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.”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Learning for the 21st Century

As promised, here is my synthesis of some of the best thinking on 21st century education, as prepared for envisioning the products of the school my trustees and I have been trying to start:

The competences of One World learners

One World learners (OWLs) will prioritize learning to know and learning to do so as to facilitate the innovative, interactive use of tools such as information technology via communication in the English language, thus enabling our students to act autonomously, with a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, in their 21st century world, while also gaining the social and civic competences to live together in increasingly heterogeneous groups. Their competences will be demonstrated through superior achievements in the priority academic content areas of English, mathematics, science, and additional languages, as well as in the overarching competence of learning to learn, which will be vitally assisted by the students’ digital competence. Such highly competent individuals should go on to succeed in colleges and careers of their own choosing, and eventually finding good work will be a natural outcome of all that our students will have learned to do; and their competence in cultural awareness and expression should durably support their ability to live together successfully in heterogeneous groups while also supporting their most crucial final outcome, their having learned to be One World learners, with the attributes in the ideal profile that follows.

Since One World Secondary School is interested in becoming an IB school, it is appropriate here also to quote from the “IB learner profile”: “The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.”

One World Learners (OWLs) will become
  • Disciplined enquirers who have begun mastering the critical thinking- and problem-solving skills and the knowledge necessary to continue to learn within a discipline through enquiry and research. One World students will actively enjoy learning, and their love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.
  • Balanced learners who understand the importance of intellectual, emotional, and physical balance to achieve a good life for themselves and others. In addition, they will study a broad, balanced curriculum, and will analyze, synthesize, and evaluate various ideas derived from the disciplines in a fair, balanced way.
  • Caring communicators who convey empathy, compassion, and respect for the needs and feelings of others. One World students will commit themselves to service, and will be able to clearly communicate, orally, in writing, and through modern media, their principled determination to make an ethical contribution to the lives of other people and to the planet as a whole.
  • Open-minded initiators who understand their own cultures and histories and are open to those of others. One World students will actively seek out other points of view and, like risk-taking entrepreneurs, will watch for and seize new opportunities, ideas, and strategies for improvement.
  • Reflective innovators who develop “right-brain” traits such as curiosity, imagination, and creativity to go with their “left-brain” skills in communication and traditional disciplinary learning. In addition, our students will learn to become reflective on their experience, understanding their own strengths and limitations as they strive towards wisdom.
  • Knowledgeable, collaborating leaders who explore great issues, ideas, and concepts, thereby acquiring in-depth knowledge across a broad range of disciplines. They will often acquire necessary information through digital, collaborative enquiry, thereby gaining the computing, ICT, and social skills to responsibly work in teams with networks of people who may come from vastly different cultures and also to use reasoning and persuasion to lead and to learn. 
  • Flexible adapters who are ready to change with a changing economy and a changing world. Because they will have become life-long learners, One World graduates will have the self-reliant career skills, productivity, and sense of accountability to deal with our planet’s increasingly complex problems in the 21st century.
I hereby acknowledge intellectual indebtedness to the works of Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel (21st Century Skills), Howard Gardner (Five Minds for the Future), and Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) in synthesizing the above profile.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Some of the Best Thinking on 21st Century Education

International efforts to define the educational needs of the 21st century have been proceeding for nearly two decades now. As early as 1996, the UNESCO International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by former European Commission President Jacques Delors, proposed in Learning: The Treasure Within that, building on the four pillars that are the foundations of education – learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together,  and learning to be – all societies should aim to move towards a necessary Utopia in which none of the talents hidden like buried treasure in every person be left untapped. 

The next year, the OECD’s education ministers recombined the knowledge, skills, and values implicit in the Delors pillars into the concept of competencies, and the OECD has done much work to define and select the competencies “for a successful life and a well-functioning society”, and has used them in designing its PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment) assessments. It has concluded that three categories of competencies are key in the 21st century: acting autonomously, using tools interactively, and interacting in socially heterogeneous groups. 

The APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) economies have developed a 21st century competency framework encompassing APEC’s priority academic content areas: English and other languages, mathematics, science, information and communication technologies, and technical education. 

Finally, the European Union has legislatively defined eight key competences for lifelong learning: communication in the mother tongue, communication in foreign languages, mathematical competence and competences in science and technology, digital competence, learning to learn, social and civic competences, a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, and cultural awareness and expression.   

I have synthesized these efforts into a description of One World learners’ competences, which I will publish tomorrow. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A One World System of Schools

I am still working to open a school for my son, and for all like-minded families with children. I currently propose to open, with my colleagues, an upper secondary school, a lyceum (an anglicization of lycee, the nearest extant equivalent to the kind of school we propose), providing education for the 10th-12th grades, in 2015 (it usually takes two years of preparation to open a good school, and although we've been preparing for longer than that, we want to be great). This first one will be an independent school, since I've given up (for now) the idea of finding an American school board with enough courage to back our charter, which is ready to be put into operation and is replicable at currently available public school dollars.

