Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top Performing Countries' Strategies Not Found in the U.S.

"In most of these countries, few, if any, of the upper secondary school examinations are scored by computers and much of the examination is in the form of  prompts requiring the student to work out complex problems or write short essays.  They do this because the  ministries in these countries have grave doubts about the ability of computers to properly assess the qualities they think most important in the education of their students."
~ Mark Tucker, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform

Here is what the PISA top performing countries are doing that the U.S. is not:

1. Incentives:  Gateway exams from basic education to upper secondary education and/or from upper secondary education to university (designed & administered as explained above).

2. Cohesion:  National standards aligned with the curriculum which is aligned with the instructional materials available to teachers.  Gateway exams are also aligned with the curriculum as is the training of prospective teachers in teacher training programs.

3. Comprehensive, Coherent curriculum:  National curriculum goes far beyond mathematics and the home language to include science, social sciences, arts, music morals, and in Finland, philosophy.

4. Teacher Quality:  huge, long term work pieces:
    a. Criteria for high quality teacher candidate selection
    b. High  Caliber Teacher Training at Tier I universities to develop strong content knowledge
    c. Institutions with thorough pedagogical preparation following the medical doctor clinical training
    d. Very Competitive compensation of teachers like other professions which also builds the career's importance
    e. Accountability to colleagues which in turn establishes professional autonomy

5. School Finance:  Most top performing countries have moved away from local control of school finance towards a system to differentiate funding to enable all students to achieve high standards

All of this work is monumental when we embrace any component to adjust.  If you want to learn more about this report google "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:  An American Agenda for Education Reform" by Marc Tucker.  Mr. Tucker also presented at UIC's World Class Education Collogquium. Here is a link to his presentation (scroll down and watch both parts):  http://worldclasseducationillinois.org/interviews/  (Pasi Sahlberg's presentation is also at the same place. 

Where to begin?  What to do -- let's look to Ontario, Canada next...

Monday, June 11, 2012

U.S. Education Strategies Not Found in Top Performing Countries

"We conclude that the strategies driving the best performing systems are rarely found in the United States, and, conversely, that the education strategies now most popular in the United States are conspicuous by their absence in the countries with the most successful education systems."
~ Mark Tucker, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform
There you have it. (Google the report to read more, if you would like.)

Have you heard of Mark Tucker?  He is the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). When U.S. Dept of Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for a report on what the top performing countries of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) are doing, the OECD requested NCEE to write the report. Mark Tucker published the book Surpassing Shanghai this year of which the above-mentioned report is included.
So what do they identify that the U.S. is doing that the top performing countries are not?

1. Grade-by-grade national testing in English and mathematics.
2. Typically brief, unconnected practice teaching for pre-service teachers.
3. Assigning teachers to teach subjects that they have not been trained to teach.
4. Local control of school finance
5. Charter schools and voucher programs
6. Using student performance data on standardized tests to "reward" and "punish" teachers
There is much more -- but enough for now.  Next post, I will talk about what Finland (& other top performers) have in place that the U.S. does not.

Why does our country, our states, & school districts continue with OPPOSITE policies & frameworks that are not working compared to the successful countries?  We are wasting so much time of our kids' futures, not to mention money.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Are CPS' New Approaches Best for Kids' Learning?

This is the original article/letter that I had to condense and was also edited...  Thoughts?

            I am a CPS teacher conducting Fulbright research on the teaching and learning of mathematics in Finland. I have taught middle school mathematics and science for sixteen years with CPS and I collaborated with teachers as an instructional coach the last four years. Since 2000, Finland has been among the world’s top achievers in literacy, mathematics, and science on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Since I left for sabbatical in January, CPS has decided to implement several strategies that diametrically oppose both Finland’s successful approaches, as I have observed them, as well as recognized international research on the strategies that Finland uses to ensure that teaching and learning of mathematics occurs at high levels. I am concerned that by moving forward in the opposite direction of these successful approaches, CPS could do more harm than good to the quality of mathematics education in Chicago. Proven successful strategies include:   
NO Standardized Testing
Finland uses several methods to gauge how schools and students are performing. For example, the National Board of Education checks learning periodically by administering a test to a random sample of students.  Students are not tested in every subject, in every grade, every year. In addition, there are optional annual assessments that teachers and schools can choose to administer anonymously to compare their school to the national average. Students’ names with scores are not reported, nor ranked. Finnish educators are responsible for assessing their own students’ learning and do not understand why Chicago requires so many standardized tests that have been identified as narrowing the curriculum and instruction. According to the 2011-2012 CPS assessment calendar there are potentially over 30 instructional days for some form of standardized test at the 8th grade level; whereas, Finland has none. Eliminating even half of these tests for the district would result in regained instructional time for kids and substantial savings with less test administration. 
Small Class Size
Based on classroom observations as well as interviews with teachers and principals, I submit that one of the most effective strategies that has contributed to Finland’s success is a smaller class size compared to Chicago. Every middle school class I have visited has 18-24 students. Furthermore, I have observed that almost every mathematics teacher here presents the day’s concept then touches base with each student 1, 2 or 3 times during class. Recently, in Chicago I have had classes of 33, 35 and even 37 students. With fewer students in a class, CPS teachers, like Finnish teachers, would be able to know their students better and support their range of learning needs.
Trust Teachers
            Finnish teachers are trusted to create, instruct, and evaluate the teaching and learning. Both teachers and principals say that they are successful because they are trusted as educators to design lessons that work for their students. In addition to this respect and autonomy, teachers and the teachers union are consulted by the National Board of Education whenever reforms are designed. When I talk to Finnish teachers, principals, and policy makers here, they have a difficult time comprehending why CPS does not involve teachers more in deciding what is needed for kids to be successful. As Chicago plans for a new school year, Central Office could make steps towards demonstrating some trust by giving schools the autonomy to design their instructional programs (including the length of the day ) that will meet the needs of all learners.
Slow, Consistent Approach
            Forty years ago, Finland was not performing at its current level but they made equity of education a top priority, developed their structures, and stayed the course. During my twenty years as a CPS teacher, I have lost count of the annual initiatives that have come and gone. The next school year, Chicago teachers will continue the monumental tasks of transitioning to the national Common Core State Standards curriculum, following a comprehensive CPS Framework for Teaching , effectively implementing a longer school day, and learning a new CPS teacher evaluation system (that will include students' performance on standardized tests). Recently, numerous local, national, and international educators stressed the importance for districts to have both research and evidence-based decisions for school reform initiatives.
             CPS leadership plans to implement yet again many new frameworks for the new school year. Chicago should slow down, study top performing countries’ educational systems, test our students less, and trust our teachers more. Instead of advancing more policies opposite those of top performing countries, Chicago should follow these countries' lead, give back control over teaching and assessment to teachers and thus return the focus to our students’ learning.

