people in this country (and in Europe, parts of which are burning; and in Japan, where school refusal has become a significant national problem) who are not Lilos, and are excluding themselves from this single path because they do not believe that the lectures on offer are really worth the attending. There has to be a better way, particularly for those least likely to win any "race to the top", but really for all of us, since it is a great moral shame for our society to allow vast wastelands like Watts to exist; and it is an intellectual shame to continue with the same old failed, single-path policies that are common not just in America but throughout the English-speaking world. Nay, it is beyond shame, it is insanity, which, in Albert Einstein's definition, is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I shall be writing in my next post of a less insane way of proceeding, so that we can provide better education for all, and in particular for those young people who today are being served so ill by people who mean them well. In particular, I shall be proposing an entirely different approach to the ninth and tenth grades, which is where most of our self-exclusion is occurring. We can help these young people to better lives; and they can get by with a little help from real friends.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Translation: No Child Left Behind means "No Child Gets Ahead", "Your Child Left Behind".

As I've been continuing with my researches in international education (by and large motivated by the desire to find better solutions for American children, which is not some game I've been playing at), I've come across an interesting article from Nuffic, the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education, titled "Grading Systems in the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom". A critical section is found on page two, under "Grading culture":

"Statistics show that educators in the New World have always been more generous in the award of a grade A than those in Europe. The danger in this is that it may lead to grade inflation, which, in fact, has developed into a trend in American higher education over the past 30 years. Grade inflation may well be linked to a more competitive attitude in American higher education, where it is far more common for students to compete for scholarships and where admission to the best universities depends on having the best grades. By contrast, university admission in the Netherlands, as in most Continental European countries, was not based on high grades so much as on having the relevant school leaving certificate."

"No Child Left Behind" is a phrase adapted from the work of Dr. James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale. Dr. Comer has innovated the Comer Process, for use originally in primary school development programs. On the other hand, those who voted for No Child Left Behind as federal law and those who most ardently support it are all college graduates, whose school experience most conferring comparative advantage was achieved in higher, or tertiary, education. And historically Americans developed primary schools and colleges first, and secondary education only later, as a kind of bridge between the two; and our leaders, being generous souls, are loathe to leave any child behind child behind on that path that led to their own life-fulfilling experiences.

But I assert that this American conception and, as I see it, misunderstanding of secondary education badly serves our public; that our peculiar conflation of the 19th-century rural community's common school with the college culture of the early school systems' leaders, with their pseudo-Ivy League sports and extracurriculars emphasizing dances, dating, homecoming, prom, and all the related instances of American secondary school exceptionalism, degrades our academic and economic efficiency and leads to serious social problems such as excessive teenage pregnancy; and that a major consequence of these errors, in spite of good intentions and generosity, is that our academic standards become steadily degraded and our more academically minded families flee into gated communities and private schools, in large part because in our public secondary schools their children are overlooked and are not allowed to get ahead, because any achievement of excellence would contradict the social vision of the leaders, ironically often Ivy-educated themselves, who call the shots and who insist that no child be left behind; and meanwhile other nations are not competing according to the Washington consensus, and are getting ahead, while your child gets left behind.     

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why the Norwegian School System Might Be the World's Best

I'm not sure there's any such thing as a single best system, but I do go looking for models, and have come to appreciate Norway's. This is a follow-up to my previous post in which I focused on statistical methods by which we might approach this question.

Average student attainment Norway ranks high here, behind only Australia and New Zealand, and is number one in mean years of schooling already achieved, at 12.6, for students aged 25-34, according to UNESCO. (For Americans who might be wondering, we rank third, at 12.4, with New Zealand just ahead at 12.5.) The UN's Institute for Statistics calculates that currently enrolled Norwegian students are expected to push this way up, to 17.3, and this rate of increase is something that should give Americans pause, as the generation of American children in school is projected to no longer rank in the top dozen if current trends continue.

Average student achievement Norway is a thoroughly middling country in its PISA scores, having, like the United States, a most recent median PISA score of 500. Norway's relative scores have been rising recently, unlike many other Western countries, perhaps in response to reforms to more highly value knowledge. (To give examples of how anti-competitive Norway's approach to education has been in the past, I'll point out that Norwegian children normally receive no grades at all during primary school, and even their secondary school leaving exams, typically taken at age 19, only require the sitting of one examination, in an advanced subject that the student will have chosen well in advance.)

