Archives for category: International

Chinese students live (and sometimes die) for their test scores.


Here is a portrayal of the “insanely stressful” examination system that rules the lives of all Chinese students.


This is the system that American policymakers like Arne Duncan hope to import to the United States.


This is the dream of “tiger moms” like Amy Chua and Michelle Rhee, to subject children to higher and higher stakes until they think of nothing other than their test scores.


Sorry, guys, but your dream is not the American dream. The American dream is one where everyone has a fair chance to realize their ambitions, whatever they may be–not just test scores, but in sports, music, or some other endeavor. The American dream celebrates those who tinker, who create, who improvise, who invent new ideas while “messing around” with stuff that interests them. This is the dream that made this country great, not a one-size-fits=all examination hell that ranks kids according to the whims of the testing industry.


This is what happens when your life depends on one test on one day:


Nearly 9.8 million Chinese high school students took the National College Entrance Exam, called gaokao, on June 7 and 8.



The emphasis on a two-day test has sparked criticism from some educators because of the incredible amount of pressure it places on students leading up to just one test. Gaokao has also been linked to China’s rising suicide rate because of mounted pressure and poor test results.


Hengshui High School, the highest achieving secondary school in gaokao over the last 14 years, has these as its two mottos: “Life is not a rehearsal, because you won’t have the chance to live it all over again,” and “If you haven’t died from hard work, just work harder.” At Hengshui, students study from 5:30 a.m. to 9:50 p.m., cannot have cell phones and are allowed just one day of vacation every month. Cameras are placed in each classroom to monitor students for laziness. These types of tactics are increasingly common at what many are calling gaokao-sweatshops — schools that exclusively prepare students for gaokao.


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Up until now, we thought that American higher education was the best in the world. That’s why students come from all over the world to attend our colleges and universities.

But wait! There is an OECD test that shows our college graduates don’t know much. That supposedly proves we need more tests, more regulation, motte evaluations.

Peter Greene shows how crazy this is.

Samuel Abrams, a researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, was named a knight by the Finnish government.

“The honor was bestowed before family, friends, and colleagues in recognition of Abrams’s advancement of the understanding of Finnish education in the United States. Abrams has conducted a vast amount of research on Nordic as well as American education systems. Much of this research will appear in his book “The Children Must Play: Education, Business, and Conflict,” to be published by Harvard University Press in 2015.”

Sam Abrams taught for many years at Beacon High School in Néw York City.

“When asked about a specific trend or issue as a key factor in the success of Finnish education, Abrams brought up two things: the well-rounded curriculum of the Finnish educational system and the professionalization of teaching. In contrast to the American curriculum, Abrams said, the Finnish curriculum for students in grades one through nine comprises a lot of arts, crafts, music, and play while consisting of no standardized testing. Abrams said the Finnish approach thereby not only makes school more enticing for children but also cultivates significant collaborative skills and provides natural, hands-on opportunities for learning math and science. According to Abrams, this philosophy, combined with a nutritious hot school lunch, which is free for all students, makes Finnish schooling so effective.”

Abrams advised the Finns not to worry about PISA scores but to continue to do what was best for children.

Dr. Iris Rotberg of George Washington University writes that international tests have been fraught with methodological problems for fifty years. None of the problems have been addressed or corrected, yet today the international tests such as PISA are driving educational policy in dozens of nations, all competing for higher test scores.

Rotberg writes:

“The methodological critiques of international test-score comparisons began shortly after the comparisons were first administered 50 years ago, and they have continued. Methodological critiques of research are not unusual, but this situation is quite extraordinary for several reasons. First, the critiques of the international test-score comparisons are extensive and address virtually every aspect of the studies—sampling, measurement, and interpretation. Second, the studies continue to be administered, with few of the critiques addressed, but with continued participation of a large number of countries and other jurisdictions. These massive data collection efforts have been conducted 13 times in the past 18 years. The results of the most recent study, the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), were released in December 2013, only a year after the release of the other two major comparisons, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.-a, n.d.-b, n.d.-c). Third, despite the critiques, the studies have had a large impact on political rhetoric, public opinion, and public policies in countries throughout the world. This commentary focuses on PISA, the most recent international comparison released. Although the three international comparisons differ in some respects, the basic methodological problems described here are inherent in international test-score comparisons more generally.”

