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Cross-posted from Education Week
This is the first of two blogs in which I interview Phil Daro and Jason Zimba on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Both Daro and Zimba played key roles in writing the Common Core mathematics standards. Daro has, among many other things, directed large-scale teacher professional development programs for the University of California including the American Mathematics Project and directed the New Standards Project. Zimba is Founding Partner, Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization.
Marc Tucker: When you and your colleagues had finished drafting the Common Core mathematics standards, and the states were beginning to adopt them, what were your biggest concerns about implementation?
Phil Daro: Well, I was very concerned that we had no tools that we could give school people that they could use to make the Common Core useful and productive. I am speaking mainly of the instructional materials and techniques required to make the Common Core come alive.
Jason Zimba: I was most concerned about the quality of the tests that would be used to assess whether students had mastered the Common Core. I believed then and believe today that the teachers will teach to the assessments and, that being the case, the quality and alignment of the tests is crucial.
MT: So how is it going?
JZ: When we started, it looked as though the two state consortia would dominate the testing market. Now that is much less clear, nor is it clear what might emerge if the two state consortia fail to dominate the testing market. It is also true that the earlier consensus around accountability and the place of testing in the grand scheme of things is in flux, creating even more uncertainty. I am for that reason much less sure than I was a few years ago that putting all my eggs in the testing basket is optimal. The curriculum front— making sure that teachers have an adequate supply of first-rate materials—is also very important.
MT: Are the testing consortia getting it right?
JZ: When we wrote the standards, we did not anticipate the degree to which the consortia would embrace computerization. It is, I think, too early to say whether that was the best decision for mathematics in terms of the types of tasks that are or are not available. But both consortia have shown a lot of fidelity to the standards and that is something to celebrate, as is the fact that there is much more mathematics in the tests the two consortia are developing than there used to be in American mathematics tests.
MT: You’ve talked about the importance of the design of accountability systems in determining the direction and quality of implementation of the Common Core. What do you mean?
PD: This was a worry from the beginning. Moving from test-based accountability for schools to test-based accountability for individual teachers, using a value-added, methodology, is very problematic. It could sink the Common Core. Teachers all over the country who earlier reported their enthusiasm for the Common Core are now opposing it because they see what they think of as tests based on the Common Core being used to unfairly characterize their performance.
MT: You both said to me a moment ago that you are turning your attention to curriculum, instructional materials and texts. What do you see going on in that arena now?
JZ: I think the most important thing about the Common Core is the way it rededicates the elementary grades to arithmetic. What makes me scared is that I open up a textbook and I see it still uses the old content architecture but it’s got a new section on Common Core stuff. That won’t work. In order to rededicate the elementary grades to arithmetic you have to redo the whole textbook. On another point, we see a lot of schools trying to implement each standard, one by one, in a very literalist way. The schools would do much better if they concentrated on turning classrooms into academic places where ideas really count, places in which discussion of those ideas is at the center of classroom activity.
PD: Children still have to learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Those things haven’t changed. The basics of arithmetic have been made more coherent, and arithmetic has been reorganized to lay a strong foundation for algebra and more advanced arithmetic. All in all, the biggest change is that at any point in the curriculum the content is more solidly founded on what went before and aimed more directly at what’s coming next.
MT: When I describe the Common Core at the elementary school level, what I say is, “It is still important to learn the algorithms. But what the Common Core does is focus kids on why those algorithms work, so that when they get to algebra and topics beyond that, they will have the tools they need to understand it.” Is that wrong?
JZ: I think that’s a great short summary.
MT: Phil, when we were doing New Standards, you and Ann Borthwick came to the view that the standards ought to be two things: they ought to be statements about what kids ought to know and be able to do and those statements should be attached to student work that exemplifies and illustrates the standards. The latter ought to be viewed as an integral part of the standards, not an appendage to them.
PD: If I had to look at one thing to judge the implementation of the standards in a school, I would look at the cognitive demand of assignments across classrooms. In a lot of ways, that’s the critical thing. What’s presented to the students is not as important as what students are responsible for doing. Put another way, what the students make is more important than what’s made for the students. So, giving teachers examples of student work that exemplify the kind of thing that they should be working on is essential. It is no less important to ask whether the materials given to teachers support the kind of student assignments that are likely to produce the kind of student work that exemplifies the standards. I see very little of this now.
