Tuesday, February 7, 2012

We Need Broader Criteria to Properly "Surpass Shanghai"

For Christmas, I gave myself (since no one else gave it to me, or even a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble, which is unusual for me) Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai, a stimulating proposal for remaking American education by means of adapting the best practices of competing educational systems around the world. Since I have devoted years to designing a single school (One World Secondary) to be the flagship of a system that could achieve exactly what this book proposes, I was naturally interested; and since Mr. Tucker edited the National Commission on Education and the Economy's 2006 book Tough Choices or Tough Times (we now have the latter since we didn't make the former), which has had continuing influence on my school's design (for example, our teachers' compensation plan is based on the book's salary scale on page 103), my interest was all the greater. I finished the book a few days ago, and would like to briefly review it by focusing on its information sources and the criteria it proposes to rate education systems.

I appreciate the work of almost everyone advocating education policy, since I think almost everyone, including those who disagree with me, has the best interests of the young at heart. In addition, I found this book very valuable because of the detailed look at five systems (those of Shanghai, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and Canada) it provides, and in particular that of Shanghai, which until now has been very little studied. Nonetheless, when I saw the educational systems it had chosen to focus on and compared it with my own previous conclusions about top systems (published on this website last year), I suspected something was amiss; and when I saw that the report that formed the book's basis had been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to help Secretary Duncan prepare for a meeting of top education ministers in conjunction with an examination of the most recent PISA results, I knew we were in trouble, for it seemed likely that PISA director Andreas Schleicher's familiar talking points would be swallowed hook, line, and sinker, without enough critical examination of some of his main contentions; and this is what I found to be generally true in this book, and the book's great weakness.

The biggest single problem here in Surpassing Shanghai is its failure to consider attainment along with achievement in judging systems. In short, young people do not stop learning at 15 -- very few students in the OECD exit the system at that point -- and what matters to me as a citizen is how well educated my fellow citizens are who are passing me on the sidewalk, and that phenomenon is better measured by attainment (here meaning the number of years in school successfully completed) than by achievement at age 15, which is what PISA measures. Largely for this reason, as well as others that I detailed in previous blog entries, I rated Norway's educational system above Finland's, unlike almost all other commentators, since Norway's attainment is over two years beyond Finland's, which means that, when comparing young adults, we should in reality be comparing the average young Norwegian with 13 years of schooling with the average young Finn with only 10 (Finland is currently closing this gap, it should be noted, and its expected years of schooling for students just entering the system today is now almost as long as Norway's). This fact, along with the fact that the average young special needs student exiting the Norwegian system has a much better chance of finding employment than the average young Finn in the same situation (which statistic I used as a proxy for how well the various systems treat their least advantaged students), led me to put Norway on top, while I regarded Finland's as merely one of the best.

But Mr. Tucker's book did help me reconsider some things, which led me to broaden my criteria for assessing educational systems and has led to some new findings, which I will discuss in my next entry.

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