Countries tackle access and quality

This piece comes to us courtesy of International Ed News

Recent news reports reveal the ways in which countries all over the world are taking steps to make quality P-12 education more accessible for students.

In Chinathe government is closing privately operated schools and will allow the children of migrant workers to attend public schools. In addition to paying tuition fees for vocational students in southern rural areas, the Chinese government is also looking for ways to increase high school enrollment in areas such as the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. In contrast, the government has announced that, in their effort to increase the quality of tertiary institutions, postgraduate education will no longer be free. As noted in The New York Times, the cost of education is felt sharply by those in rural areas, where families are suffering from “high education costs coincid[ing] with slower growth of the Chinese economy and surging unemployment among recent college graduates.”   Meanwhile, state universities in Indonesiawill receive government funding to eliminate initial fees for new student and lower tuition rates overall.

In addition to the issue of access to education, many countries are reporting on efforts to improve the quality of education, resulting in conflicts between government officials, union leadership, and teachers. In Denmark, teachers are pushing back against the government’s reform measures, which include increasing the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom. In France, schools have had to shut their doors due to a teacher strike in protest of President Hollande’s reform agenda, which aims to increase classroom time. Guatemalan teachers and students have also been protesting the country’s education reform goals, which include university-level training for all teachers, a measure many believe will have a negative impact on education in rural areas. South Africa has long provided rural teachers with incentive stipends; however, teachers are in the midst of planning a strike to protest the government’s recent decision to terminate the allowances.

International test results make headlines worldwide

This piece comes to us courtesy International Ed News

On December 11, 2012, the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center released the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and news reports from around the world are already trying to interpret the results.

Reports in Norway note that students are performing better in reading, mathematics and science, and that (particularly in 4th grade math scores) they are catching up with Finland. Drastic improvements made the news in Russia and Israel, although in Israel a dramatic gap between Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking students was also recognized.

In Australia, the results were considered a disappointment, especially in consideration of the Prime Minister’s ambitious education goals and plans for additional school funding. In response to the unexpectedly low scores, Geoff Masters (Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research) explained on Australia’s AM radio program, “We know from international research and experience ourselves that what really makes a difference is the quality of the teaching that’s occurring in classrooms, the quality of the leadership of schools.”

Northern Ireland emerged as Europe’s top performing education system for primary maths. Students in the Republic of Ireland performed nicely as well, ranking 10th in reading out of 45 countries, 17th in maths out of 50 countries, and 22nd in science out of 50 countries; however, Ireland is not ranked among the top performing countries in any of the three tests. As a result, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has said that he would like to see more time devoted to science and maths in Irish schools, rather than Irish and religion. ”That’s why we’ve asked for the divestment by the Catholic church of many of the primary schools that they currently have.”

Singapore students enjoyed high scores, as they have in previous years, but government officials expressed concern about the students lack of confidence – an issue they hope to address with their new student-centric, values-driven educational model.

While South Africa (along with Honduras and Botswana) reported the lowest scores in math and science, South Africa reported a significant improvement amongst the “most disadvantaged” students – a fact that ”coincides with learners and schools receiving the highest number of interventions aimed at improving the quality of education, from both public and private sector providers.”

Report: British aid to Nigerian schools is not helping

The United Kingdom has poured millions into Nigerian school, but an independent group found that money has failed to improve education in the country.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact concluded in a recent report that:

[The government’s] education programme in Nigeria operates in a very challenging environment, with too few effective teachers, poor infrastructure and unpredictable State funding, all contributing to poor learning outcomes for pupils in basic education. Our review indicates no major improvement in pupil learning. Expectations continue to be modest with no likelihood of Nigeria meeting its Millennium Development Goal for primary education.”

The United Kingdom has already given £102 million (about $162 million) across 10 Nigerian states. Another £126 million (about $200 million) is pledged through 2019, according to the BBC.

A spokesperson for the UK’s Department for International Development told the BBC that report had a narrow focus, but the department would “carefully review the report’s recommendations and respond in due course.”

Standardized tests a foreign concept in Finland

As the United States focuses more on using tests as a means of holding educators and school districts accountable, Finland—which is one of the top performers on international tests—has gone in the opposite direction.

In the U.S., states give annual high-stakes exams that determine whether schools must undergo reforms, in some cases whether students can pass to the next grade level or graduate from high school, and increasingly whether teachers can receive tenure and keep their jobs. Yet the U.S. tends to rank in the middle on international tests. 

In Finland, by contrast, the few tests students take are low stakes, said Finnish educator, Jari Lavonen in a presentation on Thursday in New York. Assessments are used as a tool for professional development and to help teachers gauge student growth, never for accountability.

