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.

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.

Our Fundraising Coordinator is running Tough Mudder, sponsor him today!


Our Fundraising Coordinator, Nick, will be running through hoops of fire, jumping into freezing waters and getting shocked by 10,000V wires, all for the sake of universal access to primary education.

Any and all donations are greatly, appreciated, you can sponsor him here. DONATE.

Here he is, posing rather vainly!

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Childrens’ right education is a serious global issue and the Steve Sinnott Foundation is working tirelessly to provide access to quality education for young people around the world. Please sponsor Nick and help children gain access to school.

EfA Day 2014!

Today is EfA Day 2014 and pupils all around the United Kingdom are doing all sorts of different activities to raise awareness about the serious issue of global education.

Whitehall Infant School in Uxbridge did a non-uniform day and raised money for their partner school in Nepal:

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Cherbourg school in Eastleigh had a great morning and mate an animated video about Education for All (which we’ll be putting up next week). Here’s a picture of Cherbourg’s schools council:

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Director Mary Sinnott and Fundraising Coordinator Nick Evans visited Orchard Primary School. Their year 3 pupils wrote letters to David Cameron explaining why global education is such an important issue and used no technology like PC’s or whiteboards (or even lights!). Year 6 and reception pupils took a mile-long walk during school hours to know what it would be like to take a long walk to school.

Teacher Tuesday Week 6: Cees from The Netherlands

cees7Until now, Teacher Tuesday has focused on countries that are still developing and learning how to produce good teaching structures and what is conducive to an effective educational system.

So today we observe the other end of the spectrum. Not only what are triumphs of teachers, schools and systems in the worlds’ most ‘successful’ countries in terms of education but also what problems are they facing? This week, we spoke to Cees, a history teacher from the Netherlands.

Dutch pupils are consistently among the highest performers in the Organisation for Economic Collaboration and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) with 15-year-olds scoring higher than average in literacy, mathematics and science.

I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands are doing so well because what do grades mean?” – …To which countries did you compare?’ Is Cees’ first reaction when he is confronted with the statistics regarding exceptional performance in Dutch schools.

There are a number of reasons Dutch and North American/Western European education are successful, including:

Class sizes: Cess teaches several classes with an average size of 26. Many studies have shown that smaller, more focused classes are integral to a well-structured learning environment. This stands in opposition to the stories of Margaret and

Professional Development: Every year, Dutch teachers have to fill out a professional self-assessment, therein they have to set out their points for development and goals. Their head teacher goes through this with them and puts them on development courses tailored to their specific needs. Cees says ‘A teacher can spend anywhere between 5-10% of their work time on professional development’. By investing in its teachers, the Dutch education system is providing quality teaching for its students.

Feedback from pupils: All Dutch teachers are formally evaluated by their pupils. This accountability forms part of the basis for their professional development and constant self-improvement.

Pupil-centralism: Much of the Dutch education system is pupil-centric where pupils are in charge of their own education journey and teachers teach cooperation, self-motivation and how to learn as well as the topic they cover.

These are just a few examples of strengths within the Dutch education system. However, it is not without its own criticisms. There is an internal argument that this education system is ‘too standardised and designed to do well in international rankings such as PISA but which does little to address the needs of the individual pupil.’

This notion is exemplified by OperationEducation, an organisation in the Netherlands dedicated to individuals finding their own strengths and talents in a holistic manner, rather than being represented as data on a page. OperationEducation claim ‘We need a different definition of ‘excellent’ education’ and point out the need to find a means of expressing achievement that doesn’t come in the form of an education certificate to make a ‘valuable contributions to society’

Cees says he is ‘really hopeful about technology helping us to improve the organization that is needed to implement student-centered learning. Last Friday we had a mind-blowing presentation of the Dutch educational entrepreneur Bob Hofman that introduced ‘Peerscholar’. This computer program is a very good example of how teachers will be able to help students really reflect on eachothers’ work, and which will improve their responsibility to their own learning process. Less focus on grades and more on the content and the reflection of how they are learning.’

 

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.