International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Countries

This month’s edition covers assessment reforms in China and Canada, new teacher and VET policy initiatives in Singapore, the rising costs of education from a government and individual perspective, and education reports of note.

Assessment Reforms in China and Canada

ShanghaiMusicStudentsIn an opinion piece for CNN, Jiang Xueqin, an education consultant based in Beijing and a former deputy principal of Peking University High School, argues that the recent reforms to China’s university entrance exam system, the gaokao, are insufficient. The reforms are meant to give poor students a better chance at entering top universities and to alleviate some of the stress of high-stakes testing on the student population as a whole. Xueqin contends that, “Rather than try to dress up its system of narrowing doors, the Chinese government should better serve the people and the nation by concentrating resources on building ladders.” Such ladders, according to Xueqin, should include a Finnish-style early childhood education program, a German-style system of vocational training, and a stronger system of community colleges and continuing education programs.

Covering a different angle of the gaokao reforms, the Shanghai Daily writes about the mixed reaction to students no longer being rewarded extra points for sports or artistic pursuits on the national college entrance exam. While some are concerned that students may lose interest in developing non-academic skills if they are not part of the gaokao, the new measures also encourage students to build profiles to present to higher education institutions which not only include their academics, but an evaluation of special talents and physical and mental health. Ye Zhiming, Vice President of Shanghai University, says, “Hopefully, the profiles recording students’ overall quality can replace the ‘extra points’ system.”

TestTakersMeanwhile, Ontario will transition from pencil-and-paper testing to online testing for all standardized elementary and high school tests according to The Toronto Star. The online tests will start with Grade 10 in 2015-16. Initially the tests will remain similar to as they are now, only administered on a computer, but eventually the designers hope to make them more interactive and animated. The announcement from Ontario’s Education and Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) said the transition is intended to “make the assessments more engaging for students by allowing them to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a number of different ways.” It is also hoped that online tests will improve security and ease administration. In a story by the National Post, a union source said this raises concerns about “students having the same level of access and familiarity with computers in order to competently complete the test, as well as the amount of time and money that will have to be invested to bring the tests online.” It is predicted that the shift to online testing will cost an extra $6.4 million over the next two years, although the expenses will be recouped through reduced print production within five years.

In Singapore, New Teacher Policies and VET Initiatives

In late September, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced a range of new teacher policies. Today Online reports on reforms to Singapore’s educator career ladder. Singapore teachers can choose from three career pathways: a teaching track, a senior specialist track (where they focus on curriculum development and education research) or a leadership track (where they take on leadership positions in schools and Ministry of Education headquarters). The new reforms propose to increase the number of steps on the teaching track so that maximum teacher pay will be equal to principal pay and more teachers will have the opportunity to become master teachers. Another story in Today Online reports on a Ministry proposal to better prepare early primary school teachers by offering new advanced degrees in primary school education, and requiring them to specialize in two subjects instead of three. Channel News Asia focuses on the Ministry’s goal to cut the amount of time teachers spend on administrative tasks, by appointing finance staff, streamlining procedures, and upgrading technology. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat remarked that these reforms will ensure that teachers receive the Ministry’s full support to further their professional growth

STEMSingaporeRecently the Singapore government formed a Committee to review and recommend improvements to Singapore’s vocational and technical education system. The Committee’s work focused on making recommendations to strengthen industry linkages to provide work-relevant training for students, enhance educational and career guidance, and pursue research, innovation and corporate activities that support the Polytechnics and ITE’s academic mission. Parliamentary hearings on the recommendations revealed that some Singaporeans are worried that implementing the recommendations will come at the expense of traditional university education. Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat defended the ASPIRE Committee’s work, arguing that it shows the way toward qualifications for all, rather than promoting competition between sectors. Similarly, Senior Minister and ASPIRE Committee Chair Indranee Rajah reiterated that the recommendations would better-align polytechnic offerings with the needs of the workplace.

In line with this effort comes the creation of a new SkillsFuture Council, announced during the launch of Singapore’s Career Education and Training (CET) “masterplan” known as CET 2020. The new council will be tripartite and include representatives from government, business and labor unions. Its mission will be to oversee all initiatives aimed at “giving every Singaporean the opportunity to develop themselves to the fullest.” The council is hoping to develop an “integrated system of education, employment and training.” Minister Shanmugaratnam also said a “sectoral or national skills framework” will be developed to ensure a ready supply of skilled workers. For more, see ChannelNewsAsia.

