Lessons from China

blog_3-22-18_Confucius_344x500Recently I gave a series of speeches in China, organized by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Nanjing Normal University. I had many wonderful and informative experiences, but one evening stood out.

I was in Nanjing, the ancient capital, and it was celebrating the weeks after the Chinese New Year. The center of the celebration was the Temple of Confucius. In and around it were lighted displays exhorting Chinese youth to excel on their exams. Children stood in front of these displays to have their pictures taken next to characters saying “first in class,” never second. A woman with a microphone recited blessings and hopes that students would do well on exams. After each one, students hit a huge drum with a long stick, as an indication of accepting the blessing. Inside the temple were thousands of small silk messages, bright red, expressing the wishes of parents and students that students will do well on their exams. Chinese friends explained what was going on, and told me how pervasive this spirit was. Children all know a saying to the effect that the path to riches and a beautiful wife was through books. I heard that perhaps 70% of urban Chinese students go to after-school cram schools to ensure their performance on exams.

The reason Chinese parents and students take test scores so seriously is obvious in every aspect of Chines culture. On an earlier trip to China I toured a beautiful house, from hundreds of years ago, in a big city. The only purpose of the house was to provide a place for young men of a large clan to stay while they prepared for their exams, which determined their place in the Confucian hierarchy.

As everyone knows, Chinese students do, in fact, do very well on their exams. I would note that these data come in particular from urban Eastern China, such as Shanghai. I’d heard about but did not fully understand policies that contribute to these outcomes. In all big cities in China, students can only attend schools in their city neighborhoods, where the best schools in the country are, if they were born there or own apartments. In a country where a small apartment in a big city can easily cost a half million dollars (U.S.), this is no small selection factor. If parents work in the city but do not own an apartment, their children may have to remain in the village or small city they came from, living with grandparents and attending non-elite schools. Chinese cities are growing so fast that the majority of their inhabitants come from the rest of China. This matters because admirers of Chinese education often cite the amazing statistics from the rich and growing Eastern Chinese cities, not the whole country. It’s as though the U.S. only reported test scores on international comparisons from suburbs in the Northeastern states from Maryland to New England, the wealthiest and highest-achieving part of our country.

I do not want to detract in any way from the educational achievements of the Chinese, but just to put it in context. First, the Chinese themselves have doubts about test scores as the only important indicators, and admire Western education for its broader focus. But just sticking to test scores, China and other Confucian cultures such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have been creating a culture valuing test scores since Confucius, about 2500 years ago. It would be a central focus of Chinese culture even if PISA and TIMSS did not exist to show it off to the world.

My only point is that when American or European observers hold up East Asian achievements as a goal to aspire to, these achievements do not exist in a cultural vacuum. Other countries can potentially achieve what China has achieved, in terms of test scores and other indicators, but they cannot achieve it in the same way. Western culture is just not going to spend the next 2500 years raising its children the way the Chinese do. What we can do, however, is to use our own strengths, in research, development, and dissemination, to progressively enhance educational outcomes. The Chinese can and will do this, too; that’s what I was doing traveling around China speaking about evidence-based reform. We need not be in competition with any nation or society, as expanding educational opportunity and success throughout the world is in the interests of everyone on Earth. But engaging in fantasies about how we can move ahead by emulating parts of Chinese culture that they have been refining since Confucius is not sensible.

Precisely because of their deep respect for scholarship and learning and their eagerness to continue to improve their educational achievements, the Chinese are ideal collaborators in the worldwide movement toward evidence-based reform in education. Colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Nanjing Normal University are launching Chinese-language and Asian-focused versions of our newsletter on evidence in education, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB). We and our U.K. colleagues have been distributing BEIB for several years. We welcome the opportunity to share ideas and resources with our Chinese colleagues to enrich the evidence base for education for children everywhere.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Research and Practice: “Tear Down This Wall”

I was recently in Berlin. Today, it’s a lively, entirely normal European capital. But the first time I saw it, it was 1970, and the wall still divided it. Like most tourists, I went through Checkpoint Charlie to the east side. The two sides were utterly different. West Berlin was pleasant, safe, and attractive. East Berlin was a different world. On my recent trip, I met a young researcher who grew up in West Berlin. He recalls his father being taken in for questioning because he accidentally brought a West Berlin newspaper across the border. Western people could visit, but western newspapers could get you arrested.

I remember John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.” And one day, for reasons no one seems to understand, the wall was gone. Even today, I find it thrilling and incredible to walk down Unter den Linden under the Brandenburg Gate. Not so long ago, this was impossible, even fatal.

The reason I bring up the Berlin Wall is that I want to use it as an analogy to another wall of less geopolitical consequence, perhaps, but very important to our profession. This is the wall between research and practice.

