Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Education Reform is Simple—Or Is It?

Yet another view has been heard on what is wrong with our education system and how we can fix it. Marc Tucker provides an article in the Atlantic titled Why Innovation Can’t Fix America’s Classrooms

Tucker begins by reminding us that we are not getting our money’s worth from our education spending.

"....although the U.S. spends more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg, students in a growing number of nations outperform our own. But think about this: Among the consistent top performers are not only developed nations (Japan, Finland, Canada), but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai."

His thesis is simply that since these countries (and cities) are doing better than us we should learn from their methods rather than going off and trying to invent new techniques that are unproven and likely to fail.

"You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre."

"Some of these uniquely American solutions -- charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers' unions, and basing teachers' pay on how their students do on standardized tests -- may be appealing on their surface. To many in the financial community, these market-inspired reform ideas are very appealing."

"Yet, these proposed solutions are nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations. And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we're not doing."

What should we be doing? Tucker makes this reasonable proposal.

"The top-performing nations boost the quality of their teaching forces by greatly raising entry standards for teacher education programs. They insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach, apprenticing new teachers to master teachers and raising teacher pay to that of other high-status professions. They then encourage these highly trained teachers to take the lead in improving classroom practices."

"The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world's highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance."

These actions are worthy things to do, but how does one decide that they are necessary and sufficient.

Tucker mentions South Korea as a "developing" country that out-performs us in international tests of students. It is informative to look at South Korea and consider whether it provides an example that we could, or should, emulate. We have provided a discussion of some of the differences in education between the US and South Korea in The State of Education: South Korea and the US. There we noted, with some humor, the fury directed by mothers in South Korea at the state when it decided that children were spending too much time studying so they were going to discontinue Saturday classes in order to allow them more time to play. The consensus among mothers seemed to be that if this outrage came to pass, then the lost time would have to be regained by spending more money on private tutoring for the children. Also, the comparison of the sorry funding available for our schools was made with Korea’s plan to replace all of its textbooks with online versions that students can access with PCs, tablets or other devices. This would allow them to study even on days when they could claim to be sick.

A recent article in The Economist puts this fixation on education in a broader context.

"An unusually large part of the spending that makes Korean education so good is private, not public. The government spends just under 5% of GDP on education, slightly below the rich-country average. Families add an extra 2.8% of GDP on top of that, easily the highest rate in the OECD. At universities, family spending is three times that of the state. And families spend an estimated 8% of their household budgets on after-hours programmes for each child, an investment which explains the effort mothers put into making sure it pays off. If you have three children, their after-school activities alone could swallow up a quarter of the household budget."

So which part of this South Korean approach does Tucker wish us to emulate: the enormous expenditures on private tutoring, or the daring move to place all learning tools on-line? Should we add eight weeks to the school year, or mandate Saturday classes? And yet, do we really need to emulate other systems?

In How Your State’s Students Compare with Those from Other Countries we included this graph.

In reading proficiency, after eliminating Shanghai as too special a case, and treating each of our states as if it were a country, the top six in rank were Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Singapore, and Vermont. So Massachusetts and Vermont schools and students perform as well as any in the world. Why are we not then sending observers to those states in order to learn the magic they are practicing so it can be ported elsewhere? Is it because they value their teachers more and reward them with salaries that will encourage the best and the brightest to take up the teaching profession? One can find a ranking of states by teacher compensation here. Using an index that modulates actual salary by the local cost of living, the claim is that in terms of effective compensation, Massachusetts ranks 34 places from the top, while Vermont is at number 49 out of 50.

Salary is not the issue. There is something else going on. The countries we compete with are all rather homogeneous entities where it makes sense to define a national average and a national characteristic. Looking at the spread in results for our individual states it is hard to believe that these results all came from within a common boundary. The reason no one is studying Massachusetts and Vermont is because there is really nothing to learn. The difference is not so much in the teachers or in the schools within the varying states as it is within the society, economy and culture. There is too much poverty, and too much discrimination, and too few good parental role models. And there are too many students with language issues or other special needs that do not get sufficient attention.

While it is hard to agree with the premise that we have a lot to learn from other nations, there is one point on which tucker is spot on.

"The top-performing nations have followed paths that are remarkably similar and straightforward. Most start by putting more money behind their hardest-to-educate students than those who are easier to educate. In the U.S., we do the opposite."

Wealthy students collect in wealthy schools, while poor students tend to collect in poor schools. Addressing that seems like the best place to start.

1 comment:

  1. Check out thiS article on Shannon's work:


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