The Problem With School Testing

In a recent post, I argued:

Tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter.

Just published is a new book by education writer Anya Kamenetz that attacks the standardized tests that are used today in the United States. The TIME Magazine review quotes from it:

The research against these tests is fairly damning. “MIT neuroscientists found that improving the math scores of a group of eight grade students in Boston has little influence on their…ability to apply reasoning,” the author writes. Most standardized tests aren’t objective, don’t measure a student’s ability to think, and don’t reliably predict how well a kid will do in the workplace. So what’s good about them? They’re relatively cheap to create, easy to administer, and they yield data.

By coincidence, this week I also attended a compelling keynote talk by Harvard’s Tony Wagner, education researcher and author of five books on educational change and reform. He emphasized the same points, noting that we actually DO have tests today that in fact CAN measure valuable 21st century skills. So why aren’t they used? They’re expensive and time-consuming to administer–too expensive for every student to take. So we keep using tests that everyone knows are lousy, just because politically, we need SOMETHING and we can’t afford anything that’s actually based in research. (Well, not without increasing school funding…)

We know how to improve schools. And it’s NOT by doing the same thing we’re doing now, just incrementally better. (Which is the only possible outcome of today’s tests.) To learn more, read this new article, available for free: “The future of learning.”

Ten Educational Innovations To Watch For In The Next Ten Years

A team of education experts at the Open University (UK), led by Professor Mike Sharples, have identified “ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education” in this new report. Of course, you can find similar lists in just about every business magazine and newspaper, but what’s different about this report is that it’s been generated by researchers working at the cutting edge of both technology and learning sciences research. It’s a must read for teachers, academics, and policy makers–anyone who cares about how schools and learning will change over the next ten years. Here are quick summaries of their ten predictions:

  1. Massive open social learning. Imagine MOOCs but with their power multiplied by social network effects.
  2. Learning design informed by analytics. Design and analytics work together to support the development of successful learning and teaching. (If you find this interesting, you have to read the new chapter on learning analytics in the just-published Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition, by the leading experts on this topic: Ryan Baker and George Siemens.)
  3. Flipped classrooms. At home, or in individual study time, students watch video lectures that offer them opportunities to work at their own pace, pausing to make notes where necessary. This allows time in class to be spent on activities that exercise critical thinking, with the teacher guiding students in creative exploration of the topics they are studying.
  4. Bring your own devices. Teachers become managers of technology-enabled networked learners, rather than providers of resources and knowledge. This shift opens opportunities for connecting learning inside and outside the classroom. (Mike Sharples is the co-author, along with Professor Roy Pea of Stanford, in a chapter on Mobile Learning in the newly published Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition).
  5. Learning to learn. Web tools and activities such as reflective journals and concept mapping have been designed to support learning to learn, but these are rarely well integrated into a learner’s social world. There may be more value in adapting for wider use social research environments such as ResearchGate, or question-answering communities such as StackExchange and Quora.
  6. Dynamic assessment. The assessor interacts with students during the testing phase of the process, identifying ways to overcome each person’s current learning difficulties. In the dynamic assessment process, assessment and intervention are inseparable.
  7. Event based learning. Examples are the ‘maker fairs’ that gather together enthusiasts who are keen on do-it-yourself science, engineering and crafts projects, and the ‘Raspberry jams’ where fans of the Raspberry Pi computer meet up and share ideas. Local events spark national gatherings and these build into international festivals.
  8. Learning through storytelling. Developing a narrative is part of a process of meaning making in which the narrator structures a series of events from a particular point of view in order to create a meaningful whole. Writing up an experiment, reporting on an inquiry, analyzing a period of history – these are all examples of narrative supporting learning.
  9. Threshold concepts. A threshold concept is something that, when learnt, opens up a new way of thinking about a problem, a subject or the world. A challenging aspect of threshold concepts is that they often seem strange and unintuitive.
  10. Bricolage. Bricolage is a practical process of learning through tinkering with materials. It is a fundamental process of children’s learning through play. It also forms a basis for creative innovation.

If you like this report, you might also be interested in my conclusion chapter in the new learning sciences handbook, “The Future of Learning: Grounding Educational Innovation in the Learning Sciences”.

