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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


November 21, 2013

Don’t ignore international assessments

The U.S. will once again see how our nation’s high school students stack up against their peers in 65 other countries in reading, math, and science when the 2012 PISA results are released on December 3rd. PISA results typically garner a lot of attention because it’s the only assessment that compares the knowledge and skills of high schools students in nearly every industrialized nation in the world in reading, math and science.

Unfortunately, the U.S. typically doesn’t compare well to other countries on PISA especially in math and science. In 2009—the last time PISA was administered– 23 countries outperformed the U.S. in math while 18 countries outperformed the U.S. in science. The U.S. faired better in reading by performing as well as or better than all but 8 countries. These results show there is plenty of room for improvement.

Critics often use these results to argue that our schools need to do a better job preparing our future workforce or risk an economic disaster. While others argue that results from international assessments such as PISA are meaningless and should all but be ignored. I’ll bet most of the rhetoric after the PISA results are released will fall within these two camps.

However, as I wrote in our Guide to International Assessments we should get beyond such rhetoric and use the results to learn from other countries on what is working for their students. And not just those countries who score higher than we do either. We should also look at those countries that have made the greatest gains and check out what changes they made that may have contributed to their newfound success. We should also look deeper into the data to determine which countries did a better job educating certain students. For example, CPE delved deep into PIRLS- 4th grade reading international assessment—and found that language minority students perform as well in the U.S. as language minority students in other industrialized countries. Similar analyses should be conducted in other subjects and with other student groups, too, to gain a better understanding of what is working in schools around the globe.

While PISA results should not be used as the sole measure of the effectiveness of our schools, it is one tool that should not be ignored. PISA provides valuable information on how prepared our students will likely be for life after high school. But other information should be used, such as high school graduation rates, college persistence and graduation rates, as well as unemployment rates for recent graduates to gain a greater perspective on how well our high schools are preparing our students. Just like PISA none of these measures alone provides a complete picture of the quality of our public schools but they each provide valuable information that should not be ignored. – Jim Hull

November 6, 2013

The kids are all right-er

Recently, we reported on a new study from the U.S. Department of Education that showed eighth-graders in the vast majority of states performed above the international average in math and science. The NAEP-TIMSS Linking Study also found that if Massachusetts and Vermont were their own countries, they would stand with the highest-achieving nations. As CPE’s Jim Hull has been writing for some time, the popular storyline that U.S. students get crushed in international comparisons is, in a lot of ways, a distortion of the actual record. Truth is, our fourth- and eighth-graders consistently score above average, and do especially well in reading and science. Even our high school students are slightly above average in those subjects, falling below in math only.

Is “above average” good enough? Of course not. We need to keep up our efforts to do better, particularly at the high school level. But it’s also important to keep in mind that even though we’re not number one, our students are not failing. Wish we could say the same about American adults.

Another report was released in October that deserves the attention of every American because it points to issues related to literacy in the U.S. that extend beyond the reach of schools alone. The Paris-based Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts various studies of economic and social institutions internationally.  Stateside, they are perhaps best known for PISA which tests the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds.  During 2011 and 2012, OECD administered an assessment of literacy and numeracy as part of its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The test was given to a representative sample of adults aged 16-to-65 in 21 OECD member countries.  The difference between adult performance and that of our younger students couldn’t be more striking: whereas the nation’s fourth-graders are competitive with their international peers, American adults perform below the international average, and in the case of math, far below.

In Figures 1 and 2 (below), I arranged the OECD adult findings alongside the same countries’ performance on international studies of elementary and secondary students’ knowledge and skills. Each country’s results are shown in relation to those of the U.S., meaning, a country is either below the U.S. average (gold), above the U.S. average (blue), or about the same as the U.S. (white).  The relationships are all statistically significant.

Figure 1 looks at reading/literacy performance. The first column shows performance on PIRLS, the reading assessment of fourth-graders. Second is the already mentioned PISA which is taken by 15-year-olds. Finally, the PIAAC adult results are shown in the third column on the right. So in Australia, for example, fourth-graders performed below the U.S. average and their 15-year-olds scored above the U.S. as did the adult population.

adult reading

Clearly, fourth-graders in the U.S. do very well in reading (PIRLS, 2011) compared to their international peers. They performed significantly higher than 13 of the 17 countries with PIRLS data, and only high-performing Finland outscored us.  While our relative performance drops among 15-year-olds — 5 out of 21 countries did better than we did — our overall performance was still somewhat above the international average (PISA, 2009). In contrast, our adult population scored below the international average, and was outperformed by 11 participating countries (PIAAC, 2012).

