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Massachusetts aces international math and science tests

Posted by Jim Stergios December 13, 2012 02:29 PM


With the announcement of the Trends in Math and Science Study results this week, there are all kinds of statements being made about who made out well and what it means. They range from the wildly overstated claims of the Foundation for Excellence in Education that Florida’s mediocre performance on the TIMSS signified that the Sunshine State is a “national example,” “world leader,”and “busting all the myths” to accurate praise for Massachusetts for showing continued progress into the upper tier of countries in the world in math and science.

Here are the four takeaways from the tests

The TIMSS test matters. Massachusetts should be extremely pleased to have done well on the TIMSS test, for it is in many ways a tougher test than the PISA tests. Dougal Hutchison and Ian Schagen analyzed the TIMSS and PISA tests for the National Foundation for Educational Research citing the work of Graham Ruddock, who looked closely at the tests in a British context, noting:

It is the quantity of reading that marks PISA out, not the complexity of the language, which is similarly unfamiliar in both the international studies. The high reading demand of questions in PISA is often accompanied by a relatively lower demand in the mathematics or science required. This reflects the lower level of mathematics or science that students can apply in new contexts as opposed to very familiar ones. (Ruddock et al., 2006, p.123).

The TIMSS is a more objective test based on multiple choice answers, with far more numeracy and algebra on the test items (PISA has more data manipulation), and more focus on knowledge acquired.

The United States is still doing poorly, but Massachusetts stands out among an increasing number of states that are participating as countries. On 4th-grade math, the US is fully 60 points behind Singapore, 40-plus behind Japan and 20 behind Great Britain. The States’ 11th place showing is no reason for celebration. As the NCES press release notes, 4th graders are improving over time with the average US score going up 23 points since 1995 (12 points in just the last four years). The US did moderately well on the percentage of 4th graders scoring advanced, coming in around 8th of the 57 countries sand other systems tested.

On 4th-grade science, the happy news is that US 4th-graders are performing at a higher level (now 7th of the 57 systems against which it was compared); the bad news… there is virtually no change in the US 4th-grade score since 1995! The US is over 40 points behind Korea and Singapore.

Worried? Let’s focus on 8th-grade performance, which tells more about sustained ability to move students forward (and also for reasons of keeping our dear reader’s interest). By the 8th grade US students fall to just slightly above average (509 versus the TIMSS average score of 500). Worse, there is virtually no change in 8th-grade US student performance on this test since 2007.

Average math scores, 8th grade (57 countries and education systems)
Korea, Republic of 613
Singapore 611
Chinese Taipei 609
Hong Kong 586
Japan 570
Massachusetts 561
Russia 539
Connecticut 518
Florida 513
US average 509
TIMSS scale ave. 500

Looking at some of the states that participated in TIMSS, we can see that a Globe front page headline this week was justified in noting that Massachusetts pupils buck the national trend. On both 4th-grade but more importantly on 8th-grade math, Massachusetts (if it were a country) scores with international leaders. We have a long way to go to get to the level of South Korea, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, but we blow the doors off of other states and the U.S. “World leader” Florida scores right about where the U.S. does. Hmm.

Turning to science, again, the US 8th graders muster a mediocre average score of 525 (versus the overall international average of 500). While the U.S. has made progress since 1995, that can’t be said of the period since 2007. What of state participants like Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut? Again, Massachusetts performs very well, behind only Singapore. We need to up our game significantly to reach Singapore, but we are far ahead of the US average and clean the clocks of neighbors like Connecticut and also “national leader” Florida.

Average science scores, 8th grade (56 countries and education systems)
Singapore 590
Massachusetts 567
Chinese Taipei 564
Korea, Republic of 560
Japan 558
Finland 552
Slovenia 543
Connecticut 532
Florida 530
US average 525
TIMSS scale ave. 500

States lead the way on reform. Arne Duncan noted in his press release associated with TIMSS that states can play a role in improving schools. Well, given what Massachusetts has accomplished these past two decades and the little impact of federal policy, perhaps a better way of putting it is: States and localities are the only entities capable of improving student performance. States and localities bring 90 percent of the revenue pie, and states and localities are flexible and innovative enough to craft policies that matter.

The question for Massachusetts is why, if it is showing this kind of progress, it would want to tether itself to national and federal efforts like the Common Core standards, tests, and curricular materials. Why the best state in the US would resign itself to being like all the rest of the states is truly a difficult policy decision to explain.

