Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Model of Successful Education Reform

For years, education reformers have struggled to find strategies to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children and eliminate the achievement gap between minority students and their peers. On Capitol Hill, decades of new programs and increased government spending on education have failed to achieve significant improvement.

But, there is new reason for hope that serious education reforms can make a lasting difference. After a decade of aggressive statewide reforms, students in Florida have made impressive strides on national exams, which should cause policymakers from around the country to study what's happening in the Sunshine State.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Florida students are outpacing the national average on improvement in reading and math. Between 1998 and 2007, Florida 4th graders gained nearly 9 percent on the NAEP reading test compared to 4 percent improvement across the nation. Florida students are also outpacing the nation in progress on math exams.Importantly, the greatest gains have been made by Hispanic and African American students. For example, African American and Hispanic students' 4th grade reading scores have risen by 12 percent and 10 percent respectively since 1998, ahead of their peers across the nation.Compared to students around the nation, Florida's minority children are making dramatic progress. In fact, Hispanic 4th graders in Florida now have higher reading scores than the statewide average of all students in 15 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

What is responsible for this progress? We tried to answer that question in a new paper for the Goldwater Institute: "Demography Defeated: Florida's K-12 Reforms and Their Lessons for the Nation." Thanks largely to the leadership of former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida implemented sweeping education reforms to set challenging standards, expand school choice options, hold public schools and students accountable for results, and improve teacher quality. Some of Florida's most promising reforms include:

- Standards and Accountability: Three years before state-testing was required by No Child Left Behind, Florida implemented a plan to test the majority of public school students annually and grade schools based on students' achievement. Test scores track students' progress over time to allow parents and teachers to gauge whether a child is learning.

- Ending Social Promotion: Students are held accountable for results, too. Third-grade students must be able to pass the state's reading test before moving on to fourth grade. In 2006, approximately 29,000 were identified for retention. Struggling students are provided remedial instruction.

- Focusing on Reading: Florida launched a statewide initiative to improve reading instruction. New reading academies were created to train teachers about how to provide better instruction. Two thousand reading coaches were hired to improve learning in schools across the state. Older students in grades 6 through 12 have access to reading instruction to provide remediation.

- Expanding School Choice Options: Florida is a leader in offering families school choice options. The state has more than 300 charter schools which are educating more than 100,000 students. Thousands of disadvantaged children and special education students are attending private schools using tuition scholarships.

- Improving Teacher Quality: Florida has implemented policies to attract talented teachers and reward those who are succeeding in the classroom. An alternative certification program allows talented professionals who don't have traditional teaching credentials to enter the classroom. Approximately half of all new teachers are being hired this way. Performance bonuses are awarded to successful schools to reward teachers who are lifting students' academic achievement.

It is impossible to conclude which of these reforms has made the biggest contribution to improving students' academic achievement and reducing the achievement gap. In all likelihood, the combination of these reforms is responsible for the improvement. But we review the existing academic research evidence in our study and find that studies report that reforms like holding schools accountable, ending social promotion, and expanding school choice are contributing to the improvement.

Given the breadth of Florida's reforms and the encouraging test scores as evidence, we hope that researchers continue to study the Sunshine State to help policymakers understand just how these reforms are making a difference. In the meantime, policymakers across the country would be wise to follow Florida's path in implementing this broad range of promising education reforms.Florida is proving that all children can succeed. If states across the nation can follow Florida's lead and replicate this success, millions of children - especially low-income and ethnic minority students - will have hope for a brighter future

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Math Skills Suffer in U.S., Study Finds

The United States is failing to develop the math skills of both girls and boys, especially among those who could excel at the highest levels, a new study asserts, and girls who do succeed in the field are almost all immigrants or the daughters of immigrants from countries where mathematics is more highly valued.

The study suggests that while many girls have exceptional talent in math - the talent to become top math researchers, scientists and engineers - they are rarely identified in the United States. A major reason, according to the study, is that American culture does not highly value talent in math, and so discourages girls - and boys, for that matter - from excelling in the field. The study will be published Friday in Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

"We're living in a culture that is telling girls you can't do math - that's telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math," said the study's lead author, Janet E. Mertz, an oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin, whose son is a winner of what is viewed as the world's most-demanding math competitions. "Kids in high school, where social interactions are really important, think, `If I'm not an Asian or a nerd, I'd better not be on the math team.' Kids are self selecting. For social reasons they're not even trying."

Many studies have examined and debated gender differences and math, but most rely on the results of the SAT and other standardized tests, Dr. Mertz and many mathematicians say. But those tests were never intended to measure the dazzling creativity, insight and reasoning skills required to solve math problems at the highest levels, Dr. Mertz and others say.

Dr. Mertz asserts that the new study is the first to examine data from the most difficult math competitions for young people, including the USA and International Mathematical Olympiads for high school students, and the Putnam Mathematical Competition for college undergraduates. For winners of these competitions, the Michael Phelpses and Kobe Bryants of math, getting an 800 on the math SAT is routine. The study found that many students from the United States in these competitions are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where education in mathematics is prized and mathematical talent is thought to be widely distributed and able to be cultivated through hard work and persistence.

The International Olympiad, which began in Romania in 1959, is considered to be the world's toughest math competition for high school students. About 500 students from as many as 95 countries compete each year, with contestants solving six problems in nine hours. (Question 5 from the 1996 test was famously difficult, with only six students out of several hundred able to solve it fully.)