By Marc Tucker
Ordinarily, I try to pick topics for this column I hope will be of general interest to a wide international audience. That is still my hope for this column, but, unlike the others, it is explicitly focused on one country. It consists of an interview with Dirk Van Damme, head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division in the OECD Education Program. I asked Dirk, in my experience one of the world’s most astute observers of the global education scene, to talk about what the statistics in the latest Education at a Glance say about the American education system.
Marc Tucker: Dirk, what did you learn about graduation rates in the United States, both in the schools and in the postsecondary system? We think we see similar patterns.
Dirk Van Damme: The patterns are in fact similar. It’s a story that is no longer new. Many countries are catching up to the United States at both levels, and many of them are going beyond that to show attainment rates well above the United States. High school graduation rates are moving very fast toward 90 percent, 95 percent, even 100 percent, while the United States seems to be stuck below 80 percent. Not only are the PISA countries with the best high school achievement figures outperforming the United States, but other countries are also doing better. The United States is moving into the bottom ten percent on the charts. That’s not where you want to be. In higher education, it’s a similar story. Historically, the United States was the first country in the world to extend higher education to the masses, with enormous growth in the higher education system following World War II. But that lead has now vanished. Last week in Switzerland, I heard that the Swiss are now thinking of a national objective of 70 percent of its college-age cohort in some form of college education by 2030. You have this enormous growth among Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, too, but the United States is now way behind and making no progress.
MT: The Swiss are a particularly interesting case to us because they ignored the advice of OECD and many others, and kept university enrollment rates low, to focus on vocational and technical education in their higher education system. They believe it is a major secret to economic success.
DVD: Their university academic and research programs are excellent, among the best in Europe. But, at the same time, they are strengthening an already strong program of vocational education in their higher education system. The Dutch, Swiss, Germans, and Flemish have all invested in high-quality vocational education and that’s paying off now. I personally do not believe the distinction between academic and vocational will last for long. They are becoming more and more similar. Academic education is becoming more applied and applied education is incorporating more academic content. The pathways now, instead of separating academic from vocational education, are doing the opposite, providing many more ways for students to move freely between academic and vocational pathways, in both directions.
MT: I’ve seen the same thing, all over the world. Returning to the United States, I noticed that the Education at a Glance data suggested that the United States might have a quality problem, not just an attainment problem. I read for example that Japanese associate degree holders are more proficient than U.S. four-year degree holders. Where did that proficiency data come from and what does it mean?
DVD: The data comes from the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey, the OECD adult skills survey. It measures literacy and numeracy proficiency and problem-solving ability in technology-rich environments for adults. The findings on proficiency are very important. No matter what a country values most in its education system and no matter how diverse the student body and their objectives, foundational skills are necessary. These proficiency gaps identified by the PIAAC survey suggest that there are enormous differences among countries with respect to what superficially similar credentials actually signify. As you point out, holders of two-year postsecondary credentials in Japan appear to have a stronger grasp of the foundation skills in language and mathematics than average graduates of four-year institutions in the United States.
MT: Let’s talk about mobility, another focus of the new Education at a Glance. Americans have long seen their schools as engines of social mobility, the best way for young people brought up in poverty to break out of that poverty and enter the middle class. But if neither our schools nor our higher education institutions are providing even the foundation skills needed to get good middle class jobs, what does that say about mobility, and, if mobility is a fading dream, could that have some bearing on rising inequality of incomes in the United States?
DVD: We know from the PISA data that the United States is slipping further and further behind the world leaders in student achievement. We know that the United States is home to a disproportionate share of the world’s leading universities. But the PIAAC data would suggest that the average higher education institution in the United States is not doing much to improve students’ foundational skills relative to their counterparts in most of the other OECD countries. My impression is that the reason for this has to do with the unusually high amount of institutional autonomy enjoyed by American higher education institutions. At one end this enables institutions to achieve world-class status. But at the other end, it is very easy for individual colleges to slip down the ladder, to let standards decline, without anyone noticing. We want to see educational institutions as providing a way out of poverty, as an antidote to inequality. But, if the institutions attended in large numbers by the poor and by the children of parents who did not themselves have a higher education offer very low-quality programs, then higher education may be contributing to increasing social and economic inequality, not the reduction of inequality.
