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Looking at the world’s best school systems. Hint: They’re not in the USA

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The education book of the moment is a work of journalism that shows how the countries with the best educational systems are succeeding — while the U.S. treads water.

Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way tracks the experiences of three American exchange students who spend a school year in Poland, Finland and South Korea. Each of those countries outranks the U.S. in international comparisons.

In each place, the American kids are “startled by how hard their new peers work and how seriously they take their studies,” says The Economist‘s review of Ripley’s book.

Maths classes tend to be more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.

Ripley finds that much of Finland’s success comes from ensuring high-quality teaching from the beginning, “allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America,” says reviewer Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Those better-prepared teachers can be given more autonomy, making them more likely to love their jobs and stay in the profession. It’s just the opposite of how we do it in America, where teaching’s mediocre status and pay attract few top students in the first place, and teachers are subject to morale-killing “complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as Paul puts it.

Just as important, Ripley finds: School systems excel when they demand high-quality work of every student.

The Economist:

Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”. Low expectations are often duly rewarded.

Not all is rosy in these high-performing countries, Ripley reports. South Korea’s pressure-cooker culture — all study, all the time — is a “hamster wheel” that has “created as many problems as it solved.”

All three counties revamped their education systems when they grew alarmed by the poor state of their economies and national sense of worth. Ripley thinks that America might soon reach a similar moment.

“She cites the World Economic Forum’s most recent ranking of global competitiveness, which placed America seventh, marking its third consecutive year of decline,” The Economist writes. “Meanwhile Finland, that small, remote Nordic country with few resources, has been steadily moving up this ladder, and now sits comfortably in third place.”

Not that Ripley’s findings are entirely new. PISA, the international survey of 34 countries’ education systems, has reached many of the same conclusions. Check out this video:

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“Long-overdue technological revolution” under way in education: The Economist

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A revolution is under way:

At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help.

In theory the classroom will be “flipped”, so that more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge (in the same way that homework does now, but more effectively).

The promise is of better teaching for millions of children at lower cost—but only if politicians and teachers embrace it.

So says The Economist in its current issue.

The British-based news weekly takes a global look at what its headline writer calls “e-ducation.” What it finds is mostly hopeful. (“Used properly, edtech offers both the struggling and the brilliant a route to higher achievement. The point is to maximise the potential of every child.”)

But it also notes that “edtech will boost inequality in the short term, because it will be taken up most enthusiastically by richer schools, especially private ones, while underfunded state schools may struggle to find the money to buy technology that would help poorer students catch up.”

[That passage underscores the importance of  Innovations for Learning’s mission: We work in America’s largest urban — read “cash-strapped” — school districts as a nonprofit seeking to make tech-based education in the primary grades as available as possible.]

It’s an excellent overview, showing the impact of a phenomenon that has started in America and spreading across the world. It’s well worth your time.  Here’s the full version.

Illustration: The Economist

U.S. lags far behind in pre-school

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The United States is lagging far behind much of the developed world when it comes to enrolling children in preschool programs.

The U.S. ranks 24th and 26th among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in the enrollment and three- and four-year-olds, respectively, reports the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank:

While the U.S. enrolls just just 69 percent of its four-year-olds and 51 percent of its three-year-olds, other countries enroll nearly all of their young children in preschool programs.

But it isn’t just enrollment where America falls behind — it also fails to keep up in other areas, such as when children begin school, how much it spends on preschool, and the teacher-to-child ratio in its early childhood education programs.

The gap between the U.S. and other countries leads to gaps in achievement later on in childrens’ lives:

Japan, for instance, enrolls nearly all of its four-year-olds in preschool programs and outscored the U.S. by 40 points on the latest international test of fourth-grade math, CAP notes.

In the U.S., state-level pre-kindergarten programs have led to substantial gains for children compared to those who don’t receive early childhood education. Children in Tennessee’s state-funded program, for instance, “saw a 75 percent improvement in letter-word identification, a 152 percent improvement in oral comprehension, a 176 percent improvement in picture vocabulary, and a 63 percent improvement in quantitative concepts.”

But the U.S. isn’t just lagging behind countries it traditionally competes with. Emerging industrialized countries are also setting loftier goals and standards for the enrollment of children in public preschool programs, while the U.S. hasn’t followed the same path:

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Here are more details about pre-school in America and the Obama Administration’s $75 billion proposal to boost enrollments.