Massachusetts still has a way to go. The students participating in the TIMSS are a representative sample of students from around the state. We know we have a long way to go to get Boston, Cambridge, New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield and other urban school districts up to the bar. But the TIMSS data is clear in showing the weaknesses we have vis-a-vis the highest-performing countries. Singapore has double the percentage of students in the "advanced" scoring range in math and science.

So the title of this post is overstating where we are. We deserve a B or B+ on TIMSS, with a recommendation to redouble our efforts to address unique issues. Specifically, the test confirms that we need to make our standards and curricular choices even more rigorous and that we have work to do to improve the quality of our teacher core.

If we make the right choices, having the best schools in the world is within reach. Lowering the bar by adopting Common Core is no more helpful than it would be for a teacher to tell a student who is performing well and improving fast to join a study group with underachievers. For us that means the rest of the United States, which earns no more than a C- on TIMSS.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

A new law expanding virtual schools?

Posted by Jim Stergios December 10, 2012 08:00 AM

red tape.jpg

Back in January 2010, there was a lot of hope that the charter school expansions associated with the new law would work out well. The data on that is largely tremendous. The new charters are faring very well, thank you.

There were other elements in the law including the creation of statewide “virtual schools,” schools where students could do much of their coursework online. That promise was not kept, as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put into place what were onerous regulations that dissuaded all but the Superintendent of Greenfield Schools from attempting to create such an entity.

Susan Patrick, perhaps one of the most informed policymakers on virtual education, noted at a recent event in Massachusetts that the Department Education actually took her original advice on best practices in how to regulate online learning (no geographic restrictions, no enrollment caps, and pay for successful course completion, etc.) and did the exact opposite. (Check out from 22:00 to 24:30.)

In many states throughout the country, virtual or digital schools are serving ever growing numbers of students. During this public debate, my organization has urged everyone to look at Florida’s Virtual School, even inviting FLVS’s founder, Julie Young, to speak with district and state policymakers.

This past week, the Senate gave a second chance to digital learning in Massachusetts, passing a bill that expands the presence of virtual schools statewide, so that by 2020 the Board of Education could license up to 10 of such schools.

The bill, which originated in and was passed by the House as H4274 (no online summary available), gives emphasis and preference to those schools that will serve students with distinct medical issues, that have dropped out, travel for the arts or sports, fear bullying, and are high-performing students.

Starting in 2013, the Board of Education will be able to grant three virtual schools from 2013-2016, the same number from 2016-2019, and up to four in the 2019-2020 cycle. Again, no more than 10 can be created. Applicants for licensure can include school districts, charter schools, teachers, and parents – and the existing virtual school in Greenfield is guaranteed one of the licenses. The Senate bill establishing 37 elements necessary in any application, but then sets the following parameters:

  • The number of students attending virtual schools full-time will not exceed 2 percent (currently, about 19,000 students) of the statewide student population
  • Local school committees can restrict local enrollment if more than 1 percent of its students attend virtual schools (for a point of reference, in Boston around 550 students, in Chelsea 60, in Lawrence 130).
  • At least 5 percent of students have to come from the district within which the virtual school is formed.

The bill also does away with “seat time” requirements – that is, the minimum number of hours that a student must spend physically at school. It places the same curricular mandates and requirements for standardized testing as are present in all Massachusetts public schools.

As argued before (here, here, and here), I am a big supporter of lots of choices for parents. So in principle this is a good bill. I also appreciate the fact that the licenses will be given out for period of three to five years with a accountability review based upon achieving promised improvements in student achievement and other important metrics.

In section (m) there are requirements that the school submit an annual report that includes

  • a “discussion of progress made toward” stated goals;

  • “a list of the programs and courses offered;”

  • “a description and number of the students enrolled,” applied and not admitted;

  • “a [detailed] financial statement)”;

Section (m) requires “information regarding, and a discussion of,”

  • student attendance and participation;

  • student-teacher interaction;

  • student performance;

And, finally a discussion of

  • courses completed and not completed;

  • the creation of “a community for students”;

  • activities “to engage students and how students participated”;

  • parental involvement;

  • “the school’s outreach and recruitment efforts”.

