Tag Archives: international comparisons

PISA, American schools, and poverty

Jonathan Lovell says:

in a somewhat more nuanced study in January of this year entitled “What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?” economists Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein come to a similar conclusion:

“The share of disadvantaged students in the U.S. sample was the largest of any of the [post-industrial] countries we studied. Because test scores in every country are characterized by a social class gradient—students higher in the social class scale have better average achievement than students in the next lower class—U.S. student scores are lower on average simply because of our relatively disadvantaged social class composition. . . [I]f we make two reasonable adjustments to the reported U.S. average, our international ranking improves. The first adjustment re-weights the social class composition of U.S. test takers to the average composition of top-scoring countries. The other re-weights the distribution of lunch-eligible students by the actual intensity of such students in schools. These adjustments raise the U.S. international ranking on the 2009 PISA test from 14th to 6th in reading, and from 25th to 13th in mathematics. While there is still room for improvement, these are quite respectable showings”

To put it succinctly, the “achievement gap” between American students and their foreign counterparts is largely a red herring.

via http://jonathanlovell.blogspot.com/2013/07/aliterate-readers-and-complex-texts.html

Diane Ravitch and learning technologies: Here we go again

What if all students had EQUAL access to incredible learning tools?

I have previously expressed my concerns regarding Diane Ravitch’s denigration of the power of digital technologies for learning and teaching. Her blog gives her a very visible online platform and I think that she should be a little more careful with her wording and claims, particularly given her self-professed lack of computer fluency. Although she’s been relatively quiet on the technology front lately, I believe that a couple of her recent posts about digital learning tools are worth responding to…

Tablets are not real computers

Diane labels a post from Red Queen as ‘one of the best posts ever.’ She quotes Red Queen:

We all know this about tablet “computers”: they are not real “working” machines. When I proposed buying a tablet for my student the dude behind the counter told me: “Don’t do it. You’ll have to buy a keyboard, it has way less memory and no ports, a smaller screen and slower speed: it’s just not what a serious student needs. By the time you’re done adding on, you’ll have a machine almost as expensive as a real computer with far less functionality”.

Any parent will have received that advice from just about any computer salesman. And while there are a few serious students out there who no doubt feel otherwise, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the word on the street is: tablets are no substitute for a computer; students need computers.

Red Queen goes on to say that tablet computers are ‘frivolous electronics‘ and Diane includes that quote too.

Of course this belies actual reality. Tablets and smartphones continue to become both more powerful and more popular with every iteration. It is projected that sometime this year total tablet shipments will begin to surpass total PC shipments. Schools and educators that are using tablets are finding that they are quite robust computing machines, often able to do things easier or better than is possible with the larger, heavier, and often clunkier form factor of a laptop or desktop. While many people still may prefer a more expensive and robust computing device, it is ludicrous to say in September 2014 that an iOS or Android tablet isn’t a ‘real computer’ or that ‘serious students’ only should use laptops or desktops.

Finland and South Korea and Poland don’t have digital technology in their classrooms

In another post, Diane cites excerpts from Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World:

The anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high-tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value whatsoever. . . . In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms.

Old-school can be good school. Eric’s high school in Busan, South Korea had austere classrooms with bare-bones computer labs. Out front, kids played soccer on a dirt field. From certain angles, the place looked like an American school from the 1950s. Most of Kim’s classrooms in Finland looked the same way: rows of desks in front of a simple chalkboard or an old-fashioned white board, the kind that was not connected to anything but the wall. . . . None of the classrooms in [Tom's] Polish school had interactive white boards.

There are numerous issues with these types of quotes. For instance…

  • The unstated assumption that performance on standardized assessments of low-level thinking is how we should judge educational success. I agree that if our goal is better bubble test achievement, we can drill-and-kill kids all day without any technology whatsoever. We’ve had over a century to perfect the numbing of student minds in analog environments. But if we want to prepare students to be empowered learners and doers within current and future information, economic, and learning landscapes, it’s impossible to do that while shunning technology.
  • The disparagement of digital technologies as ‘toys.’ Digital tools and environments are transforming everything around us in substantive, transformative, and disruptive ways. They are not mere toys unless we choose to only use them in that way. It’s a sad indictment of us as educators and communities that it is taking us so long to awaken to the educational possibilities of learning technologies and the Internet.
  • The equation of interactive white boards (and, in a later quote, student response systems) as the sum and substance of educational technology. Those of us who decry such replicative technologies agree that those are insufficiently empowering of students and thus unlikely to make much of an impact. But putting powerful digital tools into the hands of students that let them create, make, connect, collaborate, and make an impact, both locally and globally? That’s a different story. We need a different vision, one in which we don’t merely use digital technologies – and rows of desks in tight formation – to broadcast to students while they sit passively and watch or listen. And we need to stop pointing at those lackluster wastes of learning power and saying, “See? Told you technology doesn’t make a difference.”
  • The nostalgic yearning for the simple classrooms and schools of yesteryear, uncomplicated by modern learning tools (or, apparently, grass in the schoolyard). Ah, yes, remember when life (supposedly) wasn’t so complicated? Does anyone really want to return to 1950s beliefs and worldviews about learning and society? And if they do, what disservice do we do our youth when we prepare them for 60 years ago rather than now and tomorrow?


So, to sum up, so far Diane appears to be against online learning and digital educational games and simulations, and she shares posts that are against tablet computers or paint all technologies as disruptive and distracting. And that’s dangerous because people listen to her. She and many of her fans seem to ignore the fact that it’s awfully difficult to prepare students for success in a digital, global world without giving them access to digital technologies and Internet access. Railing against computer expenditures and Internet connectivity for our children is irresponsible, especially when those funds come from different sources and thus can’t be spent on teachers, support staff, professional development, or educational programming.

Now, to give Diane some credit, there are a few concerns raised in these posts that are worth noting:

  1. It’s a reasonable question to ask whether school equipment and construction funds would be better spent on upgrading facilities or purchasing computers for students, particularly given the time horizons of both construction bonds and technology obsolescence. That’s a difficult decision and I’m glad that I don’t have to make it at the scale that the L.A. Unified school district does.
  2. I, too, have grave misgivings about the Amplify tablets that are being used in Guilford County, North Carolina, but not just because they’re tablets.
  3. When Andreas Schleicher from OECD is quoted as saying that ‘people always matter than props,’ of course that is dead on. The success or failure of learning technologies in schools always will depend more on us as educators than on the tools themselves.
  4. Diane quotes Carlo Rotella, who says that “if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool. . . . Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling?” Leaving aside the false dichotomy of ‘we can strengthen the teaching profession or we can give students computers but not both,’ this is a pretty insightful statement. As I noted in an earlier post, we have an appalling lack of technology support and training for our educators. We have to stop pretending that if we insert computers into the learning-teaching process that magic will happen and start doing a much better job of helping educators empower students with potentially-transformative digital tools.

These concerns, however, are more specific and nuanced and aren’t painted with an extremely broad anti-technology brush. If Diane typically discussed learning technologies in thoughtful and careful ways like these, I’d have much less concern. Loyal readers here know that I myself often express misgivings about ineffective technology integration and implementation in schools. But to say that there’s no educational worth whatsoever in online learning, educational simulations, tablet computers, or whatever Diane rants against next is patently false.

Whether we like it or not, digital technologies in education are here to stay. As I said in my earlier post,

the issue is not – as [Diane] seems to believe – that [digital tools] never have any value. The issues are 1) Under what circumstances do these new learning tools and spaces have value?, and 2) How do we create learning and policy environments in which that value is most likely to be realized?

I’ll keep wishing that Diane one day recognizes this. I’ll also keep wishing that Diane one day recognizes the irony (hypocrisy?) of decrying students’ use of digital technologies while simultaneously employing those tools herself to great effect to further her goals and increase her visibility.

Your thoughts?

Image credit: What if…, Darren Kuropatwa

How the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wages war on public schools

Want to know how to wage war against public schools? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s ongoing campaign provides us some pointers…

1. Decide on a catchy title for your campaign. How about Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity?

Nice title! Pat yourself on the back!

