Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In 23 Advanced Economies: U.S. Adults Rank 21st in Math Skills

Separating out white, black and Hispanic adults would be more informative

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on Friday released the initial results of an international survey of adult skills in literacy and mathematics, revealing that Americans rank 21st in “numeracy” and are tied for 15th in literacy among adults in 23 advanced economies.

American adults also scored below the average in both numeracy and literacy for all respondents in all 23 advanced economies.

Japan and Finland ranked first and second in both categories and Italy and Spain took the bottom two spots in both.

The international survey--the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)--was developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The data from Russia was not included in the initial results, the NCES said, "because they were released too late for publication."

“Numeracy” was defined by the survey as “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”

“Literacy” was defined as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in society to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

The survey tested a sample of approximately 5,000 Americans ages 16 to 65, using a test that was scored on a scale of 0-500.

In numeracy, American adults achieved an average score of 253 out of 500, nosing out Italian adults who averaged 247 and Spanish adults who averaged 246.

Japanese adults led the field in numeracy, averaging 288 out of 500. They were followed by the Fins, who averaged 282; and the Belgians and the Dutch, who both averaged 280.

In literacy, American adults achieved an average of 270 out of 500. That put Americans well ahead of Italy and Spain, whose adults scored 250 and 252, respectively, but far behind Japan and Finland, whose adults scored 296 and 288 respectively.

The NCES report said that among the American survey sample there were 112 people who were unable to complete even the survey’s initial background questionnaire “because of a literacy-related barrier: either the inability to communicate in English or Spanish (the two languages in which the background questionnaire was administered) or a mental disability.”


15,000 British teachers have been judged incompetent – and most of those are 'qualified'

Lots of "qualified" teachers aren't much use

I was on the Today programme this morning talking about Nick Clegg's U-turn on free schools with Fiona Millar (starts at the 175 minute mark). The focus of our discussion was whether schools should be able to employ teachers who don't have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

The case for granting headteachers this latitude is overwhelming. To begin with, the fact that a person doesn't have QTS doesn't mean they're not qualified to teach. Richard Cairns, the headmaster of Brighton College, employes 39 teachers who don't have QTS, but many of them have first class degrees from Oxford and Cambridge in the subjects they've been employed to teach. As the head of an independent school – the Independent School of the Year, according to the Sunday Times – Cairns is trusted to exercise his professional judgement when it comes to who the best applicant is to fill a particular post. Shouldn't we have the same confidence in the professional judgement of state school heads?

No, say Fiona Millar and Nick Clegg, and exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is the Al-Madinah school in Derby, one of two free schools to be judged "inadequate" by Ofsted. The problem with that argument is you can't judge the success or failure of the free schools policy on the performance of just two schools. One hundred and seventy four free schools have opened since 2011 and, of those that have been inspected by Ofsted, 75 per cent have been ranked "good" or "outstanding". That compares favourably to the national average, with only 62 per cent of state schools getting the equivalent thumbs-up since Ofsted introduced its tough new inspection regime at the beginning of last year. It's premature to draw any conclusions about free schools on the basis of this because the total number that have been inspected so far is still small, but we can say that granting schools more freedom, such as allowing head teachers to judge who they think is best qualified for a teaching job, does not inevitably lead to disaster.

Yes, say the critics of free schools, but the cost of deregulating taxpayer-funded schools will always outweigh the benefits because the consequences of exposing children to incompetent teachers are catastrophic. It doesn't matter if three quarters of free schools are "good" or "outstanding", the fact that two have been ranked "inadequate" is a good reason to abandon the policy because the harm that's been inflicted on the children in those two schools, directly as a result of employing "unqualified" teachers, is greater than the advantages enjoyed by children in the other free schools. You can't treat children as guinea pigs in what amounts to a "dangerous ideology experiment", in the words of Tristram Hunt.

Trouble is, QTS is no guarantee of competence. According to a Panorama investigation in 2010, 15,000 members of the teaching profession are "incompetent" – and the vast majority of them have QTS. One reason why such a large number continue to work in our schools is because it's so difficult to get rid of them. Panorama also discovered that only 18 teachers had been struck off for incompetence in the United Kingdom in the last 40 years. That's one reason why 419 taxpayer-funded schools were judged "inadequate" by Ofsted last year, only one of which was a free school. So while the concern of Fiona Millar and Nick Clegg to protect children from incompetent teachers is understandable, insisting that taxpayer-funded schools only employ teachers with QTS won't help.

