Concerns and realities of tutoring and tuition centers in Singapore

The recent releases of the PISA and TIMSS results have highlighted again the high test scores of Singaporean students. With that notoriety come questions about how Singapore manages such a feat, as well as concerns, from both inside and outside Singapore, about the problems with too much attention and focus on test performance.  Notably, these concerns are expressed by government officials, educators, researchers, and parents and focus on some of the same issues that worry those in the United States and other countries.  As an article this past week in the Straits Times pointed out, concerns focus particularly on the amount of time many students spend in tutoring arrangements after school, during weekends and over school breaks and the stress and academic pressure that can result.

What does tutoring involve in Singapore?

To date, the research on tutoring in Singapore and its effects on both academic performance and students’ well-being remains scant (though there is some surprising evidence that tutoring may be correlated with worse test performance).  However, on my recent visit there, I had a chance to talk with several people who have studied tutoring arrangements as well as participated in them as teachers and students.  In many ways, those conversations reinforced things I knew in the abstract, but had not seen played out in practice:

  • Private companies, community organizations, and individuals offer a vast array of tutoring options

Tutoring arrangements include formal programs offered by a wide range of companies and community organizations as well as arrangements that parents and students make on their own to work with individual tutors. But the number and variety of commercial tutoring programs alone is staggering. The Parkway Center, a 13-story mall and office complex in Singapore, for example, offers a slew of learning programs for students.  On just one floor, families can find:

  • Excelearn Education – Offering “programmes for Mathematics and Science for various levels”
  • Chapter One Chinese — To help children appreciate and master Chinese
  • Wordsmiths Learning Centre – Specializing in English Language and the Humanities to “prepare students to sit for their examinations with confidence”
  • Intellect Learning Hub — Providing classes in English, Chinese, maths, and science at both the primary and secondary level
  • Phi Learning – Focusing on preparation for the PSLE and O-Levels in English and Chinese

To help families navigate this vast array, media publications and websites like theAsianparent, Epigami, kinderful, and tuitionary list or review some of the many commercial options.  Many of the reviews identify Learning Lab as one of the leading (and most expensive) private tuition centers.  With several campuses, Learning Lab looks more like an elite private school than an afterschool program.

While commercial programs cater to different groups and reflect different costs, many are out of reach of families with low and moderate incomes.  As one means of making tutoring more affordable for all, the community organizations that support the three main ethnic groups in Singapore also offer their own, subsidized tuition programs spread out over a large number of locations.  These organizations include the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), SINDA serving Singapore’s Indian community, and MENDAKI (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community).

  • Tutoring is really big business

It’s no surprise that tutoring is big business in Singapore as it is in other parts of the world.  In a previous post, I noted that in Singapore tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  That number, however, may not adequately reflect the investments parents and students make in smaller and individual tutoring arrangements. Only centers with 10 or more students need to register and private tutors only need to register when their income exceeds the 1 million dollar mark (– yes, there are about 10 of these “supertutors” in Singapore).

I was also struck by the competition for students and the aggressive marketing that often focuses on test performance.  Private companies in particular advertise the successes of their students not only on the high stakes exams but also in winning scholarships and gaining admission to private universities.  Learning Lab for example points out on their website: “Since our founding in 2001, we have established a reputation among parents, students and educators for consistently producing Singapore’s top students at the PSLE. Our alumni have been admitted into NUS, NTU, SMU, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Yale in the US, and Oxford. Several have garnered prestigious private and public sector scholarships, including half a dozen being awarded the Singapore Public Service Commission’s President’s Scholarship.”

