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.

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Why Education is the new global currency

Bitcoin may have been getting all the hype, but there is growing evidence that in a world without borders it is not virtual money that is the global currency, but a university education.

As national borders become increasingly permeable, it is becoming clear that more and more graduates will be competing in an international jobs market. And many consider that the best asset they can have is a degree from the ‘right’ university.

Figures released this month show that record numbers of children are studying at international schools. Data published by the UK-based International School Consultancy (ISC) group shows that 3.6 million children aged 3-18 attended international schools in the 2013/14 academic year, up from 3.3 million the previous year.

These schools usually provide internationally-recognized qualifications, as well as a degree of elitism, but most of all they offer an English-speaking education.

And according to ISC chairman Nicholas Brummitt, a key reason why parents forked out $36 billion dollars in fees for international schools last year is that they want their children to get into an English-speaking university.

The biggest growth for international schools has been in Asia, where enrolments have risen by 65% over the last five years. The UAE leads the way in the numbers of students at international schools (389,000), followed by Saudi Arabia (209,000), China (150,000), India (142,000), Pakistan (137,000) and Qatar (107,000).

International schools provide a route to the world's top universities

But it is not just international schools. In a previous post, I wrote about the number of students coming to U.K. schools from outside the E.U., with access to universities both in the U.K. and the U.S. a core motivation. I also recently spoke with a U.K. school principal who told me that one of the biggest trends among his students over recent years is the increase in the number applying to study in the U.S.

The result is that around one in 10 undergraduates at U.K. universities come from outside the E.U., according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, with another 5% from E.U. countries.

In the U.S. the number of international students reached a record high last year, with an increase of 7%, although they still make up less than 4% of all students.

The allure of these universities of course is their international reputation. Whatever the standard of education, the reality is that certain universities are seen as more desirable than others. At Cambridge University, 17.5% of first degree students are international students, while at Oxford the equivalent figure is 13.8%.

According to university rankings specialist QS, the growth in international enrolments is particularly marked at leading universities, rising by 9% last year at its top 100 ranked institutions, compared with 6.5% among the top 400.

International rankings underline the dominance of English-speaking universities. Out of the top 20 in the Times Higher Education rankings, only one is outside the English-speaking world, while in QS’s rival list there are just two.

But while English-speaking universities are having it their own way now, it may not last long. Universities outside the English-speaking world are fast catching up, and themselves becoming international hubs.

QS reports that international student numbers at the 10 Chinese universities ranked in its global top 400 rose by 38% last year, the majority from Russia, Japan and South Korea but significant numbers coming from the U.S. and Europe.

Academics may dispute the validity of international comparisons – or even of ranking universities at all – but there is no doubt that they matter to the people who matter: students and their parents.

And the reason they matter is that a growing number of people realise they will be competing for jobs around the world with people from around the world. And if an education from a particular university can give them an advantage, then that really is a currency worth having.

India needs to address education issues if it is to become a global leader

The last Indian general election transformed Prime Minister Narendra Modi from an international pariah, accused of human rights abuses, to a superstar and raised hope that India had turned a corner. Prime Minister David Cameron praised Modi, saying he “got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe,” and investors and political strategists have India back in their good books.

But this new optimism is at best unfounded, and perhaps completely wrong. Even if we take Modi at his word — that he is a reformer more interested in building high-speed train systems than temples — it is unclear if the Indian people have the will to lift themselves out of poverty and disease. The case study of education reform, an area in which I have worked for more than a decade, is instructive.

India has over 400 million school- and college-age citizens, more than any country. Yet it has an educational system that has failed its people and simply has not taken steps to redress the issue. For example, when India last participated in the global PISA test, a standardized test of math, science and literacy designed to compare school systems across the world, it came in second to last among more than 70 participating countries.

Teacher absenteeism is 25 percent in government schools, even though teachers often receive the highest salary in an Indian village. The deficiency of public schools has created the largest private school system in the world, with some private schools costing less than $100 per year and producing outcomes far better than those from public schools.

Children sitting on floor looking at their books

Source: Corbis

Children study inside their classroom after having their free midday meal, distributed by a government-run primary school, in a village in Bihar, India.