MT: The larger question raised by this whole conversation is why the United States has been topping out with respect to access and quality, while cost has been increasing rapidly. Why do you suppose it is that one nation after another is going past us with respect to access and performance, and we are spending more money than all but a handful of them?
DVD: Diminishing efficiency is a problem at all levels of the system for most countries in the OECD. Budgets in almost all countries increased by 10 to 15 percent over the last ten years, without seeing a proportional increase in output. But this trend is much more evident in the United States, so the system has bigger efficiency problems. And the drivers of cost are more pronounced in the United States. The historical advantage that the United States has enjoyed for many decades has blinded Americans to the situation they are in. It is very hard for Americans to say goodbye to their belief that the United States is the most educated country in the world.
MT: What do you mean by efficiency problems?
DVD: It has to do with the quality of the teaching profession, the way teachers are recruited, educated, trained and compensated, which determines whether the system they are working in is capable of coping with the challenges that schools in all the advanced industrial economies everywhere now face. There are so many new challenges coming to teachers. It is a problem in many countries, but I think it is accentuated in the United States, particularly in secondary schools. Another explanation is the still-archaic way that schools are organized in the United States. In other countries, schools are organized differently and with more advanced management. In Finland, schools are learning organizations. In the United States, many schools are administrative units at the bottom of elaborate bureaucracies.
MT: I see top-performing countries embracing models based on very high quality teachers, and that is changing everything they do. But the United States is not doing that. However, I also see our governance system, not just the way we manage schools, but the way we govern the whole system, as problematic, too.
DVD: Looking across the whole range of OECD and PISA countries, the enormous autonomy enjoyed by American school districts seems very strange. Autonomy is translated into laissez-faire. I believe in school autonomy but not in laissez-faire. School autonomy and teachers’ professional autonomy is about empowering them to achieve excellence and that requires a framework of incentives and guidance. That is, it makes sense to give schools a lot of latitude in figuring out how to get the job done, but only when government has set the goals, created the measures of success, allocated resources for schooling in a fair and equitable way, provided the right incentives to the actors, created a talented workforce and set the framework for the curriculum. If you provide autonomy but do not do these other things, it is almost certain that the system will provide much less effective support to the students who are most dependent on the public education system for upward mobility than it does to the students who are already at the top of the heap.
For more information on Education at a Glance 2014, visit http://www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm.
By Nathan Driskell
An island of 23.4 million people, Taiwan’s sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan from China in 1895, the Japanese granted it back to the Republic of China after their defeat in World War II. However, when Mao assumed power over the mainland (renaming it the People’s Republic of China), the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan in 1949. Currently, the mainland People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while Taiwan claims sovereignty over the entire mainland as the original Republic of China. Many international organizations do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.
In the latter half of the 20th century, two fraught issues have shaped Taiwan’s cultural identity: first, these questions over sovereignty and second, the authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and Taiwan’s subsequent attempts to distance itself from him by decentralizing national authority and democratizing the political system. But if the island’s identity and political structure have been controversial, its growing economic importance, and especially, its impressive education system, cannot be questioned.
Taiwan’s educational outcomes have always been strong. But Taiwan got the world’s attention when its reading performance skyrocketed on the 2012 PISA test, moving from 23rd in the world in 2009 to 7th in 2012. What explains this dramatic improvement?
The Ministry of Education has been engaged in reforming the Taiwanese education system since the end of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, when schooling was highly scripted and tightly controlled by the national government. However, recent reforms have focused on fostering the critical thinking and literacy skills necessary to be internationally competitive on PISA. Taiwan’s education system had historically been criticized for putting too much pressure on students and focusing too heavily on exams requiring rote memorization rather than creative application of knowledge. The Ministry felt that this emphasis on cramming for fact-based exams hampered students’ chances for success on the PISA test, which required substantial critical thinking skills, and handicapped the nation’s international competitiveness.
