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July 17, 2014

School choice in Sweden isn’t working

Earlier this week, Slate ran this analysis of school choice in Sweden that should be required reading for everyone who makes public school policy in the U.S. as well as those who write about it. I encourage everyone to read it for themselves. But briefly, the author describes how Sweden came to adopt Milton Friedman’s free market ideas for school reform in the mid- to late-1900s and since then, the nation, once a leader among OECD countries on PISA, has witnessed its international standing plummet.

According to the article, the main reason for this decline is the failure of free market principles to translate to school improvement. In Sweden, competition led to artificial test score inflation among charter and traditional schools alike.  But even if policies could be put in place to better control for that, there remains the futility of applying for-profit practices to meet what is essentially — and vitally — a not-for-profit public mission.

The author is not a complete charter school opponent. Like CPE, he recognizes the value of innovative, successful charter schools as laboratories that can provide lessons traditional public schools can learn from.  At the same time, we do not see any evidence to argue for expanding charter school — or school choice in general — as a way to improve public education. Indeed, an absolute free market system for public schools poses greater risks to the effort to raise student performance across the board, as Sweden is apparently learning the hard way. – Patte Barth

 






April 3, 2014

U.S. students score well on first PISA problem solving exam

Earlier this week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report on the first ever Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) problem solving exam. 15-year-olds in the U.S. who took the exam scored above average but also had scores that were significantly lower than those of 10 of the other 44 countries and economies participating in the exam. Students in the U.S. performed on par with 15-year-olds in England, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Norway, but still lagged behind highest-scoring Singapore and Korea, as well as students in several other nations.

American students’ scores on the problem solving portion of the PISA exam were quite a bit higher than their scores on the math, reading, and science portions of the exam, possibly implying that students in the U.S. are better at applying what they’ve learned to real life situations than they are at performing strictly academic tasks. That said, the nations that excelled on the problem solving portion of the exam, such as Korea and Singapore, also do well on the traditional academic sections of the PISA exam.

Right now these findings don’t mean much, as this is the first time a problem solving portion of the test has been administered and the sample size was very small (less than 1,300 students in the U.S. took the problem solving exam). However, it is good to see assessments moving beyond only measuring math and reading proficiency and at least attempting to measure deeper learning skills that are also needed to solve real-world problems.  At this point in time we can’t say how well an assessment like this truly predicts problems solving ability, but it seems like a positive development that PISA is acknowledging that problem solving skills will be important for many of these students in their future jobs. At the very least, these results provide an interesting cross-sectional picture of problem solving skills throughout the world. If you’d like to try your hand at some of the problems, sample questions from the 2012 PISA problem solving exam can be found here and here.

Filed under: Assessments,International Comparisons — Patricia Campbell @ 4:08 pm





February 7, 2014

U.S. Schools Are Not Flatlining!

NAEPThe idea that U.S. school performance is flat is indefensible. But unfortunately all too many people believe it to be true. Why wouldn’t they? This sentiment is so often stated that it is assumed to be fact, especially since the 2012 PISA results were released last December. For example, in a recent Washington Post column Is The U.S. Making the Grade in Education? columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote “The United States has muddled along over the past few decades, showing little improvement or decline” as if it was undisputed fact even without providing any evidence. Over at Education Week Marc Tucker tries to answer the question Why Has U.S. Education  Performance Flatlined? by cherry-picking a few pieces of data that at first glance appear to support his assumption. Broadly speaking Tucker asserts the U.S. has made little progress since the 1970s in improving student achievement or graduating more students from high school or college.

Marc Tucker is not alone in pointing to such data to claim that U.S. schools are not improving which makes it vitally important to look at all the evidence to determine if indeed our schools have flatlined. As I recently wrote in the American School Boards Journal, the evidence is quite clear that our public schools have not flatlined but are making dramatic improvements in many areas.

Here is the evidence and you decide whether our schools have flatlined or flourished:

Students today are learning more than ever before

If you simply look at overall NAEP scores for our nation’s 17-year olds scores have improved by just six points between 1978 and 2012 it does appear that our schools have indeed flatlined. However, when you take a closer look a much different picture emerges. You’ll see that our nation’s black 17-year olds have improved by 20-points while Hispanic students improved by 18-points—these gains equate to nearly two years worth of learning. The results were even more impressive in reading where black students improved by 28-points between 1975 and 2012 which is nearly three years worth of learning while Hispanic students make a significant progress as well by improving their scores by 21-points. Such lines are hardly flat. Keep in mind that white students made significant gains during these time periods as well. Furthermore, similar gains were made by our nation’s 9- and 13-year olds.

A world leader in improvement

Our schools may not top the international rankings but few countries have improved their performance as much as we have. On the international Trends In Math and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. 4th graders saw their math scores improve by 23 points between 1995 and 2011. U.S. eighth graders saw similar improvements with scores rising 18 points during the same time period. For each of these grade levels the gains were among the largest made by participating countries.  It should be noted the U.S. also made significant gains on the 8th grade TIMSS science assessment and on PIRLS the international 4th grade reading assessment.

More students receiving a diploma

Not only are our students learning more, more students are graduating. Although graduation rates remained relatively flat between 1970 and 2000, between 2000 and 2010 they steadily increased from 67 percent to 75. Just like on the achievement measures black and Hispanic students made even greater gains during this period. In 2000 just 50 percent of black students graduated high school within four years. That percentage has climbed to 62 percent in 2010. The improvement made by Hispanic students was even more impressive by increasing from 50 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2010.

More students are also graduating from college. The percent of the population over 25 with a bachelor’s degree increased from 11 percent in 1970 to 30 percent in 2010. During this same time period the percent of black adults with a bachelor’s degree increased from 6 percent 20 percent. For Hispanics, 8 percent of adults held bachelor’s degrees in 1980—the oldest data available—compared to 13.9 percent in 2010.

Despite the common assertion that our schools have flatlined, the facts clearly show our students are performing higher and more students are earning degrees than ever before. Are our schools where we want them to be? No, there is obviously more work that needs to be done. But the facts do show that our public schools are making significant strides and are in the best position to ensure all students obtain the skills they need to lead a successful life. – Jim Hull






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).





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