How has the Indian government redressed the collapse of the public school system? For starters, India’s bureaucrats declared the PISA test unsuitable for India and withdrew the country from further rounds of testing. Instead of encouraging competition against decrepit public schools, the government has placed onerous operating burdens on private schools through the misleadingly named Right to Education (RTE) Act.

On the surface, RTE is a “pro-poor” piece of legislation as it allocates 25 percent of seats in all private schools for poor students who otherwise would go to public schools. In reality, RTE creates more opportunity for political patronage as the allocation of that 25 percent is influenced by corrupt local politicians in exchange for favors or cash. In short, RTE accepts that private schools are doing a great job by mandating that one-quarter of their capacity be reserved for poor students, while simultaneously punishing them through added regulation.

India Education Facts

  • Total Number of Students (Primary and Secondary): 179 million
  • Number of Schools (Primary and Secondary): 1.3 million
  • Typical School Year: April to March
  • Top Schools: Doon School (Dehradun); Cathedral and John Connon (Mumbai); Delhi Public School (Delhi); Mayo School (Ajmer); Welham Girls’ School (Dehradun)

In higher education, the situation is no better — contrary to the impression that India has a quality higher education system given the performance of its graduates abroad. This impression is the result of sample bias: Students graduating from the top 1 percent of institutions (nearly 200,000 students) tend to leave India in search of economic opportunity, masking the reality of the country’s subpar higher education system.

Overall, India has approximately 20 million students in higher education. The government, however, refuses to encourage private investment in higher education by mandating that it remain a “nonprofit” activity.

Meanwhile, private nonprofit colleges, often owned by corrupt politicians, take advantage of the excess demand for higher education by eliciting cash bribes for admission, a practice that is so prevalent in India that locals have invented a term for it: “capitation fees.”

Students outdoors filling out forms during the day

Source: Getty

Students fill out forms during the admission process for the 2014–15 academic session at Daulat Ram College in New Delhi, India.

And what has changed since that last dramatic general election? The new minister responsible for education, Smriti Irani, is a 38-year-old soap opera actress without a college degree (despite her recent declaration that she has a “degree” from Yale based on a six-day course). Her first publicly announced reform to the educational system is a campaign to introduce buttermilk in public school lunches. Not a word against RTE or investment in higher education to build the millions of new seats of capacity we need each year.

How can India get out of this mess without money and develop an improved educational system? The answer lies in implementing Prime Minister Modi’s own mantra of “more governance, less government.” Unlike India’s health care system (the most privatized in the world), its educational system is not deregulated to allow for-profit investment in schools and universities.

The government claims it is loath to allow for-profit education in order to protect students from poor quality. But why is it acceptable to allow a profiteering hospital to perform brain surgery but objectionable to allow a student to take a math class at a for-profit university?

The Indian government should set up the accreditation framework and stand back. Whether the capital comes in the form of for-profit or nonprofit investment should not matter. Presently, the government is tying the hands of investors in the Indian educational system by mandating nonprofit institutions and, in doing so, limiting the amount of capital invested and the quality of education provided. India should learn from the successes and mistakes of other countries such as the U.S., Brazil and China that have deregulated education.

Deregulation is usually opposed because it comes with the threat of job cuts or closure of government-run facilities. But in this case, deregulation does not require government investment or reduced support to existing public educational institutions. It will, however, generate more competition for public schools and private “nonprofit” schools owned by politicians and influential industrialists.

I ask once more: Do the Indian people have the will to move forward? When it comes to education, that is really all it takes to solve the problem. And in a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people, surely there is enough collective energy and willpower to make that investment in the nation’s future.

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.

Teacher Tuesday Week 7: Mosammat from Bangladesh

If someone told you there was a floating school in Bangladesh, you’d immediately begin to questions its logistics and structural integrity. If someone told you there was a floating school in Bangladesh that featured computers with internet access which were powered exclusively by solar panels, you’d think they’d begun to confuse reality with a Terry Pratchett novel.

However, that is exactly what is happening as you’re reading this. Mosammat Reba Khatun is 40 years old and lives in a small riverside village in Bangladesh. For the past ten years she has been teaching Bengali, Maths and English on Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s floating school on the Gumani river in the Pabna district in northwest Bangladesh. In total, the school teaches 90 students between six and nine years old. Almost two-thirds of the pupils are girls.

