Here’s a little preview of what will be in my upcoming book, The Smartest Kids in the World, from a talk I recently gave at PopTech.
Here’s a little preview of what will be in my upcoming book, The Smartest Kids in the World, from a talk I recently gave at PopTech.
It’s that time of year (again)! New international test data came out yesterday. Australian media swiftly pronounced the results a “disaster.” Massachusetts declared victory. The New York Times was glum.
What does it all mean?
Well, for the country as a whole, the news is not earth shattering: U.S. 4th graders improved a bit in reading and math—while 8th graders stayed the same in math and science. But the results held a few useful reminders nevertheless.
1. U.S. students hold their own—especially in reading—in the younger years. Florida 4th graders rocked the reading test. (I mean seriously rocked it, Finland style.) It’s not until middle school and high school that things begin to come undone. Something happens (especially in mathematics) as kids get older, and the big question is, What?
2. Different tests measure different things. Sounds obvious, but it’s not—at least not in most of the media coverage. These particular tests measure knowledge—whether kids have absorbed the info that their teachers have been teaching. They do not measure thinking—whether kids can take that knowledge and use it to solve problems they have never seen before. Personally, I am more interested in whether our kids are learning to think. But that doesn’t mean these results are not useful, too.
Yesterday’s release was from something called TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). Those tests were designed to measure how much kids have learned in school. The questions are roughly aligned with curricula in the participating countries.
The PISA test (yet another mind-numbing acronym, of which there seems to be a limitless supply…), the Program for International Student Assessment, measures whether older students (age 15) are able to think, reason, analyze and communicate in reading, math and science. In my view, it is much more relevant to the 21st century economy. As jobs continue to be outsourced or automated, those higher-order thinking skills are becoming more valuable every year.
On that test, the U.S. usually does considerably worse than yesterday’s results would suggest. Especially in math—at all socio-economic levels. And if you look at our scores per dollar spent (which hardly anyone ever does for some reason), the results are truly mystifying.
But who knows? That could all change. Half a million teenagers worldwide took the latest PISA test this year. New rankings are due out in, oh, almost exactly 1 year.
In the past week, I have been asked by my kid’s school to donate $300, to read with my child, to cut out cereal box tops for another fundraiser, to pony up for the teachers’ holiday gifts, to help my kid with Spanish homework, to help my kid with English homework, to buy hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for the classroom and to volunteer to sell Christmas trees at (yet another) fundraiser. (This is all happening in a city that spends $30,000 per pupil on public education, just by the by. More than twice the national average.)
Only one of these requests is consistently associated with kids actually learning. Which one do you think it is? (Fun game!)
Given that time, money and energy are limited, how to decide what to do—and what not to do? I could quit my job and just do nothing but manage these requests—but then where in God’s name would I get the money for all the fundraisers?!
Good news. This lovely international study of parents and children in 13 countries helps cut through the fog. My favorite finding: Parents can help their kids learn more and love reading more for years to come if they do one simple thing: Read. By themselves. For pleasure.
Yes, that’s right. No money or hand sanitizer required. All around the world, only 4 out of 10 parents in the survey read for pleasure on their own. They were too busy working, sleeping, watching TV and selling Christmas trees. But the ones who did tended to have children who performed significantly better on a test of critical thinking in reading by the time they were 15—even after controlling for the effects of family income.
“Read. It’s that simple. If parents – both mothers and fathers – don’t like to read novels, say, but prefer to read newspapers and magazines, that’s fine. What is important is showing children – of all ages – that reading is a daily, enjoyable, valuable activity, and that it is made even more pleasurable when people discuss what they have read with others.”
There’s more, obviously, and I encourage people to check out the full report. Tom Friedman wrote a great column about this a while back, but that was based on early findings—before this more detailed, highly readable report came out.
But wait. What am I thinking? You don’t have time to read an entire OECD report!