  • Tuition centers also provide a wide range of enrichment activities

Tuition centers in Singapore provide programs designed to help students in school in general (and to improve their grades for example), to help students prepare for high stakes exams such as those at the end of sixth grade and at the end of secondary school; and to help meet the needs of specific groups of students such as those studying in International Baccalaureate Schools.  At the same time, many students in Singapore participate in a wide range of other activities outside of school, and there are also many “enrichment centers” offering classes in music, art, dance, sports, science and other activities that go far beyond test prep. For example, in addition to its many tuition centers, the Parkway Center also houses Joy Music StudioMusicaland Studios, Flute and Music Academy, HI Art Education, Dance Bollywood International, Dance Trilogy,  and Lions Taekwondo Academy.

What’s it like to participate in tutoring programs?

It is hard enough to get an overall sense of what tutoring and tuition arrangements look like in Singapore, but it is even more difficult to get a sense of what the experience is like for students and teachers.  Those I talked to about their own participation in tutoring or about their studies of tuition centers point to examples of programs that match the stereotype of “drill and kill” factories and “hothouse” environments, but point to others that provide a warmer environment where students can work in smaller groups and develop closer relationships with their teachers than they can during the regular school day. While some students participate in tutoring because their parents require it or out of fear they may fall behind peers who are getting extra help, others go by choice, often in a desire to be with their friends.  Some teachers may prefer to work in tuition centers or as private tutors.  In fact, a number of tuition centers have been started by former teachers.  Incentives for providing tutoring include the possibility of high pay, but some teachers also appreciate the chances to work individually or in small groups with students in ways that are difficult to do during regular school hours. Unfortunately, the centers designed to serve those with lower incomes may not have the resources to hire experienced teachers or sustain the smallest student-teacher ratios, creating significant problems that the system has to figure out how to address.

Will anything change?

Given the high demand for tutoring and academic support among parents and the continued high stakes exams and academic pressure, even with all the concerns, it is hard to imagine drastic changes in the tutoring landscape in Singapore in the near term even if education policymakers tried to discourage it. (For that matter, it’s also hard to imagine significant changes in the heavy investments of time and money made in tutoring in other countries like Hong Kong – where reports describe “big business tutoring centers” and explain how “’celebrity tutors’ turn millionaires”.)

Nonetheless, those in the tutoring industry in Singapore will have to respond as the Ministry of Education continues to press for a shift in focus toward 21st Century skills and makes adjustments to goals and testing (including introducing more computer-based testing). OECD is also making some changes in the content and format of the PISA tests that may trickle down eventually. The explosion of online and blended learning opportunities will also likely have some effect on tutoring and tuition centers, though it is hard to see how that would address concerns about undue emphases on testing or academic stress. As a consequence, the government in Singapore faces the challenge of trying to loosen the grip of testing and tutoring, at the same time that drastically changing the tests eliminates one of the key mechanisms that supports the alignment of an education system recognized as “high-performing.”

— Thomas Hatch

Headlines Around the World PISA 2015 Edition

Following the cascade of headlines on the release of TIMSS scores last week, the results of the 2015 PISA tests were announced yesterday. There were some cautions about putting too much weight on the rankings. In fact, both Valerie Strauss in the US (“Why Americans should not panic about international test results”) and Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard in Australia (Pisa results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic) tried to stave off knee jerk reactions. Nonetheless, as usual, the headlines around the world seem to focus primarily on who’s on top of the rankings and where individual countries place on one or more of the tested subjects of math, reading, and science. Times Higher Education put it succinctly — Pisa results 2016: Singapore sweeps the board – but noted that while East Asian countries dominate the rankings, “China loses ground in tables after new provinces are included for the first time.”  While some reports about TIMSS noted declines in performance by Finnish 15 year-olds, Finland remained near the top on the PISA tests, but the high performance of neighboring Estonia was recognized as well (Finland and Estonia top of the class in EU for education, Euronews).  Other countries beyond Asia, like Canada, also received some positive headlines (Canadian students rank fourth for science performance, The Globe and Mail).

