Problem solving and PISA

OECD is out with the latest PISA results. This time, the focus is on the problem-solving skills of the world’s schoolchildren. As we typically see, the U.S. students tested score above average, but definitely aren’t leading the class.

Check out my look at the topic here on a new blog launched by Collaborative Communications Group. And watch for interesting posts from a collection of smart, forward-thinking individuals there.

PISA and CCSS

On the latest installment of BAM Education Radio’s Common Core radio program, we take a look at last week’s PISA scores release and their implications for CCSS implementation across the country.

Joining us for this important discussion are the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Bob Wise and Achieve’s Doug Sovde.  Be prepared for an interesting dialogue, with a little heat from one parent who believes the PISA scores are great and CCSS is the problem.
This is the second episode of this new program, that yours truly is thrilled to be hosting with educator Darren Burris.  Be sure to give it a listen!

Some Inequitable Food for Thought

We are often quick to look at how the United States stacks up to other countries around the world when it comes to educational performance.  We scrutinize PISA and TIMSS numbers.  We ask what Finland and Singapore and Korea have that we don’t.  And some of us even look for positives in a tapestry that often lacks a silver lining.
But some recent studies from OECD provide some important data the education community should be scrutinizing, particularly since it further spotlights the inequities in these here United States and how we continue to slip in some of those international comparisons.
So some inequitable food for thought:
When it comes to income inequality, the United States ranks fifth.  We offer more significant gaps than countries like Spain, Greece, Estonia, and France.  But at least our gap is narrower than those in Mexico and Chile.
In terms of literacy, we again place fifth.  Worse than Austria and the Czech Republic, but better than the Slovak Republic, Mexico, and Sweden.
When it comes to infant mortality rates, only Turkey and Mexico have higher rates than the United States.
We are tops in one category — the percentage of single-parent families.  Estonia and Great Britain (numbers two and three) have their work cut out for them if they want to knock us off the top of the list.
Why do we highlight these numbers, particularly as others are buzzing about declining test scores in New York and the impact of bringing Common Core State Standards online?  Because it is all interconnected.  And its a cryin’ shame that too many folks fail to recognize how income disparities or household structures impact student academic performance.

At the Movies!

Pop the corn, fill the barrel of soda, and get ready for the next round of the “great education movie.”  Last fall, we were all about Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere.  And while Superman is trying to figure out ways to re-inject itself into the discussion, there are a few new motion pictures that add some real context to the discussion of the 21st century classroom.

The first is “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.”  From the same folks who brought us Two Million Minutes, Finland Phenomenon tries to look at why we are so fascinated with the educating happening in Northern Europe.  If we look at the most recent PISA scores (released at the end of 2010), Finland places third in the world, overall, when looking at reading, math, and science scores.  Only Shanghai-China and Korea do better.  Through interviews with students, teachers, parents, and government officials, Finland Phenomenon provides some interesting insight into the educational system for a country that most Americans could never find on a map.  While it may not be as clear to see how the lessons learned in Finland can be applied here in the United States (that is a common concern, when we talk about how great nations like Korea, Finland, Singapore, and the like are; after all Singapore is basically the size of Kentucky), it does demonstrate what a national commitment to excellence in the classroom can look like.
The second is American Teacher, a new movie produced by The Teacher Salary Project.  Narrated by Matt Damon, American Teacher made its West Coast preview earlier this month, and hits Washington, DC next week and New York City right after that.  The movie provides an interesting look at the teaching profession, particularly with regard to working conditions and salaries.  Looking through the eyes of real teachers and their real lives, American Teacher is almost the “other side” of Superman; for each of those parents wanting good schools for their kids there are good teachers wanting the same for all kids.  And The Teacher Salary Project has definitely learned from the Superman phenomenon, building outreach activities, advocacy, and community engagement around the film and its future screenings.
No, they are not Thor, the new Pirates of the Caribbean, or even the sequel to The Hangover.  But movies like The Finland Phenomenon and American Teacher are designed to force us to think a little more, a little deeper, and a little differently about education in the United States.  Ultimately, it isn’t just about reform, it is about improvement.  These two movies show two lines of thinking that need to be factored into the discussion.
    

Some Resolutions for 2011

Another year about to go down in the history books.  Are we any closer to truly improving our public schools?  For every likely step forward we may have taken in 2010, it seems to be met with a similar step back.  For every rhetorical push ahead, we had a very real headwind blocking progress. 