The U.S. adult performance in math is even more troubling. Figure 2 shows math results for grade 4 and grade 8 (TIMSS, 2011), 15-year-olds (PISA, 2009) and adults (PIAAC, 2012).

adult math

U.S. fourth-graders once again hold their own. They performed significantly better than their peers in 12 out of the 19 countries with TIMSS data; only two countries, Japan and Korea, scored higher.  U.S. adults, however, are significantly outperformed by their peers in 16 out of the 21 countries and surpass only Spain and Italy.

There are a lot of caveats and considerations in interpreting these results and the study raises more questions than provides answers, beginning with:

  • This is snapshot data, all of which was collected between 2009 and 2012. We need to look at longer trends to understand whether the high performance of fourth-graders today will translate into better adult outcomes later on, or if something else is happening with the adult population. One puzzle:  the nation has produced steadily improving math scores for several decades as measured by TIMSS, NAEP and SAT. Yet the difference between our older (age 55-65) and younger adults (16-24) is modest and represents the lowest growth between generations in the study. We should expect to see better adult outcomes. We need to know why we’re not.
  • The international assessments given to fourth- and eighth-graders (PIRLS and TIMSS) resemble tests typically taken by students and aligned with school curricula. Both PISA and PIAAC attempt to assess how well individuals apply their knowledge and skills in practical situations.  Could these differences at least partially explain the performance gap between our younger students and adults?
  • The overall poor performance of American adults has a perverse counter-image in those indicators the U.S. does lead in. The impact of social-economic class on adult literacy levels is greater here than in any other nation. We also lead in the relationship between literacy and wages, healthy living and civic participation, with those on the low end of the literacy scale having the least access.

The OECD findings don’t point to any specific cause. Nonetheless, there is clearly a role for schools. First, they need to build on the gains they are producing in elementary and middle school and double down on efforts to instruct high school students to higher levels. It would also serve schools well to examine instructional methods to make sure students learn concepts deeply and can apply them in unfamiliar situations — something, by the way, the new Common Core standards strive to do.

But we are wrong to believe that schools can solve the problem by themselves and there are a lot of players who need to share responsibility. We can begin by examining social and economic policies that affect adult lives, notably, the availability of continuing education, the impact of widening inequality, the ways we support new immigrants (or not), and the possible role our culture and media have on what we know and can do.

As the data show, schools are stepping up to the plate and as a result, our fourth- and eighth-graders are competitive in the international ballpark.  For now, our kids have every right to tell us grown-ups to hit the books.

June 19, 2013

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review: Brief Highlights

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently released a lengthy report called “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs” (“The Review”). The much anticipated and highly contested report highlights the shortfalls of the vast majority of the nation’s colleges and universities’ teacher preparation programs. The report sounds the alarm on inadequate training for teachers, particularly focusing on what aspiring teachers need to know and be able to do as they enter the nation’s diverse classrooms.

Through much difficulty (read: uncooperative and litigious circumstances), the NCTQ attained data from the 1,130 institutions that train 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained teachers. The Review focuses vastly on public institutions and hopes to expand its analysis to include more private universities in subsequent editions. The standards chosen for the review were developed in accordance with educational experts, best practices of high performing educational institutions, surveyed responses from principals and superintendents, and alignment with the Common Core State Standards. The Review focuses on the skills new teachers must have in order to teach to a high standard, thus surpassing expectations set for previous generations of educators. The NCTQ standards are generally categorized as Selection (e.g., how teacher candidates are selected for training programs), Content Preparation (e.g., early reading), Professional Skills (e.g., lesson planning), and Outcomes (e.g., evidence of effectiveness).

The major takeaways from the report are as follows:

  1. From a zero-to-four star rating system, fewer than 10 percent of rated programs received the upper rankings of three to four stars.
    1. Teacher training programs were largely based on document review (e.g., syllabi, student teaching handbooks, etc.), graduate and employer surveys, and student teaching placement materials obtained primarily through open-records requests.
  2. Most teachers’ colleges are not nearly as restrictive as they could be with only a quarter of programs limiting admission to students in the top half of their class.
    1. According to The Review, high-performing nations limit entrance to their teacher preparation programs to the top third of applicants. This variance could have significant consequences on how the U.S. fares globally in educational success.
  3. Though the vast majority of states (46 states and Washington, DC) have agreed to devise curriculum aligning to the Common Core State Standards, The Review finds that a meager one-third of high school programs and less than one-ninth of elementary programs are prepping future teachers at content levels required by those very standards.
    1. This information aligns with the findings highlighted in a recent report co-authored by the Center for Public Education and Change the Equation: “Out of Sync: Many Common Core states have yet to define a Common Core-worthy diploma.”
  4. Seventy-five percent of elementary teacher reading programs do not prime teachers with high-quality methods of reading instruction.
    1. The Review highlights the disturbing fact that 866 different reading textbooks, “the majority of which are partly or wholly unscientific,” are used across the country to train teachers in reading instruction. Not all textbooks are created equal! Texts need to be thoroughly vetted for their usefulness in providing first-rate reading pedagogy.
  5. A dismal 7 percent of programs provide rigorous and impactful student teaching experiences by placing students with effective master teachers.
    1. The Review recommends a shift in policy wherein colleges and universities insist on cooperating teachers who have proven themselves as highly effective teachers and competent mentors. In other words, it is not sufficient to blindly accept any experienced educator who volunteers for this monumental role in the development of a budding teacher.