The Smartest Kids in the World

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is the title of a new book by Amanda Ripley. Ripley has traveled around the world, to the countries where students consistently get the highest scores on international student assessments (like the PISA test of the OECD). In Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and more recently Poland, students far outscore American kids. Her key strategy is to follow “field agents,” U.S. students who are each studying abroad for one year–one in Finland, one in South Korea, and one in Poland. The take-home message is consistent with all of the previous research on schools in these countries: It will be very hard to replicate and adapt these models to U.S. schools.

Take Finland, for example. In Finland, only top students are admitted into teacher training programs. And the curriculum in these programs is rigorous and demanding. The teachers that graduate from these programs are trusted professionals, who are granted a high degree of autonomy to manage their own classrooms and make their own instructional decisions. In the United States, policy makers seem to be moving in the opposite direction–increasingly constraining teachers in a belief that they can’t be trusted with autonomy, and lowering the salaries and benefits so that the profession becomes less desirable to the top students. Top students will not choose a career that pays starvation wages. (Ripley’s book doesn’t visit Singapore, but Singapore is another country where teaching is one of the highest paid professions, and where the top students apply to teacher education programs.) If U.S. politicians truly want to follow the models of Finland and Singapore, they would be paying teachers a lot more, investing in schools of education, and granting teachers the freedom and autonomy to follow their training and instincts in the classroom. Anyone who has been following the U.S. news knows that our politicians are moving in exactly the opposite direction–cutting school budgets, removing benefits like tenure that help to attract talented people to the profession, and imposing top-down bureaucratic rules and guidelines that restrict teacher autonomy.

Ripley’s second country is South Korea. Like many Asian countries (including China), in South Korea all that matters is the high-stakes graduation exam. Ripley describes a situation that I have already learned about from Asian students in my university classes: After the school day is finished, students go immediately to an after-school “cram school” where they study for another 6 to 8 hours. Students were staying up so late at these cram schools that the government passed a law imposing a curfew of 10pm. The curfew is widely ignored, both by cram schools and by parents. I personally am a critic of this high-stakes exam model. I think it is blocking curricular innovation and change in many Asian countries. In particular, it makes impossible any attempt to introduce creativity to the curriculum. Ripley is a bit more positive; even though she calls it a “hamster wheel” she concludes that it prepares students for the modern world. I am not so sure.

The third country is Poland, which has emulated Finland in hiring only the best and brightest to be teachers, and by using a rigorous graduation exam. One thing that stands out in Poland is that schools only do academics. There are no sports teams, no marching bands, no big school musicals. And by the way, this is also the case in every other top-scoring country–schools focus on academics and nothing else. I remember years ago, an colleague told me about a conversation he had with a German professor. He was trying to describe what a cheerleader was, and for the German professor it just didn’t compute. When he finally understand what a cheerleader was, he broke out laughing. My colleague said “It’s hard to get a German to laugh, but hearing about a cheerleader made him laugh like crazy.” What does the football team and the cheerleading squad have to do with learning and education? My stepdaughter was on the cheerleading squad at her high school, and I have a sense that something valuable is being learned–about teamwork, about social skills, about community and leadership. But whatever is being learned, it’s definitely not going to show up on the international PISA assessment.

In the New York Times book review, Annie Murphy Paul (8/25/2013) calls this a “masterly book” with a “startling perspective.” I agree that any politician and policy maker who is serious about school reform needs to learn the real story about what’s going on in these other countries. I’m pretty sure that the U.S. doesn’t want to emulate any one of these other countries. I doubt anyone will advocate getting rid of high school sports, for example. Or will advocate that our children spend 8 hours every night, after school, cramming for the graduation exam. But the core take-home message of this book is that school reform will not be easy. It won’t be a matter of tweaking around the edges. It will involve dramatic change and radical innovation.

International Education Reform

The Economist of 17 September 2011 has a detailed three-page story about “the great schools revolution” resulting from “a global battle of ideas.” This has resulted from new masses of comparative data, such as the PISA tests developed by the OECD and first used in 32 countries in 2000, and McKinsey consulting group’s new education research practice, which assesses which school systems improve the most over the years. And computers and the internet seem to have finally reached the point where they could actually make a difference in schools (this hasn’t been true in the past; despite spending a lot of money to put computers in schools, going back to the 1970s in the U.S. when schools bought Apple II computers, there’s been no evidence to date that computers improve learning).