We at Innovations for Learning believe fervently in the importance of early education. We are impelled by the knowledge that too many children are starting school without the necessary foundations.

We’re working hard to bring our TeacherMate® and TutorMate® programs to school districts across America in hopes that every child can learn to read in the primary grades.Because we want to give every child the chance to succeed later on.

— Infographics from Center for American Progress

 

 

Rich kid, poor kid — all must, and can, get an education

What’s wrong with public education in America? Is it the poor quality of teachers — or maybe the low pay offered to teachers? The inflexibility of unions? An insufficiency of charter schools?

We’ve heard all of these, time and again, to explain what is inevitably described as the crisis in U.S. education.

But a couple of recent essays argue that these usual explanations are entirely wrong.

Sean F. Reardon, a professor education and sociology at Stanford, rejects the notion that U.S. education as a whole is slipping. “In fact,” he writes in the New York Times, “average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called National Report Card have been rising  — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s.”

But progress is not occurring in an equal fashion, Reardon says. There is a growing gulf in grades, test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment and completion.

It’s not a racial gap; the differences between whites and blacks have been narrowing slowly over the past 20 years.

The most dramatic disparities are  between the rich … and everyone else.

“The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly,” Reardon writes. “The rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.”

Why?

“The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school,” Reardon writes. He continues:

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages….

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

Meantime, a former history professor and high-school teacher named John Tierney sees a revolution emerging in K-12 public education — a massive, grassroots rejection of the accountability-based reform movement of the last dozen years.

Writing in The Atlantic, he says the weaknesses of the reform movement are becoming increasingly obvious:

Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail…

Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail…

Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed.

What, then, is to be done?

We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

We at Innovations for Learning are acutely aware that too many poor children enter the school system unprepared to learn. That’s the very problem we were created to address.

But we disagree that we must first fix such monumental problems as poverty and inequality if we are to see gains in education.

The work we’re doing in primary grades all across America is showing that if we focus on improving teachers’ tools, content and teaching methods, and provide teachers with adequate training and support, they can help students achieve — even those from high-poverty communities.

“I don’t deny that kids from advantaged communities will have life long advantages,” says Seth Weinberger, IFL’s founder and CEO, “but a basic education should be achievable for everyone.”

— Howard Goodman

IFL takes big step into Broward County, Fla., classrooms

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In one of its biggest expansions yet, Innovations for Learning’s programs are headed this fall to 120 classrooms in Broward County, Fla, — an aggressive effort to teach some 2,160 young students to read.

The Broward County Public Schools, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced the partnership with IFL today. The initiative is to begin in August, when the fall semester begins.

Plans call for scores of digital devices — laptops, iPads and iPod Touches — to be provided to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. The non-profit IFL will share in the costs for the equipment, as well as support staff needed to make the program run smoothly.

Robert W. Runcie, Broward’s superintendent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, which relies on 21st century tools and old-fashioned one-on-one attention from caring adults to bring reading skills to children who would otherwise lack the readiness to succeed in school.

“This initiative is critical because students who do not master the art of reading by the end of first grade are severely impacted, across all content areas, throughout their academic career,” Runcie said in a statement. “Early intervention, that is personalized to each student’s needs, is critical in improving the rates of students who enter our second grade classrooms as proficient readers on or above grade level.”

United Way of Broward will help in the effort to recruit volunteers from the business world to tutor the children, giving one-half hour a week to help them with their lessons remotely, using the Internet and telephones to communicate from their work places to the kids’ classrooms.

“This is a one of a kind program in our district that leverages technology to maximize personalized literacy instruction and provides a unique opportunity for community leaders to tutor students in a manner, which minimally impacts their schedule, “ said Dr. Marie Wright. the district’s executive director, for instruction and interventions.

Innovations for Learning is equally excited.

“Broward is the rare example of a large urban school district that was able to see an innovative idea and move it through their process with enthusiasm and move it through quickly,” said Barbara Gilbert, IFL’s national education director. “Normally, it gets very complicated and take a long time or you have departmental issues. Broward had none of that. It was very collaborative.”

— Photo (left to right):  Seth Weinberger, IFL Founder and CEO, Dr. Marie Wright, Executive Director, Instruction & Interventions, Broward County Public Schools, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, Broward County Public Schools, and Barbara Gilbert, IFL National Education Director.
Photo and story by Howard Goodman.