In response to this need, the Ministry has promoted changes to policy on teacher professional development, so that teachers are encouraged to teach reading and develop reading curriculum with more of a focus on critical thinking. It also improved teacher preparation programs, and set the bar for entry into the teaching profession much higher. As a result of the poor results in reading on the 2006 PISA, the Ministry announced the Happy Reading 101 Initiative in 2008, which invested substantial funds in an effort to improve how reading is taught in schools. The reforms to teacher preparation, the new focus on reading professional development, and the substantial investment in reading curriculum and instruction are all designed to ensure that students receive a more well-rounded education, are exposed more regularly to high-quality materials, and are able to apply what they are learning to practical problems. In other words, they are intended to align Taiwan’s system more intentionally with the critical thinking skills required on the PISA assessments.
Taiwan’s PISA Results: Strong Performance and Substantial Improvement in Reading
In 2006, when Taiwan first participated in PISA, it ranked first out of all participating countries in mathematics. Subsequent performances have continued to be impressive, as the chart below shows. In the 2012 administration of the test, Taiwan ranked 4th in math, 7th in reading and 13th in science. While the improvements in math and science were modest, Taiwan dramatically improved its reading performance on PISA between 2009 and 2012, jumping 16 places from 23rd to 7th. On average across all subjects tested, Taiwan now ranks 4th out of all countries participating in PISA, after ranking 5th in the 2009 tests (Taiwan Today, 2013).
Focus on PISA Literacy for Reflective Teacher Self-Evaluation and Professional Development
One of the most important changes that explain Taiwan’s improvements in PISA is the country’s focus on PISA itself. Pi-Hsia Hung, who has been in charge of administering the PISA test in Taiwan for the past two cycles, remembers that in 2007, when Taiwan first shared the PISA literacy results with its teachers, there was considerable resistance to using the test results as a tool for improvement. Many teachers resented the focus on a new test that measured very different skills than traditional Taiwanese tests, such as the University Entrance Examinations and the Basic Competency Tests, which focused on knowledge acquisition and a wide demonstration of facts instead of application and critical thinking.
Despite this resistance, the Ministry asked teachers and principals to critically reflect on the first year’s results. While the nation’s math performance was first-rate, policymakers considered the reading scores (16th in the world) a wake-up call, and campaigned to frame the results as a national disappointment and opportunity for improvement. As a result, teachers, who at first saw the focus on PISA results as an indictment of their skills, began to see them as an opportunity to lead a nationwide drive toward international competitiveness.
Principals and policymakers began incorporating PISA results into teachers’ ongoing professional development, so that teachers were regularly being asked to consider how to help students improve in literacy instruction, critical thinking and the application of knowledge. Teacher professional development in Taiwan is a shared responsibility of the Ministry, the municipal Education Bureaus, schools of teacher education, and individual schools. For example, many teacher-training programs not only train prospective teachers, but also are responsible for providing in-service training and guidance for practicing teachers locally with support from the Bureau. At the same time, the Ministry subsidizes the cost of continuous learning opportunities for teachers. An online platform funded by the Ministry, the Nationwide Teacher In-Service Advancement Education Information Web, coordinates these professional development programs, giving teachers a hub for resources on reading instruction, information on training opportunities, and opportunities to collaborate with one another to try new techniques.
In Taiwan, teacher evaluation is considered largely synonymous with teacher professional development, rather than a punitive tool to weed out low performers. Since 2006, the Ministry has provided resources and guidance to schools on growth-oriented teacher evaluation. These tools include protocols for teacher observation, student feedback forms, guides for peer mentoring, and agendas for professional learning communities. Teachers are encouraged to observe one another, write up feedback and co-develop improvement plans, and meet in large groups to discuss how the results of the evaluation can be used as a tool for improvement. The principal serves the role of facilitator and coordinator of this continuous improvement effort. For example, the principal sets agendas for professional learning community meetings in consultation with teachers. These meetings are highly regarded. A case study of Taiwanese teacher evaluation practices emphasizes the role of the professional learning community meetings as an opportunity to take professional development beyond a search for a set of technical fixes and toward an opportunity to continuously improve in a mutually supportive group. Since 2006, the Ministry has encouraged teachers and principals to align these highly effective meetings with improvement on PISA. As a result, literacy instruction and critical thinking skills are often a focal point.
