Monday, April 27, 2009

Global Achievement Comparisons

As I've noted before, it is difficult to justify comparing the education systems of different countries because there are countless variables and intangibles that cannot be contrasted to any truly evaluative conclusion. For example, in the beginning of Wagner's Global Achievement Gap, he notes various statistics designed to show how poorly America is doing. For example, he points out that the US high school graduation of rate of 70% trails many countries, such as Denmark which graduates 96%. However, countries such as Denmark only have compulsory education until the age of sixteen. The US allows dropouts at sixteen but graduation is generally two years later. Thus, if the US switched graduation to sixteen, the rate may be as high as others. He argues "only 1/3 of US high school students graduate ready for college," yet the percentage of the population holding bachelors degrees is about 30%, so perhaps that is all that is necessary, or all that the market will bare. Clearly, Wagner is using statistics in absence of any truly meaningful context.

Later, he attempts to provide context by citing a conversation with Christy Pedra, the CEO of Siemens Hearing Instruments. Pedra argues that "questioning techniques" are a major component of her success in her job. She criticizes the public education of her kids - at a top school in Massachusetts - because "They're spending too much time getting kids ready to take [state tests]. And they're measuring the wrong things." Pedra believes that training students to become scientists is about the ability to explore and asking the right questions. She believes it's not about "how much they can retain." However, that's only half the issue. It's about both retention of core knowledge, and using that knowledge to ask even more, or even better, questions. This has been well documented, and blogged about, by Dan Willingham whose book Why Don't Students Like School offers insight into the importance of knowledge prior to and as a component of learning . Willingham's research in cognitive science explains how important "how much they can retain" is in the brain accessing new information.

Clearly, Pedra and Wagner have an understanding that ignores much we know about learning and education. Pedra criticizes the education of her kids, yet I assume a similar education allowed her to rise to the level of CEO. Somewhere, despite standardized testing, she learned to apply those questioning techniques integral to her job. Additionally, I would assume she wants her children to be well prepared for the ACT/SAT which are the gateways to college whether she likes the focus on skills and knowledge or not. Pedra and Wagner make good points, though their primary focus is too narrow and removed from the larger school of cognitive science and learning.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Global Achievement Gap

As I continue to read blogs and encounter discussion, comparing public education in the U.S. and the rest of the world, I recently picked up Tony Wagner's book on the issue, The Global Achievement Gap. While I am only a chapter in, and I concur with Wagner on some assertions, I am still frustrated by the blanket comparisons of separate school systems, especially when they are focused on issues such as international standardized test rankings and graduation rates. Both of these issues are arbitrary in many ways, as well as myopic at best in terms of true evaluation.

One of Wagner's early references that gave me pause was to Thomas Friedman's work in The World is Flat. Friedman has regularly noted in books and columns how America is "falling behind," and he warns that U.S. students will face increasing competition in the "global community." The problem is Friedman, and by reference Wagner, often asserts that the math skills of foreign students give them an advantage as American companies offshore accounting and engineering jobs to countries such as India and China. This is a deceptive claim, as both authors ignore the fact that companies offshore this work, not because the foreign workers are better, but because they are cheaper. Thus, the "crisis" that is discussed in many blogs about students' use of calculators implies that the lack of skills will cost American workers their jobs. The reality might be much simpler - a matter of cost, not talent.

This sort of assertion, which is bought by many commentators and politicians outside of the classroom, does a huge disservice to discussions about education reform.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea Party Silliness

As thousands of people across the country hit the streets (apparently with no jobs to distract them) to protest taxes, columnist Debra Saunders offered insight into the odd appropriation of the "Boston Tea Party" allusion. As she clearly noted:

There is a world of difference between 1773 and 2009. Two hundred-plus years ago, Americans risked life and limb protesting a distant and oligarchic system of government that did not represent the good people of Massachusetts.

No doubt many who show up at the Tea Day rallies will argue that they didn't vote for Obama and should not have to pay for his programs. I have news for you folks: Conservatives lost. American voters elected a big spender and, one way or another, Americans will have to pay for his agenda. The Obama tax hikes on Americans earning more than $250,000 have yet to materialize — but when they do, they'll be taxation with representation, a campaign pledge made good.

Even though both Saunders and I disagree with much of Obama's policies, there is something unseemly, even absurd, about current objectors aligning themselves with patriots who risked their lives to achieve representation and the right to protest.

We currently have representative government - thus there is no connection to the Boston Tea Party.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Carnival of Education

The Carnival of Education is hosted this week by Joanne Jacobs. It contains my post about the comparisons between the US education system and those of Europe and Asia.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

We're Not Europe/Asia - Should We Be?

Nearly every in-depth discussion of the American education system inevitably turns to the school systems of other countries and the way their students regularly outperform American students on international tests. The question is whether America should look to those schools in terms of improving its system. For example, Joanne Jacobs recently linked to a story about how countries with high scoring students - like Finland and Singapore - have "high quality" teachers. The definition of the term "high quality" is vague, by the way, and there are many other variables involved. The question is whether we should adapt their teacher education programs.

While this is interesting and certainly tempting as a reform idea, the rational side of me keeps in mind the significant cultural differences between European/Asian countries and America. Having taught in Taiwan for five years, I know there are fundamental components of their system that, while very effective there, would simply not transfer here with the same results. For one, they have rather strict controls on their "college-prep" track, as noted in the comments on this story. Hopeful college students simply don't have an option of slacking off, as they do here. American students can "graduate" with a D-average, or not even graduate at all, and still get into college. That exists no where else in the industrialized world, especially Taiwan. And, we certainly don't intend to restrict access the way other countries do, as we have a more egalitarian approach to education.

A telling comment on the differences in the Taiwan system and the US came from Dr. David Ho, the researcher credited with coming up the "AIDS cocktail" which was the first and most effective treatment for lowering HIV to undetectable levels in infected people. Dr. Ho was born and raised in Taiwan where he went to school for his formative years - elementary and middle. He then moved to the US where he did high school and college. He has noted that if he'd stayed in Taiwan his whole life, he never would have made the discovery. Likewise, he explains if he had been born in the US and always educated here, he never would have made the discovery. It was the rigid style of the early years in a Confucian system that gave him the discipline he needed, as well as the more "open" and diverse style in the US that encouraged questioning and creativity (yes, through electives) that allowed him the solid foundation and insight necessary to make one of the 20th century's most significant medical breakthroughs.

Clearly, it's not one or the other, but a combination of both. For that reason, I would like to see some reforms in the USA which would align more with other countries standards for university. They are clearly more efficient in that they don't waste the time of students or teachers by trying to force non-academically-inclined students to pursue higher education. Yet, while our system may be too lenient, theirs are often far too exclusive. Thus, I would like to see a serious expansion of Career and Technical Education (CET), as well as a much greater emphasis on associate's degrees. American society is far too elitist in its attitude toward skilled labor. Granted, America must also alleviate historical concerns that poor and minority students are funneled into vocational education with little choice. That is why I am still intrigued by the reform plans in New Hampshire.

We are not Europe, and we are not Asia. They have different attitudes toward education and different cultural norms that will not transfer to American society. Yet, there is much we could adapt from the most successful schools system, at the same time we keep all that is successful about the American system, and there is much we do right.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why I'm Not a Republican


For once and for all can we agree that there is a difference between tax rates and taxes paid? The intentional blurring of this line is a fundamental reason while I am not a member of the GOP, though I am fiscally conservative and support many of their policies.

In today's press conference for the GOP's alternative budget, Congressman Matt Ryan was making some very valid points about spending, entitlement reform, and taxes, and then he drove the bus right of the cliff with the standard "Sean Hannity-like" rant about corporate tax rates. Sticking to the standard mantra, Ryan and the GOP proposed lowering the corporate tax rate from 35%, "which is the highest rate in the industrialized world," to a lower 25% which is the average. This sort of statement on taxes is disingenuous, if not outright deceitful and dishonest, and it is designed to to manipulate fiscally conservative people who are less than informed about tax policy.

There is a fundamental difference between tax rates and taxes paid, and it is disingenuous to argue that America’s tax rates are responsible for downturns in the economy or the movement of business abroad. No one pays the top rates in the American tax code, as it allows for generous deduction. While I may be in the 20% tax bracket, I pay no more than 11%. Incidentally, the GAO report found that between 1998 and 2005, two-thirds of American companies paid no income tax. This finding complements a similar study of the boom years of 1996 to 2000 which also found that 90% of the companies that paid any taxes paid less than 5%. Corporations in other countries may be paying a lower rate, though they often pay more taxes because their tax codes do not allow the generous deductions and massive loopholes that America allows.

A reasonable student of finance - which Ryan is clearly not because he's too busy being a politician - would understand that accounting practices allow companies to show no actual profits because of expenses such as salaries, interest, and investment. In fact, the model by which a company shows no profit and no loss is the most efficient business model and an optimum goal in terms of tax responsibilities. Certainly, the government should address the loopholes that allow companies to hide money overseas. However, to argue that Corporate America is overtaxed simply isn’t true.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Work, Work, Work

As education critics continue to argue about who should go to college, with some decrying the loss of trade schools and the negative attitude toward associate’s degree programs, and others like Bill Gates preaching four-year colleges for everyone, Mike Rowe of Discovery Channel’s “World’s Dirtiest Jobs” presents an insightful commentary on the nature of “work” and how we might just be getting it all wrong. I ran across this on the blog RightWingNation, though it is featured at the website Ted, which features some of the most compelling speeches happening in the world today.

The speech Mike Rowe gives centers around a pretty graphic description of the act of “lamb castration” in the life of a sheepherder in Craig, Colorado. It is rather eye-opening, not to mention eye-brow raising. Yet, the truly interesting part is as Right Wing Prof says, “the best argument against the “everybody needs to go to college” line I have seen.” Rowe describes his epiphany – with a great side-bar on a couple of terms from Greek tragedy – about the nature of “work,” or more importantly, the idea that in America we have declared war on work. We seek to avoid it, work less, retire earlier, etc., etc., etc. There seems to be an entitlement to work less and less, and we have no respect for much of the necessary work. Hence, the derision of trade schools and community colleges, even as white-collar work is outsourced, quality electricians make a mint, and our infrastructure screams for skilled labor.

Rowe concludes he was mis-led and we might be wrong about the advice to “follow your passion.” He’s somewhat right. I followed my passion, rather than my pocketbook, and became a teacher, not a computer administrator. Despite three times the salary, life as a UNIX guru would make me miserable. That said, following passion is one route, but not the only one. Ultimately, people should figure out who they are and be that person. Some people should follow their passions. Some should follow their strengths. And, some should just follow the market and go where their job takes them.