Many headlines in Australia seized on bad results from PISA 2015 that echoed declines on TIMMS (as Teacher Magazine put it, PISA 2015 brings more bad news for Australia while ABC Online highlighted Australian schools are in ‘absolute decline’ globally, says PISA report).  At the same time, in headlines and on twitter, concerns (and blame) over poor performance of Wales and Scotland were also in evidence (Full Pisa results 2016 show Wales’ schools are still adrift of the rest of the rest of the UK, Wales Online; Scottish school standards in maths and reading slump in damning PISA survey, Herald Scotland).

There was also considerable controversy in Malaysia where government officials touted what they viewed as improved results (PISA 2015: Malaysia shows significant improvement in Math, Science & reading, New Straits Times Online); however, critics pointed out that OECD did not include Malaysia in the results of PISA 2015 (PISA 2015: Malaysia shows significant improvement in Math, Science & reading, New Straits Times Online). Quotes from one source cited OECD’s concern of a response rate of sampled schools in Malaysia of roughly 50% compared to the desired 85% response rate.

Beyond the headlines, reporting sometimes noted both good news and bad news.  As (a rough translation) from Diario Perú21, put it:  “The good news is that the level of Peruvian schoolchildren improved in the last three years – the fastest… in Latin America, the bad news is that Peru still ranks in the last place on the list.”

Meanwhile, Spiegel Online noted that German students were in the “upper middle” of the rankings but also highlighted that only two other countries scored lower when students were asked whether they could envision a career in science.   In the US, however, stories headlined declines in math performance with only a mention or two that the association of between socio-economic status and student performance in science in the US has declined (American teens’ math scores fall on an international test, Los Angeles Times‎; Internationally, U.S. Students Are FallingUS News & World Report).

In a few cases, reports went beyond the basic rankings to highlight other aspects of the findings.  Schools Week for example, headlined “No improvement for a decade” but also highlighted what it called “10 other oddities” including “White working class pupils are not doing worse than ethnic minority working class pupils”and “Second-generation immigrant children do as well as pupils with parents born in England.”  Quartz also used the PISA 2015 release to headline gender issues (The origin of Silicon Valley’s gender problem).  A number of reports also picked up on several other results that OECD highlighted, including gender gaps (particularly in interest in and career aspirations in science) and countries that were high performers and showed equity in education outcomes (like Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Hong Kong and Macao).  However, those issues usually did not make it into the headlines.

(It is worth noting, however, that this exercise of scanning the headlines continues to be limited by language abilities and the vagaries of online translations, which continue to produce hard to interpret results like “Science does not go into the forest! Polish students at the forefront of PISA 2015”)

— Thomas Hatch

Australia

PISA results show further decline in Australia’s education rankingsCanberra Times 

Australia not preparing students for adult lifeSky News Australia‎

PISA 2015 brings more bad news for AustraliaTeacher Magazine 

Teenagers fall year behind internationally in mathsThe Australian

Australian schools are in ‘absolute decline’ globally, says PISA reportABC Online

PISA results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic, The Guardian

Canada

Canadian students rank fourth for science performanceThe Globe and Mail

England

Pisa: UK and England see performance drop in maths and reading, but climb rankings in scienceTES News 

Estonia

PISA 2015: Estonia’s basic education best in EuropeThe Baltic Course

Finland

PISA: Finland only country where girls top boys in scienceYLE News

Germany

Pisa-Studie: Deutschland hält sich im oberen MittelfeldSpiegel Online

 Ireland

Irish students among ‘best at reading’ in developed world, In-Depth-Irish Times

Japan

Japan’s 15-year-olds perform well in PISA global academic surveyThe Japan Times

Luxembourg

PISA results 2015: Luxembourg student test results remain below OECD averageLuxemburger Wort

Macau

Education | Macau students ‘score high’ on PISA 2015Macau Daily Times

New Zealand

NZ students’ results decline, but still above OECD average – PISA …New Zealand Herald

Malaysia

PISA 2015: Malaysia shows significant improvement in Math, Science & readingNew Straits Times Online