Approximate knowledge and skills of the average young school leaver Multiplying attainment by achievement scores, Norway still holds on to the fourth position, behind New Zealand, Australia, and Korea. The USA, for those interested, remains out of the top dozen, behind also, in alphabetical order, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Employability of non-college-bound students Individual transition plans are very important for special needs students leaving formal education for the "real world". Norway has worked hard in recent years to upgrade these, which appear to be relatively effective: 45% of former special needs students are employed in Norway, which is almost the highest figure internationally (Switzerland's is 52%). Norway has also been moving towards apprenticeships, a German best practice, to help its students who are unenthusiastic about higher education, and has also started return-to-training initiatives that have proved relatively effective. Possibly as a result of these various reforms (the existence of plenty of North Sea petroleum doesn't hurt), Norway's current unemployment rate of 3.4% is almost the lowest in the Western world. Wouldn't Barack Obama like to have a number like that right now?

High-achieving universities Norway is undistinguished here, perhaps because its secondary school leavers have not been rigorously prepared (I think this the greatest weakness of the Norwegian system; commentators recently estimated that, on PISA, high-achieving Norwegian math students were three years behind their counterparts in Shanghai). The top-ranked Norwegian university appears to be the University of Oslo, #75 in ARWU and #100 according to QS; THES has it ranked below the University of Bergen, which is only #135. (Again, I don't trust these numbers to be all that precise, no offence intended towards their creators, but I do think they are generally indicative of trends.)

On balance, what are the strengths of the Norwegian system, and what are the trade-offs? Perhaps a key strength to Norwegian and Nordic education in general is not to be in a rush with children. The Norwegians require ten years of comprehensive education under their slogan "One School for All", from ages 6-16 (they start a year earlier than some of their more admired Nordic neighbors--researchers have concluded that starting school too late correlates with lower test scores); this is consistent with their goal of "a high general level of education in the entire population", which I assert (a) they are achieving more than any other nation and (b) is a worthwhile goal to pursue, rather than the highest test scores. This may be a trade-off, since the fastest way to raise test scores is to kick out (to where?) all the low scorers, and since it is difficult for any impatient would-be miracle worker of a politician or superintendent to claim credit for miraculous rises in attainment the way they can for miraculous rises in test scores.

Also, the Norwegian system intelligently provides a place for everyone, for all children and adults, with their various talents and ability levels, in accordance with a vision of a society "where citizens master the art of living together"; this may be contrasted with a society and government of the people by the highly educated for the well placed vested interests, which is what I fear American society has become. The only trade-off I see to pursuing such a vision is that it will upset entrenched interests and also those who love America and want to patriotically believe, as a default position, that our customary way of doing things is automatically the right one, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary. It's hard to change systems fundamentally, and requires a lot of patience and persuasion, as I am attempting to use.

I also commend Norwegians and others in northern Europe (including, and especially, the new government of the United Kingdom) for their legislation allowing the public funding of privately managed schools, since both of which factors, as independent variables, are associated worldwide with greater student success.

And this brings me to the chief way to proceed with this kind of information, easily available via the knowledge network of the Information Age.  I think we should (1) start with a good general system design, like Norway's, and then (2) make it better by seeking best practices as discovered by researchers investigating independent variables, (3) remembering always to check the internal consistency of these attempted improvements, since in reality variables do not operate independently, but are embedded in systems in the real world lives of students and teachers.

The Best Schools in the World

A couple of years ago, when I was busy with refining the plans for One World School (an earlier conceptualization of One World Secondary School), I would have answered this question with model independent schools that were inspiring and still inspire me (the International School of Geneva, the United World College of South East Asia, others). Now, however, like others, I have shifted my focus away from individual great schools (one of which I am still hoping to start) to great school systems.

Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, in her The Flat World and Education, nominates Finland, Korea, and Singapore as having systems that America can learn from, and many other commentators (including, influentially, McKinsey & Company) have named these same three as having perhaps the best systems; but none of them would make my top three.

Any ranking (I don't believe in precise numerical rankings, but do believe we can learn from others) of educational systems will depend upon its criteria to generate output. What criteria should be used in ranking school systems?

