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January 31, 2014

Are elementary school parents more demanding than high school parents?

demanding parentIn a recent Op-Ed Thomas Friedman asks are we falling behind* as a country in education because:

“…too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to excel?”

Friedman asks this question in response to a recent speech in which Secretary Duncan stated ”…I wished our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools” after telling a story in which South Korean President Lee told President Obama his country’s biggest education problem was that parents were too demanding. Secretary Duncan went on to quote Amanda Ripley author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got There stating:

“too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put the work needed today to really excel.”

Quite the bold argument but are there any actual facts to back up these claims? To argue that U.S. parents and students are lazy or at the very least complacent there must be some compelling data to back up these claims. So what ‘evidence’ does Friedman provide to back up his hypothesis? Letters from two, count them, two veteran high school teachers who obviously had become disenfranchised because they believed their students were being asked to do less and in fact were doing less. As heartfelt and compelling as these letters are they are still just the experience of two teachers. Not exactly a representative sample of teachers nationwide.

So the question must be asked: Are students doing less now and if so, is it because less is expected of them?  Of course, the answers to these questions are quite subjective. However, the teachers Friedman highlighted backed up their claims by noting that it is harder to get students to do homework now than every before—so in essence they were using homework completion as a proxy for student effort. And if you look at homework data that was collected along with the Long-term NAEP assessment for both 13 and 17 year-olds it does appear students are doing less homework on-average than they were a couple decades ago–although parents of high school children taking 4 Advanced Placement classes may find this hard to believe.

So it appears there is evidence to support the teachers’ contention that students are doing less homework now than in previous years but such evidence does not provide the complete story. As Secretary Duncan was claiming indirectly that students in other countries– like South Korea– are out working our students at least in part because their parents demand more. If we once again use homework as a proxy for student effort it is the South Korean parents who are less demanding. According to data from the 2011 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) 15 percent of U.S. 8th graders spent 3 or more hours per week doing homework compared to just 2 percent of 8th graders in South Korea. South Korea is not an outlier either. In Japan and Finland–both high performing countries– the percentage is about the same as South Korea. The other extreme is true as well where 78 percent of South Korean 8th graders spent less than 45 minutes per week doing homework compared to just 43 percent of U.S. 8th graders.

Unfortunately, there isn’t as much information on homework in high school but South Korea is known for how much time their high school students spend on homework. So even if we take that as a given does that mean that South Korean parents suddenly demand more once they children hit high school? Do U.S. parents push their children through elementary school then suddenly stop demanding such hard work when they enter high school? I don’t think so.

While there is evidence that students are spending less time on homework and it probably true U.S. high school students on-average spend less time on homework than high school students in other countries, it doesn’t necessarily mean students are not working as hard or less is expected of them. In fact, the assumption our students are expected to do less is wrong. When you actually look at the data you see today’s students are taking much more rigorous courses. For example, according to data from Long-Term NEAP in 1986 just 79 percent of 17 year-olds had taken Algebra compared to 96 percent of students in 2012. Furthermore, 76 percent of 17 year olds took Algebra II in 2012 compared to just 44 percent in 1986. The percent of student taking Calculus has also dramatically increased from just 7 percent in 1986 to 24 percent in 2012. Such increases in rigorous courses were not relegated to math courses either. Similar increases were also made in science as well with many more students taking chemistry and physics now than in the 1980s.

While students may be spending less time on homework, they are taking more challenging courses. So to claim our students aren’t working as hard or not expected to do as much is not supported by actual evidence. In fact, our students are expected to do more and are in fact doing more than ever before. Can we expect more? We sure can but just because parents make education the end-all be-all of human existence in a couple high performing countries doesn’t mean that’s how parents should act here. Parents should set high expectation from their children and their local schools that will educate them but they should also let their children be children as well. – Jim Hull

*I’ll take on the inaccurate assumption the U.S. is falling behind other countries next week. 

January 9, 2014

EdWeek Ranks State Education Systems

Today, Education Week (EdWeek) released its annual special report Quality Counts 2014, which included its annual State of the States report card. Massachusetts earned top honors in the Student Achievement category by earning a B while the nation as a whole earned a C-minus, up from a D-plus in 2008—the first year EdWeek graded states on measures of student achievement. The U.S. earned higher grades in the other two categories– School Finance and EdWeek’s Change for Success Index– where the nation as a whole earned a C and C-plus respectively.

EdWeek’s annual report card shows once again that states vary considerably not only in achievement but how they fund their schools and the opportunity children born in their state are likely to succeed later on in life. States such as Massachusetts and Maryland not only received high marks from EdWeek but have also been compared favorably to high performing countries in previous studies while those states receiving the lowest grades from EdWeek typically scored below most industrialized countries as well. In these lower performing states, the typical student will less likely to be able to compete in the global labor market upon graduating high school.