In a One World system of schools, our three-year lyceum would be preceded by a pair of three-year middle schools, a boys' school and a girls' school, which might more plausibly be established as chartered schools; for there is plenty of evidence available (a) that it is in the middle school years when Western students fall significantly behind their peers in east Asia, and (b) it is the premature obsession with the opposite sex during early adolescence that accounts for a good deal of (a). And of course it is unfortunately well known that the early preoccupation with dating and social relationships not only detracts from learning, but also all too often leads to teenage pregnancies and thereby cyclical generations of wrecked lives. Better to keep the boys and girls away from each other in these years; whereas our lyceum and primary school would be coeducational, I advocate single-sex education during the middle school years (which are, for us, grades 7-9; we use the term middle school here because it is an exact translation for these institutions in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages, which, in relatively reformed and modern versions, constitute the nearest equivalent to a model for us to use during these years).

And the lyceum and middle schools should be preceded by a six-year primary school, for children aged 6-11, of both sexes in the same classrooms. These might ideally be government schools, and their successful establishment is crucial to the democratic state, as is in reality the whole of comprehensive schooling, which should last for nine years, ages 6-15, as it does in Switzerland, which has the best overall school system, as I have argued elsewhere. Our model for primary school is Finland, whose primary schools are not very different from the fine elementary schools here in Irvine, except for the fact that the Finns, like other Europeans, begin learning a second language early, from the first grade onwards, as I would like to see Americans do as well: second language learning from the first grade would be the principal novel (for America) feature of a One World Primary School.

The ages and grades we have defined for primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary education, which are first-sixth grades for children aged 6-11, seventh-ninth for students aged 12-14, and the tenth-twelfth grades for students aged 15-17 (with a postgraduate year available to students who might benefit thereby, therefore taking education for some students up to age 19), are the most commonly used in the world, and therefore using them allows us to make maximum use of the experiences of all of the people of our planet as we strive together to raise better people for our world.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hope and Hopelessness in a Lonely Middle

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the United Way Education Summit in Los Angeles, courtesy of the generosity of John Lee of Teach Plus, to whom I am indebted. The stars of the show were three "education mayors" (they were billed thus), Antonio Villaraigosa, Rahm Emmanuel, and Cory Booker. Among these, the standout speaker was Mayor Booker, who gave one of the most impassioned and inspiring speeches I've ever heard, spontaneously, from the heart. He spoke of our need for investing in children "of color", which is always code for some kinds of children (black and brown, African-American and Latino) in preference to others. He correctly pointed out that, if we neglect the education of these children, we may well pay a heavy price for that neglect a couple of decades from now, when they will likely constitute the majority of our work force. He and the other mayors spoke of a "new apartheid" in America, where a disappeared middle class will leave behind a group of privileged children and a larger group of children who have been discriminated against, and spoke of the consequence being the equivalent of a permanent recession.

A talented young leader like Cory Booker must give us hope; but an ironic consequence of his passion, and the evident agreement it inspired in his like-minded audience, was a simultaneous sense of hopelessness. I saw at a nearby table Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, for whom I once worked, which now appears to me to be an organization marginalized compared to five years ago, challenged, in part from caring too much, perhaps, to help the neediest; for having taken on one of the toughest of all jobs, the turnaround of Locke High School, and having succeeded pretty well at it, but not well enough for the media nor for those of us who wanted so much more. Green Dot is finding itself, like Mayor Villaraigosa's Los Angeles, and like other cities, a mecca for the underprivileged that it champions; while Republican districts like the Irvine where I live increasingly turn their backs on the poor, and raise up artificial barriers (such as becoming a "basic aid" school district, maximally withdrawn from California's dysfunctional school funding system) to those poor whom they would keep out behind security-guarded gates if they could. And so these education mayors, through trying perhaps too hard to help those who desperately need it, run the risk of finding themselves steadily abandoned by middle class families in flight, surrounded by hordes of the poor crying out for ever more and without a tax base from which to respond.

And yet what choice do they give those of us who are tempted to reluctantly join that flight? Do the people in these confabs not actually realize how alienating their agreed rhetoric can be to the middle class who struggle and fail to find an aspect of these leaders' visions that can possibly attract children like our own? The visions of these leaders sounded to me not like visions of an education system for all, but a system for only favored minorities, a system that will try to redress past social wrongs by reverse discrimination, ensuring that less deserving youth of the favored colors are granted coveted spots in universities (like UC Berkeley) that we once attended but that our own children are rejected by, no matter how hard they work to earn superior qualifications, because our, possibly adopted, children are not of the favored color and do not tug the heartstrings of politically selected admissions staff so powerfully.