So for now, here is my own personal cheat sheet for parents trying to decide how to “involve” themselves in their kids’ schools without letting it consume their every waking hour:
1. Read. To yourself. To your kid. Especially when they are younger, but not just then. Talk about what you are reading and what they are reading their whole lives. Kids whose parents read themselves grow to enjoy reading more. In the complicated world of education data and international comparisons, few findings are as consistent, simple and cheap as this.
2. Talk to your kids about news, movies and, as they get older, complex social issues. All around the world, kids whose parents talk about the world with them on a regular basis are more adept at analyzing information and communicating their thoughts.
3. Repeat. Still have energy left over? Impressive. Then go ahead and bake banana bread if you want. Write checks if you can. But don’t assume your kid will learn more, or that the school will likely become more effective at its primary mission. That could be true, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it anywhere. And lots of people have looked.
Making costumes for the school play, chaperoning field trips, coaching sports teams: Those are the things that life is made of. Do them if you can. But Read and Talk first, just about every day. Then, if you don’t have energy and time left over for the other stuff, don’t feel bad about it for one second (I’m talking to you, Mothers).
If it helps, just remind yourself that parents who volunteer in school activities in 13 countries tend to have children who perform worse on a sophisticated international test of reading literacy. No one is sure why exactly (it may be that parents of kids who are already struggling in school then volunteer more to try to improve the situation). But for now, the best use of your time, statistically speaking, is to talk with your kid about the world—at home.
Oh, and for those of you still playing, the one thing that correlates with learning in the list at the top? Yeah, you guessed it… Reading. Isn’t it great when the right answer is the simplest one?
I just re-read this excerpt from the OECD’s report on Lessons from PISA for the United States. As I try to understand why kids seem to care more about school in other countries, I keep coming back to this. We do an insane amount of testing in the U.S., but none of it matters much for the lives and futures of individual students…. We do very little to help kids connect the dots between what they are learning in school and what kind of car, job and life they will have as adults. They find out eventually, but way too late:
In the United States, high school students may be led to believe that the outcome is the same whether they take easy courses and get Ds in them or take tough courses and get As. Either way, they might think, they can get into the local community college and get on with their lives. Contrast this with a student of the same age in Toyota City, Japan, who wants to work on the line at a Toyota plant. That student knows that she must get good grades in tough subjects and earn the recommendation of her principal, so she takes those tough courses and works hard in school. The same is true of the student in Germany who wants to work for Daimler Benz in their machine shop or the student in Singapore who wants to go to work in the factory automation shop a few blocks from his home. The reason examination systems matter is that they provide strong incentives for students to take tough courses and study hard. One of the most striking features of the American education system, in contrast with the education systems of the most successful countries, is its failure to provide strong incentives to the average student to work hard in school. If the reader does not, for whatever reason, like the idea of examination systems, then the lesson learned here should be that some other means, no less effective, should be found to motivate students to work as hard in school as students in other countries do.
A handful of teachers and principals have contacted me to say they want to try out the student surveys I wrote about for the Atlantic, and they want to know where to begin.
First of all, I’m excited that people want to test drive this thing. A smart survey like this one produces more reliable feedback than classroom observations or student test gains, according to the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) research project. Students can give teachers surprising, actionable insight into the classroom culture—if you ask them the right questions.
Also: it’s cheap. Dirt cheap.
So here are a few links to help get you started:
1. If you want to use the full Tripod survey instrument (which is significantly longer than the version used in the MET study), and you have the funds to pay a vendor to help administer it, you may want to contact Cambridge Education, a for-profit consulting firm that has helped other school districts administer and analyze the full survey.
2. If you want to try out the shorter version used in the MET study and administer it yourself or through another vendor, then check out this very helpful briefing book recently published by the MET project.
The MET version of the survey is included at the end of the booklet, and it is available for public use. (But of course, it’s important to administer the survey correctly if the results are to be meaningful.) This primer has lots of useful tips, including specific tactics used by schools in Pittsburgh, Memphis and Denver. Executive summary is here.