How states can boost student achievement in this post-recession era of fewer funds and more rigorous requirements is certainly not clear. EdWeek attempted to provide more clarity to this question by surveying school district administrators across the country about how to best improve our public schools. Respondents were generally supportive of charter schools, virtual learning, and homeschooling but didn’t see these alternatives as having a major impact. These district officials also didn’t feel state and federal policymakers had much influence on school policies. In their opinion, it was school district officials and local school board members who have the most impact on school policies, not state and federal officials who seem to drive more of today’s reforms. So for states to increase their grades and become more competitive internationally, real reforms need to come from the local level and for states and federal officials to support those efforts.

Here are some of the key findings from this year’s report card:

K-12 Achievement Index

How do states compare on the academic achievement of their students in elementary through high school?

  • Public schools improved slightly since 2012- the last time the index was reported—but still earned a C-minus just as in 2012.
    • The grade is based on the academic status and growth over time in math and reading scores, narrowing of poverty-based achievement gaps, as well as high school graduation rates and the performance on the advanced placement test.
  • Massachusetts was once again top of its class in 2014 just has it has since 2008 by earning a B. Maryland and New Jersey scored slightly lower, but still earned a B and B-minus respectively.
  • Just two states–Mississippi, and the District of Columbia– received failing marks in 2014 compared to four states in 2012.
  • Thirty-two states earned grades between a D and C-minus.

Chance for Success Index

What are the odds that the average child who grows up in a particular state will do as well as the average child in the top-ranked state, at each stage of his or her educational life? (these stages are: the early childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood)

  • Massachusetts ranked first for the sixth consecutive year by being the only state to receive an A-minus, while Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota earned a B-plus.
    • This means that children in Massachusetts have the best chance of achieving positive life outcomes, according to EdWeek.
  • On the other hand, children in Nevada, New Mexico, and Mississippi have the least chance of achieving positive life outcomes by earning a D and D-pluses, respectively.
  • The nation as a whole earned a C-plus just as in 2013.

School Finance

How much do states spend on their schools? Is the spending distributed equitably?

  • Overall, the nation earned a C in School Finance similar to last year.
  • Wyoming’s grade dropped from an A to an A-minus but still received the highest grade of any state just as in 2013. However, West Virginia, New York, and Connecticut were close behind, all earning a B-plus.
  • On the other hand, four states — Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — received a D while Idaho received a D-minus. No state received a failing grade.
  • Out of the 12 states that improved their school finance scores North Dakota, North Carolina and New Hampshire made the greatest improvements by boosting their grades a half a letter.
    • However, 35 states actually saw declines in their school finance score.
  • States vary greatly in how much they spend on education even when taking regional cost differences into account.
    • Wyoming spent the most per pupil with $19,534 and Utah spent the least with $6,905—a $12,629 difference in per pupil spending.
  • There are also major differences in per pupil spending within states as well.
    • On average states spend $4,566 more per pupil in districts at the 95th percentile in school spending than in districts at the 5th percentile.
    • Alaska has the greatest difference at $13,023, while Utah had the smallest difference at $1,997 per pupil.
    • Only seven states-Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming spent more in low-income districts than in the states’ wealthier districts.

School District Administrator Survey

  • Nearly 9 of 10 respondents believed that accountability pressures have been a major driver of change in their districts.
    •  A slightly higher percentage of respondents believed economic and fiscal challenges were major drivers of change.
  • About half believed private schools, virtual schools and homeschooling had some influence on their districts.
    • A smaller percentage indicating that charter schools had some influence (probably because charters are present in far fewer districts nationwide).
    • Keep in mind, just 1 in 10 respondents thought these other options had a significant influence on their district.
  • Fifty-four percent of respondents believed that there needs to be a change in the current governance structure to meet today’s challenges.
    • The most common change happening in districts surveyed were:
      • Changing superintendents (66 percent).
      • Expanding school choice (48 percent).
      • Central office reorganization (30 percent).
    • Mayoral takeover had happened in 3 percent of surveyed districts.
  • Most respondents supported non-traditional options such as virtual learning (74 percent), charter schools (59 percent), and homeschooling (58 percent).
    • Few supported vouchers (14 percent).

December 2, 2013

10 questions to understanding PISA results

The big day is almost upon us. Tomorrow the results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will be released. The rhetoric pertaining to the quality of our public schools is certainly going to be amplified tomorrow, with critics lamenting how the results show our public schools are in dire straits while others will argue the results are meaningless. To help you understand what the PISA results actually signify, the Center for Public Education has answered 10 key questions about what PISA actually measures and what the results mean for our public schools.

1. What is PISA?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an assessment of reading, math, and science literacy given every three years to 15-year-old students in public and private schools in about 65 countries. The international institution Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) coordinates the development and administration of PISA worldwide while the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducts the assessments in the U.S.

