International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Education Systems

SingaporeStudentsEquity in Education Regardless of Socioeconomic Status  
Many of the top-performers are developing policies to ensure students from low-income families still gain access to a quality education. The government of Singapore is providing more assistance to low- and middle-income families towards the costs of pre-primary childcare and higher education, according to the Straits Times.  Families who earn up to $2,374 (US dollars) a month will now only pay $2.37 a month for pre-primary childcare, down from a maximum cost of $59.  For families who earn $3,798 a month, the cost will decrease from $103 to $67.  There will also be support to families with college students, as the qualifying income ceiling for bursaries (scholarship or grant) will be increased – it is now available to families who earn $1,503 per month, up from $1,345 per month.  University students from low-income families will see an increase in their bursary from $2,294 to $2,848 per year, for middle-income students, the bursary will increase to $2,057, up from $1,701.  This is all part of the Singapore government’s plan to boost social mobility, widen participation in higher education and help students from low- and middle-income families

It has also been reported that Singapore is cutting the per-pupil funding for students in the top schools.  These schools will lose from 4 to 8 percent of their operating budgets.  The schools were also asked to curtail independent fundraising for infrastructure upgrades.  The cuts come amidst concern about the lack of diversity at these top schools.  Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to encourage students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to aim for a place at these more competitive schools.  For more, see AsiaOneNews.

While some countries show a strong link between socio-economic status and student performance, that is not the case for all countries that participated in the 2012 PISA assessment.  In fact, the poorest 10 percent of students in Shanghai perform as well as the most privileged 20 percent of students in the UK and the United States.  Poor students in the Netherlands do as well in mathematics as much better-off students in France.   Andreas Schleicher ‘s analysis of the results shows that there is nothing inevitable about the weaker academic performance of poorer pupils.  “We tend to overestimate the impact of poverty,” he says.  Read more at BBC.

Also from the OECD, a new brief examines parents’ occupation in relation to student performance.  It finds that students whose parents work in professional occupations generally outperform other students in mathematics, while students whose parents work in low-skilled occupations tend to underachieve compared to their peers.  The strength of the relationship between parents’ occupation and student performance varies considerably across countries and cities.  As an example, when it comes to math performance, the children of cleaners in Shanghai outperform the children of professionals in the United States.  The OECD is unveiling a new web-based tool that allows users to explore the relationship between student performance in reading, math and science and parents’ occupations in PISA-participating countries and economies.

Curricula Beyond the Basics  
While ensuring a rigorous curriculum in the core subjects is always a top priority, here is a look at how some of the top-performing systems are strengthening their courses in other subjects from computer programming to music education to financial literacy.

EstonianmoneyOn February 6th for the second year in a row, the Estonian Banking Association held “Money Wisdom Day” in approximately one hundred schools throughout the country.  The initiative is aimed at giving students in the final year of elementary and secondary schools an introduction to handling money sensibly with real-life examples and exercises outside of textbooks.  Staff from various banks visited the schools to share financial knowledge with students and help them learn how to manage money, create budgets, and find answers to financial questions.  Read more at The Baltic Times.

Two pilot initiatives are set to begin this year in many Hong Kong elementary schools. The first, a music education program run by the non-profit organization Premiere Performances with funding from the Hong Kong government, will bring specialized music groups into elementary schools to host interactive music sessions for both teachers and students.  Premiere Performances founder Andrea Fessler says that the emphasis on exam and practice has often turned music courses in Hong Kong from joy to pressure.  The program seeks not only to provide music appreciation for students, but capacity development for teachers to help them create interactive and participatory exercises to engage their students in music learning.  Read more at South China Morning Post.

A second initiative, Code Club HK, will provide better IT courses for young Hong Kong students.  Current IT curriculum in Hong Kong elementary schools focuses on Microsoft Office programs, but Code Club HK director David Greenwood claims this is only “teaching children how to be secretaries.”  In late March, Code Club HK will launch after school classes in several elementary schools focused on giving students the tools to make meaningful code and be digital creators.  Students begin their studies by creating a game from scratch—a method that Code Club insists will lead more children toward becoming creative computer programmers.  The program hopes to have a Code Club running in 20 percent of Hong Kong schools by 2016. Read more at Tech in Asia.

A Digital Learning Advancement Program is being rolled out across Taiwan schools, aiming to provide a new kind of learning environment for teachers and students.  The Ministry of Education said the program is intended to enhance on-campus Internet access, establish cloud computing applications and related portal services, expand innovative e-learning applications and facilitate e-learning through a partner program between college students and elementary and junior high students.  The college students will provide individual assistance to the younger students.  Read more at Taiwan Today.
StudentChalkboardMath
Education Research of Note  
A new study from the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore focuses on whether direct instruction (concept-based learning) or productive failure (problem-based learning) is more effective in teaching children mathematics.  Direct instruction is the traditional method where students are taught the concept first and then solve various problems related to the concept afterwards.  The “productive failure” method reverses the order of teaching, where students try to solve problems first, and then are taught the underlying theory and concepts.  This experience teaches students to think about the problems independently and can better prepare them to understand the theory and concepts supporting the solutions.  The NIE research finds that students using the “productive failure” method exhibit a strong conceptual understanding of the problems and capacity to apply the theory to new and different problems, more so than direct instruction students.   Learn more about the research here.

New research from People for Education, an Ontario-based education lobby group, suggests that giving 9th graders a choice between an academic and an applied curriculum in high school exacerbates inequalities.  Students in Ontario are allowed to switch from one stream to another at any point in their program.  The report claimed that students in the applied stream graduated at lower numbers than students in the academic stream and had lower grades.  Liz Sandals, Education Minister, did not respond directly to the report but did point out the increase in graduation rates in Ontario high schools from 68 percent in 2003 to 83 percent in 2012 while still acknowledging an achievement gap between the two streams that she said the province is addressing through additional resources to schools that need them.  For more, see Globe and Mail.