The United States has competed in the Olympiad since 1974. Its six-member teams are selected over years of high-level contests, and trained during intensive summer math camps.

One two-time Olympiad gold medalist, 22-year-old Daniel M. Kane, now a graduate student at Harvard, is the son of Dr. Mertz and her husband, Jonathan M. Kane, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin, and a co-author of the study. The other two co-authors are Joseph A. Gallian, a math professor at the University of Minnesota and president of the Mathematical Association of America, and Titu Andreescu, a professor of math education at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former leader of the United States Olympiad team.

All members of the United States team were boys until 1998, when 16-year-old Melanie Wood, a cheerleader, student newspaper editor and math whiz from a public high school in Indianapolis, made the team. She won a silver medal, missing the gold by a single point. Since then, two female high school students, Alison Miller, from upstate New York, and Sherry Gong, whose parents emigrated to the United States from China, have made the United States team (they both won gold).

By comparison, relatively small Bulgaria has sent 21 girls to the competition since 1959 (six since 1988), according to the study, and since 1974 the highly ranked Bulgarian, East German/German and Soviet Union/Russian IMO teams have included 9, 10 and 13 girls respectively. "What most of these countries have in common," the study says, "are rigorous national mathematics curricula along with cultures and educational systems that value, encourage and support students who excel in mathematics."

Ms. Wood is now 27 and completing her doctorate in math at Princeton University. "There's just a stigma in this country about math being really hard and feared, and people who do it being strange," she said in a telephone interview. "It's particularly hard for girls, especially at the ages when people start doing competitions. If you look at schools, there is often a social group of nerdy boys. There's that image of what it is to be a nerdy boy in mathematics. It's still in some way socially unacceptable for boys, but at least it's a position and it's clearly defined."

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Fewer than half of British teenagers achieve basic set of A to C grades at GCSE (Middle school qualification)

Fewer than half of teenagers finish compulsory schooling with a basic set of GCSE qualifications including English and maths, official figures have revealed. Results for the first pupils to go through an entire education under Labour showed that 345,000 last year failed to meet the Government's benchmark for secondary school achievement. Despite a rise on 2007, only 47.2 per cent of pupils achieved the desired five A* to C-grade GCSEs including English and maths, leaving ministers struggling to hit a 53 per cent Treasury target by 2011. One in six pupils finished 11 years of compulsory schooling without achieving a single C grade in any subject.

The GCSE gender gap widened again with girls pulling further ahead. Teachers' leaders declared the scale of failure shameful but ministers insisted trends over the long term showed 'sustained improvement'. Figures for core subjects such as the three Rs, however, showed that attainment is rising more slowly than for other subjects. The proportion gaining any five GCSEs rose sharply to 64.6 per cent - 3.2 percentage points up on last year.

But the numbers able to count English and maths towards those five qualifications - the Government's preferred measure - went up just 0.9 per cent. Only 50 per cent of teenagers were awarded the Government's desired two Cs in science - up just 0.2 per cent on last year.

While the top-performing teenagers celebrated record numbers of A and A* grades, the figures sparked renewed concern over the fate of those at the other end of the spectrum. They showed that the proportion of pupils gaining five GCSEs including English and maths at any level - A* to G - fell 0.1 per cent to 87 per cent.

There was a mixed picture at A-level. The proportion of candidates achieving at least two A-levels was slightly down from last year's 95.2 per cent to 94.6 per cent. However the average point score per candidate was 733.5, up from 731.2 last year.

The gulf between independent schools and state comprehensives continued, with almost one in three pupils at fee-paying schools - 30.3 per cent - emerging with three As at A-level, against 7.6 per cent at comprehensives.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: 'It is good to see an improvement on last year's results, reflecting the hard work put in by teachers and pupils. 'But there are still far too many pupils leaving school without five A* to C grades including English and maths at GCSE. 'It is truly shameful that half the pupils in England do not achieve this level.'

David Laws, Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: 'It's completely unacceptable that so many children are still not getting a good basic set of qualifications. 'After 11 years of Labour promises, whatever happened to "education, education, education"?'

The Tories said the gap between rich and poor areas had widened. According to the figures, GCSE results will need to improve at twice their current rate if the Government is to meet its 2011 target. Ministers have introduced a new secondary curriculum with increased flexibility for schools to focus on the three Rs. Schools Minister Jim Knight said: 'These are very positive results that build on the improvements of the last decade.'

Only three in ten school-leavers score C grade or above in a languages GCSE The Government published the figure for the first time this year, aiming to shame schools which neglect languages. Only 30.6 per cent of pupils nationally achieved a good grade in a language this summer and school league tables due out next year will show the proportion at individual secondaries. These will allow parents to judge schools on their performance in languages for the first time. The poor showing follows a 2004 Government decision to make language learning optional for 14-year-olds. The slump in entries for language GCSEs has led to fears our school-leavers will be ill-equipped on the job market.

This summer only 382,228 took GCSEs in languages - down from 559,115 in 2002. French and German suffered particularly while Spanish entries rose but from a lower base. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Russian and Polish also rose but only a few thousand pupils took them. Fewer than a quarter of state schools require GCSE students to learn languages, according to a report last year. It found they are fast becoming the preserve of grammar and fee-paying schools as many comprehensives allow them to decline to 'extremely low levels'. Under plans to reduce academic demands on students, teenagers will be able to gain a 'short' course GCSE in a foreign language without having to show they can speak it. A second short course - worth half a GCSE - will focus only on speaking and listening, meaning students can pass it without ever reading or writing the language.

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