She adds:

“The international test-score rankings are almost universally interpreted by countries as an indication of the quality of their schools, despite the extensive methodological problems that make it virtually impossible to draw causal relationships between test scores and school quality. We are taking tenuous results and applying them in a questionable way. Even if the rankings were sound, a causal leap from test-score rankings to school quality would be unwarranted given the wide range of other factors that influence the rankings, such as the differences among countries in poverty rates, income distribution, immigration rates, social support services, and the extent to which children participate in academic programs and cram courses outside of school. And beyond all of these variables, there remains the basic question of whether a test score is a fair representation of the complexity and quality of a country’s entire education system. It has proven to be virtually impossible to unravel the cumulative effects of all the uncontrolled variables and then make valid interpretations of the implications of the test-score rankings.”

The international horse race, she says, has led to policies of dubious merit.

And she concludes:

“PISA’s own findings support a transition to studies of individual countries. They show that the proportion of variance in student achievement accounted for by socioeconomic status and other differences within member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is nine times greater than the proportion accounted for by differences among OECD countries (OECD, 2010)—a finding that has been obscured by the emphasis on test-score rankings and largely ignored in the public dialogue. It is consistent with a research approach that focuses on problem areas within countries rather than on test-score competitions among countries. It also offers an opportunity to take Einstein’s advice and focus on issues that count, and count only what can be counted. After 50 years of test-score rankings, it’s worth a try.”

Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spoke recently to Citizens for Public Schools in Massachusetts.

His topic: what can Massachusetts learn from “Finnish Lessons”?

It is worth watching. Pasi is always a wonderful speaker, and he is a leader in the international fight to resist test-mania and privatization and to protect education and children.

This is an amazing story, written by investigative reporter George Joseph. It seems there are recruitment agencies that go to other nations, the Philippines especially, hire good teachers, charge outrageous placement fees, and send them to work in American schools.

He writes:

“Between 2007 and 2009, 350 Filipino teachers arrived in Louisiana, excited for the opportunity to teach math and science in public schools throughout the state. They’d been recruited through a company called Universal Placement International Inc., which professes on its website to “successfully place teachers in different schools thru out [sic] the United States.” As a lawsuit later revealed, however, their journey through the American public school system was fraught with abuse.

“According to court documents, Lourdes Navarro, chief recruiter and head of Universal Placement, made applicants pay a whopping $12,550 in interview and “processing fees” before they’d even left the Philippines. But the exploitation didn’t stop there. Immediately after the teachers landed in LAX, Navarro coerced them into signing a contract paying her 10 percent of their first and second years’ salaries; she threatened those who refused with instant deportation. Even after they started at their schools, Navarro kept the teachers dependent on her by only obtaining them one-year visas before exorbitantly charging them for an annual renewal fee. She also confiscated their passports.

“We were herded into a path, a slowly constricting path,” said Ingrid Cruz, one of the teachers, during the trial, “where the moment you feel the suspicion that something is not right, you’re already way past the point of no return.” Eventually, a Los Angeles jury awarded the teachers $4.5 million.

“Similar horror stories have abounded across the country for years. Starting in 2001, the private contractor Omni Consortium promised 273 Filipino teachers jobs within the Houston, Texas school district—in reality, there were only 100 spots open. Once they arrived, the teachers were crammed into groups of 10 to 15 in unfinished housing properties. Omni Consortium kept all their documents, did not allow them their own transportation, and threatened them with deportation if they complained about their unemployment status or looked for another job.”

In a cruel twist of fate, the recruiting agencies strip the Philippines of good teachers and at the same time, Teach for America’s international division sends in ill-trained recruits to overcrowded classrooms in the Philippines:

“Launched last year, Teach for the Philippines presents itself as “the solution” to this lack of quality teachers in the country. The Teach for Philippines promo video begins with black and white shots of multitudes of young Filipino schoolchildren packed into crowded classrooms, bored and on the verge of tears. A cover version of a Killers song proclaims, “When there’s nowhere else to run … If you can hold on, hold on” as the video shifts to the students’ inevitable fates: scenes of tattooed gang kids smoking, an isolated girl and even a desperate man behind bars. In the midst of this grotesquely Orientalizing imagery, text declares, “Our Country Needs Guidance,” “Our Country Needs Inspiration,” and finally “Our Country Needs Teachers.”