That’s a lot of discussions and descriptions, and for the most part useful for the Department of Education as it seeks to learn about what is working and may work in the future. The bill also requires the Department will then produce its own report based on MCAS and other metrics, which it will provide back to the school and the public.

What is missing from all of this are two things I’ve noted in previous posts on virtual learning, drawing from the experiences in other states. First the negative, then the positive experiences.

As the New York Times’ Stephanie Saul made clear in her 2011 piece on virtual schools, Pennsylvania was seeing over 50 percent of its virtual students withdraw from the courses they were taking. The problem was solvable – and it required little more a proper auditing of teachers and students together with a change in the payment system so that payments followed the child, but were only made after the student had successfully completed a course.

Such a change would have all kinds of virtues, including creating incentives for the virtual school to seek out students who were good fits for online courses – not just warm bodies that would sign up for a course.

Which is where the positive experience of the Florida Virtual School comes in. Established in 1997, during the administration of then-Governor Lawton Chiles, FLVS started due to a $200,000 grant from the state department of education and support from the Alachua School District and the Orange School District.

As I noted in a previous RTS post, the Florida Virtual School, a Better Government Competition winner, is the example we should be looking at:

FLVS is not a simple distance learning option, with correspondence-style courses and videoconferencing, as you can find in rural western US states, Alaska and parts of Canada. FLVS is a completely internet-based model that provides students in rural as well urban settings everything from AP classes, summer intensive work and remedial support to a full-fledged K-12 curriculum. FLVS is a statewide school system funded on a “pay for performance” basis. Rather than focusing on “seat time,” it aims for students’ mastery of their subjects.

The numbers show that it is working. FLVS’ course completion rate has consistently remained above 80%, with 80,000 students completing 100,000 course enrollments (each enrollment equivalent to one semester’s work). These students range in demographics and in terms of needs—from emotionally and physically handicapped students to the academically advanced. Minorities comprise about one third of FLVS’s population, exceeding the national online learning participation rate among minorities by about 20%. Among AP students, minority participation was at 39% in 2006-2007. You can see some FLVS student activities here.

Susan Patrick’s iNACOL notes that FLVS has

pushed next generation learning forward with a combination of competency-based learning and performance-based funding. With open enrollment, students can register and begin online courses any day of the year… Funding is provided when students successfully complete courses. Every student in Florida has access to the 115 online courses offered by the Florida Virtual School, providing licensed educators who are skilled in online instruction.

This performance-based funding model has required FLVS to develop sophisticated data systems that monitor student progress in detail. Data was integrated between the instructional and administrative information systems used in the school. Specifically, the learning management system for the online course data was integrated with the student information system for a standards-based learning model for monitoring progress in real time.

Florida Tax Watch reported that the performance-based model of Florida Virtual School was a better return on taxpayer dollars—serving a higher percentage of under-served students, while producing better results in student learning outcomes—than traditional models.

So, where does this bill come out on funding? Well, as you might expect, we have got our work cut out to ensure that we are putting the right incentives into place. The bill notes in section (k) that

The amount of tuition per pupil a school district shall pay for its student or students who enroll in a commonwealth virtual school shall be the school choice tuition amount.

The school choice tuition rate referred to in the Senate bill is 75 percent of any school’s “operating cost per full-time equivalent pupil for the receiving school district.” The tuition rate is capped at $5,000. As Patrick notes in the video at top (again the same segment, 22:00 to 24:30), it is far better to have the funding follow the child on a per course basis, with the check being cut only when the student successfully completes the course.
But, alas, we will still be cutting checks among districts.

As a P.S., the final section of the Senate bill makes an explicit warning:

Upon release of the proposed regulations, the board shall file a copy thereof with the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate who shall forward the regulations to the joint committee on education. Within 30 days of the filing, the committee may hold a public hearing and issue a report on the regulations and file the report with the board.
That’s a bunch of words that admonish the Commissioner of Education not to tie this law up with red tape. Well said, Senators.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

The perfect storm facing Jewish Day Schools

Posted by Jim Stergios December 6, 2012 04:25 AM


Think of school choice in Massachusetts and the first thoughts that come to mind are charter schools in the public realm, possibly the Bay State's many high-end and mainly historic independent schools, or Catholic schools in urban and suburban areas across the Commonwealth.