Robert Reynolds, NBCT/Mathematics
Distinguished Fulbright Teacher
Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School

For more information (links):
Time: Beyond the Classroom: An Analysis of a Chicago Public School Teacher's Actual Workday
Testing (please endorse): National Resolution Against Standards High-Stakes Testing
PISA: Finland's Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results (Chpt 5)
Reform: What the U.S. Can Learn from Finland's School Reform
Dr. Pasi Sahlberg’s (Finnish educator & author) blog: Finnish Education Reform
Rob Reynolds’ blog: Mathematics the Finnish Way

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Finnish Success: Teachers-Time-Trust-(No)Tests-Class Size

As I try to capture my time and Fulbright experience, the hardest aspect to explain thoroughly and accurately is the trust of teachers.  Many have written about it, but you just have to experience it.  I  am the fortunate one to experience the trust through Fulbright -- Thanks Senator Fulbright for envisioning these international partnerships and collaboration!

In Chicago and the U.S., we need to revisit, in the long term, our preparation and training of teachers.  I will write more about that soon.  Today, I want to write about more immediate issues that individual school districts have some control over:  Time, Trust, Testing (none), & Class Size.

Time:  There is plenty of research out there about the use of time -- more time in the school day (or year) does not necessarily equate to better achievement.  It is the quality use of time, along with other factors that enable teachers to set up the opportunity for quality teaching & learning for kids.  Look at Finland -- one of the  shortest school days, but still among the top performers world wide.  Why is that?  Shorter school days, especially for younger kids, so that they maximize their attention span.  Plenty of breaks built into the school day so kids are refreshed and attentive.

Trust:  Teachers have more time built into their school days and weeks without kids in front of them so that they can (1) collaborate with colleagues, (2) prepare experiments and inquiry-based lessons, and (3) provide substantive written feedback to kids (Love this last one -- I  spend so much of my personal time providing feedback to help kids with their misconceptions). 

Tests - NO STANDARDIZED TESTS:  OK, so we will not get rid of all of the tests in the U.S. any time soon, but couldn't we eliminate half?!  If districts eliminated some of the tests they would: (1) demonstrate trust for teachers' work (google Assessment for Learning and find all the international research out there how top performing countries have given this trust to teachers with formative assesments and reduced/elminated standardized tests), (2) regain instructional time, (3) provide substantial financial savings (think of all the costs), and (4) relieve kids' stress, and much more...

Class Size:  every middle school class I visited had 18-24 students.  The teacher typically (almost always) presented the lesson or challenging  problems then circulated the classroom and checked in with each student 1, 2, or 3 times.  In this setting, it makes sense to all that these teachers know their students' strengths and needs better than I ever will.  In recent years, I have had 33, 35, and even 37 kids in a class often with special ed and ELL kids included.

I want to shout from the roof tops one of the most obvious examples of trust here and lack of trust in the U.S.  When teachers in Finland speak about what is best for kids' learning -- they are heard and even sought out by principals & policymakers.  Usually when American teachers speak out, education officials, policymakers and even some parents perceive teachers to be advocating for themselves first and not what is best for kids to be successful.  How can teachers' suggestions be more respected by the supervisors and policymakers in Chicago and the U.S.?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Finnish Teacher Education in Action

As part of the celebration of Helsinki - World Design Capital for 2012, the University's Department of Teacher Education has produced a series of videos about teacher education (each subtitle is the link to YouTube).  Which video clip highlights best the differences between Finland and U.S.A.'s teacher training?