The Economist story also says that “the three great excuses” for bad schools are no longer accepted. They are skimpy government spending, social class, and cultures that don’t value education. The article acknowledges the research suggesting that social class plays a big role in school outcomes, but argues that schools can still make a difference, particularly if the culture emphasizes education (with a reference to Asian cultures, where even poor children study hard and do well on tests).

Then the article identifies four important themes that work to improve schools: decentralization, a focus on underachieving students, providing a choice of different types of schools (they mention charters as the U.S. example), and high standards for teachers. They then provide examples of schools that a recent McKinsey report has identified as high performers: Ontario, Poland, and Saxony (in Germany). The most important are the last two: providing a variety of schools (The Economist‘s economic liberalism leads them to advocate “schools free of government control,” no surprise) and enhancing teacher quality. Is the U.S. ready to double teacher salaries and then grant them autonomy and professional discretion, as is done in Singapore for example? Unfortunately, U.S. schools aren’t going down that path.

How To Improve Schools

I’m reporting this from Shanghai, where I gave the keynote talk this morning to a conference of educators at East China Normal University. I’ve just learned of the McKinsey report “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.” After studying twenty countries, they identified eight key take-home messages:

1. A school system can make significant gains from whatever level it is currently at, and in six years or less.

2. There is too little focus on the processes of learning in today’s debate; instead, the public debate is focused on school system structures and on resources. This was exactly the argument we were making in the Global Policy Forum last week; see my previous post.

3. Each particular stage of school improvement requires its own unique set of interventions. In other words, you can’t just keep doing the same thing for six years, you have to adapt along with the changes.

4. A system’s context determines not what must be done, but rather how it is done. One example the report cites is whether to “mandate” or “persuade” changes.

5. Six interventions are common at every stage of the performance journey: Building the instructional skills of teachers and the management skills of school leaders; assessing students; introducing data systems; facilitating improvement through the introduction of public policy documents and laws; revising standards and curriculum;  and ensuring appropriate reward systems for teachers and principals.

6. Poor performing schools improve more by centralized control and scripting of teachers, but once schools perform better, they need to grant more autonomy and flexibility to teachers to gain further improvements.

7. Leaders take advantage of changed circumstances to ignite reform (often in response to external crises).

8. Leadership continuity is essential. In systems that have shown dramatic improvement, the average tenure of the principal is six years and the average of the politicians involved, seven years.

The State of Creativity

I spent a few days last week in Oklahoma City, as a keynote speaker for an event sponsored by the Creative Oklahoma initiative. Believe it or not, but Oklahoma is working hard to become known as the “state of creativity” (and they’ve gotten a good start by securing the domain name www.stateofcreativity.com). Like many of my readers, I was at first skeptical; Oklahoma doesn’t typically come to mind in connection with the creative economy. But Oklahoma’s creativity initiative has the backing of top political and business leaders, a rare combination. I met the Governor as well as a substantial number of local business leaders. And both Democrats and Republicans were united behind the initiative.

For about five years now, Oklahoma’s initiative has been guided by Sir Ken Robinson, a leader in the field of creativity and education who has spent most of his life in the U.K. (thus accounting for his knighthood by the Queen) and, seven years ago, attracted to the U.S. by a top position at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles. No doubt as a result of this expert advise, Oklahoma is doing everything right–the campaign is proceeding on multiple fronts, including education, culture, and business.

I was invited to talk about innovation in the schools of the future. Oklahoma schools have adopted the A+ schools model that originated in North Carolina. If we want a creative economy, then we absolutely have to start with our schools, because the creative economy depends on creative workers. I haven’t written much on this blog about my research on schools and creativity, but let me just say that most schools today do a very poor job of fostering creativity in students. When I see Oklahoma investing in its schools in this way, I begin to believe that it truly could become known as the “state of creativity.”

They’ll have to be in it for the long haul; regional transformations like this historically have taken between ten and twenty years. Another invited speaker was Pascal Cools, of the Flanders District of Creativity project. Flanders is the Flemish region of Belgium, and until a few years ago was thought of as an agrarian backwater. Now it’s a center of the global innovation economy. In the small Belgium town of Leuven, Pascal coordinates a global network of “districts of creativity” that include Qindao, China, Karnatka, India, Catalonia (“in” Spain although the Catalonians would deny that), and yes, Oklahoma–the only state in the U.S. to be a member in this international effort.

I wish Oklahoma great success in this transformative effort.