To date, the implementation of evaluation for continuous improvement has been largely left to the discretion of school administration and teachers themselves. This is because the Ministry wished to preserve a spirit of voluntariness and ensure that evaluations are not perceived as unwelcome ministerial intrusions. That said, the success of this professional development in improving literacy results has convinced the Ministry of the value of expanding it. The Ministry plans to roll out a more centralized and comprehensive evaluation and professional growth portal in 2016. It hopes that this portal will be able to incentivize broader and deeper participation, as well as track who is using these systems and the degree of fidelity of implementation.
As a result of their professional development, teachers have designed formative diagnostic assessments and lesson plans that begin to incorporate more critical thinking exercises that reflected the higher order skills measured by PISA. More broadly, PISA has changed the extent to which the nation regards teachers as professionals who are expected to improve their own skills. According to Dr. Hung, since Taiwan first administered PISA, the expectations of teachers have evolved to focus on their role as reflective practitioners who can constantly refine their teaching to better foster critical thinking skills, rather than guardians of knowledge who transmit it to passive recipients.
This professional development has also improved teachers’ ability to design and refine literacy curricula. In Taiwan, the responsibility for developing curriculum rests largely with individual schools and teachers, although such curricula must be aligned with a national framework, set by the Ministry and covering the subject domains of Science and Technology, Mathematics, Languages, Social Science, Arts and Humanities, and Health and Physical Education. Many schools have established collaborative Curriculum Development Education Committees, consisting of teachers, parents, principals, administrators, pedagogical experts and other community stakeholders. These committees often design their curricula to be student-centered: engaging students in the learning process by asking them to reflect on their personal life and what motivates them, identifying targeted areas to be improved for each student, and outlining specific outcomes and action steps that teachers and students will take to improve. In turn, teachers take the Committees’ guidelines to develop their own lesson plans and formative assessments, with ongoing support from online and university-based professional learning opportunities.
It has not always been this way. When compulsory education began in 1968, Taiwan was subject to the authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek, curriculum was highly centralized, and teaching was tightly scripted to control the messaging delivered to students. Once Taiwan began to democratize in the mid-1970s, decentralization and greater autonomy of speech became a national priority. Since 1987, Taiwan has decentralized its education system to give teachers more freedom. That said, the Ministry of Education still maintains oversight over the curricula by ensuring that they are aligned with a national educational standards framework. Furthermore, ensuring that teachers were consistently well prepared to assist with curriculum development and implement locally developed, standards-aligned curricula with fidelity remained a national priority. Therefore, professional development focused on PISA results serves as one in a series of initiatives — from promoting balanced Curriculum Development Committees, to strengthening Ministry oversight of standards, to developing online learning portals for teachers — that have ensured that teachers are adequately prepared to exercise this autonomy.
Happy Reading 101: National Investments in Literacy
While teacher professional development related to PISA has been a lynchpin of the Ministry’s literacy strategy, it has also prioritized financial investments in literacy improvement. These financial investments were announced as part of a literacy initiative called Happy Reading 101, launched in 2008. Taiwanese officials credit this program with Taiwan’s substantial improvements in reading.
While reading had always been emphasized in Taiwanese schools, it was typically taught in a rote way, emphasizing mechanical acquisition of decoding and comprehension skills without also focusing on student engagement and critical thinking. Given these limitations, Happy Reading 101 tries to help schools to more proactively position reading as a “core value”: teaching reading in more varied, more critical, and more engaging ways; encouraging parents to spend more time on reading; and ultimately helping more students to develop a love of reading and a critical appreciation for different types of texts. The Ministry encourages schools to adopt a range of strategies in support of these goals. Specifically, Happy Reading 101 provides funding to increase the amount of time dedicated to reading instruction in schools. It provides additional resources to improve reading instruction, including more and more updated books, lesson planning tools, and reading-focused educator professional development. It supports the modernization and expansion of reading material in elementary and junior high school libraries. It also promotes family engagement by giving schools guidance on how to incorporate family reading activities into homework and parent outreach. Lastly, it provides support for a campaign to urge members of different sectors, including museums, out-of-school libraries, and businesses, to join schools in promoting reading.
