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Empowering collaborative communities

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What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?

By Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein | January 28, 2013 | Originally published on epi.org

Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.

  • Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.
  • A sampling error in the U.S. administration of the most recent international (PISA) test resulted in students from the most disadvantaged schools being over-represented in the overall U.S. test-taker sample. This error further depressed the reported average U.S. test score.
  • If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the United States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and average math scores in the United States would be about the same as average math scores in similar post-industrial countries.
  • A re-estimated U.S. average PISA score that adjusted for a student population in the United States that is more disadvantaged than populations in otherwise similar post-industrial countries, and for the over-sampling of students from the most-disadvantaged schools in a recent U.S. international assessment sample, finds that the U.S. average score in both reading and mathematics would be higher than official reports indicate (in the case of mathematics, substantially higher).
  • This re-estimate would also improve the U.S. place in the international ranking of all OECD countries, bringing the U.S. average score to sixth in reading and 13th in math. Conventional ranking reports based on PISA, which make no adjustments for social class composition or for sampling errors, and which rank countries irrespective of whether score differences are large enough to be meaningful, report that the U.S. average score is 14th in reading and 25th in math.
  • Disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform better (and in most cases, substantially better) than comparable students in similar post-industrial countries in reading. In math, disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform about the same as comparable students in similar post-industrial countries.
  • At all points in the social class distribution, U.S. students perform worse, and in many cases substantially worse, than students in a group of top-scoring countries (Canada, Finland, and Korea). Although controlling for social class distribution would narrow the difference in average scores between these countries and the United States, it would not eliminate it.
  • U.S. students from disadvantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the three similar post-industrial countries than advantaged U.S. students perform relative to their social class peers. But U.S. students from advantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the top-scoring countries of Finland and Canada than disadvantaged U.S. students perform relative to their social class peers.
  • On average, and for almost every social class group, U.S. students do relatively better in reading than in math, compared to students in both the top-scoring and the similar post-industrial countries.

Because not only educational effectiveness but also countries’ social class composition changes over time, comparisons of test score trends over time by social class group provide more useful information to policymakers than comparisons of total average test scores at one point in time or even of changes in total average test scores over time.

  • The performance of the lowest social class U.S. students has been improving over time, while the performance of such students in both top-scoring and similar post-industrial countries has been falling.
  • Over time, in some middle and advantaged social class groups where U.S. performance has not improved, comparable social class groups in some top-scoring and similar post-industrial countries have had declines in performance.

Performance levels and trends in Germany are an exception to the trends just described. Average math scores in Germany would still be higher than average U.S. math scores, even after standardizing for a similar social class distribution. Although the performance of disadvantaged students in the two countries is about the same, lower-middle-class students in Germany perform substantially better than comparable social class U.S. students. Over time, scores of German adolescents from all social class groups have been improving, and at a faster rate than U.S. improvement, even for social class groups and subjects where U.S. performance has also been improving. But the causes of German improvement (concentrated among immigrants and perhaps also attributable to East and West German integration) may be idiosyncratic, and without lessons for other countries or predictive of the future. Whether German rates of improvement can be sustained to the point where that country’s scores by social class group uniformly exceed those of the United States remains to be seen. As of 2009, this was not the case.

Great policy attention in recent years has been focused on the high average performance of adolescents in Finland. This attention may be justified, because both math and reading scores in Finland are higher for every social class group than in the United States. However, Finland’s scores have been falling for the most disadvantaged students while U.S. scores have been improving for similar social class students. This should lead to greater caution in applying presumed lessons from Finland. At first glance, it may seem that the decline in scores of disadvantaged students in Finland results in part from a recent influx of lower-class immigrants. However, average scores for allsocial class groups have been falling in Finland, and the gap in scores between Finland and the United States has narrowed in each social class group. Further, during the same period in which scores for the lowest social class group have declined, the share of all Finnish students in this group has also declined, which should have made the national challenge of educating the lowest social class students more manageable, so immigration is unlikely to provide much of the explanation for declining performance.