Most commentators on education depend upon test scores (I promised in an earlier post to return to this theme), the most influential internationally being those of PISA (the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment), but that's not where I would start. In the final analysis, I don't care as much about how many multiple choice questions on reading, mathematics and science that a student got right at the age of 15 as I do about how well educated that person will be as an adult, after having left school, with fifty or more years of life left to live. There is no precise way to measure how well educated someone is (a point to be borne in mind by those obsessed with measurement in a field where much of importance is exceedingly difficult to measure); the best statistical proxy is, I think, attainment, which generally refers to the number of years of schooling successfully completed. (For example, in my case, having studied [in school--I hope it's clear I've done a lot of studying since then] one year past a bachelor's degree, that number is 17.)

There are two statistics for attainment we should care about, one for students in school today and another for those who have already finished school. I care more about the future, and so give a bit more weight to the statistic for those youngsters currently in school than for those slightly older who are currently out of it, but both are important, since the former numbers are, if well reasoned, nonetheless speculative, and the latter, real numbers for recent graduates will continue to be important for a long time, with many decades worth of elections upcoming for people to vote well in or badly (or perhaps, even, to vote badly twice in a row!). I don't give weight to the attainment of older people, which hurts any U.S. ranking, since we were for a long time number one in the world in educational attainment but have slipped back in recent years as other countries have been improving their educational systems faster than we've been improving ours.

Adding together these figures for expected years of schooling successfully completed (easily available from UNESCO's Institute for Statistics) yields a set of figures useful for estimating educational attainment. But we also care about student achievement--how much a student learns in any given year of schooling--as a measure of the productivity of the school system. We might actually be able to multiply this productivity by the total anticipated attainment to give us a better measure of how well educated today's young people are going to be as they go through their lives, are productive (or not), and make important decisions. This is where the PISA scores become useful. I have multiplied the most recent median PISA score for each country available by the above estimate of anticipated attainment to estimate how well educated the average future citizen of each of these countries will be, not taking the numbers too seriously but becoming convinced that I was on to some useful estimates and methodologies. The top countries were New Zealand, Australia, and Korea. Only the latter is commonly mentioned as having a really top-ranking educational system, since most of these assessments depend more upon test scores than upon attainment. I will return to this theme later, including taking the time to debunk some myths about which top-scoring systems we should emulate.

But these figures only estimate how well educated the average future citizen will be. How about those at the extremes?

I believe the basic humanity of a country can be judged, in part, by how well it treats its least fortunate and neediest citizens. In addition, a law of classical economics, that of comparative advantage, teaches us to help our weakest citizens to become productive first if we want to maximize the gain for society as a whole.

The students most in need of special protection, it seems to me, are children with special needs, which every country will always have. A clear sign of treating such students well is making sure that they are gainfully (and, it is hoped, happily) employed when they become adults. I looked for employment statistics for people who had been students with special needs; these were very difficult to find, but I found some, along with other information on youth unemployment and the reputations of various countries' laws and programmes for those with special needs, and made some adjustments to my rough rankings, having at this point to give up any pretence of a formula.

Finally, those who are best off, educationally speaking, are those bright students commonly called gifted. They are inherently important, as all human beings are, but especially because of their impact in generating original ideas that often lead to jobs for everyone else. They also have special needs, and are often well served by programmes designed with their needs in mind, which allow them the opportunity to progress at their own pace; and they often desire to end up in the kind of prestigious, highly resourced universities that dominate the international ranking systems. The three most widely used international university ranking systems are those of the Times Higher Education Supplement, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the Top Universities ranking of Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). American universities dominate the top of all three. I made adjustments to my rough rankings, and pushed up the placement of the United States many steps on this basis. Other countries with relatively highly ranked universities also moved up, including England, Canada, Japan, and Switzerland.

This, I feel, is a pretty good way to approach assessing the overall quality of educational systems. Of course, others with more time or better resources could probably elaborate on it and improve it; but using this approach is useful, I believe, in helping to debunk various myths or shallow platitudes regarding which educational systems we all ought to be looking at as models (I expect to return to that topic at some point in the future).

The results? Of the three oft-cited countries mentioned earlier in this article, Korea did the best, but I found three other countries I would recommend before it. I have already mentioned two, Australia and New Zealand, which UNESCO says lead the world in expected years of schooling for those currently students; but I have one placed above them, and I will elaborate upon this country's system and various other implications of this study in another post, since this one has already gone on long enough. Therefore, the (surprise) winner, in this little competition to determine the world's best school system?