The Rising Costs of Education

An article in the Economist looks at current research which attempts to address how money is best spent within education systems, including The Efficiency Index: which education systems deliver the best value for money?, published on September 5th and constructed by academics working with GEMS Education Solutions, and OECD’s Education at a Glance. The GEMS study analyzes the impact of education spending on student outcomes in 30 countries to calculate which system generates the greatest educational return for each dollar invested. The GEMS efficiency index resembles other worldwide rankings, with Finland and South Korea on top. Two of PISA’s other high performers, China and Singapore, were omitted because some data were unavailable. U.S. schools ranked poorly in both efficiency and outcomes in the GEMS report. Spending depends not only on what teachers earn, but on how many teachers a system employs. And according to both GEMS and OECD, in many places that number is rising, as countries cut class sizes in the hope that children will learn more. But the data provides little support for that policy. South Korea and Finland have high pupil-teacher ratios (third- and fifth-highest of the 30 countries GEMS studied, respectively). France and Norway, with few pupils per teacher, trail in performance rankings, coming 25th and 30th in PISA 2012.

HK PreschoolLooking at individual education spending, calculations by the nonprofit Hong Kong Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, found that the cost of raising a child from birth to college graduation in Hong Kong averages about 5.5 million Hong Kong dollars (US$710,000) for a middle-class family. In comparison, a recent calculation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that the average cost for a middle-class family to raise a child to the age of 18 was $245,340 — excluding college tuition. In Hong Kong, parents start sending their children to expensive private playgroups and pre-schools when they are just one-year old, and parents continue to pay a premium for tutoring, extra curricular classes and exam prep throughout their child’s school years. The president of an exam-preparation school in Hong Kong that charges up to HK$800 (USD$103) an hour said many children with good grades attend such classes. Many such families, particularly the wealthy ones, want their child to be not just good but the best, she says. Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

Paid preschool enrichment centers in Singapore told TODAY that they had seen large gains in enrollment over the past five years.   These enrichment centers cater to children as young as 18 months and offer a range of courses: English, basic math, phonics, Chinese, reading, writing and even “leadership” and brain training programs.   Parents pointed to several reasons for extending learning time for very young children: a desire to foster love of learning from a young age; concern that children weren’t getting enough stimulation in the home; and pressure to give children “a leg up” as much as possible. Critics countered that the extended learning was not helpful except in cases where families were severely disadvantaged. Read Channel News Asia’s coverage here.

Education Reports of Note

UniversityGradsWhile universities in the United States and the United Kingdom retain the top positions in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, East Asian universities are clearly gaining stature. In the annual list of the top universities in the world, Tokyo University and the National University of Singapore moved into the top 25 in the world while many U.S. and UK institutions fell in the rankings. The rankings are based on 13 indicators including research income, research impact, staff/student ratio and number of international students and staff. Institutions in China, South Korea and Hong Kong showed particular improvement. According to Phil Baty, the ranking’s editor, there is “…little doubt that key East Asian countries have emerged as higher education powerhouses…while traditional leaders in the United States, UK and Canada risk losing significant ground.” For more, see The Telegraph.

AIR reportThe American Institutes of Research (AIR) released International Benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards, which compares state performance standards in the United States using two international assessments, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS), as the common metric. The overall finding in the report is that there is “considerable” variance in state performance standards, representing two standard deviations or the equivalent of three or four grade levels. The author, Gary W. Phillips, points out that this “expectations gap” is more than double the black-white achievement gap in the United States. The report also found that the states reporting the highest level of proficient students under No Child Left Behind testing are the states with the lowest performance standards. Read the full report here.

The OECD’s latest PISA in Focus brief looks at grade retention in OECD member countries. They find that 12.4 percent of students in participating countries repeated at least one grade before the age of 15. The United States retains a slightly higher than average percentage of students (13.3 percent), while top performers Korea, Poland, Finland, Taiwan, and Estonia retain minimal numbers of students. For disadvantaged students, the rate was 20 percent; disadvantaged students are one and a half times more likely to repeat grades than their peers. Socioeconomic disadvantage was a better predictor of grade retention than achievement levels in many OECD member nations.