Source: http://www.epi.org/publication/us-student-performance-testing/


Diane Ravitch Chides NC Legislature

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Diane Ravitch is an education policy analyst and historian at New York University. In addition, she served in the Clinton and G. W. Bush administrations. Her bestselling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, addresses issues with high-stakes testing and quantifying teacher quality. Here, she addresses the audience of the 2014 Emerging Issues Forum: Teachers and the Great Economic Debate in Raleigh, NC.

Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1g0KDYvUmtY&list=PL7_JAXDeVTvI25eVqvUvIQ2309Y_uWfRK North Carolina Representatives Rick Glazier, Bryan Holloway, and Craig Horn, and Senators Angela Bryant and Jerry Tillman discuss education policy later the same day at the Forum.

Take Action! Write to the NC Legislature and let them know what you think.  If you are in NC, click here to find the e-mail address of your representative. http://ncleg.net/representation/WhoRepresentsMe.aspx

Here is a sample letter:

Dear Representative,

I teach/taught at _______ for  ___ years. I currently reside in _________.  I left teaching/am considering leaving teaching because I was fed up with the overemphasis of standardized tests. I saw how _____________. Now, it seems that I do not just need to stand up for students against the overemphasis of standardized tests, but for teachers also. Teachers should not be paid based on students’ performances on standardized tests. While pay for performance may work in low-skill jobs, Daniel Pink’s research shows that pay for performance does not work in jobs that require high level thinking. In my opinion, being paid based on student test scores would increase competition amongst teachers, which would interfere with collaboration. I understand that the NC Legislature wants to change the teacher pay scale from seniority to merit. However, I do not know of a fair way to do this.  Until a fair way is negotiated, I ask that you increase the base pay for all teachers in NC.
Interested in what Daniel Pink had to say while in NC?  Listen here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LCq73WBI_A

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High School Reading List is 75% white, 75% male

Students often consider the books they read in school as the authority on a subject.  Because of this, the books presented to our students can influence 1) how they think, 2) what they feel is normal, and 3) what roles and characteristics are appropriate for people like them.  The creators of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) say that multicultural education is valuable for all students, but not in action.  While the CCSS do not mandate reading lists for grade levels, a suggested reading list has been published as Appendix B. The CCSS suggested readings do not represent the diverse demographics and worldviews represented in American public schools. The following table describes the 9th-10th grade readings.




Female author 9 20%
Male author 37 80%
Female main character* 8 36%
Male main character* 14 63%
European author 15 33%
Asian author 1 2%
African author 2 4%
Middle Eastern author 0 0
Australian author 0 0
African American author 5 11%
Asian American author 1 2%
Hispanic American author 1.5 3%
White American author 18 40%
Native American author .5 1%
Author or characters with disabilities 0 0

* Not all of the selections had characters.

In short, the authors on the list are 75% male (of all ethnicities) or 75% white (both male and female).










There is a tremendous overrepresentation of white male authors.  There are more male authors than female authors, as is the case in the K-1 band and in other textbooks I have analyzed. The number of male authors of color is also too low.  The male authors of color included one black African, four African-American (counting Martin Luther King, Jr. twice for two works), and one author who identifies as half Chicano and half Native American.  For women of color, Amy Tan is Chinese American, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou are African-American, and Julia Alvarez is Dominican American.  Where are Sojourner Truth, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Phyllis Wheatley, or bell hooks, just to name a few?  The authors of the CCSS should include more perspectives and voices across race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, and age to present diverse perspectives and issues. As Rudine Sims Bishop says, all of our students need window and mirror books. It is important for children to see a reflection of themselves in the books they read, so they can connect to reading and value literacy in a very personal way.


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Happiness – At least 40% is up to YOU!

If you’re happy and you know it . . .