Friday, August 12, 2011

How to Build Competencies for 21st Century Living and Learning

APEC, the acronym for the inelegantly titled "Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation", identified, in its 2008 Education Reform Symposium in Xian, China, five 21st century competencies and skills to which it would be giving priority. Adapting from this basis, and in response to questions from a parent, I will today address how One World Secondary School plans to go about achieving one of its seven stated aims, "to produce workers whose competence in mathematics and science, languages, and information and communication technology makes them valuable and competitive in the 21st century international job market".

One of the mottoes of One World Secondary School is "taking the best of the world and sharing it with everyone". Having worked at Locke High School in south Los Angeles, and having witnessed firsthand the disastrous effects that continual experimentation, in the absence of controlled experimental trials, too often wreaks on the lives of poor urban students (as memorably documented by Diane Ravitch in Left Back), I incline towards empiricism; and therefore One World Secondary, while appearing perhaps wildly experimental, will in general be introducing innovations which are innovative to the local market only, having usually proved best practices elsewhere.

To achieve world-class mathematical competence, we will often be using Singapore Math curricula and assessments, while using the interactive, small-group methods to achieve deeper understanding of fewer, more complex problems, and also conducting professional development, according to Japanese teaching practices.

To achieve world-class scientific competence, we have consulted and synthesized the standards of high achieving nations; will devote relatively more time to learning the sciences; will utilize, at least in advanced courses, the inductive-discovery approach of the Bronx High School of Science; and will emphasize interactive, engaging, project-based learning methods that develop the kind of passion that leads, in the best cases, to research science projects and award-winning summer competitions.

We won't actually achieve world-class linguistic competence; small European nations are the leaders here, and sometimes produce high school graduates who know their fifth language better than American students may know their second. We actually have the advantage here, since these nations usually need to learn our language, while we really don't need to learn Norwegian, Czech, or Dutch. This will free up many lesson hours, some of which we will devote to extra science (see above). But we will also use some successful European language learning strategies, key among them being having the students apply to language sections (of their choosing) as well as to the school; having them begin a language from their very first year with us (which should be seventh grade); having them continue with that language every year; having them use that second language as a language of instruction to study another subject (often possible by their third year), including being assessed in, say, geography through oral or written tests in French, Chinese, or Spanish, the world's major power languages, after English.

We will achieve world-class competence in information and communication technology (ICT) by making sure that each student has a laptop (or similar device, as technology develops) as a learning tool available for every class other than physical education, and by using the standards of the International Society for Technology in Education to drive technology change throughout the curriculum, and thereby to change the way education is done, at least in our school, leading to lives of ever-increasing competence for all.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of Circular Reasoning and the Search for the Magic Teacher

As I continue my researches in international education, one thing I notice is the current emphasis on the search for superior teachers in countries all over the world (Norway, Australia, England, the United States, . . . ). It has become well established by now that some students learn faster than others, and that this happens not just among individual students but also among different classrooms. The assumption is usually that the difference between teachers is the cause of the different outcomes. The elusive, desirable power of these sought-after teachers is called "teacher quality"; it is difficult to define, but researchers have been busy attempting to find it and then replicate it, to the benefit of society.

Hasn't anyone noticed the circular reasoning involved here?

Educational researchers today find quantitative social science fascinating. Using our modern, enhanced computing powers, they pour over data to find statistical correlations, then infer that some correlations have cause-and-effect relationships, and then look more closely to try to derive useful consequences. But in the case of sloppy educational argumentation, this reasoning has too often looked like this: "Some teachers can raise student scores more than one-and-a-half times faster than average, while some only raise the scores half as fast as average." (Those arguing thus usually neglect random variation, or statistical noise, which, as Dana Goldstein has reported in "The Test Generation", can be so pervasive as to require ten years of data to reduce the value-added error rate for an individual teacher to a mere twelve percent.) "The former are the good teachers we want every child to have." But who are these "good teachers"? "Those who raise test scores at least one-and-a-half times faster than average." Doesn't anyone see that that magic elixir, "teacher quality", has been built into the definition of what so many seek?

Logically speaking, this argument is this:
        "If the test scores go up, x is a good teacher", and
        "If x is a good teacher, the test scores go up", therefore
        "The test scores go up if and only if x is a good teacher."
This is a tautology, of no utility for empirical research.

An analogy may be helpful here. Suppose we measure all of the primary school children in a neighborhood, and we decide we want all of our kids to grow faster. We guess that the houses might have something to do with it, so we define the high quality houses as those that help kids grow one-and-a-half times faster than average. We study the statistics, and find, in a given year, that some kids do grow one-and-a-half times faster than average, and others only half as fast as average. Now we separate these houses into groups, and start searching for their elusive powers of growing children.