Yet, despite a lack of practice, when Finnish students do take standardized exams, they tend to excel. The country ranks consistently near the top in math, reading and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a standardized test taken by students in dozens of countries. The Finnish school system has become the envy of less successful nations around the world, including the United States.

Lavonen suggested if the U.S. wants to mimic Finnish success, it should consider adopting the nation’s philosophy on testing. “We need more decision making and assessment at the local level. We need less standardization and national testing,” said Lavonen, a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Helsinki who was visiting Teachers College, Columbia University with several colleagues. “We need less test-based accountability.” 

(Disclaimer: The Hechinger Report is published by an independent institute based at Teachers College.)

The Finnish government does occasionally test a random sample of a specific grade and subject in order to insure that the country is meeting its education goals,. Lavonen helped design a high school science exam taken by a sample of Finnish students in 2011. The last time high school science had been tested was 2001.

Overall, students answered an average of 58 percent of the questions correctly. While there were some troubling findings, such as a gender gap favoring boys in physics and girls in biology, Lavonen said everyone was generally pleased with the results.

There was an extremely high correlation between a student’s score on the exam and the end-of-semester grade he or she received, which Lavonen said indicates that teachers are grading well. The test also included many questions to measure students’ attitudes about science – how well they’d learned it and how interesting and relevant it was to them.

And while there are no annual standardized tests there are still ways that the school system checks for quality. Progress is monitored at both the local and municipal level in a variety of ways, including assessments throughout the school year. But the design and timing of any exams are left up to the teacher.

Lavonen, for instance, helped create an online tool for science teachers to develop tests and quizzes as they saw fit. Some might never use it, instead relying on informal checks as they interact with students.

It all comes back to what the Finnish visitors described as a “culture of trust,” where teachers are given flexibility and autonomy. 

“Everything they decide themselves; how they teach and what they teach,” Lavonen said. (Finland does have a national curriculum, however, that teachers must work within.) 

Lavonen and his colleagues who all work in teacher preparation at Finnish universities said tailoring assessments to individual students is fairer than administering standardized exams. Having children of all levels in the same classroom, like the majority of schools do in Finland, presents challenges for testing, Lavenon said. But he stressed it was necessary to treat students differently in order to encourage them based on their individual progress. 

Tags: Finland Europe

Funding problems and reform efforts around the world

This piece comes to us courtesy International Ed News.


This month, the European Union’s biannual convention focused on funding for education. There is a growing concern that too many E.U. countries are implementing drastic cuts that will make it difficult to sustain growth once the economy recovers.  As reported in the New York Times, Rok Primozic, E.U. vice chairman, pointed out that “if European governments continue to cut back on education, they are also cutting back on skills.” Nevertheless, SpainGreeceIrelandItaly and Estonia, (as well as non-E.U. countries, such as Chile and Scotland) continue to implement austerity measures that cutback on education spending and lead to protests. In contrast, FranceRussiaAustraliaNorway, and South Korea have all declared plans to increase education funding in the coming year, while private funding for education is on the rise in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Teacher Quality

In Guatemala, the issue of access to education becomes complicated as the government’s efforts to increase requirements for teacher qualifications have led to protests by those who see higher levels of education as an impediment to job applicants. However, a recent report from Scotland indicates a link between levels of teacher education and student performance. This link has led the United Arab Emirates to send teachers back to school, but it also might be responsible for a growing skepticism about the qualifications of teachers worldwide. For example, the governments of both France and Japan are questioning the contents of teacher-issued report cards, Malaysia has decided to test teachers on their knowledge of English, the UK has increased Ofsted school inspections, and India plans to include students in the curriculum design process.

Major Reforms

Several major reforms spotlight the dire need for high quality education and propose drastic changes.  For example, France proposed a ban on homework and a shorter school week, Malaysia and Japan are redesigning curriculum so that it promotes creativity and innovation, and New Zealand’s Education Amendment Bill of 2012 allows for the creation of charter schools.

"The government consistently tells us they want to protect our mixed (public-private) education system. However, what they are proposing is an increase in investment in private sector education which will ultimately lead to the destruction of free education in Chile."

Student Federation of Universidad de Chile (FECH) Vice President Camila Vallejo, one of the student leaders who presented a budget proposal to a Congressional committee this week. The students asked for the government to cover 30 percent of public universities’ budgets. 

French president proposes homework ban

French President Francois Hollande has a new plan to fix economic inequality problems in his country: ban homework. 

The move, designed to level the playing field between students who get help from their families at home and those who don’t, is just one piece of reforms proposed by Hollande. His other plans include lengthening the school week from four to four-and-a-half days and increasing the number of teachers. 