Unlike most state assessments that measure how much knowledge a student has acquired, PISA is designed to measure how well students can apply their knowledge to real-world situations. To measure such skills, the test items on PISA are primarily “constructed response,” meaning the test-taker has to write their answers to the questions, and there are few multiple-choice items. U.S. students typically do not perform as well on open-ended, constructed response items. This is one reason many states are adopting new standards, including the new Common Core State Standards, which are intended to emphasize how well students can solve problems and think critically based on the concepts, topics and procedures they have learned.

2. Why are PISA results important?

PISA is one of the few tools we have to compare the outcomes of high school students internationally.  PISA provides valuable information on how prepared high school students are for postsecondary success whether in the workplace, career training, or higher education.

3. Is the U.S. ranking on PISA negatively impacted because unlike other countries the U.S. educates and tests all its students?

No, this used to be true several decades ago, but is no longer the case. Every industrialized country now educates all their students, including language minority, special needs and low-performing students. Every country that participates in PISA must adhere to strict sampling rules to ensure the country’s results are nationally representative of all 15-year-old students. Indeed, the decision to test secondary students at age 15 was made in part because young people at that age are still subject to compulsory schooling laws in most participating nations, which provides more assurance that PISA will capture the broadest sample.

4. Where does the U.S. really rank on PISA?

In 2009, 30 countries had higher mathematics scores than the U.S. but just 23 of these countries significantly outperformed the U.S. Because only a sample of each nation’s students participate in PISA, much like political polls, each country’s score has a margin of error. This means that the score is actually an estimate of how the country would perform if every 15-year-old took PISA. In science, 21 countries had higher scores than the U.S., but only 18 scored significantly higher; in reading, while 16 countries scored higher, just nine countries significantly outperformed the U.S.

OECD reports statistically significant differences in performance between nations, which is a more accurate way to look at PISA rankings than a straight listing of average scores.

5. Does PISA measure the effectiveness of public school systems?

Not completely, for three reasons: 1) PISA results are representative of the performance of all 15-year-olds in participating countries including those  attending private schools; 2) PISA makes no attempt to isolate schools from outside factors such as poverty or high proportions of non-native language speakers that may have an impact on  performance —such factors are important to include in the mix when evaluating the effectiveness of each country’s schools; and 3) No single measure can incorporate every outcome we expect from our public schools. To gain a better perspective of the overall effectiveness of educational systems, you should consider multiple measures. NSBA’s Center for Public Education’s Data First Data Center is a good resource to get you started when examining public schools in the U.S.

6. How does the U.S. stack up on other international measures?

The U.S. fares much better on other international assessments.  U.S. 4th and 8th graders performed among the top 10 countries in both math and science on the most recent Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, which was administered to more than 60 countries (TIMSS, 2011). Moreover, only four countries outperformed U.S. 4th graders in reading on the 2011 Progress on International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Finally, U.S. students led the world in civics in 1999, the last year the CivEd was given. As of 2009, the nation’s 15-year-old students did not compare as well on PISA, especially in math and science. However, the U.S. performed better in reading by scoring among the “top 10.”

7. Has the U.S. shown improvement on PISA?

The U.S. saw a slight improvement in math scores between 2006 and 2009. It wouldn’t be surprising if such gains continued in 2012 as U.S. high school students continue to take more rigorous math courses. It is important to point out that the U.S. has demonstrated improvements on other measures since PISA was first given in 2000. U.S. 4th and 8th graders made among the greatest gains in math between 1995 and 2011 on TIMSS. The U.S. also made dramatic gains in on-time graduation rates by improving from 67 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2010 according to Education Week. Even on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), U.S. 4th and 8th graders have shown significant progress between 2000 and 2013, although high school students are not showing the same gains. The lack of progress on PISA appears to be the exception rather than the rule in terms of international comparisons.

8. How should the results be used?

We need to get beyond seeing PISA as a horse race by fixating on whether the U.S. finishes in win, place, or show. Instead, we need to see PISA results as an opportunity to assess if best practices in teaching and learning in other countries can also work for secondary schools here in the U.S. For example, we should  look at how much time other countries give teachers for professional development, how much they pay their teachers, how much time teachers spend in the classroom, how much flexibility exists at the local level, how special needs students are taught, and how much time students spend in school. Answers to these and others questions could be instructive for U.S. educators and policymakers. While PISA gives us an opportunity to learn from other countries it is important to keep in mind that just because a high-performing or high-gaining country does something does not mean it will work in U.S. schools.