The astounding cost of a high school dropout

Here’s a startling look at the high cost we all pay for every high school dropout:

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The infographic was created by Rethink Education, a venture capital firm that invests in educational technology.

The information largely comes from a publication released last July 4 called “American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation is Going To Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy.”  The 300-page work was produced by GSV Advisors, merchant bankers who encourage investment in educational innovation, and is well worth a good look.

Generally, we think of education as making a crucial difference in the lives of individuals. But as Tom Segal, an analyst for Rethinking Education, argues in a recent blog post, education is the lynchpin for society as whole.

What good is the economy without a learned population speaking a common language and operating at a high level? What good are human rights without a populace that knows the existing law and understands the cost/benefit analysis of change?

How can we have a legitimate discussion about tax policy if the majority of Americans do not understand where cuts would be coming from and how they would affect their lives? How can we spark change in the financial sector if the average citizen does not understand loans, interest rates, and basic budgetary planning? …

“Education” as a sector is about so much more than just “education.” It touches everything from Health to Economics to Defense. In other words, education spurs development and progress across the board.

 

Visions of change

Sometimes it takes more than words to describe the rapid-fire changes going on in education — or that are possible in education — right now.

Here are a few inspiring videos that show how the new technologies that are becoming familiar to almost everyone can excite and expand the learning process.

The one above is from Blackboard.com. It shows how students are leaping ahead of the education system in their use of cell phones and computers. That’s quickly changing their ideas of what they expect from school.

This one, from Norway, makes a strong case that educational institutions must play catch-up to prepare students for life in the 21st Century:

In this one, 18 classroom teachers from Mahoning County, Ohio, the area around Youngstown, describe how technology can integrate into all subject areas:

Let us know if you like these videos — we’ll look for more to share with you.

(Thanks to educatorstechnology.com for bringing these videos to our attention.)

Staff reflections: Michele Pulver

biopicIn this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 
Today: Michele Pulver, National Director for Teacher Services

I am a speech-language pathologist by training and began my career working in schools and in private practice. I see fascinating connections between learning language and learning to read, and believe technology can be useful in both.

I left the classroom to shift my focus toward teacher training and professional development. For 10 years I worked with the reading-instruction program Earobics and its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, eventually managing the professional-development team for technology-focused programs for the north half of the USA.

I joined Innovations for Learning in 2010, and now I oversee the teacher training and coaching around  TeacherMate and TutorMate programs. I work directly with teachers — and also manage our Teacher Ambassadors, IFL’s own little literacy army. These knowledgeable folks work one-on-one with teachers to help them get the most out of IFL’s programs. I’m so grateful for them!

I couldn’t ask for a better job. I get a front-row view of the nearly miraculous changes and growth that happen in these critical early school years.

Kids in K and 1 are still learning the “rules” of school. They are still figuring out how to “be” and how to sit still and how to focus their attention on a task for longer periods of time. Teachers are artful shepherds, gradually shaping behaviors and teaching new skills that help students gain independence. K and 1 teachers set in place the building blocks of life-long learning.

The days in K and 1 are often filled with the mundane: tying shoes, wiping noses, celebrating successes (“You did it! I knew you could and you tried and you did it!”) and correcting off-task behaviors (“I think your voice should be at a level 0. Please use your words”).

They are filled with modeling, guided practice and establishing (and reestablishing) routines (“Let’s talk about how we line up…”).

Most importantly, they are filled with wonder.

Wonder is a powerful thing. When children begin to wonder, they are taking the first step toward visualizing texts and imagining outcomes. When a teacher wonders how to improve a lesson or how to reach a child, she is taking the first step towards self-improvement.

And it IS wonderful….

It is wonderful to see a student’s eyes light up when they’ve read a whole page (or a whole book!) for the first time. It is wonderful to see little brows furrowed in deep concentration as they coax their eyes and brains to try something new.

It is wonderful to hear kids say, “I need to read now. Please be quiet.”

It is wonderful to enjoy the non-sequiter observations a child can make. Recently, a first-grader raised his hand while I was discussing the riveting concept of initial consonant blends, and — completely disconnected from the subject — told me that “Praying Mantises don’t really pray.” Wonderful.

Take a little time to enjoy the wonder that our world and our classrooms provide.

Wonderful.

Michele Pulver
michele@innovationsforlearning.org
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