3. Another option would be the YouthTruth survey, which has administered a related survey to middle and high school kids in 24 states.
*One thing I’d add based on conversations I’d had with teachers: if you do a survey, consider discussing the (anonymous) results with your students afterwards. It is a good way to dig deeper into the findings—and it sends a message that the survey was not just bureaucratic nonsense. In general, survey-takers (of all ages) like to hear about the results. If they don’t, they may be less likely to take the survey seriously the next time around.
Good luck! Let me know how it goes.
In today’s New York Times, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded like a man staring into the final frontier: “It’s amazing how much of Brooklyn and Queens goes underwater so quickly,” he said. “We’ve just ignored it. We’ve just been blind to it.” He floated ideas for big solutions for the long term; he acknowledged they would be expensive and unpopular.
But then he said something truly scary: “First you have to convince the citizenry, then get the elected officials to move.”
Funny, I thought it was the other way around.
I’m in a Washington, DC, hotel lobby watching a TV rotation we’ve all seen by now: battered NJ shore houses, water snaking through NYC subway tunnels, Gov. Chris Christie in fleece. It’s like a rerun of a horror movie I’ve never been able to get all the way through.
Hurricane Sandy was forecast for days in advance—and predicted for decades. Six years ago, I did a story for Time Magazine about why we don’t prepare for disasters. It contained one small anecdote that bears repeating today:
Every July the country’s leading disaster scientists and emergency planners gather in Boulder, Colo., for an invitation-only workshop. Picture 440 people obsessed with the tragic and the safe, people who get excited about earthquake “shake maps” and righteous about flood insurance. It’s a spirited but wonky crowd that is growing more melancholy every year.
After 9/11, the people at the Boulder conference decried the nation’s myopic focus on terrorism. They lamented the decline of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And they warned to the point of cliché that a major hurricane would destroy New Orleans. It was a convention of prophets without any disciples.
This year, perhaps to make the farce explicit, the event organizers, from the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, introduced a parlor game. They placed a ballot box next to the water pitchers and asked everyone to vote: What will be the next mega-disaster? A tsunami, an earthquake, a pandemic flu? And where will it strike? It was an amusing diversion, although not a hard question for this lot.
Because the real challenge in the U.S. today is not predicting catastrophes. That we can do. The challenge that apparently lies beyond our grasp is to prepare for them....
The winner, with 32% of the votes, was a hurricane. After all, eight of the 10 costliest disasters in U.S. history have been hurricanes. This time, most of the hurricane voters predicted that the storm would devastate the East Coast, including New York City…
Here’s one thing we know: a serious hurricane is due to strike New York City, just as one did in 1821 and 1938. Experts predict that such a storm would swamp lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., force the evacuation of more than 3 million people and cost more than twice as much as Katrina. An insurance-industry risk assessment ranked New York City as No. 2 on a list of the worst places for a hurricane to strike; Miami came in first. But in a June survey measuring the readiness of 4,200 insured homeowners living in hurricane zones, New Yorkers came in second to last….
With this storm, we are reminded that the breakthrough we need in disaster planning is not scientific; it’s behavioral. We need to find out how to move people to action—to build subway floodgates, to stop providing federal flood insurance to people who want to buy property in insanely risky areas and to begin reckoning with the storms to come. That is the final frontier.
This weekend, I got to meet C.J. Huff at the PopTech conference in Maine. In my world, C.J. is a legend. He was the superintendent of schools in Joplin, MO, before, during and after the tornado struck last year. He knows more about the intersection of disasters and education than just about anyone else. His talk (which you can now watch—see below) describes how his town built community before disaster struck, and how much that has mattered since.
Before the tornado, Huff helped cut the high school drop-out rate by 50%. (Let me just say that again…50%!) He built relationships with local businesses, churches and senior citizens who knew how to knit. All those things became critical assets in the course of about a half hour on May 22, 2011, when a mighty wind took 161 lives and flattened a third of the city, including six of Huff’s schools. Check it out: