Adopting a Holistic and More Liberal Approach to Education

On 10th of February, Lehigh University hosted Diane Ravitch’s lecture “School Reform: Finding Common Ground” at the Zoellner Arts Center. As a graduate student in Comparative and International Education, I felt pretty lucky to have the chance to attend this lecture and listen to Dr. Ravitch’s speech about the U.S. public education. Her arguments were really thought-provoking and eye-opening.

First, I would like to start with Dr. Ravitch’s statement about poverty. Underlining the fact that poverty and inequality are very prevalent in the U.S. society, she argues that holding public schools – including their teachers and administrators – accountable for their relatively low test scores is neither fair nor realistic approach. She suggests that we need to get to the root of the problem. It is a common mistake to state that education is the answer to all of our problems and expect that education will sort all our problems. It is more like a fantasy projection as indeed many of the problems that we have in education today stem from existing social and economic structures. As Ravitch concluded, we need to tackle the broader problems of poverty and segregation first.

Secondly, I would like to touch on Ravitch’s arguments about test scores. As Ravitch suggests, if a test does not have a diagnostic value, it is nothing other than a score. There is an increasing obsession with test scores worldwide, which compels countries to perceive that rising test scores are a sign of success. However, placing more importance on test scores and pushing for more testing make students focus on testing only rather than learning. Indeed, such an approach to education may not leave much room for imagination and creativity. In addition to that, strong push for standardized testing creates a sense of competition among students, which hampers interaction, collaboration, and effective learning. When high test scores become the final goal in education, then the question comes to mind – ‘What is education for?’

At this point, I would like to refer to Finnish education system, which usually ranks the highest on the PISA test. Contrary to common approach to education, Finland has taken a very different path. As Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg highlights in one of his speeches:

“I want nobody here in the room to leave thinking that Finland has the best education system in the world, that’s an illusion that has been created by foreigners. Because in Finland we don’t think of education as a global competition. We actually don’t care if we are better than anyone else. Education for us is for individual enhancement and for the common good.”

I think the secret of Finnish success lies in the way education is perceived. Education is not a global competition and should not be perceived as commodity in the labor market. Rather, education should be a common good and prepare students for life. As Ravitch says, we should have more zeal to make our society better through education, which is much more important than high test scores.

Finally, I completely agree with Ravitch’s recommendations regarding well-rounded curriculum, arts education, and physical education. Narrowing the curriculum and putting more emphasis on math and science have negative consequences on students’ learning. Education consists of both intrinsic and instrumental values and it should enable students to grow not only professionally but also personally. Therefore, a holistic approach to education would be more beneficial. For as long as students are not exposed to suitable conditions, which can foster their imaginative function and spark creativity, it will be unrealistic to expect that school graduates will reach their full potential, be aware of what they would like to do in their lives, and be motivated in their careers.


Vietnam’s stunning PISA results: What they don’t know and what they do know

Only more than two months ago when PISA 2012 scores were officially released, the world once again experienced “the PISA shock.” It is the first time Vietnam has ever participated in this international assessment implemented by the OECD. Worried. Anxious. No high expectations. Then… stunned! Vietnam was among top twenty! Its overall 17th-place ranking out of 65 countries outstripped many more developed economies. A kind of shock!

Many government officials and education experts, both regional and international, generously praised Vietnam for its unexpectedly high scores at the PISA 2012. In the region, some countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia even suggested emulating Vietnam to improve their PISA performance.

Meanwhile, responses from most local media and social networks seemed more discreet. Coupled with happiness and pride, many people responded to the high scores with great skepticism. They became puzzled over the performance that was beyond their expectations.

It was indeed happy to have such incredible scores at an international competition for the first time. Vietnamese people  should be much proud of their high performing 15 year olds, given that the students are educated in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of less than $USD 1,800!

And let’s imagine this scenario – on a beautiful day, teacher delegations from other lower performing countries paid a visit to Vietnam. They wanted to understand “the Vietnam myth.” They would interview a number of key education stakeholders about the reasons for such impressive PISA results. And their interviews would reveal the following answers.

Vietnamese 15 year olds: Oh, we don’t know why. What we did was simply trying our best!

Teachers of 15 year olds: No, it is unlikely our efforts. The recent comprehensive study by Madam Nguyen Thi Binh (former Vice President of Vietnam) shows that teacher quality is alarmingly worrisome. Admittedly, many of us need to seek ways to supplement our low salaries. Yes, we are moonlighting; we are doing other extra jobs. We aren’t committed and dedicated enough to teaching at school. We don’t know why our students got such high results!