Norway

Norwegian 15 year olds climbing on the PISA rankingsAftenposten

 Peru

PISA 2015: Perú mejoró sus resultados pero sigue en los últimos …Diario Perú21

Poland

Nauka nie idzie w las! Polscy uczniowie w czołówce PISA 2015TVP Info

Scotland

Scottish school standards in maths and reading slump in damning PISA survey.Herald Scotland

Singapore

Singapore students top in maths, science and reading in Pisa international benchmarking testThe Straits Times

United States

American teens’ math scores fall on an international test, Los Angeles Times‎

Internationally, U.S. Students Are FallingUS News & World Report

Wales

Full Pisa results 2016 show Wales’ schools are still adrift of the rest of the rest of the UK.Wales Online

Headlines Around the World TIMSS 2015 Edition

Generating a cascade of headlines, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released this week. As in the past, Asian countries dominated the rankings.  The press release noted:

“Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan continue outperforming all participating countries in mathematics at the fourth and eighth grades, maintaining a 20 year edge according to results released today from TIMSS”

For the most part, headlines highlighted whether a particular country did well or poorly, often with a particular focus on mathematics performance.  The headlines in Australia were especially gloomy, describing the country’s results as “flatlining” (Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine), “embarrassing” (Australian maths results embarrass minister, 9 News), and as a “wake-up call” (‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England Financial Review). Finland accustomed to more positive news also did not fare so well.  While google translate left much to be desired, the general tenor of the article in Helsingin Uutiset seemed clear: “the results of the boys have deteriorated, and the girls have to wedge the boys over in all the studied areas.”

Occasionally, headlines did not mention the outcomes in Asian countries and instead reported on performance related to closer neighbors (Aftenposten in Norway for example noting Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics while the BBC pointed out Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests).  In some cases, sources reported on conflicting aspects of a country’s performance. In South Africa, for example, allAfrica emphasized the positive (South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study), while News24 did not (SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science).  In the United States, the Wall Street Journal provided the positive spin (U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test); the Washington Post highlighted the negative (U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam); and the Christian Science Monitor covered both sides (US students gain a bit on math, but science scores still lag Asia).

Only in a few cases did headlines point to some of the other information available in the results (such as news on gender gaps, homework, and students’ confidence like those reported on by TES: Timss: England’s pupils do less homework and seven other things we learned from today’s study). The journal Science, however, focused on a new development in TIMSS 2015 by highlighting the overall poor performance of “advanced” high school students taking the most challenging math and science classes.  In Are the best students really that advanced? Science reported that with the exception of Russian students and some Slovenian students these “advanced” students in the nine countries “performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school.”  Notably that article also pointed out that “The East Asian students did not participate in the TIMSS Advanced (assessment) because it was seen as conflicting with the high-stakes final exam that determines university placement in those countries. So the TIMSS sheds no light on their performance across their entire school careers.” With such poor results and limited participation on the new test but a trend toward overall improvements on the more familiar tests, questions about teaching to the test are likely to be asked.  Further questions may come with the release of the results of the latest round of PISA tests on “PISA Day”, next Tuesday, December 6th (and I’ll share a scan of the PISA headlines next week both here and on internationalednews.com)

Thomas Hatch

 

A sampling of TIMSS results headlines:

Australia

Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine,

Aust maths results embarrass minister, 9 News

‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England
Financial Review

England

English pupils improve results in international maths and science exams, The Guardian

Finland

Tytöt menivät poikien ohi jo matikassakin – 4.-luokkalaisten taidot heikkenevät Suomessa, Helsingin Uutiset

France

French students rank last in EU for maths, study finds, France24

Germany

Study: German students’ mathematics achievement declines

Ireland

Ireland ranks 15th in global league table for maths, science, Irish Times

GDP would be boosted by 2.3 per cent if universal basic skill levels were achieved

Japan

Japanese students’ average scores rise in global math, science tests, The Mainichi