Ronald Reagan said, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party; it left me." I never thought it could come to this; but if these visions are not more encompassing, more and more middle class people are going to flee the public school systems that we have been products of and have worked for, will move into private education, and will end up voting to consistently cut the taxes that support public education systems that we attended but now feel unrepresented in, and shut out of.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Brief Review of "The One World Schoolhouse" by the Founder of One World School

In the last sentence of his stimulating new book, The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan writes of his brilliant creation, "If Khan Academy proves to be even part of the solution to our educational malaise, I will feel proud and privileged to have made a contribution." Khan Academy is part of the solution to our many-faceted educational difficulties both in the United States and around the world.

Mr. Khan writes most affectingly, perhaps, in his depictions of the struggles of the poor in south Asia and elsewhere to provide their children with an education that will allow them to escape the cycle of poverty in which they find themselves. Being the son of immigrants from Bangladesh, he has first-hand experience of these realities, which I witnessed for myself when I took my family on a journey to east Africa in 1999. At that time, an extra year of schooling for a primary school child in Tanzania could cost parents several months of their wages. We need an organized way of reaching the hundreds of millions of people in a similar plight, and the Khan Academy just might be the best way to do it, for now at least, as Mr. Khan details in the chapter "Serving the Underserved", in the eponymous Part 4 of his work.

In 2007 I began active planning of an international school for everyone whose legal name remains One World School. Although originally (and still) intended for anyone who wanted to attend, my experiences and knowledge of the Third World led me to believe that, in fact, our school model was only of relevance to the countries of the OECD and a few others at a similar state of development; and my reading of Charles Murray, especially his Real Education, and my experiences with the conversion of Locke High School from failing traditional publicly managed dropout factory to improved but still underachieving college-prep academy under the management of Green Dot Public Schools led me to a more realistic estimate that 50 percent, or perhaps a little more, of our students in the United States should be college-bound. In that case, what are we to do with the rest?

Mr. Khan has considered these problems also, and written thoughtfully about them. By page 160 it was clear to me that "One World" has to mean more than the OECD; and in the Part 4 chapter "The Future of Credentials", he proposes a sensible post-secondary alternative for the 99% + who will be unable to attend MIT or Harvard but who still want to work in fulfilling careers without being held hostage to College Board debt payment demands.

The Khan Academy, which my seventh grade son used very successfully last summer (and no, he's not behind; he now may be the top-ranked mathematics student in the school named by the Orange County Register as the best in our county last year), is at least immediately useful for distance, summer, and elective learning in the sciences (including obviously mathematics), most clearly for adults and for middle school students; its vision and aspiration, to provide "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere", is more than that; it's inspiring. We can only wish him and his colleagues the best of success, and I hope to contact him shortly, since his interests and mine dovetail and complement one another quite thoroughly. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The "High School Diploma" Has Outlived its Usefulness

Last night I was researching the international acceptability of various certificates called, in British English, "group awards". These are qualifications, like the French baccalaureat, that signal both the completion of secondary school and the admission to higher education. I was researching what are in general some of the strongest universities to be found in the world outside of the United States: I looked at the entrance requirements and policies for the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, and McGill University, for example. While looking at the admissions requirements for the National University of Singapore, I was struck by something: after seeing the assessment of that leading university, one of the tops in Asia and in the first rank of the world, of entrance qualifications such as A levels, the IB, the Abitur, and so on, I saw listed, under "Other Qualifications", the "American High School Diploma". This wasn't surprising, but its classification with its neighbours was: the American high school diploma is classed, in this educationally leading country, with qualifications from the third world countries of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and West Africa!

This Singaporean assessment of our graduates may be a bit extreme, but the truth is, as one compares the various admissions policies of different countries and universities around the world, one sees that in no developed part of the world outside of North America is our high school diploma regarded as adequate preparation for university. The Common Core effort is an ongoing attempt to ameliorate this problem; but because it attempts to simultaneously address preparation for careers with preparation for college, and because it only focuses on the basic skills developed by the usual two subjects, English and mathematics (although a third, general science, is on the way), it has essentially no chance of bringing about much of a difference in closing this gap in secondary leaving standards between those American high school graduates achieve and those in much of the developed world, especially Europe.

The high school diploma, like the culture of our comprehensive high schools in general, is a residual artefact from the 20th century high school movement, a successful effort to raise our educational attainment until we were first in the world by the middle of the 20th century. It served its purpose: our high school graduation rate rose from less than 10 percent near the start of that century to around 70 percent a half century later. But we haven't changed our approach to secondary education since then, and our approach is now badly out of date.

We need something better, if we want to regain the leadership in education that we long enjoyed.