Mirroring the U.S. News & World Report national rankings of colleges and universities, The
Review aims to serve as a kind of “consumer report” for endeavoring teachers and school administrators. Because first-year teachers are charged with teaching 1.5 million of the nation’s students, that is more than enough reason to take seriously the quality of teacher preparation and its implications on classrooms all over the country.

Notes on methodology: The Review evaluates elementary and secondary programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels (for a total of four different programs) for the top 200 institutions that produce the greatest proportion of new teachers each year. The remaining ~900 institutions (1,130 total were reviewed) each had two of their programs randomly chosen and evaluated. Data from alternative initial certification programs, traditional advanced certification programs, and private institutions of higher education graduating less than 20 new teachers annually were not included in the analysis. NCTQ was able to include a limited sample of special education programs for evaluation with plans to expand their analysis in future editions of The Review.

Thoughts: To be sure, there are a plethora of positive changes being affected nationwide in public education. (For a great example, read about the nation’s consistently climbing graduation rates courtesy of the Diplomas Count Report from Education Week.) The Review, however, highlights some serious causes for concern that might explain why some students still lag so far behind their peers nationwide. Students in high-poverty, high-need schools are still the most likely cohort to be placed with a novice teacher. It is my hope that, at a minimum, this report be used by college faculty, staff, and administration as a tool for reflection, adjustment, and (re)evaluation of how to train the next generation of teachers to be the best this country has ever seen.-Christine Duchouquette

March 22, 2013

What is it about Finland?

American education is suffering from Finn envy.  While the U.S. has been steadily but slowly climbing its way out of the mid-rankings on PISA — the international assessment of 15-year-olds — little Finland has been knocking the academic socks off of its OECD peers in math, reading and science.  So what do the Finns have that we don’t?

A lot has been made about the differences in culture. As many observers point out Finland is smallish, fairly homogenous and has a low poverty rate, slightly over three percent compared to our approximately 20 percent, and so they question how much of the Finnish way would transfer to our massive and massively complex system.

Even so, American educators and policymakers are so eager to uncover the Finn’s secret, they have created a new tourist industry for this off-the-beaten-track Scandinavian country. Interestingly, what they find both validates and contradicts reform policies advocated here in the U.S.

For one, Finland does not administer standardized tests  which has been a dominant feature of education improvement policies in the U.S. for over a decade. Homework is put off until high school in favor of play for younger students. Another surprise is that children aren’t required to start school until age seven, although voluntary preschool is available to all six-year-olds. Observers like me who believe data-driven policies and making Pre-k available to four-year-olds will help raise achievement won’t find much support here.

Finland also dishes up a potential moment of truth for so-called “reform” advocates, for the idea of merit pay, competition and other market solutions are alien concepts to their view of schooling. As one Finnish education official put it: “Real winners do not compete.”

There is one lesson that nearly all the edu-tourists take away, however. Teachers enjoy a high position of respect in Finnish society.  Finland actively recruits the top 10 percent of its college graduates to pursue master’s degrees in education, a credential most teachers possess. Teachers are trusted to develop lessons, design and administer assessments and grade students on their own. They also enjoy smaller classes and less time in front of students than their American counterparts. Those voices in the U.S. who call for bolstering the teaching profession as essential to improving achievement — a group in which I include myself — will find a great deal of support in the Finnish model.

An article in the Atlantic raises another characteristic of Finnish education that we have tended to overlook but that the Finns credit with their success.  The article’s author, Anu Partanen, explains:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background income or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

Equity in Finland is established through equal funding, free school meals, health care and access to guidance and counseling.  There are very few private schools. All schooling, Pre-k through college, is free. Apparently, investments in schools and children do make a difference.

To the skeptics, however, demography still explains everything about the gap between Finland and the U.S.  To this, Partanen cites research by Samuel Abrams of Columbia University who compared Finland to neighboring Norway, similarly homogenous but whose approach to education more closely resembles the U.S. Norway, like the U.S. and unlike Finland, is not far from the OECD average on PISA. But there are some takeaways that could be instructive for the U.S.

First, our efforts at equitable funding have not closed the wide financial gap between high- and low-poverty districts. Second, the investments we make in child services are pitiful compared to our international peers. Finally, greater attention to recruiting strong candidates into teaching and preparing them well, as well as developing effective school principals can go a long toward assuring all students get a good public education. Who knows? We might even be able to at least reduce our reliance on standardized tests.

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