In & out of step with top ed systems

Updated at 2:45 pm, April 2

Andreas Schleicher looks the part of a diplomat. Tall and slim, with thick gray hair, and impeccable English spoken with a European accent. He is also the consummate diplomat when it comes to assessing the United States’ standing in education. In most countries, low results on the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam, led to contemplation and action. In the United States, not so much; at least not initially.

“I don’t think there was really much of an impact in the year 2000 when the results came first,” said Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. That year the United States ranked 15th in literacy, retrieving information, and interpreting texts; and 11th in reflecting on texts. The U.S. was behind what have come to be the usual suspects, including Finland, Canada, Korea and Japan, as well as some nations that give the U.S. a collective wince, such as Iceland, Ireland and, mon Dieu, France.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source:  PISA) Click to enlarge.
U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source: PISA) Click to enlarge.

Schleicher said the big impact came after the 2006 results. That’s when U.S. 15-year-olds scored 21st in the world in science literacy, 19th in identifying scientific issues, 23rd in explaining phenomena scientifically, and 22nd in using scientific evidence. That got the attention of politicians, which informed the development of Common Core standards and Race to the Top, the competitive $4.35 billion federal program to give states money to improve student achievement through innovative strategies.

“I think the Common Core standards hold a lot of promise. I wouldn’t underrate the potential impact they can have eventually on what happens in classrooms,” Schleicher said. “I think the challenge is to translate that into instructional practices.”

Schleicher discussed these optimistic notes and more during a video interview (click here for part 1 and here for part 2) with Thoughts on Public Education when he was in California for a conference at Stanford University on the Finnish educational system, which we wrote about here.

Valuing teachers

Some of the biggest differences between the United States and the better scoring nations on PISA is in the prestige of the teaching profession. “Pay in the United States is comparatively low,” said Schleicher. Although U.S. teachers may earn more money than those in other countries, the compensation is significantly lower than for other professions. That’s not the case in places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with other civil servants, including lawyers.

Salary is one aspect of teacher satisfaction, but it isn’t solely responsible for the high attrition rate among new teachers, which is 30% in the first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In other countries, teachers are given time during the school day to collaborate with their colleagues and to observe master teachers, and they receive high-quality professional development. They also have a career ladder that isn’t just aimed at administration.

“If you tell a person who’s 25 years old, you are in school, you are going to be a math teacher, and 25 years from now you’re still going to be in that school as a math teacher, you’re telling young people that there is no future for them,” explained Schleicher. Other countries have professional progressions that could lead to the principal’s or superintendent’s office, but also include training other teachers, going into curriculum development, and other non-bureaucratic positions. “That way,” said Schleicher, “you’ll retain your best teachers in the profession.”

Factoring for diversity

When asked what three steps the United States should take to propel itself back onto the top of the charts, Schleicher was quick with an answer.

  • Common Core standards:  The U.S. has already begun this process of developing a set of clear goals detailing what good performance looks like.
  • Building capacity for delivering Common Core:  Attracting the best people into the teaching profession and providing the resources, support and professional develop to retain them.
  • Developing an equitable system:  This takes the second step even farther by attracting the best teachers and principals to work in the most challenging classrooms and schools, and ensuring that the money gets where it can make the biggest difference.

Critics of the PISA rankings cite the vast differences between the United States and some of the countries at the top of the list as significant challenges to employing some of these measures.  Singapore and China have powerful central governments.  Finland lacks racial and ethnic diversity, and the entire population of the country could fit into California’s public schools with a million seats left over.

Schleicher said that PISA does consider the environment in comparing countries, including diversity in wealth, language, ethnic background, and religion.  The United States isn’t alone in dealing with diversity, “there are a lot of countries that are a lot more successful than the United States in moderating socio-economic diversity,”  he said. “The context of an education system is a challenge, but the test of truth for an education system is how it moderates that context.”

Common Core, ‘dubious causality’

The horse race of international rankings in education is based on misconceptions that can lead countries such as the United States to consider sweeping reforms that probably won’t improve academic achievement, according to a new report. The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education released yesterday by the Brookings Institution makes a case against Common Core standards – arguing that California’s current standards are superior – and cautions against placing too much weight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and international comparisons.

“We have to be careful when looking at test score data; it’s not the same thing as how many points did the New York Giants score versus the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. These tests have to be interpreted very carefully,” said author Tom Loveless in a video accompanying the study.

Loveless is especially critical of using international exams, such as PISA, to rank countries’ educational systems. The United States tends to score in the average range on the test, behind top performers including Shanghai, Finland, Singapore, and Canada.

In what Loveless calls a flaw of “dubious causality,” lower performing countries mistakenly look for a single policy to explain the success of top performers. One of those dubious connections he’s referring to is Common Core standards. He said advocates of Common Core often point out that the top ten countries all have national standards. But, said Loveless, “if you look at the bottom ten nations in the world, they all have national standards too.”

The report cites arguments by two outspoken critics of Common Core in California, Ze’ev Wurman and Bill Evers, who “conclude that the math standards, in particular, are inferior to existing standards in Massachusetts and California.”

Wurman was a member of the Mathematics Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee that developed California’s 1997 mathematics framework, and Evers served on the 1996 California State Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance. Both were members of the California State Academic Content Standards Commission and, as TOP-Ed reported here, their fellow commission members overwhelmingly rejected their efforts to rewrite the Common Core standards to look like California’s earlier math standards.

One of those other commissioners is Scott Farrand, a math professor at Sacramento State University.  He questioned how California’s standards can be considered the highest in the country when two-thirds of elementary students score advanced or proficient on the California Standards Test, but that falls to less than a quarter by eleventh grade. What that says to Farrand is that merely setting a high bar doesn’t improve achievement.