It is not my intention to disrespect the worlds on either side of the research/practice wall. People on both sides care deeply about children and bring enormous knowledge, skill, and effort to improving educational outcomes. In fact, that’s what is so sad about this wall. People on both sides have so much to teach and learn from the other, but all too often, they don’t.

What has been happening in recent years is that the federal government, at least, has been reinforcing the research/practice divide in many ways, at least until the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (more on this later). On one hand, government has invested in high-quality educational research and development, especially through Investing in Innovation (i3) and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). As a result, over on the research side of the wall there is a growing stockpile of rigorously evaluated, ready-to-implement education programs for most subjects and grade levels.

On the practice side of the wall, however, government has implemented national policies that may or may not have a basis in research, but definitely do not focus on use of proven programs. Examples include accountability, teacher evaluation, and Common Core. Even federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) for the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in each state had loads of detailed requirements for schools to follow but said nothing at all about using proven programs or practices, until a proven whole-school reform option was permitted as one of six alternatives at the very end of No Child Left Behind. The huge Race to the Top funding program was similarly explicit about standards, assessments, teacher evaluations, and other issues, but said nothing about use of proven programs.

On the research side of the wall, developers and researchers were being encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education to write their findings clearly and “scale up” their findings to presumably eager potential adopters on the practice side. Yet the very same department was, at the same time, keeping education leaders on the practice side of the wall scrambling to meet federal standards to obtain Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other funding, none of which had anything much to do with the evidence base building up on the research side of the wall. The problem posed by the Berlin Wall was not going to be resolved by sneaking well-written West Berlin newspapers into East Berlin, or East Berlin newspapers into West Berlin. Rather, someone had to tear down the wall.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is one attempt to tear down the research/practice wall. Its definitions of strong, moderate, and promising levels of evidence, and provision of funding incentives for using proven programs (especially in applications for school improvement), could go a long way toward tearing down the research/practice wall, but it’s too soon to tell. So far, these definitions are just words on a page. It will take national, state, and local leadership to truly make evidence central to education policy and practice.

On National Public Radio, I recently heard recorded recollections from people who were in Berlin the day the wall came down. One of them really stuck with me. West Berliners had climbed to the top of the wall and were singing and cheering as gaps were opened. Then, an East German man headed for a gap. The nearby soldiers, unsure what to do, pointed their rifles at him and told him to stop. He put his hands in the air. The West Germans on the wall fell silent, anxiously watching.

A soldier went to find the captain. The captain came out of a guardhouse and walked over to the East German man. He put his arm around his shoulders and personally walked him through the gap in the wall.

That’s leadership. That’s courage. It’s what we need to tear down our wall: leaders at all levels who actively encourage the world of research and the world of practice to become one. To do it by personal and public examples, so that educators can understand that the rules have changed, and that communication between research and practice, and use of proven programs and practices, will be encouraged and facilitated.

Our wall can come down. It’s only a question of leadership, and commitment to better outcomes for children.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Those Flying Finns: Is it Saunas or Reading That Make the Difference?

I recently attended a conference in Stockholm, at which there were several Finns and a lot of discussion about the “Finnish Miracle,” in which Finland was found to score at the top on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). PISA periodically tests representative samples of fifteen year olds in math, science, and reading.

The Finnish Miracle became apparent in 2001, and has been talked to death since then. Much about what I heard at the conference was familiar. Finland is a small, homogeneous country in which teaching is an honored profession. I heard that Helsinki, the capital, hires 80 teachers a year, and gets thousands of applicants. Maybe these factors are all we need to know.

However, I heard something else that I knew but had forgotten.

Ten years before the Finnish PISA Miracle, there was an international test of reading, called the IEA Reading Literacy Study, which tested the reading skills of students ages 9 to 10 in 30 countries. The U.S. scored second on this test, behind- you guessed it – Finland. I looked it up, and discovered that the difference was huge. Finnish children scored 31% of a standard deviation ahead of the U. S.

A (Swedish) speaker at my conference, Jan-Eric Gustafsson, brought up the earlier IEA Reading Literacy study. He explained that throughout the 1980s, Finland had a relentless policy of ensuring that every child learned to read in the early grades. If they needed it, struggling students were given one-to-one tutoring focused on phonics as long as necessary to ensure success in this crucial subject. In light of their focus on early reading success, the outcomes on the IEA reading tests are more comprehensible.

Now space forward to the PISA tests reported 2001. The fifteen year olds who took the test were, of course, subject to the Finnish reading policy throughout their elementary years. Not only reading, but also math and science, are surely influenced by success in elementary reading.

