Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Educational Expectations and Educational Performance: Poland’s Experience

A recent newsletter from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) contained an article describing a complaint the SPLC had filed with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The motion was to stop the implementation of an educational plan by the state of Florida that would discriminate against black and Hispanic students. Florida had intended to set lower academic goals for blacks and Hispanics than for whites and Asian-American students.

"The plan adopted by the Florida Department of Education sets a goal of 90 percent of Asian-American students and 88 percent of white students to be reading at their own grade level by 2018. Only 74 percent of black students and 81 percent of Hispanic students are expected to read at grade level."

"The state also sets lower expectations for math, with 92 percent of Asian-American students and 86 percent of white students expected to perform at grade level by 2018, but only 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Hispanic students."

To encounter such a racial mindset in this century is truly alarming. It may be that those who constructed this policy viewed these goals as attaining improvements on the part of all races, but the guiding principle should be equality in expectations. Students are not likely to produce at a level higher than that expected of them. This is a perfect example of what President Bush once referred to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

The importance of setting high expectations for all students is a central theme in Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World: and How They Got That Way. She applies the term "tracking" to the many ways in which different expectations can be imposed on different classes of students. She uses her examination of school systems in Finland, South Korea, and Poland as a means of evaluating US educational methods.

Tracking at the highest level refers to the practice of testing high school students at or near graduation to determine who is qualified for upper level education at a college or university, and who should be vectored towards a more "vocational" form of study or training. Such systems are quite common and most seem to be successful. The idea is to provide as similar as possible an educational experience for all students up to the "tracking" point. Equality of opportunity is a desired goal.

It is common in the US to utilize tracking in such a way is to maximize inequality of educational opportunity by applying it at an early age.

"Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement classes or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries, including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material."

As soon as one places a child in a track where they are deemed less capable than other students, this labeling can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Advanced students are given more challenging material and provided better teachers. Slower learners rarely catch up; nor are they expected to. The children in the lower levels realize that less is expected of them. This form of tracking can begin as early as the first grade.

"By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better."

Ripley discusses the experience Poland had in upgrading its educational system. In so doing, she provides an excellent example of the potential for harm in communicating diminished expectations.

In the late 1990s, Poland’s leaders feared that the lack of educational attainment would relegate their graduating students to low-wage-laborer status in the European Union. If they wanted a better outcome they would have to reform their educational system. In 1999, they began implementing a major series of reforms to inject more rigor into their system. One of the reforms would prove to be particularly relevant to our discussion.

"….the reforms would force all kids to stay together in the same academic environment for an extra full year….Instead of getting streamed into either vocational or academic programs around age fifteen….students would go to the same….schools together until age sixteen. The difference was only twelve months, but it would have surprising consequences."

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) is a test administered to fifteen-year-old students around the world every three years. In 2000, the test was administered to about "a third of a million teenagers in forty-three countries." Poland, bravely, decided to participate even though their reformed system had just been initiated.

The timing allowed for an interesting comparison because the 2000 test would be taken by students educated in the old way, while those who would take the 2003 test would have experienced the reformed process. The lower-performing fifteen-year-olds in 2000 would have already been sent to the vocational track. All the students taking the test in 2003 would have remained on the same academic track.

"No one in Poland had expected to lead the world, but the results [2000] were disheartening all the same. Polish fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first in reading and twentieth in math, below the United States and below average for the developed world….If the vocational students were evaluated separately, the inequities were startling. Over two-thirds scored in the rock-bottom lowest literacy level."

The results in 2003 would be much better. What was surprising—and telling—was the change in the results for the students who would have been placed on the vocational track under the old system, but had escaped it thus far in the new.

"The results were shocking—again. Poland, the punch line for so many jokes around the world, ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the United States in both subjects. In the space of three years, Poland had caught up with the developed world."

Ripley includes an interesting discussion of all the changes in Poland’s approach. What we are interested in here is the effect of the extra year on the academic track for Poland’s lower-performing students.

"….much of Poland’s improvement had come from the students who would eventually end up in vocational schools. Their scores had jumped, lifting the entire country."

Could this result be due to the reformed educational process being more effective at instructing the students who might be less academically capable, or could it be that the increased expectations for the fifteen-year-olds who were still on the same academic track as the high performers played a role? An experiment Poland performed a few years later shed some light.

"Expectations could fall as quickly as they rose. In 2006 and 2009, Poland gave the PISA test to a sample of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, to see what happened once they went off to vocational schools. Incredibly, the gains disappeared: The achievement gap from the first PISA had returned, one year later….By age sixteen, vocational students were performing dramatically worse than academic students. The reforms had postponed the gap, not eliminated it."

"Something happened to kids once they got into the vocational schools with all the other vocational students and teachers. They seemed to lose their abilities, or maybe their drive, almost overnight."

The lesson from all this seems to be that once you let a student know that he/she is less capable than others and place them in a track where academic expectations are diminished, academic performance will also be diminished.

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