“What sets the Common Core State Standards apart is not the level of the standards, however one might measure that. It is their focus and coherence, and their insistence on student understanding,” said Farrand.  He’d like to see the “my standards are higher than yours” posturing end so the people responsible for implementing Common Core standards in California can spend their time understanding “what standards can and should do,” rather than engaging in “silly bickering” that detracts from that progress.

Finnishing School

Forget Santa Claus and saunas, the biggest export from Finland these days is its educational system. During a two-day conference this week at Stanford University, Finnish educators discussed how they improved so dramatically and what the United States can learn from the Nordic country.

Facts on Finnish education.  (Source:  Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.
Facts on Finnish education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.

Finnish education reform can be summed up in ten points, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a director at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? The first nine are instructive, but it’s number ten that sums it up neatly and harshly.

“All of these factors that are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the United States and the rest of world where competitive, test-based accountability, standardization, and privatization seem to dominate,” Sahlberg told participants at the Empowerment Through Learning in a Global World conference. “There is hope, but you have to be smart in the way you do things…and in many of the things that you are trying to do here I see very little hope.”

Yep, that smarts, especially since Sahlberg acknowledged that Finland borrowed a lot of its reform ideas from the United States, as did many other countries, when American education was the envy of the world. Since then, the U.S. hasn’t progressed so much, at least where PISA, a triennial international exam of 15-year-olds, is concerned. In addition to Finland, PISA shows that Canada, Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai, China have all surpassed the United States.

About those other nine lessons, well, they’re a mix of common sense, shifting priorities, and paradoxes. Here are some of the key elements:

  • Pursuing excellence and equity: Achievement differences among schools in Finland is small, about 5 percent.
  • Standardized-free test zone: There’s no standardized testing until students are in their last year of school, and the scores aren’t used to evaluate teachers.
  • Wrapping education with health and welfare: There’s a nurse in every school and every child gets a free comprehensive check-up every year. Dental and mental health services are also provided, as is universal free lunch. Play is a priority and children must, by law, have recess.
  • Less is more: The school day is relatively short – about four hours in elementary school – and younger students get little homework. But teachers get a lot of time for collaboration to develop curriculum and independent learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Finland also spends less money per student than the United States.

    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.
    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.
  • Professionalizing teaching:  The Finns focused on teaching as a key driver of reform and of the education system, and made it a noble and attractive profession by making salaries commensurate with other professionals such as doctors and lawyers, by requiring teachers to earn a research-based master’s degree and making it tuition free, by providing high-quality professional development, by giving teachers a lot of autonomy and time to work collaboratively with their colleagues, by offering career development paths that don’t just include administration, and by not evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.  As a result, they created one of the most, if not the most, competitive teacher education systems in the world.  The acceptance rate into colleges of education is about one-in-ten, and only ten to fifteen percent of teachers leave the profession before retirement, compared to about 50 percent for teachers in urban schools and a third for other areas in the United States.

Leaning power of PISA

Finland’s educational reputation is largely a result of its students’ scores on PISA, and critics say that’s not enough. Lee Shulman, Professor emeritus of education at Stanford, noted the irony of the very people who decry the use of high-stakes testing being willing to rely on a single exam to rank the world’s school systems.

“PISA is another standardized test. It’s not a proof test. It’s credible because it fits our belief system,” argued Shulman during his presentation at the conference. “We should commit ourselves to multiple measures, not just one test.”

Other skeptics have raised questions about making comparisons between countries that differ so widely in size and demographics. Finland has 3,500 schools and 60,000 teachers. Its entire population of 5.5 million is smaller than California’s entire student population.

“You could argue that the main reason [for lower U.S. scores] is that we have a 24 percent child poverty rate and you have a four percent child poverty rate,” said one audience member during a question-and-answer session. “You could argue that we have a segregation problem where we bunch our poor children into bad schools.”

What’s more, Finland’s reading scores on PISA fell slightly from 2006 to 2009, dropping from an overall score of 547 to 536.  This is the sort of variable that American teachers say is natural and illustrates why rankings based on single exams are inadequate measures.  Despite that setback, however, Finnish students remained in the top three for reading, math and science, while scores for U.S. students placed them smack in the middle.

States show it could happen here

America’s diversity is an issue, but shouldn’t be an excuse said Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and author of numerous books including The Flat World and Education:  How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna).  Click to enlarge.
Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna). Click to enlarge.

“PISA rankings in the United States are driven by inequality. If you looked only at schools where less than 10 percent of the students are low poverty, we’re number one in the world,” said Darling-Hammond during her talk at the conference.  In Finland, the focus on the dual goals of excellence and equity have significantly closed the achievement gap. In California, where there’s a three-to-one difference in spending between high- and low-wealth districts, the gap has barely budged.

Some states have implemented reforms similar to Finland’s with noticeable results.  Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut have raised and equalized teacher salaries, made it

Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement.  (Source:  Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford).  Click to enlarge.
Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement. (Source: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford). Click to enlarge.

more difficult to become a teacher, and invested in high-quality professional development.  It wasn’t always altruistic; a judge ordered New Jersey to invest more money in low-wealth schools after decades of litigation.  But once that happened, it became one of the top-performing states.  Darling-Hammond says Hispanic and Black students in New Jersey now outperform California students, on average.

Gov. Brown is also taking a page from the Finnish model with his proposals to reduce the number of standardized tests that students take, and to switch to a weighted-student formula for funding, through which schools would receive a flat amount of money for each student and additional funds for children who need more resources to help them succeed, such as English learners and low-income students (read more about this proposal here).

“The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions,” said Brown in his State of State address earlier this week.  “My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead.  I will do that.  I embrace both reform and tradition – not complacency.  My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.”

Seems like some of them are coming from Helsinki.