It’s possible that Finland’s success in reading in the 1990s was equally a product of outstanding and honored teachers, a homogeneous society, and other factors (though these were also true in other Nordic countries that did not score nearly as well). Perhaps Finns eat a lot more smoked fish or spend a lot more time in saunas than other people, and these explain academic success. But it must be at least a partial explanation of Finland’s reading success that they focused substantial resources over a long time period on reading for all. In turn, their students’ success on PISA must be at least partially a result of their earlier success in reading.

One reason this all matters to the U.S. and other non-Finnish countries is that while we cannot all become Finns, we can ensure that virtually every child learns to read confidently and capably by third grade.

Many states have “Reading by Third Grade” laws that threaten to hold back third graders if they are not reading at grade level, and usually provide a last-chance summer school course to avert retention. Neither of these strategies (retention and last-chance summer school) have evidence of effectiveness. In contrast, I noted in a recent blog that there were 24 elementary programs for struggling readers that have strong, moderate, or promising evidence of effectiveness according to ESSA evidence standards.

The 24 programs were proven in our own country, and most have been widely and successfully applied. There is plenty of rationale for using these programs no matter what the Finns are doing or have done in the past. But if one of our goals is to keep up with or surpass our economic competitors in terms of education, to produce a capable workforce able to deal with complex problems of all kinds, then we need to provide our children with top-quality reading programs in the first place and effective support for struggling readers. It would be expensive to do this, perhaps, but certainly much cheaper than providing smoked fish and saunas to every U. S. family!

Money and Evidence

Many years ago, I spent a few days testifying in a funding equity case in Alabama. At the end of my testimony, the main lawyer for the plaintiffs drove me to the airport. “I think we’re going to win this case,” he said, “But will it help my clients?”

The lawyer’s question has haunted me ever since. In Alabama, then and now, there are enormous inequities in education funding in rich and poor districts due to differences in property tax receipts in different districts. There are corresponding differences in student outcomes. The same is true in most states. To a greater or lesser degree, most states and the federal government provide some funding to reduce inequalities, but in most places it is still the case that poor districts have to tax themselves at a higher rate to produce education funding that is significantly lower than that of their wealthier neighbors.

Funding inequities are worse than wrong, they are repugnant. When I travel in other countries and try to describe our system, it usually takes me a while to get people outside the U.S. to even understand what I am saying. “So schools in poor areas get less than those in wealthy ones? Surely that cannot be true.” In fact, it is true in the U.S., but in all of our peer countries, national or at least regional funding policies ensure basic equality in school funding, and in most cases I know about they then add additional funding on top of equalized funding for schools serving many children in poverty. For example, England has long had equal funding, and the Conservative government added “Pupil Premium” funding in which each disadvantaged child brings additional funds to his or her school. Pupil Premium is sort of like Title I in the U.S., if you can imagine Title I adding resources on top of equal funding, which it does in only a few U.S. states.

So let’s accept the idea that funding inequity is a BAD THING. Now consider this: Would eliminating funding inequities eliminate achievement gaps in U.S. schools? This gets back to the lawyer’s question. If we somehow won a national “case” that required equalizing school funding, would the “clients” benefit?

More money for disadvantaged schools would certainly be welcome, and it would certainly create the possibility of major advances. But in order to maximize the impact of significant additional funding, it all depends on what schools do with the added dollars. Of course you’d have to increase teachers’ salaries and reduce class sizes to draw highly qualified teachers into disadvantaged schools. But you’d also have to spend a significant portion of new funds to help schools implement proven programs with fidelity and verve.

Again, England offers an interesting model. Twenty years ago, achievement in England was very unequal, despite equal funding. Children of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and other minorities performed well below White British children. The Labour government implemented a massive effort to change this, starting with the London Challenge and continuing with a Manchester Challenge and a Black Country Challenge in the post-industrial Midlands. Each “challenge” provided substantial professional development to school staffs, as well as organizing achievement data to show school leaders that other schools with exactly the same demographic challenges were achieving far better results.

Today, children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants are scoring at the English mean. Children of African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants are just below the English mean. Policy makers in England are now turning their attention to White working-class boys. But the persistent and substantial gaps we see as so resistant to change in the U.S. are essentially gone in England.

Today, we are getting even smarter about how to turn dollars into enhanced achievement, due to investments by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and Investing in Innovation (i3) program in the U.S. and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in England. In both countries, however, we lack the funding to put into place what we know how to do on a large enough scale to matter, but this need not always be the case.

Funding matters. No one can make chicken soup out of chicken feathers, as we say in Baltimore. But funding in itself will not solve our achievement gap. Funding needs to be spent on specific, high-impact investments to make a big difference.