Becoming aTeacher
This first video introduces the respect that the teaching profession has in Finland and why so many Finns are proud to pursue this calling.

Finnish Teacher Education
The teacher education approach emphasizes their training and preparation for the teaching to the whole child.  Teachers are required to earn a master’s degree which usually takes five years.

TeachingPractice - Reflection in Action
This video clip is of two student teachers who are working together with a supervising master teacher in a sixth grade class at the practice teaching school.  An instructor from the university (my advisor) also observes and facilitates reflection during the practice teaching. (We are in the back of the class observing this lesson.)  As I stated in an earlier post, this practice teaching series happens three times during their training.

Tribute toDiversity
This segment provides background on the teacher’s code of ethics and among the techniques the supervising teacher models for the student teachers is differentiated instruction.

Smartphone inTeaching and Learning
This is a six minute video clip about using Smartphones in class.  I am not sure how many teachers are using this technique, but it is great to see the productive use of this technology.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Shame on Me!

Yesterday, quite a bit of the U.S. education news was the ranking of the Nation's Top High Schools by U.S. News and World Report.  

AHH - Shame on Me!  This is one of the most common criticisms Finland has of the United States -- the constant ranking of schools, cities, and states.  Unfortunately, it is becoming more common to do the public ranking of teachers in some cities and states.  What is the value of the ranking?  How is it used?  What is the criteria for the ranking?  Often standardized, high-stakes tests, right?  And what narrow focus do these tests have?!  Hmm, looks like Step #1 used each state's high school proficiency tests...

Here is the methodology for U.S. News & World Report's ranking:

Step 1: The first step determined whether each school's students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state. We started by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state's high school proficiency tests. We then factored in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (who tend to score lower) enrolled at the school to identify the schools that were performing better than statistical expectations.
• Step 2: For those schools that made it past this first step, the second step determined whether the school's least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic, and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state. We compared each school's math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups and then selected schools that were performing better than this state average.
• Step 3: Schools that made it through the first two steps became eligible to be judged nationally on the final step—college-readiness performance—using Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test data as the benchmarks for success, depending on which program was largest at the school. AP is a College Board program that offers college-level courses at high schools across the country. The International Baccalaureate program also offers a college-level curriculum.

The important news -- the student/teacher ratio for a majority of these high performing high schools appears to be 16:1 or 17:1 (with some 7:1 or 14:1 or even 26:1 or 28:1).  Let's be more critical of this simple ratio -- it reports the total number of students with the total number of teachers.  In our schools, we have many teachers not in classrooms with students, but they are part of this statistic. Really a national average of 16:1?  I do not know who is/is not counted, but I know our actual class size is considerably larger than 16:1.   If we use this statistic at face value, seems the schools with this lower ratio typically rank higher.  Once again -- I advocate that the less kids at a time we teach, the more effective we can meet their needs (whether remediation or acceleration).  

Here is the link if you want to explore (shame on you too :D):  U.S. News: Nation's Top High Schools

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Strategies to Support Struggling Learners

One common strategy in Finland with the early grades, but not a requirement, is to divide the class into two groups:  A and B.  For example, one day a week, typically the first period of the day, group A would come to school for a mathematics lesson and group B would come to school one hour later.  Then another day of the week, it flips with group B coming in early and group A one hour later.  Seems simple?  Can you imagine our schools in Chicago doing this?

Many people, especially my CPS teacher colleagues, would appreciate the effectiveness of this design.  Please excuse me for reminding you that the average class size I have seen is 22 or 24 students so think of providing a mathematics lesson to 11 or 12 students one day a week... That is one way to meet kids' needs in the early years -- but it is a funding decision and school level priority.

Here are some common strategies (but not requirements) at the middle school grades:  Typically there are 3 or 4 "lesson hours" a week for mathematics in grades 6, 7, 8, and 9.  Depending on the struggling students' needs, the student attends class with a special education teacher for 1 or 2 of those lesson hours.  It seems most often that they attend one hour a week with the special education teacher instead of the mathematics teacher.  Both the mathematics and special education teachers routinely collaborate to ensure there is continuity of the content.

In addition, the national curriculum specifically explains that when remedial teaching needs are identified, that the school should develop a plan in cooperation with the parents or guardians to meet that student's need.  As I understand it, it is not for special education but for a student currently struggling with a mathematics unit.  The teacher and the school can meet this student's need during the mathematics lesson, during the school day, or after school.  If it is after school, the small group may meet once a week for a few weeks or until the unit is done.  "Depending" on the school or situation, another group could be organized or not.  This is a school level decision and the principal sets aside funds to pay teachers for this type of flexible need.  If I am not mistaken, in Chicago, after school academic help is typically done for most of the school year for the same students.  While the intent makes sense for us in Chicago, it lacks the flexibility and versatility for the school and the teachers to meet their students' needs.  The limited CPS funding for after school academic help "tied" to and audited for the attendance of the identified students for the whole school year.  What do you think?  Anything unclear?