Parents of 15 year olds: We were taken aback by the high scores. Our children are attending public schools, which have been long criticized for failing. Schools everywhere are notoriously plagued with many evils: “achievement disease,” extra classes, corruption, degraded moral, low teacher quality… As parents, we constantly set high expectations for our children while finding alternatives to equipping them with knowledge and skills we believe are necessary. We don’t know. Maybe, not sure, the high scores are the result of extra classes!

For many people, the high PISA scores, while adding to the glorious collections of gold medals and prizes of Vietnamese students in international mathematical or physics Olympiads, leave them with more unanswered questions. Why are there many (poor, disadvantaged) students who drop out? Why are students often complained for not being creative, critical, and lacking important soft skills? Why are there many young graduates who fail to get jobs? Why aren’t there many articles written by Vietnamese researchers in international peer-reviewed journals? Why does the economy rely much more on cheap labor than innovations? And why is Vietnam still so poor?

While not providing satisfactory answers to the international teacher delegations regarding the reasons for the high performance in PISA, Vietnam is certain about what it wants for the time ahead. If continuing to join this international competition club, Vietnamese teachers and parents do not want the nation’s education policy to be directed in ways that further promote ‘bad practices’ (exam-driven curriculum, private tutoring, standardized testing, corruption, and others). They will not want to train the children to become test-taking machines without the ability of communication and teamwork. They do not want to sacrifice “cultural and community values” (Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B., 2013, p.116)  and other human development concerns for the meaningless global ranking.

Undeniably, it is hard to avoid competing for rank in a “race,” especially when it is an international competition. It is for the national pride. It is much harder to avoid the backwash effect of the tests. But Vietnamese teachers and parents do hope that “the tail will not wag the dog” and that PISA will not pose negative impacts on the country’s curriculum and teaching. This only takes place when both people and educational leaders acknowledge that PISA is not a perfect indicator. It is not at all a comprehensive measure either. More importantly, when the policy makers are not complacent with the country laurels, it is capable of capitalizing on its strong PISA performance with practical reforms. So whether or not to take PISA again, it does not matter. The most pivotal thing for Vietnam is to concentrate on what really matters to the students.

Educational Rankings and Economic Success: How Clear is the Connection?

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Following the release of the PISA 2009 scores, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said:

The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality, instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership.

Similarly, in this short video advocating for the Common Core Standards, the Hunt Institute makes reference to the U.S.’s PISA rankings and says:

Out students need better knowledge and tools to prepare them to compete in the global economy.

This is not a new argument, nor is it one restricted to the U.S. context. Advocates and detractors of education reform continually make reference to international competition, often using PISA and TIMSS rankings to bolster their argument. They draw an explicit link between these rankings and economic performance.

So, let’s take this argument at face value and test it on it’s own merit.

Using IMF data, here are the ten largest economies as measured by GDP PPP:

  1. United States
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Japan
  5. Germany
  6. Russia
  7. Brazil
  8. United Kingdom
  9. France
  10. Italy

Based on the arguments commonly heard from politicians, interest groups, and in the popular press, we may expect to see a significant overlap between this list and the 2009 PISA rankings. Here are the top ten performing nations and cities from that exam:

  1. Shanghai, China
  2. South Korea
  3. Finland
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Singapore
  6. Canada
  7. New Zealand
  8. Japan
  9. Australia
  10. The Netherlands

One nation appears on both lists: Japan.

Of course, one could argue that education is a lagging variable. That those educated today will not have meaningful participation in the global economy until years later. To test this, let’s look at the 1995 TIMSS 8th grade Math rankings:

  1. Singapore
  2. South Korea
  3. Japan
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Flanders (Belgium used disaggregated data)
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Slovakia
  8. Switzerland
  9. The Netherlands
  10. Slovenia

Again, only Japan appears on this list and the list of largest economies as determined by GDP PPP. Here one could argue that GDP PPP is a simplistic measure that fails to take population into account. As our final exercise, let’s look at GDP PPP per capita:

  1. Luxembourg
  2. Norway
  3. Qatar
  4. Switzerland
  5. Macao SAR, China
  6. Kuwait
  7. Australia
  8. Denmark
  9. Sweden
  10. Canada

This is even more problematic, not one nation (or region in the case of Macao) that ranked in the top ten in 1995 appears on the per capita list.