Morocco

Moroccan Math and Science Education Struggling, But Improving: Survey, Morocco World News

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests, BBC

Norway

Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics, Aftenposten

New Zealand

New Zealand pupils below average in maths results – TIMSS, New Zealand Herald

Singapore

Singapore students top global achievement test in mathematics and science, Straits Times

South Africa

South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study, allAfrica

SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science,  News24

UAE

UAE pupils improve maths and science skills, global study shows, The National

United States

U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam, Washington Post

U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test, Students in some Asian nations excel; U.S. students improve

 Wall Street Journal

US students gain a bit on math, science scores but still lag Asia, Christian Science Monitor

The problem and possibilities of improvement and “innovation” in education (Singapore and Malaysia edition)

The first problem with innovation is that it is hard to define. It is one of those, “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things.  As a consequence, almost any “new” practice, program, resource, or idea that departs from convention may appear “innovative” to some.  Yet for others, only the most revolutionary, transformative, or disruptive practices or materials deserve to be called “innovative.”  A shift from thinking of “innovations” as a singular category –  something is either “innovative” or it’s not – to thinking about the “symptoms” of innovation provides one way to address this definitional ambiguity.  (The philosopher Nelson Goodman, one of Noam Chomsky’s teachers, took this approach when discussing the definition of “art.”)  Symptoms of innovation include the extent to which something departs from convention as well as the extent to which it changes or transforms related activities. For example, even “smart” phones still retain some of the features of the land-lines that preceded them, but their mobility and wireless connectivity are new and make possible all kinds of activities (texting, surfing the internet, using apps etc.) that have changed the ways people behave and interact.  Other symptoms might include the extent to which something is viewed as innovative within a particular context (a region or industry) or as cutting across contexts.  From this perspective, mobile phones appear to be quite innovative as they have spread and contributed to changes in behaviors and activity across international contexts.  At the same time, technologies like whiteboards that seem commonplace in classrooms in many countries nowadays may still seem innovative in parts of the world where they are just being introduced.  In either case, the extent to which these new technologies have or might change behaviors and activities remains to be debated.

In education, many different practices, programs, and school models have been hailed as “innovative” in different times.  Nonetheless, substantial departures from conventional classroom practices and activities rarely seem to take hold across schools and contexts (as Larry Cuban continues to examine when it comes to technology and computer use in the classroom). In order to explore some of these “issues of innovation” and the challenges and possibilities for improving conventional educational practices, I am working with colleagues Deirdre Faughey, Jordan Carson, and Sarah van den Berg to look at what educators consider “innovative” both inside conventional school systems as well as outside (in alternative schools, after school programs, tutoring programs, museums, online activities etc.); and I’m looking at what’s “innovative” in both developed and developing education systems (such as those in New York City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Johannesburg). Theoretically these different educational settings should create different opportunities for, and perhaps different kinds of, innovations. Ideally, looking at how innovative efforts evolve in different contexts will provide some clues about what it really takes to transform conventional learning opportunities so that all students, from all backgrounds can be successful.  (For a look at some initial descriptions of efforts to improve different aspects of education, see posts on Citizen Schools, New Visions, the iZone, the Millennium Villages Project in Africa, and the India School Leadership Institute.)

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on what I learned when I visited and talked with colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia about recent efforts to improve their educational systems and what might be “innovative” in education in each context. The education systems in Singapore and Malaysia are particularly interesting because they are geographic neighbors with some shared history and culture.  Education systems in both countries are quite centralized, and both have introduced a number of initiatives to change and improve their performance.  Nonetheless, their education systems are at very different stages of development. Singapore continues to be at the top or near the top on comparative tests like PISA and TIMMS, while Malaysia ranks below more than fifty other countries in reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, while Malaysia has substantially increased enrollment rates at every level of schooling, it is in the midst of increasing compulsory schooling from six to eleven years, and it is still working to increase enrollments in upper secondary education which stood at 82% in 2011.