A Finnish Model Worth Replicating

In recent posts I’ve argued that while we can and should learn a great deal from international comparisons of educational practices and outcomes, we should not simply adopt the practices of other countries, but should put them (and home-grown solutions) to the test in our country. Last week, as part of Education Week’s Quality Counts, there was an article by Pasi Sahlberg, of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. Finland, of course, has become the poster child for those who point abroad for inspiration, because of its top rankings on international tests, such as PISA and TIMSS.

Sahlberg explains that Finland’s success is no miracle, but is based on studying the policies and practices of other countries, trying them out in Finland, and keeping those that work. These include many innovations from the U.S.; in fact, he singles out cooperative learning as a positive example.

Finland and other countries whose students excel on international tests pay close attention to the U.S. and other countries’ research and innovations. In fact, I think countries other than the U.S. pay a great deal more attention to research and examples from beyond their borders than we do in the U.S. The willingness to find out what works, regardless of its source, and then try it out at home is exactly what I was arguing for. This is a Finnish policy I can absolutely endorse – use what works!

Put International Lessons to the Test in U.S. Schools

In a November 10 Sputnik I wrote some cautionary thoughts about what we can and cannot learn from international comparisons to improve educational policies. My old friend Marc Tucker, in his December 20 blog called Top Performers, took me to task, saying that by suggesting we try out ideas from abroad in our own schools before adopting them wholesale, I was “looking for my keys where the light was better” rather than where they might actually be.

In my blog I was completely agreeing with Marc that we can learn a lot from other countries. I work part-time in England and am very familiar with education there and elsewhere in Europe. There is indeed much we can learn in other countries. In fact, we already are: the hot off the press Quality Counts report from Education Week found that “Education officials in 29 states reported that their agency uses international education comparisons to inform their reform strategies or identify ‘best practices.'” Where I take issue with Marc is in his apparent belief that if we study what successful nations do, we can just plunk their policies down in our context and all will be well. Marc seems to think that international comparisons have proven that our main efforts need to be directed toward improving teacher quality. He might very well be right. I’d love to see teacher salaries doubled, teacher education dramatically improved, induction enhanced, and so on, and perhaps these policies would solve our problems by making teaching a more attractive profession, bringing higher-quality students into teaching, and providing excellent professional development and support to help existing and new teachers to be effective and to want to stay in the profession. Frankly, however, there isn’t a U.S. educator or policy maker who didn’t already know that these would be great ideas long before we ever heard of Finland.

But how do we cause all of these things to happen in our society, with our kids? Which of these policies are not only effective, but most cost-effective? Is it too much to ask that whatever ideas we glean from observing Finland or Singapore or Japan be tested in Minnesota or Massachusetts or Mississippi, so we can learn how they work here? And in the meantime, might we also increase use of programs and practices that have been proven to work in the U.S., and develop and evaluate more of them?

America’s strength in every field, from medicine to agriculture to satellites, lies in its extraordinary capacity in research and development. This is true in education as much as in other areas; the products of U.S. educational R & D are much sought after in other countries. While other countries can give us good ideas and benchmarks to evaluate our students’ performance, let’s also build on our strengths.

America’s Strength: An Innovation Economy

In a September 11 article in The New York Times called “China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise,” Vice President Joe Biden wrote a cogent summary of America’s advantage in the world economy that has enormous implications for innovation in education.

“The United States is hard-wired for innovation. Competition is in the very fabric of our society. It has enabled each generation of Americans to give life to world-changing ideas—from the cotton gin to the airplane, the microchip, the Internet. We owe our strength to our political and economic system and to the way we educate our children—not merely to accept established orthodoxy but to challenge and improve it… Our universities remain the ultimate destination for the world’s students and scholars.”

Nothing in Biden’s op-ed is new or surprising. Every American understands that our success in the world economy depends on education and innovation.

So why do we devote so little attention to innovation in education? The very orientations and investments Vice President Biden cites as the basis of our success in other fields are rarely applied to improving education itself. Instead of inventing our way to success, as we do in so many other fields, we keep trying to improve education through changes in governance, regulations, and rules, which never produce change in core classroom practices and outcomes. Every state’s textbook adoption requirements specify paperweight, but never mention the weight of evidence behind the use of the book. Special education regulations specify that children be placed in the “least restrictive environment” but never the “most effective environment.” Title I has reams of regulations about how funds can or can’t be spent, but not a word suggesting that they be spent on programs proven to work.

The Obama administration has invested more than any other in history in education innovation, especially through its Investing in Innovation (i3) program. Yet evidence and innovation continue to play an extremely small role in Title I, ESEA, special education, and other federal programs, much less in state and local programs. Vice President Biden’s article is a ringing endorsement of innovation, evidence, and education. Can we now apply it to education itself?