The fact is that there is a lot of choice in Massachusetts. Consider the 3,300 kids in METCO interdistrict programs in Boston and, to a lesser extent, in Springfield; kids in other interdistrict choice programs around the state; and vocational-technical schools around the state.

If Catholic schools have seen declining enrollments, the waiting lists for charter public schools and METCO programs are in the tens of thousands. With the impressive work of the state’s regional voc-tech schools, they now have thousands of kids on their waiting lists as well.

Of course, for independent schools affordability is a huge barrier to entry. That is true not only of the $25,000-plus annual tuition locations, which often focus part of their recruitment strategies on providing scholarship opportunities; it is also true for Catholic schools and Jewish Day Schools (JDS).

With 3,000 students enrolled in Massachusetts’ 19 Jewish day schools (which represent Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and pluralist cultures), we are talking about a set of schools that serve about as many kids as are enrolled in METCO. Except for seven historic schools (Yeshiva Academy in Worcester, the Lubavitcher Yeshiva and the Heritage Academies in Longmeadow, New England Hebrew Academy and the Maimonides in Brookline, the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, and Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead), the JDS are of relatively recent vintage having been established since the 1970s.

A recent study entitled "And You Shall Teach Them Diligently": The History and Status of Jewish Day Schools in Massachusetts provides important historical and pedagogical analysis of JDS. (The title is drawn from an exhortation in Deuteronomy 6:7.) The author of the paper, Jason Bedrick, then focuses on enrollment declines in the day schools, which have mirrored the decreases seen in the public system over the past decade, though there has been some growth in Orthodox “Chabad-affiliated K-8 schools and high schools of all affiliations.” The result is that

Declining enrollment in recent years has left Massachusetts’ Jewish day schools with significant excess capacity. Capacity utilization ranges from below 49 percent to 100 percent, with only one school at either extreme and most schools operating at between 70 percent and 99 percent. More than half of the schools are operating at less than 90 percent capacity while only one-fifth are operating at less than 70 percent capacity.

What is leading to the declines in JDS is different from the demographic patterns we see in the overall public system. Part of it is cost, with “the range of total per student costs at the Jewish day schools [ed. note: including infrastructure costs] is similar to the range of current per pupil expenditures at nearby public schools [ed. note: excluding infrastructure costs].”

Citing Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, Bedrick notes that

the day schools are currently facing a “perfect storm” of a growing number of families requiring financial aid combined with a shrinking philanthropic base of support. This is making it difficult for Jewish day schools to fulfill their longstanding tradition of not turning away students due to lack of ability to pay…

Marc Baker of Gann Academy says that the need for financial aid since 2008 is “through the roof.” Gann is “closer to Catholic schools than other independent schools” in that the socio-economic status of most students is “right in the middle, on the brink of not being able to afford it.” This is true of many Jewish day schools in Massachusetts, particularly, though not exclusively, the Orthodox schools. “We don’t have a wealthy clientele here,” explains Esther Ciment, principal at New England Hebrew Academy, “There are multiple families with five or six kids in the school. It’s absolutely impossible for them to pay full tuition or even half tuition, so we give out a lot of scholarships. Filling that void is a struggle all the time.”

The latest demographic survey of the Jewish community in the Greater Boston area found that 27 percent of families earn less than $50,000 annually with 15 percent earning less than $35,000.

How should we address the “perfect storm” of increasing need for financial aid and decreasing philanthropic support? Acknowledging the two state constitutional barriers to providing public tax dollars for private school use, which sadly stem from the Know-Nothing bigotry of the 1850s and 1860s, Bedrick suggests an education tax credit program to ensure that children have the widest possible access to the schools their parents choose for them. There is a clear need, especially for low-income families; and tax credits have been targeted in New Hampshire and Rhode Island to address those specific needs.

Bedrick suggests looking at these programs in neighboring states to see how we might structure such a program here, suggesting that the education tax credits could be granted to philanthropies or philanthropists contributing to state-approved, non-profit scholarship organizations. The organizations would then grant scholarships to qualifying families.

Studies indicate that reductions in revenue from the tax credits are generally less than the corresponding reductions in education spending as a result of students taking advantage of the programs. More than 100,000 students in 10 states – including Rhode Island and New Hampshire –are currently educated under tax credit programs.

You can see a paper on Rhode Island's tax credit strategy here. See Bedrick describe the study below.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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