Happy Reading 101 is one component of the Intelligent Taiwan – Manpower Cultivation Project. This nine-year (2009-2016) Administrative Plan leverages $298.7 billion in New Taiwan Dollars (approximately $9.94 billion USD) to thirteen individual programs, with the goal of “ensuring educational resources are allocated as effectively as possible in such a way as to strengthen national competitiveness and cultivate outstanding, self-actualizing modern citizens who will also be citizens of the world” (Ministry of Education, Republic of China, 2010). Happy Reading 101’s budget is approximately 1% of the total Manpower Cultivation Project: $2.6 billion New Taiwan Dollars (approximately $86.6 million USD) over seven years. Schools first received funding in 2009. Program components, including family engagement plans and instructional guidance, were fully integrated into schools by 2011. The next four years of funding support ongoing efforts to revitalize libraries, continue outreach to parents, and leverage community partnerships in support of reading.
Dr. Hung credits the initiative with dramatically improving the quality of school libraries and increasing the quantity and quality of books children are reading. She also sees much greater participation in reading at home and at school, because parents and teachers are engaged together in the process of promoting reading. From her point of view, doing better on reading is not just a concern for schools, but also a national issue that the entire community was engaged in supporting.
Building a Higher Quality Teaching Force
A key ingredient in the success of top performing education systems is the quality of teachers. In 2012, 86 percent of Taiwan’s incoming teachers self-reported that they achieved at least above average in their secondary school classes; 56 percent reported they were at or near the top of their classes (IEA, 2012, p. 229). Furthermore, teachers are respected in this nation of 23.4 million people. Yet the preparation of the teaching force has still been a concern.
Although teacher education in Taiwan traditionally fell under the purview of a limited number of universities, teacher preparation expanded in the 1990s. A wide range of public Taiwanese universities and colleges, as well as private specialized teacher education centers, offered teacher education programs. The expansion of teacher preparation programs, and concerns about the quality of those programs, led the Ministry to introduce additional performance measures of teacher preparation programs, and limit the number of graduates to only the most competitive. In 2005, the Ministry introduced a plan to begin evaluating teacher preparation institutions, and close those judged to be inferior. The Ministry’s goal was to reduce the number of teachers trained by 44 percent. In addition to curtailing the growth of preparation programs and more critically evaluating them, the Ministry also instituted reforms to ensure that only the best-prepared teachers graduated from their programs. Once candidates complete their preparation, they now must take the Teacher Qualification Examination in order to be granted the right to be a teacher in the public school. In 2007, the pass rate on this examination was 68 percent; and in 2008, it was 76 percent (IEA, 2012, p. 67).
Despite these successes, refining and improving teacher recruitment, training and induction is an ongoing process. The Ministry released a White Paper on Teacher Education (unfortunately, not currently available in English) in 2012 that details plans to create new standards for what teachers need to know and be able to do, improve the quality of instructors in teacher education schools, expand professional development for all teachers, create an evaluation system of professional development for teachers, and better monitor the supply of teachers.
Recent expansions of compulsory education, requiring attendance in senior high school for all students, may also increase demand for more, and more qualified, upper secondary teachers in more diverse subjects.
Challenges on the Horizon: Equity, Access, and Ongoing Reforms
Taiwan has made substantial new investments in reading instruction, spearheaded ongoing efforts to help teachers be more reflective and recognize the value of critical thinking in their curriculum design and pedagogy, and monitored and adjusted the systems for preparing teachers so that only the most qualified candidates are licensed, and only the highest quality institutions confer degrees. Each of these improvements helps to explain the increases in Taiwan’s reading scores on the 2012 PISA.