I am not claiming that teachers have no more to do with children's test scores than houses have to do with children's growth rates; I am picking on the circularity of much-too-fashionable reasoning regarding teachers and assessments.

Let's return to the children's growth rate analogy. Suppose that we more plausibly connect children's diets with their growth rates. Fortunately, food comes in many different kinds, so if we can't get parents to put their kids on extreme, simple diets (say, all meat or all vegetables), we might be able to do more natural experiments by having them eat as they normally would, merely recording everything they eat for a given period of time, and then afterwards analyze the data and look for patterns and correlations between diets and growth rates. Fair enough; at least we have some variety in the children's inputs to search through. But if all we had done had been to define "high quality food" as that which helps kids grow, and not paid any attention to differences among what they ate to sort through, we likely wouldn't have made any better progress with our dietary analysis than we would have with our housing analysis.

For our analyses of effective teaching to be any good, we need to do more than simply define the quality we are looking for into our definitions of both input and output; we have to record, in advance, some variety in the inputs, perhaps length of lessons or style of delivery or experience of the teacher or similarity in race between teacher and taught or any of a huge number of possible variables, that we can correlate with the expected results we want to see. I will argue elsewhere that those results should not necessarily be rising test scores; I'll save that for another day. But please, when insisting upon (arguably non-existent) "impeccable research", don't use reasoning that is so obviously peccable.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Of Vocational Education

I considered titling this post "Of Social Democratic Education", since I consider myself a (moderate) social democrat; but because that might involve me in long digressions, I have titled this as you see. Socialists have their historic origins in collective advocacy for ordinary workers, and at this time when so many workers, including young ones, are out of jobs, it is natural for employment to be on the minds of those who care about social justice and public education.

Our current systems for vocational education are not working in a satisfactory manner. Large percentages of the young (over 40 percent of young black males, for example) are both unemployed, at least in a legal sense, and virtually unemployable, without major social interventions. The gang lifestyle, in addition to being a quasi-feudal attempt to enhance personal security in an era strangely reminiscent, in our inner cities, of the beginning of the Dark Ages, is an economic choice made by young people trying to calculate their best interests.

Without a new approach to vocational education, I don't see how we are likely to escape this mess. One possibility would be to emulate aspects of the Japanese and German approaches to vocational education, so that our students who don't like general education and aren't doing well in it would have the option of choosing special vocational schools in the upper secondary secondary years, where they might remediate any shortcomings in core subject matter while also qualifying for apprenticeships and gaining deserved recommendations for employment. The free market is not working in the ghetto.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Democratic Education

In a recent email communication, James Merriman of the New York City Charter School Center asked me what I would do about "the truly larger issue of locking poor kids into [fewer] choices than rich kids have", and today I've been reading about the nefarious conspiracy of the American Federation of Teachers to deny African American families in Connecticut the right to benefit from proposed parent empowerment legislation colloquially known as the "parent trigger" (see my post of 20 July for what this is). In the one case, marginalized parents are usually denied the right to choose a preferred form of education for their children; on the other, marginalized parents are locked out of meaningful school governance. Putting these two together, we arrive at the question, "What role (if any) are marginalized parents to have in our envisioned reformed educational system?"

In my mind, the concept of democratic education is joined to three other interlocking concepts: those of legal supremacy, federalism, and devolution. While the laws and decisions of our central government are supreme (the Civil War settled that), we are a federal nation, and, like other nations with highly admirable education systems such as Canada and Switzerland, we have long devolved educational decision-making to lower administrative levels. In democratic education, as much power as is practically possible is devolved down to the level of the learners themselves, who direct their own educational decision-making as much as possible.

Several consequences flow from this logic: (1) all parents, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, have equal rights under the law (I don't favor repeal of the 14th Amendment, and believe that AFT's PowerPoint presentation should be studied by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights); (2) all parents, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, should enjoy rights to education similar to those enjoyed by families in the Netherlands, as enshrined in that country's Article 23 of its constitution, where (a) all parents are free to choose schools for their children and (b) the state must equally fund all schools that parents choose; (3) all parents, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, should have the opportunity to participate in their local school's governance through election to their school's administrative board, which each school must have according to the school charter laws in New Zealand