The release earlier this week of international benchmark testing scores produced came the usual laments about where the United States stacked up.
As always, Asian countries took the crowns in math and science performance. Among the 60 countries that participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science. (In the original TIMSS from 1995, U.S. eighth-graders ranked 23rd in math among 41 nations.)
But, while America’s standings aren’t bottom-of-the-barrel, the scores trouble forecasters who believe that the economic future belongs to countries that excel in science, technology, engineering and math.
American students still lack the math mastery of other nations. For example, 7 percent of U.S. eighth graders scored at the advanced level in math, compared with 48 percent in Singapore and 47 percent in South Korea.
So, what’s the answer? Two panels of experts took up that issue at a Washington Post online forum this week. The consensus: New attitudes were needed as much as new reforms.
“It starts with a real recognition of the importance of education,” said Anthony Wilder Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. “Not enough parents or children understand the importance of education.”
The economic downturn underscored that importance, said Jamie Merisotis, president & CEO of the Lumina Foundation, noting that between 2009 and 2012, four out of five jobs lost were among people with a high school diploma or less.
Today, 40 percent of Americans hold an associate’s degree or better. The White House wants to raise that rate to 60 percent by 2020 to meet the changing job market. “Virtually, all the new jobs being created are for people with associate degrees or college degrees,” Merisotis said.
Panelists agreed that the goal was not simply creating more degree holders but creating more lifelong learners.
“Shooting to have all students graduate from high school is nowhere near a high enough aspiration,” said David Conley, CEO of the Education Policy Improvement Center. “And if we design high schools to get students to graduate, we have failed. We’ve got to get the schools to focus on students continuing on beyond high school. Because learning is going to be a lifetime activity for our young people and getting them to learn how to learn is just as important as what they’re learning.”
Now, we’re not even sure what a degree represents in terms of learning and competencies, said Merisotis.
“We are one of the only countries in the world for which you can’t actually articulate what the learning is behind any of the credentials that we offer. The Common Core is the first example in the k-12 level where we’ve actually articulated what students should know and be able to do,” he said.
But we have yet to create similar expectations for a college degree, which now signifies time spent in a seat accumulating credits, said Merisotis, adding, “It has nothing to do with learning. It has nothing to do with what people actually know or are able to do.”
Merisotis said he was not advocating more testing, but a national conversation about “what these degrees, these credentials, actually mean. What competencies should people have? What should they be able to do?”
Absent that kind of conversation, Merisotis warned, “We are going to have nice conversations about boutique ideas that we hope over time we will get to scale and we are not going to get to the economic promise we have as a country.”
The experts concurred that personalized learning is vital to keeping students engaged and in school. They also urged opportunities for learning outside school, such as practicums, internships and apprenticeships.
“Right now, most learning is following directions,” said Conley, calling for a move away from compliance-based learning to an emphasis on teaching children to manage their time, to persist and not give up and to take control of their own learning.
“One of the great ironies is that we are headed into an age where students can get almost any piece of information off their phones,” he said. “Yet, what we are doing is getting more and more information into their heads. The goal is to go beyond that and make them understand that they have to own their own learning.”
MIT professor Anant Agarwal, president of edX, a worldwide online learning initiative of MIT and Harvard, sees promise in the personalization of virtual education.
Agarwal is a pioneer of the massive open online course or MOOC, a free online course in which students earn certificates rather than credits and which relies on the far-flung community of students to help one another. Many top universities are now experimenting with MOOCs, including Georgia Tech and Emory, to figure out how to blend traditional college classes and virtual classes and expand the reach of their campuses and, ultimately, their brands.
In the first MOOC he taught, Agarwal had 155,000 students from 162 countries enrolled. “I would have been up all night answering questions from 155,000 students,” he said. “But we didn’t have to answer student questions because students would ask a question and other students would help them. They would learn by teaching.”
More than 7,o00 people finished his challenging MIT circuits and electronics class, including a 15-year-old genius from Mongolia who is now applying to top U.S. colleges.
As a student in India, Agarwal said he spent all his time wishing he could fast-forward his teachers. Once he was a student at Stanford, he wished he could pause them.
In online courses, students control when they learn and the rate at which they learn, he said. They can watch lectures and complete their interactive exercises at 2 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon. They can pose questions through online forums and get instant feedback from their peers.
“Now, it is one-size-fits-all,” said Agarwal. In his MOOC, he found that most students downloaded lessons between midnight and 2 a.m.
“Why are we driving kids to school at 7 a.m. in a hurry?”
The panel moderator asked some panelists what they would do tomorrow to improve schools. Here are a few of their answers:
Joshua Starr, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools: Impose a three year moratorium on all standardized tests given all the activity and upheaval now under way, including the Common Core assessments, the newly issued federal No Child waivers and the Race to the Top reforms. He also called for “crowd sourcing” to create the Common Core assessments, using teachers to create the new tests rather than contract the job out to private companies. “They could come up with a better assessment with any of them. Sorry, Pearson,” he said.
During the panel, Starr repeatedly criticized the linking of teacher performance to student test scores, saying that despite its best intent, the Obama administration “built RTT on bad science…We should focus on practice and stop the insanity of linking individual scores to teacher evaluations: It doesn’t work and it doesn’t help motivate people.”
Heather Harding, Senior Vice President, Community Partnerships, Teach for America: Push professional development to the classroom It ought to be coaching in the classroom as opposed to pulling teachers out of their classrooms to undergo training.
Richard Trogisch, Principal, School Without Walls: Put a greater focus on parental involvement Make it possible for parents to be involved including holding parent meetings at night or on Saturdays.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog