Thursday, September 15, 2011

Raising educational standards: a PISA cake?

The results are in, and they aren't great.  According to the latest PISA exam -- a standardized test administered every three years to representative samples of 15-year-old students from 65 industrialized countries -- the US ranks 32nd in the world in math proficiency, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading comprehension.  (Not all states are created equal, though.  Massachusetts, for one, compares favorably with the top countries in both math and reading ability.)

The importance of these scores goes beyond just bragging rights.  Researchers have found that student performance on international tests like PISA closely reflects long-term economic growth.  Raising US math proficiency to the level of Canada or Korea could result in a $75 trillion increase in national income over the next 80 years.

There are no shortages of ideas on how to "fix" US education.  Below are just a few recent innovative proposals:

  • Most of the emerging, high paying jobs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field require a high level of numeracy.  Yet many students find the current rote approach to algebra, trigonometry and calculus dry and confusing.  With this in mind, two eminent mathematicians have called for a whole scale revision in how math is taught in US schools, substituting a “quantitative literacy” curriculum that focuses on real-life problems like finance, data gathering and interpretation, and basic engineering in place of abstract concepts.

  • Recent advances in neuroscience, cognitive science and educational psychology have shed light on how humans synthesize and retain information.  In short, the current approach to teaching -- covering one concept or block of information intensively; testing via quiz or exam to measure understanding; and then moving on to a new concept -- works against how the brain learns. Instead, returning to material multiple times over a semester (“spaced repetition”) and administering multiple tests of the same material (“retrieval practice”) to force the brain to call up information has been shown to drastically enhance long-term retention by 50 percent or more.  

  • Last year, the Freakonomics blog posed an intriguing question: "How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?"  Using the analogy of Pandora, the online service that creates customized playlists for each of its millions of users, the authors profiled an innovative demonstration project set up within the New York City Dept. of Education that utilized technology to customize learning to each pupil's strengths, weaknesses and interests.  Throwing out the traditional classroom model of a single teacher instructing 20-30 (or more) children at a time, the "School of One" approach consists mainly of students working individually or in small groups on laptop computers to complete lessons in the form of quizzes, games and worksheets. Each student must take a quiz at the end of each day; the results are fed into a computer program to determine whether they will move on to a new topic the next day.  Multiple teachers monitor the progress, available to help or explain material when needed.  The Spring 2010 pilot program showed "that School of One students learned at a rate 50-60% higher than those in traditional classrooms.  The effects were positive for all subgroups, but most pronounced for the two lowest-performing quartiles of students."  (Curiously, there is little evidence that the introduction of technology into traditional classroom boosts student outcomes.)  The program has been so successful that its founder, Joel Rose, left the NYC public school system in March 2011 to launch an independent effort to take the School of One concept to scale.

Taken together, these and other reforms hold the promise making the classroom more relevant and enjoyable for students, more effective for teachers, and ultimately of creating the highly educated citizenry that America needs in order to compete in the 21st century. 

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