How do you know if you’re happy? What makes you happy?  For most people money matters, but it doesn’t make them happy.  People need their basic needs met and want not to worry about survival.  But the opposite of worry is not happy.  What makes people happy is relationships, connections, other people.  That isn’t to say the source of happiness is other people.  We choose who is in our life and we decide who deeply we connect to those people.  We also choose to be givers, takers, or be in relationships that are give or take.

I’ve been posting a lot of video links lately, but this one I’m really excited to share.  It’s a documentary that explains the emotion from perspectives all over the world.  The path to happiness may have cultural variations, but the destination is universal.  Check it out and let me know what you think!

Also, check out this great blog post about the documentary Happy by clicking the link here: Happiness – At least 40% is up to YOU!.


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Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, Common Core State Standards

Is understanding poetry a valuable skill?  Is reading Les Miserables important?  The new Common Core State Standards, adopted by 47 states and DC, say yes . . . but not really.  Everyone agrees that learning to read is essential. The authors of the Common Core Standards argue that learning to extract facts and make inferences with nonfiction is a skill needed in college and career.  Presently, the children in the U.S. are not prepared for the reading required to be successful postsecondary students, employees, or citizens.  There are numerous sources of quantitative data that support this assertion and I do believe a problem exists (1).  The CCSS’s solution is that by the time students are in 12th grade, the literacy curriculum should be 70 percent nonfiction and 30 percent fiction.  Focusing on nonfiction will prepare children for the reality of college or career.  This means that nonfiction will play a major role not only in social studies and science, but also in English.

As a public high school English teacher for 6 years, I know what is expected of these teachers.  We are expected to teach in the same amount of time as all of the other subjects and with a high stakes test at the end of the course:

1. reading skills (rereading, summarizing, critiquing)

2. literature (metaphor, stanzas, characterization, irony)

3. cultural literacy (incorporation in the shared experience of their culture through reading the classics and talking about cultural periods like Romanticism and Modernism)

4. digital literacy (evaluating sources, navigating websites,  using search engines)

5. language (grammar, connotation, root words)

6. creative/reflective writing (personal narratives, journaling, poetry)

7. informational/persuasive writing (aka pulling teeth)

8. research skills (because it is reading and writing after all)

9. study skills (because English is the only class students take every year)

10. administrative tasks (see #9)

The CCSS is not saying that English teachers should stop teaching literature; they are saying to shift the focus to nonfiction reading skills.  With reform, there is always a loser.  Reforming the English curriculum means something has to give and it seems to be literature.  Now before you all shout “Hooray! No more iambic pentameter quizzes!” think of this.  Teachers since the 1700’s have observed that children are more engaged in reading when they connect personally with the text.  Because literature reflects the human experience, it is often more accessible for young readers.  Engaged readers actually score higher on reading comprehension, more so than grouping by socioeconomic class, race, or gender (2).  More importantly, English class is one of the few mandatory classes where students are challenged to not look for the right way, but to look in a different way, to be creative, and to use their imagination.

The unfortunate consequence lies in losing this creativity.  When we focus on standardization and fact extraction, we miss what makes America great:  innovation, ingenuity, imagination, thinking outside the box.  We develop a generation who can read a manual, but nobody can invent something worth reading a manual about.

There is no easy solution in preparing our children for their future, but let us not overlook the consequences of our actions.  Would it not be possible to add a mandatory class to the high school curriculum called Research, where students can practice reading nonfiction, digital literacy, and informational writing?  This could help reach the goal of 70 percent nonfiction during the school day, while still giving students an opportunity to read The Scarlet Letter cover to cover.  Many students have more than enough credits to graduate before the end of their senior year.  Adding one compulsory class would not be a problem.  During my high school experience, we had to pass Public Speaking in order to graduate.  In looking at the other side of the coin, students who have failures or would possible fail the research course would not graduate and therefore lower graduation rates.  This could be resolved by putting the Research course on the college-prep course of study and not a requirement for a career prep high school diploma.  Meaning, universities expect students to take this class but it is not necessary to get a diploma.