Yet despite Taiwan’s successes, the Ministry is aware that challenges remain. For one, Taiwan has not focused as extensively as many top performers on expanding education access to the youngest students. Compulsory education starts at age six. This is not to say that there has been no progress in early childhood education and care: the government did recently institute a new fee-waiver system for those who cannot afford the fees required for five-year-olds to attend school. Taiwan has also drafted legislation to integrate day-care centers with kindergartens to create a more cohesive system. As a result of these efforts, about 80% of students from ages four to five receive education at a day-care center or a kindergarten (Pi-Hsia Hung, personal communication, September 9, 2014). That being said, funding and support of public education for three-year-olds has been far less substantial. When three-year-olds are included, the number of students participating in early childhood education drops to 40%. Some advocates in Taiwan have supported increasing the budget for early education fee waivers to include three-year-olds and four-year-olds. However, given resource constraints and the erosion of political capital that resulted from fiercely controversial 12-year compulsory education reforms, these reforms to early childhood may not happen for several years. (Pi-Hsia Hung, personal communication, September 9, 2014)
In addition to the limited investments in early childhood education, there is some debate as to whether Taiwan’s education results are equitable for all students. A great deal of evidence suggests that Taiwanese education has made considerable progress toward equity. For example, the OECD reports the percentage of students scoring in the top two levels (Level 5 and Level 6) of each PISA test as one indicator of educational equity. Thirty-seven point two percent of Taiwanese students scored in the top two levels of the 2012 PISA Mathematics Exam, with only Shanghai and Singapore outperforming them in this regard. At the other end of the spectrum, only 12.8 percent of Taiwanese students scored in the bottom levels in mathematics, a lower percentage than all but nine other countries. For comparison, 25.8 percent of U.S. students score in the bottom two levels in math, while only 8.8 percent of U.S. students score in the top two levels. Another measure used by the OECD to indicate equity in a nation’s schools is resilience: that is, the percentage of disadvantaged students in a country who are among the top-third of performers worldwide. Taiwan performs exceptionally well on this measure. With 60 percent of its disadvantaged students meeting the OECD criteria for “resilience,” Taiwan ranks behind only Finland, Macao, and Hong Kong on the proportion of its disadvantaged students performing at this high level. (OECD, 2013; Taiwan Today, 2013)
Taken together, these data indicate that Taiwan is performing quite well on measures of equity. That being said, socioeconomic status explains 17.1 percent of the variation in student mathematics performance on PISA, compared to the OECD average, and U.S. figure, of 14.8 percent (OECD, 2014, p. 200). This result led the OECD to label Taiwan as a country with “above-average performance, and below average equity” in its latest Education at a Glance report (OECD, 2014, p. 196). Therefore, the evidence for equity in Taiwan is mixed, and the ambiguity suggests that Taiwan still has some work to do to provide an excellent education for all of its students.
Concerns about equity and access prompted substantial recent changes to the structure of Taiwanese education. Until summer 2014, compulsory education in Taiwan lasted only nine years, until the end of junior high school. Under this system, the Basic Competency Test (BCT), a multiple-choice test that covers Chinese, English, mathematics, natural science and social science, determined placement in high school. The prestige of senior high schools was determined by the cut score used to determine admission, so there was little incentive for schools to recruit underperforming or disadvantaged students who were at risk of ending their education at the end of the nine compulsory years.
Advocates for more equitable access and greater lifelong learning opportunities for all students charged that the system was designed to privilege senior high school prestige over equitable access to higher education. In order to address these criticisms, the Minister of Education instituted a series of major structural reforms in summer 2014. Compulsory education in Taiwan now lasts 12 years: all students attend senior high school, rather than those with the highest scores. The reforms to compulsory education also changed the procedures for admission into high school, since all students are now required to attend. Students’ scores are now used to determine their ranking for admissions, but only in circumstances where the demand exceeds the number of available seats in schools. Students have to take additional subject-specific tests only when they are applying to specialty arts- or science-focused high schools.
Although the reforms have been controversial, with parents charging that the new system is confusing and poorly explained, the Ministry asserts that the new system will allow all students to have a high-quality upper secondary education. Managing these controversies and continuing to expand access will be a major focus of the Ministry’s work moving forward. Although there is room for improvement, the country’s successes in implementing the Happy Reading 101 programs, improving practice on teaching students critical thinking skills, and raising the bar for teacher certification, position Taiwan well for continued success and future growth.