"[Work] must be done in the the [school] facility rather than in the home if we want to support he children and re-establish equality," Hollande said while laying out his plans at Paris’ Sorbonne University, according to the Wall Street Journal

A poll shows that more than two-thirds of people oppose the idea, the Journal said, noting that similar experiments are being tried elsewhere: 

Banning out-of-school assignments would put France on the cutting edge of pedagogical fashion, though it wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. An elementary school in Maryland recently replaced homework with a standing order for 30 minutes a day of after-school reading. A German high school is also test-running a new homework ban, after an earlier reform lengthened the school day and crowded out time for extra-curriculars such as sports or music.

But the idea might not even be that revolutionary, as The Washington Post notes. Districts in the United States experimented with homework bans more than 100 years ago. 

Early in the 1900s, the influential Ladies’ Home Journal magazine called homework “barbarous,” and school districts such as Los Angeles abolished it in kindergarten through eighth grade.  In fact, some educators said it caused tuberculosis, nervous conditions and heart disease in the young and that children were better off playing outside. The American Child Health Association in the 1930s labeled homework and child labor as leading killers of children who contracted tuberculosis and heart disease.

Tags: France Europe

"I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if [the Taliban] come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right."

Malala Yousafzai in an interview last winter. The fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl was shot by the Taliban Tuesday for her continuous efforts to campaign for female education. 

Tags: Pakistan

Are rich kids taking advantage of affirmative action in India?

The New York Times has a piece today critical of India’s version of affirmative action, known as reservations, which may help wealthy students take slots meant for the disadvantaged. But a new study suggests the opposite.

"The program in India is a vast system of political patronage that increasingly works to reward the powerful rather than uplift those in need," Gardiner Harris writes

India’s reservations system sets aside a certain number of seats in public institutions of higher education—which tend to be the highest quality, most competitive, and cheapest options there—for members of so-called “backwards” castes and tribes. It is a widely-held belief in India that the system ends up helping members of those castes and tribes who might not actually need it (known as the “creamy layer”), leaving the poorest members of society out of luck when it comes to college admission.

It’s a similar argument to the one made by those who oppose race-based affirmative action in the United States.

Harris does not cite statistics showing that more-affluent individuals are helped by the reservations system than low-income individuals, however, probably because there may not be much data out there. But there is some. A small-scale study published this year found that quotas for backwards castes and tribes at one elite engineering school “effectively target minority students who are poorer than the average displaced non-minority student.”

The study isn’t an endorsement of the policy. Its authors, Veronica Robles and Kala Krishna, of Pennsylvania State University, also found that students who benefited from quotas fell behind academically. At a recent panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, Krishna said her findings didn’t mean quotas should be ended, but suggested they should push institutions to do more to help disadvantaged students succeed.

Countries grapple with teacher shortages

This piece comes to us courtesy International Ed News.

In 1994, UNESCO declared October 5thWorld Teachers’ Day in order to call attention to the fact that “all over the world, a quality education offers hope and the promise of a better standard of living.” UNESCO identifies teacher shortage as a major problem in 2012, and recent reports confirm their claim. In the latter half of September, teacher shortages were reported in countries such as India, the Dominican Republic, and in a total of 114 countries worldwide. This fact presents a significant problem for countries such as North KoreaBrazilSouth AfricaIndia, and Barundi, which have all made efforts to increase the amount of time students spend in the classroom. In contrast, Spain has seen education cuts that have left many teachers desperate for work, Guatemala has instituted new teacher education requirements that make it more difficult, and expensive, to enter the teaching profession, and Austria’s conservative party (ÖVP) has proposed a radical reform (“Mission Austria 2025″) that would alter teachers’ working conditions, including an increase in the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom.

Several reports have also shown that many countries have differing opinions about the ease of access to education through testing. While the UK has been debating whether or not it would be “cruel” to make university entrance exams any easier, India has taken steps to ease the entry process.  Ultimately, the UK decided to replace the GCSEs with an English Baccalaureate Certificate that officials say will raise standards and streamline a overly complicated system. In a similar move, South Korea adopted a new English-language exam (NEAT), which they intend to use in place of  the American TOEFL exam in the college application process in 2013.

Meanwhile, countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia have been looking for ways to make school curricula more creative and interesting to students, in a move they believe will foster higher order thinking and cut down on test-prep approaches to schooling.  Sweden is going so far as to rethink school building design in an effort to promote collaboration and creativity in primary school students, while South Korea is implementing policy that aims to prevent excessive “prior learning,” or tutoring, sought by parents in an effort to make sure their children are well-prepared for upcoming high-stakes tests. The high standards that many countries have put in place to promote academic achievement have led countries such as Romania and Switzerland to seek vocational alternatives to higher education.