It should go without saying there are a number of problems with the simplistic analysis used in public policy debates.

For starters, although we often say “Nation so-and-so is ranked Xth in the world,” the reality is that the majority of the nations in the world don’t participate in TIMSS or PISA. Luxembourg, Qatar, and China did not take part in the 1995 TIMSS. We can hardly expect nations that didn’t take the test to appear on our top-performers list. In fact, only 43 nations in the world participated in that exam in 1995. That number has increased over the past eighteen years; sixty-four nations, cities and regions took the most recent PISA exam in 2012. However, we are still working with an incomplete dataset.

In addition, we’re not even using simple linear regression analysis in this blog post. We’re just comparing top-ten lists and looking for commonalities. Scholars studying comparative education know this is an invalid way on measuring the effect of education on economic growth. The link between a nation’s education system and its economy is a complex relationship between two adaptive, emergent systems. A relationship that can’t be measured by comparing GDP and PISA scores. We know this.

However, outside of the universities, think tanks, and multilateral development banks it is a different story. Politicians are not making complex arguments that take many variables into account. They are saying better rankings equals better a economy. President Obama:

It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

The weaknesses in our argument above should serve to reveal the weakness in the president’s argument. Politicians define educational success with league tables and make ill-defined linkages to the nation’s economic rankings every day. Just by looking at the rankings it should be clear that this argument fails to hold up by its own logic.

UPDATE 03-09-13 0554AM – A reader asked why I said “nations” before the PISA rankings with Shanghai taking the top spot. I misspoke, that should have read “nations and cities” and has been fixed. This does point to another problem with the way the league tables are discussed in the popular discourse, as mixing up nation and city results is a common mistake. When the 2009 results were announced, many commentators reported that “China” had top the world rankings. Here’s Time Magazine:

China Beats Out Finland for Top Marks in Education

Education: Cost or Quality?

Like most searching for an answer, I started by looking at PISA results and commonalities between high performing nations.

My first search: National Curriculums.

It seemed to work well for Japan and New Zealand but not for the UK and Portugal. Time to look for another explanation.

PISA tries to avoid supporting rote memorization by measuring “How well can students nearing the end of compulsory schooling apply their knowledge to real-life situations?”  So, maybe countries with strong links to high stakes/standardized testing will reveal poor scores.

No dice. Finland and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are at opposing ends of the testing spectrum. Finland has very little standardizing testing and ROK works towards solely standardized testing. PISA shows both countries in the highest echelon on national education. Next.

Maybe countries with the highest spending on education skyrocket the PISA rankings? Nope…another dead end. The USA ranked the fourth highest in public expenditure on primary, secondary and tertiary education per student by the OECD.  Much higher than ALL front runners.

How could this be?

“Currently only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom. Fewer than half of Washington’s 101,700 public school employees are classroom teachers. Spokane Public Schools employs 3,087 people, one for every nine students, but only 41 percent of them are classroom teachers.”

–Washington Policy Center

So, maybe it’s cultural or political?

“Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.

“All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.”

“ All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.”

-Washington Post

Now we’re getting somewhere!

One of the most emphasized points in the Finnish system is the social status of teachers and its impact on education.

The OECD states Finnish teachers hold an extremely high social status and one of the most sought after professions.  Teachers are taken from the top 10% of gradates to earn a masters in education before being able to teach in public schools.

Conversely, consider the U.S. stigma of teaching: “Those you can’t do, teach.” “Easy job, short hours with major vacation time” isn’t the reality. Again in OECD comparisons:

-Finnish teachers are paid substantially lower than their American counterparts.

-U.S. teachers put in 1051 hours of direct teaching with Finland, a mere 550.

In Hidden Markets (2007), Patricia Burch shows the further decline of the status of American teachers showing a cultural shift towards online learning. Public state funds are already being used as an alternative to public schools. In some states it is even possible for virtual schools to hire non-certified and non-full time staff.

To me it needs to be a ‘one problem at a time’ approach. The initial focus needs to be on providing an education as opposed to the cost cutting measures limiting it. The Federal and State governments haven’t mastered the application before attempting to sell it off as a commodity and stripping it of the biggest strengths. Teachers.

U.S. teachers are paid a low salary comparative to other college graduates, are readily being replaced by computers and online classrooms, work longer than teachers in other countries, are forced to submit to standardized testing in a very non standardized environment and with society assuming ‘they have it easy.’

Maybe a consultant will suggest we ‘stop trying and fail for free?!?’