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

What struck me most, however, in my visits, were the differences in where efforts to produce more innovative learning opportunities are taking place.  What I found in Malaysia, for example, reminded me in some ways of what I see in New York City: the growth of alternative schools, after school programs, and other educational opportunities created by independent groups and individuals operating outside the public school system. Those I talked to about innovation in Kuala Lumpur pointed to a number of for-profit and not-for-profit efforts to create private schools and to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day. Among private schools, the alternatives to government-run public schools include international schools often connected to or resembling those operating in the US and elsewhere and some newer international schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University. There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  Outside the school day, organizations and collaborative like Edunation, Arus Academy, Tandemic, and EnglishJer have sprouted to address what their members see as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system.

At the same time, the government in Malaysia has continued efforts to ensure all children have access to education while also launching a variety of initiatives to increase the quality of education. Recent initiatives have focused on integrating Higher Order Thinking Skills into the curriculum, establishing a technological infrastructure in all schools (including internet connectivity, computers/computer labs, and a virtual learning environment), and programs to establish “Trust Schools” (modeled after the academies in England or what those in the US would consider charter schools).  Often, the Ministry of Education, with limited resources, finds a contractor to lead these initiatives, but then these contractors have to find and develop the means themselves to roll their work out across large numbers of teachers and schools.

Singapore

Singapore

In contrast, when I asked about innovation in Singapore, those I talked to generally pointed to major initiatives launched by the government as part of continuing efforts to improve and change the education system. These include efforts to focus on the development of 21st Century skills amongst all students and to integrating technology productively into teaching (as part of Singapore’s Fourth Master Plan for technology integration). These efforts reflect what colleagues in Singapore have called a “centralized decentralized” approach to create opportunities for schools and teachers to develop innovative practices, which if effective, can then be scaled up across the system. This approach included the creation of a set of Future Schools in 2007 that experimented with different approaches to using technology and that could serve as models or prototypes that could inspire other schools to change their instructional practices. In addition, in 2011 the Ministry of Education established Edulab which now provides support for educators to develop new practices and resources and creates opportunities to share those practices and resources across teachers and schools.

There are numerous educational opportunities outside the regular school classroom in Singapore, but those generally connect to and complement the work going on in the government-run schools rather than serving as independent educational alternatives.  Educational programs established outside the public schools in Singapore include workshops and field trips organized by cultural institutions such as the Singapore Discovery Center and the National Gallery of Singapore.  These educational opportunities serve as “Learning Journeys” that schools are required to offer students as part of Singapore’s commitment to integrating National Education into the curriculum.  The opportunities for learning after school and on weekends are also dominated by tutoring offered by a host of individuals and “tuition centers”.  Despite the concerns of the Singaporean government and many educators and parents, tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  Tuition centers focus primarily on preparing students for the national exams that students in Singapore take at the end of primary  and upper secondary school and before admission to university; but some centers try to distinguish themselves with their own educational approaches and some aim to help students develop skills that go beyond those emphasized in the tests.

Singapore and Malaysia present very different contexts for developing new educational opportunities for students, but both have to contend with the challenges of figuring out which new practices and programs might work and what kinds of mechanisms will help educators and schools to build on any successes. In the next few weeks, I will be following up on these initial impressions with closer looks at the evolution of some of the programs and organizations that are working to improve the educational opportunities in each of these systems.

