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Yesterday’s PISA results stimulate a real discussion about the role of testing in learning

Yesterday’s PISA results will be the subject of a lot of debate and analysis but one exchange illustrates how rich the discussion can become when it goes beyond positional warfare:  Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish education guru, Alan C. Jones, a commenter on a blog, and New Hampshire teachers all go beyond the usual debates about the evils of testing to talk about meaningful learning for students.

When perennial education leader Finland lost its top spot in the PISA scores this year, Pasi Sahlberg, said (quoted here on Diane Ravitch’s blog),

Finland should not do what many other countries have done when they have looked for a cure to their ill-performing school systems. Common solutions have included market-based reforms, such as increasing competition between schools, standardization of teaching and learning, tougher test-based accountability and privatization of public schools. Instead, Finns must protect their schools from the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that has failed to help schools to get better in other countries.

The better way for Finland is to ensure that schools are able to cope with increasing inequality, that teachers have tools to help students with individual needs, and that all schools get support to succeed.PISA results are too often presented as a simple league table of education systems. But there is much more that the data reveal.

….see the full post here.

That led to this very interesting comment by Alan C. Jones:

What Mr. Sahlberg is pointing out is the distinction between what Fenstermacher & Richardson (2005) have named “successful schools” and “good schools.” Successful schools require a quantifiable outcome that is evidence of student learning. Good schools focus on the process of education —balanced curriculum, ambitious teaching, inclusive environments—and let the test scores take care of themselves.W. Edwards Deming, the father of TQM, (who incidentally warned that his methods should never be applied to education), warned of the danger of end point measurement systems. Even in the private sector, Deming noted, the focus on quantifiable outcomes can distort the processes designed to produce quality. The shame of the accountability movement is taking away from children the opportunity to learn in a joyful and meaningful school environment — a good school. In the pursuit of successful schooling, administrators and law makers have been victimized by end point thinking. We will never be able to link what teachers do in classrooms with some quantifiable outcome. What we can do in schools is make every effort to make a child’s experience in school a meaningful one—the processes that teachers are pursuing in Finland.

New Hampshire teachers make the same point.  Angela Manning, 5th grade teacher at Portsmouth’s New Franklin Elementary School, said,

“Our teachers are saying, “Ok. This is a standard that we have to teach and we’re going to make it applicable to our students so it’s meaningful. How can we make it best for kids’ learning? The bigger things that are coming out of Common Core are that the thinking required will benefit these kids.

When it comes to testing, that will take care of itself.”


Watch this 5 minute video from the AFT about what PISA actually tells us. It’s right.

There’s a lot of effort this year to discount the PISA results, but here’s a great, constructive interpretation of what PISA actually tells us.

Here are two useful reviews of the PISA data released today

We’ve seen a move in recent months to pre-reject the latest results (and hereof the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  However, I have found PISA and the analysis based on it to be honest, rigorous and thoughtful, providing valuable insight into (not dictates about) education policy.  

For instance, here is “Lessons from PISA for the United States,” by the OECD.  There’s no rhetoric or spin.  It’s just trying to help figure it all out.  Then there’s Marc Tucker’s book, “Surpassing Shanghai” – detailed, a little wonky but very readable and a valuable contribution to the education policy discussion.  Based entirely on PISA data.

And, finally, there is Amanda Ripley’s new book, “The Smartest Kids in the World.”  I’ll be writing much more about this but, in the meantime, if you read one book about education, read this one.  It flows like a novel, tells real stories of real kids and their schools and provides honest, smart insights about what’s really going on.  And her research touchstone is PISA and Andreas Schleicher, the creator and head of the PISA program.

So there it is.  I don’t buy the anti-PISA meme.  And in that spirit, here are two first takes on the results.  The first, from Andrew Rotherham at EduWonk, suggests we take a deep breath and look at the results with some perspective

PISA! 5 Reasons It Matters And Doesn’t

The new PISA results are out.  Usual suspects saying the usual things.   Few things to keep in mind.

– Bottom line: The sky is not falling, but the ceiling may be closing in on us some.  But we don’t need international comparisons to tell us we have serious educational problems here.


Day 2 of the Union Leader series on the Common Core: how do you know 12 + 7 = 19?

The first of the two Common Core articles in the Union Leader today features web developer Jon DiPietro’s critique of American public education, including that:

…his children come home with homework that suggests process is more important than getting the right answer.

“One homework assignment was to solve 12 + 7, and to explain how you got the answer. One student drew a brain with an arrow pointing to it,” he said. “In her first or second week at the middle school, my daughter took a math quiz. She got the right answers, but was graded wrong for using the wrong method.”

Common Core opponents frequently make the this “method doesn’t matter” point.  But what if Mr. DiPietro’s daughter got to 19 by counting on her fingers and toes?  Learning math is a accumulation of skills.  Counting on her fingers would not serve Ms. DiPietro well in Algebra I.  (On the other hand, the student pointing to his brain is on the right track if he means, “I have become fluent in addition.  I just see 19 when I see 12+7.”)

The Common Core calls for the kind of good instruction Ms. DiPietro’s teacher is providing: trying to ensure that students are fluent enough in the basics of math to solve real world problems.  Mr. DiPietro has crystalized the argument for the Common Core.