“Teach for the Philippines, though relatively small now with 53 teachers in 10 schools, presents a disturbing vision for the future of teaching in the context of a global workforce. While the Filipino teachers imported to America are not necessarily ideal fits, given their inability to remain as long-term contributors to a school community, at least they are for the most part trained, experienced instructors. Within the Teach for the Philippines paradigm, however, Filipino students, robbed of their best instructors, are forced to study under recruits, who may lack a strong understanding of the communities they are joining and have often have never even had any actual classroom experience.”

A strange labor market indeed.

A few weeks ago, educators Heinz-Dieter Meyer of the State University of New York and Katie Zahedi, principal of the Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, New York, wrote a protest letter against the international horse race inspired by OECD’s PISA examinations. They gathered other signers and went public. Since then, the letter has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, German, French, and Spanish, with Greek and Korean on the way.

PISA, they say, has encouraged short-term thinking like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, in which nations look to raise test scores to be competitive with other nations, instead of developing in-depth programs to enrich the education of their young people in the many ways that tests don’t measure.

Please open the link and consider signing.

I invited Pasi Sahlberg, the eminent scholar of Finnish education, to write a brief description of how the Finnish national standards function. The key differences, as you will see, between the Finnish national standards and the Common Core standards is first, the role of teachers in writing and revising them, and second, that Finland has no external national testing of the standards

Sahlberg, who is currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote the following:

“Are there common core standards in Finland?

“One thing that is common to successful education systems is that teaching and learning are guided or steered by system-level expectations that all schools must follow. But there are significant differences in how these expectations are technically employed. Many Canadian provinces, for example, set specific learning targets for most of the school subjects that all teachers and schools must respect. East Asian countries also set common standards that are often integrated into learning materials and teaching methods. Many other education systems have recently developed new standards for schools that aim at raising the expectations for all schools. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the U.S. is an example of that development.

“American educators make sometimes references to Finnish school system in expressing their support to and doubts of CCSS. Those in favor claim that Finland has national standards similar to CCSS. Those with more critical views maintain that the Finnish system of steering teaching and learning is fundamentally different relying more on schools’ role in setting the actual learning goals. I will highlight how Finland’s curriculum system is similar or different to that of the U.S. through three points.

“First, formally each district (or municipality) in Finland is responsible to craft its own curriculum that guarantees that national laws and educational directives are adequately employed. In practice, however, districts have allocated this responsibility to schools after making sure that some critical aspects of curriculum are locally in harmony. This includes foreign language teaching, special education, pupil welfare issues and in many places the organization of schooling for immigrant children. It is therefore fair to say that Finnish schools have the right and the responsibility to design their own curriculum within the national frameworks and local requirements.

“Second, national curriculum frameworks serve as coordination of these school curricula. There are four binding national documents that provide guidelines for pre-school, basic school (nine years), and upper secondary schools (separate documents for general and vocational schools). These documents describe general objectives and core content that are the basis for school curricula. The bylaw on education stipulates subjects and general time allocation that direct municipalities to provide education in equal ways to all pupils in different parts of the country. For example national curriculum framework specifies general objectives and core content in mathematics separately for grades 1-2, 3-5 and 6-9 in Finnish basic school. What the schools do then is to decide detailed learning outcomes (or standards), syllabi and teaching methods for each grade level in every subject. Since there are no census-based standardized tests in Finland, the national curriculum framework documents includes common assessment criteria for a grade B (or grade 8 in Finland). Schools are relatively free to decide the form and style of their own curriculum. Time allocation and national framework curriculum for Finland’s basic school are available here:

“Third, teachers have a central role in designing the national framework curricula. Finnish government is at the moment revising the national framework curriculum for basic school. Working groups that prepare the renewed national frameworks for different subjects consist of mostly experienced teachers from all around the country. These new curricula elements are also often field tested and evaluated by teachers in order to guarantee that they are sensible and implementable in all schools. Teachers have also key role in writing textbooks that private publishers make available to all teachers. Finally, absence of national standardized tests allows teachers to teach what they think is important for pupils, and it also requires that student assessment practices must be described in detail in each school’s curriculum.

“The question remains: Does Finland have anything like the Common Core State Standards in the U.S.? On one hand, there are common national level regulations and guidelines that all districts and schools must comply. Law and its bylaws also set a common educational frame in terms of subjects and time allocation that must be respected nationwide. But these national directives serve as loose standards and strategic guidelines rather than prescribed targets that every teacher must try to accomplish.

