The Global Achievement Gap

When checking out Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, which argues that American education is falling dangerously behind other nations, I stumbled across Tony Wagner’s six-year-old The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner begins with a frightening anecdote — the type that could drive today’s frenzied assault on teachers.

A world-renowned molecular scientist sent two sons to a Cambridge, Massachusetts, school. One had a great experience, being inspired by an awesome teacher who used project-based learning and taught hands-on science. The other son had a “totally different” experience. His teacher offered none of the “fun stuff.” That teacher’s test prep approach to instruction drove the love of learning out of class.

Today, such an anecdote could prompt more calls to fire bad teachers. But, both of the classes in Wagner’s story had the same teacher! The difference was the increased pressure to conform to test-driven accountability had driven excellent teaching from the classroom.

I don’t have the expertise to answer the question of whether we have an overall crisis in public education, as opposed to the question of whether it is mostly high-challenge schools that are failing. Ripley and Wagner make a good case, however, that our schools do not teach critical thinking in an engaging manner.

I’m more impressed with Wagner’s methodology. He summarized international PISA data, for instance, in order to estimate where students of different nations stand in terms of access to instruction that emphasizes critical and creative thinking. More importantly, Wagner had conducted “walk throughs” of classrooms across the nation. He and his guests, including staff for the Gates Foundation, invariably were disappointed by the lack of engaging instruction.

Today, the discussion about paths to better teaching usually lead to more rigorous standards-based reforms. Amanda Ripley is just one of today’s true believers in rigor and competition as the driver of educational excellence. Wagner makes a good case that such a focus is a dead end. The normative definition of rigor was limited to the mastery of more complex subject matter, and that is an unworthy goal. Wagner defines “rigor” in the context of “In today’s world, it’s no longer how much you know that matters; it’s what you can do with what you know.” (Emphasis by Wagner.)

Advocates for Common Core and its more rigorous testing seek to speed up the educational assembly line so that more knowledge can be poured faster into the brains of students. Wagner recalls, however, that even in the 1990s the “half life” of knowledge in science and math was 2 to 3 years, and that now it must be less. Real world, it is impossible to speed up the teaching of so much more knowledge.

On the contrary, the way to learn and prosper in the 21st century is to teach kids to ask better questions. We need schools where intellectual give and take is nurtured, not classrooms where teachers are intimidated into teaching to the test.

Wagner closes with examples of three types of schools that nurture real rigor, the types of creativity that we need. But, all of those successes were rooted in the 1990s, before NCLB, the Obama administration, and the “Billionaires Boys Club” imposed the test, sort, and punish policies known as corporate reform.

We have always had plenty of soul-killing, drill and kill instruction. In the past, however, it was seen as education malpractice. Now, it is imposed in the name of “reform.” Not having participated in nearly as many walk throughs as Wagner, I have no idea if we, objectively, have more mediocre teaching in today’s classrooms.

If Wagner has a definitive opinion about that question, he is too discrete to express it. We clearly have wasted an opportunity to improve teaching, however, as tens of billions of new dollars and unfathomable amounts of energy have been invested in competition-driven reforms.

It was nice having an opportunity to remember Wagner’s wisdom. He is also discrete on another issue. What do Gates Foundation staff persons think during these depressing walk throughs? Would they now own up to the Gates contribution to undermining creative and engaging instruction? I wonder what could happen if they also reread The Global Achievement Gap with six years of hindsight.

Egyptian education system doesn’t prepare youth for Jobs

Interview with Salma Wahba, youth and adolescent development officer for Unicef Egypt

How would you describe youth unemployment in Egypt?

The unemployment rate overall in Egypt is 13.4%. Unemployment is one of the most pressing concerns among young people as it affects them the most. According to national statistics in 2013, 55% of all those unemployed are aged 15 to 24, and an additional 23% are aged 25 to 29. The unemployment rate among young women is almost double that of young men.

What are the main causes?

Egypt has been facing three years of serious economic challenges and an unstable political context. This has led to growth stagnation, increased unemployment and poverty.

There is also a significant mismatch between the skills of new labour market entrants and the requirements of the labour market. The education system is not preparing young people with the skills for the modern workplace and career guidance in general, is not available.

In Egypt, youth still prefer to work for the government, rather than the private sector, perceiving it to be a secure job. Many young people are waiting for the job that best fits their qualifications rather than actively seeking employment and accepting jobs that they think are below their level. This is a major cultural barrier among youth in Egypt.

What do you see as the long term consequences?

In a country like Egypt where youth constitute one-fifth of the population, more than 16m people, not dealing with youth unemployment could have serious consequences. It creates frustration among youth about their future and their role in society as productive individuals. It also wastes Egypt’s great opportunity of benefiting from the potential of its demography.

Where should youth unemployment fit into the international agenda?

Youth issues and particularly youth unemployment should undoubtedly feature strongly in the post-2015 development agenda as it is an issue of global concern. It is clear that the post-2015 agenda must give a higher focus on equity and inclusion, and supporting the young generation, particularly the most disadvantaged.

What are the solutions to the crisis?

The most obvious solution is to create jobs for youth entering the labour force. More innovative solutions need to be investigated and put in place such as providing incentives to employers to reserve jobs for youth.

Partnerships need to be developed among government, private sector, civil society and young people themselves to develop and implement an integrated strategy, focusing on those most disadvantaged. Addressing the mismatch between the skills young people have and the requirements of the job market is essential. This could be either through the formal education system or through non-formal education with important distinct skills.

In Egypt, Unicef’s interventions are focused on the skills development of young people, focusing on those most marginalised, through the ‘Building Young Futures’ programme. The programme has demonstrated the importance of focusing on the youth at an earlier stage (15-17 years) before they venture into the labour market. This proved to be very rewarding as they are, in general, more receptive to change and to new modes of thinking.

Nicaraguan farmer doubles profit and sends son to school

 

Melvin Estrada is a cabbage farmer in Chagüite Grande, a small village in northern Nicaragua. He used to sell his cabbages for an average of 20 cents each, struggling to provide for his family.

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, TechnoServe helped Melvin and fellow members of the Tomatoya-Chagüite Grande cooperative increase their yields and grow higher quality produce. Melvin’s farm now uses a drip irrigation system and successive plantings, allowing him to harvest cabbage year-round to meet the demand of a national supermarket chain.

As a result of these improvements, Melvin has more than doubled his income. The extra money has helped him buy more nutritious food for his family and send his son to school. “An education is the best inheritance he can receive,” Melvin says.

Speaking in (mother)tongues

f8f1cc3949.jpg;pv0fb2f615727529fbWeek 2 of #TeacherTuesday saw Natalee from Honduras discussing the issue of multilingualism in the classroom and the effects of language and learning styles not being catered for.

Honduras has the greatest divide in basic reading achievement in children in Central and South America. The cause of this divide is primarily due to language barriers and restrictions. The main language spoken on the mainland of Honduras is Spanish while English is primarily spoken on its outlying Bay Islands.

Natalee teaches on the Bay Islands and points out that language and ethnicity are deeply intertwined, it is not merely a language barrier that exists in this teaching environment but also culture and religion. ‘Some chant, some are more evangelistic, some appreciate connections with the ground and Earth’ Natalee incorporates the latter into her lesson plans by counting seeds in maths or studying local coral reefs in science.

Natalee says ‘A multicultural, multilingual classroom needs multiple modes of teaching.’  Teachers need to respond to the children making up their classroom and integrate that response into their teaching methods, she told us; in other words, ‘placing the child at the centre of the process.’

With this pupil-centric, inclusive methodology, Natalee succeeds in encouraging diversity among her students and dispelling myths that ‘if you speak a particular language, you are less important than others’, with a tolerant and inclusive approach to culture, language barriers can be overcome through participation and co-operation.

94% of majority language-speaking children were able to attain basic literacy while only 62% of minority language children achieved the same minimum level. Unfortunately, dropout rates are also correlated with minority languages and poverty. Poor students who speak a minority language were among the lowest scorers in means-standard testing and 84% of the richest young people will go on to finish secondary education compared with only 10% of the poorest.

2015 is Honduras’ ‘Año de la Inclusión’, year of inclusion. It is evident that inclusivity and harmony are vital if we are to see teachers helping pupils overcome cultural and language barriers and deliver quality education for every child around the world.