So as we head into 2011, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack offers up a few “resolutions” for all on the education reform boat to consider as we start a new year.  We need to come to accept the following:
1.  True reform does not happen at the federal level.  The federal government is an important lever in the school improvement process, offering some necessary financial resources and some bully pulpit language to inspire reform.  But true improvement happens at the state and local levels.  It is about what our SEAs and LEAs do with those resources and whether they embrace the call from the bully pulpit.  Just as all politics is local, so too is all education reform.  Why do you think groups like DFER are so keen on launching new statewide efforts, like the new one in California?
2.  ESEA reauthorization really doesn’t matter.  As much as we want to fret about when ESEA is going to be reauthorized and what will and won’t be included, it doesn’t have much impact on the game at hand.  At the end of the day, EdSec Duncan could work from the current NCLB, make a few tweaks, and be just fine for the next few years.  Those thinking a major sea change is coming with reauth will be sadly mistaken.  If we see reauth this year (put at about 60 percent), expect it to simply be a kinder, gentler NCLB.  Nothing more.
3. Education technology matters.  For years now, we’ve placed ed tech in the perifery when it comes to school improvement, trying to define it as simply the adoption of a particular piece of hardware.  Ed tech needs to be at the center of 21st century school improvement.  It is important to instruction and student achievement, teacher quality, and all-around turnaround efforts.  If we are to realize its impact, we need to ensure it is a non-negotiable in the process.
4. We cannot forget about reading instruction.  Nine years ago, Reading First was born, emphasizing the importance of literacy instruction in the elementary grades.  We cannot boost student test scores and we cannot ensure that all kids are college and career ready if everyone isn’t reading at grade level.  RF taught us a great deal on how to teach reading (and how not to advocate it politically).  Building on those lessons, we need to redouble our efforts to get each and every child reading proficient.  And that now includes focusing on middle and high schools, where too many students have fallen between the cracks.
5. Superintendents matter.  Many of our largest and most influential school districts will experience change at the top this coming year.  These new leaders can’t forget that the role of instructional leader is essential to their success.  Shaking things up is good.  Sweeping out the old is fine.  Doing things differently is great.  But at the end of the day, being a superintendent is all about teaching and learning and measurement.  Magazine covers are nice, but rising test scores are far more rewarding.
6. We still need to figure out what teacher quality is.  Is it just student test scores?  Does it include preservice education requirements beyond HQT provisions?  Are their qualitative factors?  Can we accept a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition?  With increased focus continuing to be placed on the topic of teacher quality, we need a true defition and a true measurement to really launch a meaningful discussion.  We’ve spent too much time talking about what it isn’t or what it shouldn’t be.  It is time to determine what it is.
7. Research remains king.  In 2010, we spent a great deal of money on school reforms and improvement ideas.  Most of these dollars were an investment in hope.  Now it is time to verify.  We need to determine what is working and what is not.  We need to know not just that the money is being spent (as ED typically sees evaluation) but instead need to know what it is being spent on and what is showing promise of success.  We need to redouble our investments in evaluation.  Other sectors have made real advances because of investments in R&D.  It is about time for education to do the same.
8. We need to learn how to use social media in education.  It is quite disheartening to see that states like Virginia are exploring banning teachers from using tools like Facebook with their students.  It is also a little frustrating to see that media like Twitter are still being used for one-way communications.  We need to see more engagement and dialogue through our social media.  An example?  How about more Twitter debates like those between @DianeRavitch and @MichaelPetrilli ?
And as we look forward to the new year, some predictions on what is hot and what is not for 2011.
HOT — Accountability (and its flexibility).  Assessments.  International benchmarking.  Rural education.  Alternative certification.  Special education.  Competitive grants.  Local control.  School improvement.  Local elected school boards.  Online education.
NOT —  Charter schools.  Early childhood education.  21st century skills.  STEM.  ELL.  Education schools.  RttT/i3.  Education reform (yeah, you heard me).  Teachers unions.  Mayoral control.  AYP.  Early colleges.  Edujobs.
Happy new year!  

Driving GDP Growth Through Our Classrooms

We are hearing more and more these days about international benchmarking.  Maybe it is because of the increased focus on assessment generated by the common core standards movement.  Maybe it is because we are finally starting to recognize that while our NAEP scores hold steady, our students’ standing on international tests such as TIMSS and PISA continues to slip.  Or maybe it is because of the economy, as we grow more and more mindful of both the globalization issue of the past five or eight years or the more recent worries about jobs just evaporating, particularly for those without 21st century skills.

Whatever the reason, international benchmarking is standing as a hot topic.  Not only are we aware of those tests where our kids compete against their peers in Singapore and Sweden, but we now seem to pay more attention to groups like Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, (even though the Obama Administration eliminated the U.S. Department of Education’s official liaison to OECD last year) and are perking up when we hear about test scores, teacher training, and seat hours in classrooms across either ocean.

Today, the Alliance for Excellent Education released a new report from OECD focused on the economic benefits of school improvement.  The full report, co-authored by Hoover Institution/Stanford University’s Rick Hanushek, can be found here.  In revealing the new study, All4Ed President Bob Wise said, “This report provides powerful evidence that educational improvements make an important and lasting impact not only in the lives of students, but in the livelihood of nations.”

Such is a comment that should be common sense to most, but if often overlooked by far too many.  Despite all of the talk and the pleadings, far too many still view education (and even education reform) as something that happens in a vacuum.  We make classroom changes and figure their impact are limited to the classroom.  When we make changes related to curriculum or instructional materials or technology or teacher training or funding in general, we don’t necessarily see the ripple effect.  We often fail to see how classroom changes impact what is happening in the home or in the local community.  And most certainly, we fail to appreciate the impact it has on our nation, our economy, or our sense of global competitiveness.

The OECD study offers three examples of how education improvement (here measured by how our kids do on PISA) can have a direct and positive impact on our GDP, including:
* Increasing average scores on PISA by 25 points over 20 years would result in an increase in the U.S. GDP of $40 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.  (And the Alliance notes that Poland was able to achieve such gains in just six years.)
* Bringing the United States to Finland’s level on PISA (meaning a 50-point gain) would increase the GDP by $100 trillion over the lifetime of a child born in 2010.
* Bringing all U.S. students up to a minimum level would add $72 trillion to the GDP over the lifetime of a child born in 2010.  (Currently 19 percent of U.S. students before below the PISA minimum level.)

Every few months, it seems like we are presented with yet another study tying school improvements to economic success.  How many more of these studies do we need to see before it truly takes hold in our psyche?  How many of these studies do we need before state departments of education join forces with economic development and labor departments to develop a long-term education effort that reflects the learning and skills needed to meet our workforce pipeline demands?  How many more toplines do we have to read before we see that sociologists, psychometricians, and economists need to work together to develop the long-term improvements necessary?  How long before we all realize that true education improvement does not happen in a vacuum?