“On the other hand, Finnish national curriculum framework doesn’t specify learning standards but only broad objectives and core content that help teachers in pedagogical architecture in their own schools. Perhaps the main difference between the CCSS and Finnish curriculum system is the central role that Finnish teachers and school principals have in both preparing the national curriculum frameworks and design actual curricula at the level of schools. Finnish authorities and parents trust the professionalism of principals and teachers than their peers do in the U.S. In other words, schools in Finland therefore much more autonomy in setting learning standards and crafting optimal learning environment for their children than schools elsewhere.

“Perhaps the main difference in the Finnish way of national steering of teaching and learning is that national curriculum frameworks don’t come with external student testing and assessment conditions. Curriculum planning at the school level is purely a question of what is best for pupils rather than how to get the most out of the attached standardized tests. When Finnish teachers don’t need to worry about external test scores and their possible affects on their work, curriculum planning can also serve as a powerful means to collegial professional development in school.

Pasi Sahlberg
June 1, 2014

Robert Berkman, a veteran math teacher, writes a blog called “Better Living Through Mathematics, where he regularly skewers nonsense.

In this article, he looks closely at a chart that purportedly demonstrates how pathetic is the performance of U.S. adults, compared to many other nations.

Berkman says this may be the “stupidest article about Common Core math program” that he has ever read.

To begin with, the graph does not identify the highest possible score, making it impossible to draw conclusions or comparisons. So one conclusion from the graph, Berkman says, is: “whatever sample of US adults took this test did 88% as well as the adults in the top scoring nation, Japan. I think that’s pretty damned good, considering the United States is second to the world in poverty, leaving Japan in the dust by over 10 percentage points (and I’m sure Japan uses a much higher economic benchmark for poverty than we do here in the US.) Of course, we all know that poverty is the single greatest predictor of poor school performance.”

[Note to Robert Berkman: that "second in the world in poverty" is nonsense, despite the authoritative source. It is a comparison not of all nations, but of the most economically developed nations, and the U.S. is supposedly second to Romania. This is an absurd comparison because Romania doesn't belong in this group of nations. Romania is an Eastern European nation whose economy was mismanaged and impiverished by central planning for decades. Oh, well, I may never get this error corrected, but I keep trying. The fact is that we have the highest level of child poverty of any advanced nation in the world.]

After pointing out other errors, Berkman writes:

“Finally, this article is yet another example of the “waking up on third base” phenomena, which posits that everything that you see in a Common Core math curriculum is the direct result of the implementation of the Standards. Nothing could be further from the truth: all of the items described on in the article have been documented, published and taught since the NCTM published its curriculum standards a quarter of a century ago. If you’ve been teaching math using a textbook that was published in the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen all this stuff before including, with all deference to Mr. Colbert, the infamous description of a “number sentence.” Telegram for Mr. Colbert: 1989 is writing to tell you to “LOL!”

He notes with dismay that “NCTM actually tweeted the link to this worthless piece of codswallum, and smelling something rotten, I just had to follow the scent.”

Caitlin Emmaof paid a visit to Finland and was surprised to discover that teachers are not depending on educational technology. By contrast, American schools are spending billions of dollars on tablets, laptops, and other devices.

She writes:

“Finnish students and teachers didn’t need laptops and iPads to get to the top of international education rankings, said Krista Kiuru, minister of education and science at the Finnish Parliament. And officials say they aren’t interested in using them to stay there.

“That’s in stark contrast to what reformers in the U.S. say. From President Barack Obama on down, they have called education technology critical to improving schools. By shifting around $2 billion in existing funds and soliciting $2 billion in contributions from private companies, the Obama administration is pressing to expand schools’ access to broadband and the devices that thrive on it.

“School districts nationwide have loaded up students with billions of dollars’ worth of tablets, laptops, iPods and more on the theory that, as Obama said last year, preparing American kids to compete with students around the globe will require interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology.”

(Since the research on the benefits of technology is sparse, it is likely that the heavy U.S. investment in technology is driven by something other than research.)

The Finnish secret: recruiting excellent students into the teaching profession, which is respected and prestigious; according the teachers professional autonomy; working closely with the educators’ union to promote better education; no standardized testing until the end of high school; no charters; no vouchers.

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