9. Does poverty affect the U.S. performance on PISA more than in other countries?

Many analysts observe that poverty has a greater impact on student performance in the U.S. than elsewhere. For one thing, the U.S. has the highest child poverty rates among industrialized countries. For another, students in the U.S. who live in poverty tend to have less access to resources that research consistently shows impact student achievement, including highly effective teachers, access to rigorous curriculum, and high quality pre-k programs. Yet, poverty is just one of several factors that affect the standing of the U.S. In comparing the performance of top students around the world—where poverty is likely less of a factor—America’s top students still do not compare well to their peers in other countries. For example, in 2009 19 countries’ top students (scoring in the top 10 percent) outperformed the U.S.’s top students in science on PISA.

10. Are PISA results a precursor of America’s future economic competitiveness?

Our high school graduates’ preparation for postsecondary success certainly has some impact on the future economic competitiveness of the U.S. However, as stated in question 5, PISA is just one measure of high school students’ college and career readiness. In addition, many factors besides K-12 schooling contribute to the economic competitiveness of the U.S. and every other country, including, for example, a country’s monetary and fiscal policies. But for a country to maximize its economic output it needs a well-educated society which would lead to lower unemployment rates and less demand for government services. Stanford University Economist Eric Hanushek estimates that if the U.S. had scored 50 points higher on PISA in 2000 by 2015 GDP would be 4.5 percent higher than currently projected. Such an increase is the equivalent to the total expenditures on U.S. K-12 schools in 2015. Keep in mind, however, this does not mean that if the U.S. doesn’t improve on PISA that GDP will decline when our current high school graduates enter the workforce. However, it does show that education does affect future economic outcomes.

October 25, 2013

Good news but more work to be done

For nearly two decades researchers have attempted to link results from the domestic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to the results from the international assessment Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), to give states an opportunity to compare their math and science achievement levels to other countries across the world. Yesterday, researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics released the latest attempt to make such a link. This report provides not only the most current but also the most accurate measures of how each state’s performance would stack up internationally.  As Jim stated in his summary yesterday, the results give many states a reason to pat themselves on the back.

 A deeper look into the results shows that some states posted some of the world’s best scores. In math, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire scored higher than all but 5 of 47 countries. Science scores were similarly impressive; 9 of the 14 top scorers were U.S. states, with Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire finishing in 2nd, 4th and 5th place respectively.

While these performances are certainly worth celebrating, other data points from the study warrant serious concern. Of the 36 states that scored above the international average in math, most of them, according to an EdWeek article, scored at the Intermediate proficiency level (There are 4 levels total: Advanced, High, Intermediate, and Low). In other words, the average 8th grade student in most states is not at the more advanced levels that Korea, Singapore, Japan and other countries are. If U.S. students hope to compete in a global environment, scoring above the average isn’t enough when other countries continue to achieve exemplary marks.

The data also show that many states contain vast disparities between high and low performers. Texas, for example, scored above the international average in math, but 30% of its 8th graders scored at the Low level or worse. And as a country, the rates aren’t much better; 32% of U.S. 8th graders performed at the Low level or lower and 69% were scored at the Intermediate level or below. To make matters worse, the aforementioned Edweek article states these figures haven’t changed much since 2007.

Moving forward, educators in most states should celebrate their ability to beat international averages while recognizing that above mediocre isn’t enough. Globalization requires more of our students reach the High and Advanced levels on international exams. –Jordan Belton

October 8, 2013

You don’t need to go to Harvard to benefit from college

Some parents and policymakers are uncomfortable with the recent emphasis in education policy on college readiness, which is typified by the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 45 states. Reason likely being, the term college-ready is synonymous with preparing students for four-year postsecondary institutions like Harvard or their state’s flagship university. As the rhetoric behind the push to graduate all students college-ready typically revolves around graduating more students with a four-year degree, it is no wonder there is such apprehension.

It is absolutely true that not all students are meant or want to go to Harvard or any other four-year institution. Yet, it is clear most of today’s students will need education beyond high school to obtain a job to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. However, college-readiness goes beyond preparing all students to earn a four-year degree; it’s about preparing students to earn two-year degrees as well. A new report brings to light this fact by finding that community college graduates earn on-average $259,000 more over their working lifetime than those who only earn a high school degree. As a result, community college graduates pay $67,000 more in taxes. Moreover, community college graduates are less likely to need government assistance– such as unemployment benefits– as they are less likely to be unemployed as well.

Drawing attention to the success of community college graduates is critically important to promoting the fact that college-readiness is not just about preparing students for Harvard. The importance of the affordability and the technical training provided by our nation’s community colleges should not be overlooked. However, as my previous report on international college attainment rates showed, the U.S. does a decent job preparing students to earn a four-year degree but falls well short when it comes to the attainment of two-year degrees. If we as a nation focus on significantly improving the college attainment rates for our two-year colleges, the U.S. would not only once again be among the global leaders in college-attainment but it would also have a significant impact on the nation’s economy as well. – Jim Hull

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