Monday, February 18, 2013

Finland, Korea, and then fourteen other countries, and then us

Everyone should listen to this excellent program from NPR's On Point. Finland and South Korea are first and second in the world in education as determined by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures fifteen-year-olds on math, science, and reading. The U.S. is seventeenth. On Point's Tom Ashbrook speaks with Finland's  Pasi Sahlberg, South Korea's Okhwa Lee, and the U.S.'s Marc Tucker about these results.

Finnish and South Korean schools almost couldn't be more different. Finnish schools are relaxed and friendly, with decentralized pedagogy, relatively short school days, and little testing; South Korean schools are intensely competitive even for young children, with long school days followed by after-school tutoring and a strong emphasis on high-stakes testing. While South Korea has admitted to significant challenges in its schooling despite its high ranking, mostly related to the amount of academic pressure the children feel, Finland's school system has been a positive example in the edunews lately. Finland and South Korea share some key features in their education system that the U.S. lacks.

  • Teachers are highly respected and highly sought after, the way people medical and legal professions are. We don't do this in the U.S, the guests point out.
  • As with other high-status professionals, teachers are highly educated through a rigorous standardized training program. We don't do this in the U.S, the guests point out.
  • Teachers are afforded working conditions and pay commensurate with the importance and prestige of their job. They have professional autonomy, time to work with colleagues, and opportunities to continue their own professional development. You know, the way people medical and legal professions are. We don't do this in the U.S. On the contrary.
  • Funding follows need--schools that have greater need get more money, because they need more money. Quality resources and  facilities are equally distributed, not clustered in better-off areas. We don't do this in the U.S. We do the opposite.
  • There is a strong focus on primary education. We don't do this in the U.S.
  • Families place very strong value on education. The guests didn't comment on the U.S.'s behavior here, but I will: we claim we do,  but in reality as a society we do not respect educators, we do not feel that other children necessarily deserve the same education as our own, and we hold intellectual achievement, at least as reflected in our public discourse, highly suspect.
So, in short, the two most effective education systems in the world value fair funding, careful attention to the early years, and respect for educators, and we do none of these things.

Generally the immediate rejoinder one hears to praise for Finland's virtues is that we're not Finland, in terms of our demographics, economics, or much else. But Korea and Finland are different in these ways, as well, and extremely distinct culturally, and yet they share these virtues in their education system--of course they manifest them in different forms, just as we would. We can't simply overlay deep cultural dna such as education and child-rearing from one society onto ours, but we can take some key points and make them our own, can't we? We think we can't learn from anyone except ourselves?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

MAP-Making and Unmaking

Well this is interesting. Seattle teachers and parents are boycotting the administration of a standardized test given to students.
The MAP test takes three and a half weeks to administer to all the students in his school who are required to take it, Michie said. It's given three times a year, and the school has only one computer lab, which means that for ten weeks a year, the lab is available only for MAP testing.

This follow-up article quotes an op-ed penned by the president and CEO of the company that makes the MAP.

Matt Chapman, NWEA's president and CEO, responded to the Seattle boycott with an op-ed in the Seattle Times. Teachers were "rightfully concerned" about high-stakes testing, he wrote. "In a decadelong quest for accountability, we have lost sight of the real purpose of assessments in the schools, and the mission of public schools themselves—student learning."
But MAP was no ordinary standardized test, he said; in fact, it was "the anti-standardized test."
"Developed by researchers, educators and psychometricians, MAP yields immediate insight for teachers while they still have an opportunity to teach and influence a child's learning," Chapman wrote. Legions of teachers were using MAP results to tailor their teaching to individual students, thereby improving learning for "countless kids," he said.
What this tells me is that the test's intent is valuable, but its application is not realistic. The MAP assesses students' growth over time, starting with a diagnostic and including a midpoint (hence the three times per year)--that is good. Much, much more sensible than an end-all-be-all once-time end-of-the-year  big ol' honkin test. The MAP uses the flexibility afforded by digital technology to adapt instantly to each child as he or she works through the test--that is good.  Much, much more sensible than a one-size-fits-all, static, mute, unresponsive thing. The MAP includes extensive training to help educators use the results to customize instruction for their students--that is good. Much, much more sensible than that one-time end-of-the-year test, which the teachers for that grade level don't even see, and which is fairly useless for guiding instruction (as well it should be, as it is a summative assessment, not an instructional guide).

But the MAP seems to have been developed without the benefit of piloting in schools or modeling in realistic schoolish circumstances. Testing children ten weeks a year (and that's only one test--the students must take additional standardized tests as well) is absolutely silly. That's about 30% of their instructional time! Tying up the school's entire digital capacity for that amount of time is almost as silly. And the mountain of data produced may just be too steep to reasonably climb. Actually that last thing always seemed to me to be the inevitable quandary of any meaningful standardized data collection, ever since state standards gained momentum at the turn of this century--when we finally got around to producing a useful test that provide substantial data at a level of detail that actually helps target instruction, given the large number of students, well of course the data pile was going to be impenetrably gargantuan!

And as always, as ALWAYS, can I say it loud enough, as ALWAYS, the implementation is where even good policies go to die. Because, while we come up with thing upon thing upon thing upon THING to add on to the teetering piled mess of school initiatives, we do not change educators' working conditions. Even the most engaged educators trained most diligently on the most sublime of instruments can't make headway if their working conditions are outrageously lacking in the time they need to guide, nurture, mediate, evaluate, remediate, communicate, encourage--and teach.

The comments in the first article turn almost immediately to Testing Is Bad No Testing Is Good Shut Up No You Shut Up. That's inadequate.Wouldn't it be amazing if the teachers and parents were listened to respectfully and without fuss, the MAP-makers went back to the drawing board with some valuable feedback and perhaps a new development model allowing for a more iterative process, and the result (be it MAP or something else) were a more practical and less obtrusive, and therefore more useful, assessment tool?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Links to Paul Krugman's Talk

I didn't think about posting that I was going to see Paul Krugman speak for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs about "how to fix the economy, because it's not strictly education related, but once there I realized it might be of interest... Well, it's over, now, but here is the Chicago Council's excellent, detailed summary of it (minus the Q&A). You can also read my live tweets from the talk @hear_k12 and/ or check out hashtag #krugman to see a bunch of people's tweets.