I applaud the CCSS for not being afraid to tackle a problem.  I applaud the CCSS for their commitment to utilize quantitative data, teacher focus groups, and international comparative research.  All I am asking is for support to teach what cannot be measured.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

(1) National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social STudies, Science, and Technical Subjects: Appendix A.  National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.  Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

(2) Ed. Tracey, D. H. and Morrow, L. M. (2012). Lenses on reading.  Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=jclKqpry_54C&pg=PA75&lpg=PA75&dq=guthrie+2004+engagement+theory&source=bl&ots=sWIjMPVmmx&sig=4z5Uu7hZRcfykeZ3XJlhdaItvhc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TywEUZzdJZSE8QSU4oCwBA&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=guthrie%202004%20engagement%20theory&f=false

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Brains, Trains, and Bookmobiles

4 the World uses research-based methods when supporting schools in developing countries.  Pupil feeding programs, giving instructional materials, and teacher training all show significant gains for student achievement in developing countries.  As mentioned in Wealth Does not Equal Achievement, competitive factors separate best practices in developed nations and developing nations.  3 girls sitting at computers in Central America

Pupil feeding programs increase access for children because although parents must still pay for enrollemnt, the burden of feeding the child is shouldered by the school and so the total cost of raising the child (enrollment fee – breakfast and lunch) is reduced.  Furthermore, pupil feeding programs offer nutrition that supports brain and motor skill development.  According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if a child’s basic needs of  food, water and shelter are not met, the higher intellectual needs will not be met.

Instructional materials, such as textbooks, computers, visual aids, and manipulatives, can supplement for poor teacher training.  With a textbook, an instructor is given an organized framework with proper assessment tools.  More importantly, if every child has their own textbook, the child can self-learn.  Computers plus the internet increase what a child can learn on her own exponentially and the ability to effectively use technology is a needed global market skill.  Visual aids, like diagrams and maps, and manipulatives, like models and geometric puzzles, aid visual and tactile learners who need to see and do rather than hear in order to grasp new concepts.

Years of teacher training also affects student achievement.  In some countries governments cannot afford a competitive salary for professionals, so young, unqualified people get the job of teacher while people with a college degree find a decent salary in higher ranked government jobs.  In other countries, corruption robs the students of a qualified teacher.  Family members of highly ranked government officials are given teaching positions without proper qualification.  Regardless of background, teachers around the world benefit from professional development.  Summer institutes, collaborative workshops, and professionals conferences build necessary skills and practical applications of educational theories.

4 the world works with local school leaders to build sustainable education development programs, such as food provision for brain development, training for teachers, and school refurbishing with books and computers.  Your school can get involved!  Check out http://4theworld.org/?page_id=618 for ideas.

Fuller, B. & Heyneman, S. P. (1989). Third WorldSchoolQuality: Current collapse, future potential.  Educational Researcher.

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Educational Statistics

Current State of the World’s Children statistics show that enrollment of girls in school is increasing, but  can we really tell the whole picture using statistics?  Sadly, no.

Firstly, corrupt governments report numbers that are not true.  Lack of understanding of the implications permits administrators to hand in false reports at the bidding of their supervisors.  When so much is at stake (aid, funding, jobs), a little lie seems worthy of the big reward.

Secondly, wording, translation, and interpretation can cause problems in research.  Governments may report that the number of girls in school is up.  However, enrollment and attendance are two different stories. A girl may very well be enrolled in school, and this in and of itself is a positive change, but the same girl may have only attended class for 1 week before her mother became ill and she had to stay home to care for the family.  Even when enrollment and attendance match up, girls can be attending school but treated as servants to fetch water and sweep floors rather than as scholars working on their lessons.

Numbers are important.  Numbers can show change, can show outliers, can show averages, but numbers never tell a complete story.  This is why working with local leaders– seeing, listening, and feeling — is needed in conjunction with quantitative evidence to make decisions regarding development or reform.

African Secondary school