Wait a minute… Does this mean that the U.S. Chamber wants to be mediocre but someone else holds the monopoly on that and thus is preventing the Chamber from also being so? No, silly goose. It means that public schools are both a monopoly AND mediocre and thus need to be broken up!

2. Create made-up statistics to prove your point. How about Approximately 70% of middle school students score below grade level in reading and math?

Perfect. This statistical sound bite sounds terrifyingly awful. Of course we must do something about this immediately!

BUT… this statistic is based on NAEP data and refers to the percentage of students who score at the ‘proficient’ level. Never mind that the consensus of the scientific and research communities is that the NAEP levels are arbitrary, lack any kind of statistical validity, and don’t make sense. Never mind that the National Academy of Science concluded that “the results [on NAEP] are not believable.” Never mind that the National Academy of Education concluded that NAEP’s achievement-setting processes were “fundamentally flawed” and “indefensible.” Never mind that experts affiliated with NAEP’s Governing Board have explicitly stated that “the proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance” (and that instead NAEP’s basic level is more akin to ‘at grade level’). Never mind that Congress insists that all NAEP reports be accompanied with the disclaimer that achievement levels “should be interpreted with caution.”

Because, hey, we’ve got a campaign to run and people to scare and other groups that also will spread the same inaccurate data (thank you, StudentsFirst!). What does it matter if our essential premise is untrue?

3. Come up with splashy, eye-catching graphics to reinforce your misleading and untruthful message.

US Chamber of Commerce 01

4. Make color-coded maps.

You gotta have color-coded maps. Lots of ‘em. And make sure you use selection criteria that are guaranteed to reinforce your message. For example, how about this map, which shows that achievement gaps in EVERY state are not just bad but downright UGLY?

US Chamber 03

Or, even better, this map that shows that overall achievement is horrendously UGLY in… wait for it… EVERY SINGLE STATE?!

US Chamber 04

Ugly dog

Sorry, Massachusetts, we know that you beat Finland handily on the TIMSS math test, but we set the criteria so that your student achievement is UGLY. Sorry, Vermont, despite your reading levels being on par with Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, and Canada, your student achievement is UGLY too. Sorry, North Carolina, even though if you were a country you’d be in the top 10 worldwide in math, your student achievement is UGLY, UGLY, UGLY. Sorry, America, it doesn’t matter that your students’ achievement on international tests is closely tied to your high levels of poverty. You don’t have a single state – not even one! – that falls into the BAD or GOOD categories. Every state is UGLY with a capital ugh.

[Handy Tip 1: Never, ever use neutral or pro-school data (e.g., actual peer-reviewed research). Instead, use ideological, made-up data provided by other anti-school organizations to create your maps!]

5. Make report cards.

Just like maps, you gotta have report cards. And fact sheets. And playbooks. And movies. And whatever else you can think of to reinforce and spread your scary but untruthful message. Also see Handy Tip 1 above.

6. Use social media.

Create example messages and tweets for others to use. Set up a Facebook page. Make hashtags like #breakthemonopoly and #jobs13. Pay for sponsored tweets on Twitter. Again, remember, it’s not about the truth. It’s about spreading your message to the public and to policymakers.

US Chamber 02

7. Spend a boatload of money.

And finally, of course, spend tons of money on all of this and more. How about a nationwide tour where you spread your message to anyone who will listen (complete with media coverage at every location)? How about an email newsletter that you can use to pepper folks’ inboxes with even more inaccurate data? How about conferences and webinars and summits and forums and workshops and conference calls? Sure, why not? After all, you’ve got to outspend those evil teachers’ unions!

[Handy Tip 2: Don't forget to use a lot of your money for political campaign contributions!]

And, that, dear readers, is how you wage war on public schools. What, you say you want to defend public schools? Hahahahahaha! Oh, you’re serious. Okay, then. Better do all of this and more… Good luck!

Image credit: yoda

Switch to our mobile site