As my colleague Gabriel H Sahlgren has pointed out, there's no empirical evidence to suggest that pupils taught by teachers with QTS perform better, either in England or anywhere else. The fact is, most teachers aren't very good at the job when they first start, regardless of whether they have QTS or not. Some become good after a few years, some don't, and there's no evidence that those with QTS are more likely to become good than those without. It's notoriously difficult – virtually impossible, in fact – to tell which teachers are going to be good on the basis of their qualifications alone. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a famous essay on this very subject for the New Yorker, comparing effective teachers to football quarterbacks. In both cases, there's almost nothing you can learn about candidates in advance that predicts how successful they will be.

This suggests that it's sensible to reduce the amount of red tape around who schools can hire and fire, enabling head teachers to cast their nets as widely as possible and then get rid of teachers who prove ineffective, not return to the top-down state regulation favoured by Fiona Millar and Nick Clegg. The only people who will benefit from clawing back the freedoms enjoyed by free schools will be the teaching unions. It may be in the interests of their dues-paying members to limit the pool of potential teachers, but it's not in the interests of schoolchildren or the country.


Britain's  teachers unions’ guild system must be abolished, not strengthened

In a jab at Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is said to soon be requiring that all free schools and academies hire teachers with officially approved teacher qualifications. Mr Clegg shouldn’t be blamed for aiming to make sure that all English pupils have access to good educators. And surely, teachers who have undergone officially approved training must be better than those who haven’t? It sounds so right. But it’s not. In fact, it’s utterly and completely wrong.

Few dispute that good teachers are crucial for pupil performance, both in the short and in the long run. At the same time, better-educated pupils commit fewer crimes, and contribute more to economic growth, so good educators are clearly also crucial for producing positive spill-over effects that benefit society at large. This means that the public does indeed have an interest in ensuring a good teacher force.

Yet after decades of research we have little understanding of what makes educators effective. Observable characteristics, including teacher qualifications, generally have no or very small effects. This is a remarkably consistent finding in most rigorous studies worldwide. If there’s anything research in the economics of education has disproved, it’s the theory that teachers with specific qualifications perform better than those without. Most people might also find this intuitive since practically everybody has probably experienced good unqualified teachers and bad qualified ones (and vice versa).

But doesn’t this mean that a mandate requiring all educators to undergo officially approved training at the very least wouldn’t do any harm? Well, no it doesn’t. Since such a mandate ensures that many perfectly good educators – perhaps better than those holding teacher qualifications – can't enter the market, we would instead perpetuate a system that does nothing to improve the overall teacher pool. This is not in the best interest of children.

Should anybody be able to become a teacher then? Not necessarily. There is some evidence that teacher subject knowledge impacts performance positively. But there are many ways to gain subject knowledge, which is probably best determined by diagnostic assessments rather than via crude measures such as degree qualifications. Indeed, an English study from 2012 found no impact at all of degree qualifications on pupil achievement. At the same time, the impact of subject knowledge should not be exaggerated. Most of the variance in teacher effectiveness remains unexplained. For this reason, the diagnostic assessments should only be used to weed out the worst apples.

Once this process is completed, the only viable policy is to leave it to headteachers to decide whom they want as teachers. This is how private companies operate, in education and in other sectors. And who would accept that all manufacturing workers would need specific union-approved qualifications before companies can employ them?

Because of the lack of knowledge regarding what makes educators effective, the government should clearly step out of the way here. Regulation should always be carefully assessed before implementation, even if it can be shown that it could be helpful. This is because there are many unintended consequences that must be taken into consideration. But when there is so little evidence that a regulation would do any good at all, politicians should simply keep their hands off.

Unsurprisingly, unions and others have cried foul, rhetorically asking whether doctors should not be required to undergo medical training either. This comparison is entirely invalid. In medicine, there is a best-practice approach based on rigorous research that has found out what is and what isn’t appropriate treatment. This doesn’t exist in education. We simply don’t know exactly what type of teaching will generate the best outcomes for kids. What we do know is that forcing all teachers to have qualifications doesn’t help.

Forcing all academies and free schools to hire educators with officially approved teacher qualifications is therefore a nonsensical policy, at least if we’re interested in increasing pupil performance. Instead, it would further enforce teachers unions’ monopoly, strengthening the guild system they have been able to acquire through the political process. It’s good for unionised teachers – who will face less competition from other educators – but bad for kids.

The right policy is therefore not to reverse the freedom of academies and free schools to embark on their own quests to find good teachers, but rather to extend that freedom to all publicly funded schools. If the Liberal Democrats truly want to improve the English education system, nothing less than a U-turn would be expected. Hitherto thou shalt come, Mr Clegg, but no further.


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