By Jennifer Craw
This year’s edition of the OECD’s annual report Education at a Glance offers new insight into what factors influence how education systems invest in teachers. This data looks at how each country spends the money that it dedicates to paying teachers by analyzing four factors that contribute to that cost: 1) level of teacher salary; 2) required amount of time students spend in school (instructional time); 3) teaching time, or how much time teachers devote to directly teaching students rather than related activities like planning or meeting with other teachers; and 4) class size. OECD looks at the cost of teacher salary per student, but then isolates the effect of each of these factors on the overall cost.
The chart below shows the OECD’s calculation for teachers’ salaries per student in lower secondary schools in OECD member countries. The United States is highlighted in red and top performing countries on PISA appear in dark blue. A few top performing systems – Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan – are not included in Education at a Glance since they are not OECD member nations.
According to the this chart, the U.S. falls near the middle of the pack for overall teacher salary per student, and top performers like Netherlands, Australia and Finland are near the top.
When the OECD analyzed the effect of each of the four contributing factors, level of salary for individual teachers has the most impact on cost. This is no surprise; it is also a finding that is hard to analyze since absolute salary levels are hard to compare among countries with very different costs of living and distributions of salaries across their economies. OECD also found that instructional time had the least effect in most countries. Of greater interest, and what we discuss below, is the effect of class size and teaching time on overall teaching cost compared across OECD countries.
The next chart shows the effect of class size on the cost of teachers’ salaries per pupil. A country that hires more teachers to reduce class size will spend more money on teachers’ salaries to do so, no matter what teachers are paid.
In this chart, the negative numbers represent countries that are spending less on teachers’ salaries by allowing larger than average class sizes, while the positive numbers represent countries that spend more money on teachers’ salaries by reducing class sizes. The top performers are spread out along the spectrum, with Korea at the low end, where larger class size has the effect of making the cost of teachers’ salaries per student lower for the system, while Finland is toward the upper end, with the cost of smaller than average class sizes increasing the cost of teachers’ salaries per student. The United States is among those countries with smaller than average class sizes which increase the cost per student. The OECD finds that class size has the second greatest impact on overall teacher costs, after teacher salaries.
The number of hours teachers spend directly teaching students rather than preparing lessons, meeting with parents, observing or meeting with other teachers, also plays into this equation. Some countries require teachers to teach many more hours than others, and this impacts the number of teachers that need to be hired. The next chart explores the impact of required teaching time on the cost of teachers’ salaries per student.
The countries with teacher pay per student reduced (in the negative dollars) are countries where teaching time is greater than the OECD average of 691 hours per year and fewer teachers are needed. The countries with positive dollar amounts are those that require less than the average teaching time and therefore spend more money on teacher salary per student because more teachers are needed per student. This chart highlights most strikingly the differences between how the United States spends money on teachers and how top performers spend money on teachers. The United States spends less on teachers’ salaries per student by expecting its teachers to spend more time directly in front of students. Meanwhile, top performers like Japan, Estonia, Poland, Korea and Finland all spend money to ensure that teachers have time outside of teaching to continuously improve their craft. Shanghai, China and Hong Kong, jurisdictions which are not included in Education at a Glance, also require teachers to teach only a fraction of the time of U.S. teachers. Teachers use the time when they are not teaching to work with peers on improving lessons, observe other teachers, conduct research, and many other important activities that contribute to the high performance of their students.
Taken together, the data shows that when it comes to deciding how to spend money on teachers, the United States spends more money to reduce class size and less money by increasing the teaching time of its teachers. Meanwhile, the top performing countries are more likely to spend money that provides time for teachers to continuously develop their knowledge and skills, and they are not as concerned with maintaining small classes. It is a policy tradeoff that the United States should consider. For NCEE’s take on how the United States can better support its teaching force and better spend the money it does on teachers, see the recent report, Fixing Our National Accountability System.
Date: October 28, 2014
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