But there’s also a great quote from Mayor Gatsas about how hard it is to know what’s right at this juncture:

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who is taking on the Department of Education over testing protocols, said he had been made wary by past experience.

“In the 1980s, there was an experiment to build schools without classroom walls,” he said. “I still have a school like that in my district at Beech Street. The only thing that separates classrooms is file cabinets. Go in there and see if you can pay attention.”

Many Common Core supporters would agree with the mayor that the great American education system took a detour into the soft sand of the 70’s and ’80’s.  You could call it the Lake Wobegon era in which every child was above average.


Schooling Ourselves in an Unequal America – NYTimes

Here is a very useful NYT Opinionator post summarizing American education issues in a global context – in a balanced and accurate way.  For some reason, it goes off the rails into never-never land when it describes current federal education policy, but the rest is still useful.  The post itself is based on this analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations.  Here’s the good part:

Averages can be misleading. The familiar, one-dimensional story told about American education is that it was once the best system in the world but that now it’s headed down the drain, with piles of money thrown down after it.

The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10 percent or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.

And while America does spend plenty on education, it funnels a disproportionate share into educating wealthier students, worsening that gap. The majority of other advanced countries do things differently, at least at the K-12 level, tilting resources in favor of poorer students.

Historically, the role of the federal government, which takes a back seat to the states in education, has been to try to close achievement gaps, but they have continued to widen. Several changes in federal education policy under President Obama have actually increased the flow of scarce federal dollars toward those students who need it less, reinforcing inequities and further weakening overall educational performance. Reversing America’s slide in international education rankings will require turning that record on its head.


We do a lot good in American education but why is opportunity to learn determined by where you live?

Uri Treisman is widely respected professor of mathematics and of public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the founder and executive director of the University’s Charles A. Dana Center.  On April 19, 2013, he addressed the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics on equity in American education.  He called his talk “Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize,” and called on his fellow math educators to work toward an education system in which students, regardless of ethnicity, family income or location in the country, have an equal opportunity to learn mathematics and thus gain access to good jobs and incomes. (more…)

The unions make public schools bad, right? Actually, that’s not what the data shows.

Michael Marder is physics prof at the University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Director of UTeach (“We prepare teachers.  They change the world.”).  He’s a scientist who has found communicative ways to visualize his research data.  Sometimes he applies that skill to education issues to see what’s really going on.  Here is his look at the role unions play in student achievement (taken from page 8, here).

The view that unions are an obstacle to educational progress is the almost universally shared premise among education reform proponents in the U.S., whether the proposed reform is punitive teacher evaluations, the charterization of public education or state-funded private school vouchers.  Prof. Marder lets Steve Jobs (2007) serve as the voice of conventional wisdom on this issue:

I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way….This unionization
and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

But then he displays simple data that tells a different story.  Each disk is a state.  The red disks are “right to work” states, which he characterizes as “weaker union” states.  The blue disks are “stronger union” states.

Marder union graphs 1

Here’s what Prof. Marder observes in his dispassionate way:

States with and without strong unions are intermingled. Well-off students in wealthy states with strong unions have the highest outcomes. For low-income students the states with highest outcomes have weak unions. Differences in state performance that might be attributed to unions are small compared with effects of poverty.

As an additional note, here is an interesting study by the conservative Fordham Institute that ranks the states by the strength of their teachers’ unions.

What if Finland’s great teachers taught in New Hampshire?

Valerie Strauss (The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post) had widely respected Finnish education strategist Pasi Sahlberg write a guest column.  It’s great fun to get these thoughts unconstrained by the limits of our current American education debate.  Key points:


In the United States, for example, there are more than 1,500 different teacher-preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Singapore and Finland only one academically rigorous teacher education program is available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor South Korea has fast-track options into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach First in Europe. Teacher quality in high-performing countries is a result of careful quality control at entry into teaching rather than measuring teacher effectiveness in service.


In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being. Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.


The fantasies driving school reform: A primer for education graduates – graduation address by Richard Rothstein

Valerie Strauss has provided (here on her blog, The Answer Sheet) a transcript of a graduation speech by Richard Rothstein,  a deeply knowledgeable and trustworthy education commentator.  Here are some key quotes, but you should read the whole thing here:

Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children. Past efforts at improvement, and vast increases in spending, have accomplished little or nothing, they say. Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle class students have narrowed little, so as the proportion of white children declines, this failure of our schools weakens our nation, rendering it unable to compete internationally.

In truth, this conventional view relies upon imaginary facts.


100 percent of French 3 year olds in pre-K. Only 51 percent in the US. Almost none in New Hampshire.

United States Lags Other Countries On Preschool Investment, Enrollment | ThinkProgress

President Obama’s allies at the Center for American Progress are pumping his early childhood initiative.  And they should.  We do a good job in the U.S> educating well-off kids, but most poor kids start behind in school and never catch up.  The countries that out-educate us do it by, among other things, starting early.  In New Hampshire, we’re not in the game yet.  Along with Mississippi and a few other states, we have not yet begun to consider state support for preK, a better way than vouchers to reach low income children.

Here’s the international comparison:

The United States is lagging far behind much of the developed world when it comes to enrolling children in preschool programs, ranking 24th and 26th among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in the enrollment and three- and four-year-olds, respectively.

via United States Lags Other Countries On Preschool Investment, Enrollment | ThinkProgress.