— Thomas Hatch

 

Recent Observations on Finnish Education from Elizabeth Green

This post can also be found on International Education News

This past week Elizabeth Green, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Chalkbeat, shared a number of tweets from a recent visit to schools and day care centers in Finland.  She made telling observations, noting students’ use of slippers and the raised tables in daycares that make it easier for teachers to “get on students’ level”, that hint at the Finnish attention to detail and design.  She also pointed to key aspects of the Finnish education system that connected to some of the experiences that I had when spending a month in Finland with my family 2 years ago.  At that time, two of my daughters spent the end of the school year in Finnish classrooms, and my wife, Karen Hammerness, and I got to talk with a number of policymakers, educators, and researchers.  As Green indicates in tweets showing a graphic of the new Finnish Core Curriculum and noting that schools were given considerable time to prepare for implementation, the Finnish approach to developing a coherent national curriculum is totally different from the development of the Common Core in the US. While Green points to teachers who generally support the new Finnish Core Curriculum, the roll-out has included controversy over the extent to which the new curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary work.  Interestingly, Green also found that some teachers also dislike an emphasis on learning to code, an emphasis which seems to be embraced in many quarters in the US. Nonetheless, Green cited a new teacher gushing about her lesson plan as one of the best moments of a visit to a school as well as a teacher who commented that even with a “core” curriculum she still felt considerable autonomy.  We found that same kind of enthusiasm and sense of autonomy among teachers again and again, perhaps reflecting the extensive preparation and support that new teachers in Finland receive.  At the same time, during my visit, it seemed that autonomy also depends on a level of interdependence and collective commitment that often goes unmentioned. Green’s comment that she “Never considered proximity to Russia, geographic and cultural, when considering Finnish educational success” struck a chord with me as well.  The pressure and urgency that might have contributed to a commitment to centralize and transform the Finnish education system in the 1970’s (as Pasi Sahlberg describes in Finnish Lessons) came through to me when a Finnish educator told me that she grew up near the border in Finland knowing that Soviet tanks could be in her front yard in twenty minutes…

— Tom Hatch

 

 

 

Common ground for reducing school suspensions/expulsions?

These occasional posts reflect on issues I’m encountering in my own research and teaching and in the educational experiences of my three daughters. Some of those posts come from Internationalednews.com and others come from a current research project looking at the evolution of promising improvement efforts in New York City as well as other parts of the world.

Recent debates over school discipline in the United States have centered on whether or not districts/schools should eliminate suspensions. The latest AEI Express from Rick Hess presents two different views on the subject. Max Eden, from the Manhattan Institute, argues that unilateral elimination of suspensions, while well-intentioned, may do more harm than good. Hailly Korman, from Bellweather Education Partners, makes the case that there are effective ways to reduce suspensions in general and address racial inequities in suspensions as well. All their points deserve thoughtful examination, but it is fascinating to see Eden, a self-described “conservative” side with the President of the New York City Teacher’s union, Michael Mulgrew. Mulgrew criticized Bill DeBlasio, the Mayor of New York City, for imposing a unilateral ban on suspensions in kindergarten through 2nd grade. As Eden put it: “Mulgrew wouldn’t have broken so publicly with the man he helped to elect if he didn’t have a good reason” (although couldn’t that reason include unwavering support for the teachers Mulgrew represents to make their own decisions whatever the issue?). Korman, for her part, highlights that “The vast majority of incidents leading up to suspension or expulsion are non-serious or non-violent infractions, disruptions, and misbehaviors.” Notably, the decisions about whether and when to suspend students for these minor infractions are often subjective and end up disproportionately affecting African-American, Latino and Native American students, especially boys. One can imagine that both Eden and Korman might agree (as well as others they cite including researchers like Robin Lake and school leaders like Nancy Hanks) with efforts that focus attention on eliminating suspension/expulsion for minor infractions and establishing clearer criteria that limit subjectivity and bias. As Korman puts it, we all need “a more robust toolkit to respond to disruptions and frustrations” that provides a safe and constructive learning environment for all.

Thomas Hatch

Welcome

The center column will include occasional blog posts reflecting on issues I’m encountering in my own research and teaching and my own experiences as a parent with three daughters engaged in education both inside and outside the US. Some of those posts come from Internationalednews.com and others come from a current research project looking at the evolution of promising improvement efforts in New York City as well as other parts of the world.