It may seem like a bizarre and fantastical notion at first but the rationale behind Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s floating school is quite logical. Mosammat tells us that “flooding is a major problem in Bangladesh. In the monsoon season, at least a third of the country is affected by flooding which isolates entire communities and means children can’t get to school so we thought ‘if the children can’t come to school, the school will come to the children’”.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha was a 2012 WISE Award winner (World Innovation Summit in Education, Qatar). You can find many more details, including videos, about the solar-powered floating schools on the WISE website.

Because the school is mobile, it is able to travel around villages in the remote river basin where it makes port. This means that the teachers within the school can discuss and converse with local parents easily. As if the case with much of the developing world, Mosammat tells us “the children under age 5 are malnourished and infant mortality rate is high. Girls are not allowed to move around freely.  We meet with the parents monthly to encourage them to send their children to school regularly…as a result; the rate of early marriage is reduced” The fact that the school doubles as a means of transport enables wider communication, a truly novel and innovative idea.

The solar-powered nature of the boat means that technology can be used aboard it The latest EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4  notes that technology as an excellent means of disseminating information not only for pupils for also for teachers, the internet provides an excellent platform for teachers in developing countries to take a self-guided approach to their development. Macmillan Education have released TeachPitch, a free, global teacher-learning platform for teachers global to continually self-improve.

Despite the yet untold potential of technology and internet in developing communities, it seems there will never be a substitute for a caring, dedicated teacher. Mosammat finished her interview by saying “I decided to become a teacher because I love children and wanted to help them towards developing a better future,” Mosammat told us. “I think teaching is a gift of a lifetime. It has given me immense opportunity to give back to my community, help poor students to access to school, and impart positively on children.”

With the right attitude, a good deal of determination and even more innovation, Mosammat is helping deliver education to children in spite of natural and cultural barriers, she is a paragon of pedagogy and a trailblazer of global education.

The gender gap: #TeacherTuesday Week 3

This week’s Teacher Tuesday saw Nahida, a headteacher from Kabul, Afghanistan explaining the difficulties education in her country faced under the Taliban government and the knock-on effect the previous government’s policy has had on primary education and teaching gaps, especially among women.

At present, Afghanistan has the greatest gender disparity for lower secondary education completion. The issue of gender is only exacerbated by the divide between young people living in urban/rural areas, this is sadly typical of education in developing countries.

Nahida herself graduated from Kabul University in the late 1980’s and became a teacher. When the Taliban government came to power in 1996, they closed girls for schools and prevented female teachers, like Nahida, from teaching.

Rather than simply accepting this injustice, Nahida bravely opposed government policy and started a home-school for girls. This was, of course, done unofficially and in secret because of the great risk to Nahida, her pupils and their parents.

After the Taliban government fell in 2001, Nahida returned to her primary school to find it a shell of its former structure. Nahida and her fellow teachers cleaned the classrooms and rebuilt the structures with mud and stones.

Nahida found it difficult to get young girls to return to school, the cultural effect that previous government had left in place had done a lot of damage and Nahida described girls’ return to her school as ‘slow’. She targeted families and mosques to ensure as many young people were brought into school as possible.

Of, course, where there is a lack of female completion of secondary school, there will inevitably be a lack of female teachers. Completing secondary education is the minimum requirement for becoming a teacher in Afghanistan and Afghanistan sorely needs female teachers to act as role-models for their young pupils, to encourage and nurture them and to show education does work.

However, it is not simply the legacy of Afghanistan’s previous government that is causing these deficiencies, there is also the issue of conflict and insurgency in the country. If insurgents attack a school, regardless of where it is in the country, parents will keep their children home for days, fearing for their lives. This is more likely in rural communities where there is less security and policing for residents and children.

However, despite the difficulties and the threats, Nahida continues to work tirelessly to deliver female education in Afghanistan. She is a paragon who, for 25 years, has continued teaching because she knows the power and the value of education. Education transforms lives and provides people with the skills they need to provide for themselves.

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.