kitchen table math, the sequel: Race to the Average

Friday, December 3, 2010

Race to the Average

Our state will get Race To The Top money, so our town is putting together a plan that is based on the state test. The goal is:

"90% of students entering the 4th and 8th grades will be proficient in reading and math on our state assessment"

This is really a Race To The Average. Do most parents think that state proficiency levels are good enough for their own kids? I don't think so, but do they think the money will help their kids? I haven't seen our (58 page!) proposal yet, but I can't imagine that there is anything more than a guess and check approach to increasing the numbers.

31 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

"90% of students entering the 4th and 8th grades will be proficient in reading and math on our state assessment"

I always say our motto should be: "Irvington School District. Practically all of our students pass the state tests."

Catherine Johnson said...

There is now widespread agreement in Irvington that the state tests are no good. I've been lobbying the district to offer students a good test, but only 2 board members are listening this year.

Of course, that's better than 2 years ago when no one was listening.

SteveH said...

I don't think the goal (in K-8) is to make the state test harder. The purpose of the state test is to keep schools from letting kids fall through the cracks. The problem arises when people think that the test indicates that everything is fine for individual kids. Our schools even encourage this thinking. They point to the high percentage of kids who get over a minimial cutoff to say that they provide a good education. The state helps this along by changing really bad raw scores on the tests into nice looking percentages based on a pass/fail proficiency index. It's easy to think that everything is fine if you are looking at percent numbers in the range of 85-95 percent, rather that the bad raw percent scores on the tests. Schools know that the most able students aren't getting what they need, but they don't want to draw attention to that.

What I think would be more helpful in our town is to get the schools to define exactly what they do at two points; in 6th grade, when they select which kids get onto the math track that leads to algebra in eighth grade, and in eight grade, when they place kids into either a college prep or an honors class, subject-by-subject in high school. This would give parents real numbers to work with at the top end. K-8 schools need to quantify what is best in addition to what is minimal. Too many people think that minimal is not far from best. This helps them keep their beloved differentiated instruction.

PhysicistDave said...

SteveH wrote:
> Do most parents think that state proficiency levels are good enough for their own kids? I don't think so…

Really? Most parents I’ve talked with do seem to think that.

Their criterion seems to be that as long as their kids are a bit above average, everything is cool. And I’m referring to upper-middle-class professionals here.

You know, this is a democracy – if most parents really were unhappy about the schools, they could do something about it. Political organizing at the level of the school district is not very hard, at least if the majority of voters already agree with you.

As far as I can see, the majority of parents do not agree with most of the people here on ktm. Parents are getting the schools they want.

I know a lot of parents will indeed say that the nation’s schools in general are not so hot. But, in my observation, they generally feel their own kids’ schools are okay.

Any evidence to the contrary?

Dave

ChemProf said...

I suspect Dave is right. My experience is limited, but I have noticed in talking to local parents that they don't want to hear anything that might make them doubt the local school. After all, this is a "good" neighborhood near a "good" school.

An old friend of mine in Seattle is an example of this. Her daughter is a dramatic type, and is involved in a children's theater group. They expect to have to go beyond the school system for her needs. But for their son, who likes math and science, they figure the school will take care of it. Their district just adopted Everyday Math, but the teachers told her they'd make sure students memorize the times table, so everything is fine (she figures). Plus, the first graders participate in the school-wide science fair. That's the level of thought she gives to these issues. She is very involved in the school -- on the PTA, etc. -- and it is central to their social life, so any criticism is taken as personal criticism. I don't think she sees any problems with her kids' school, but it would drive me crazy. She is very concerned about my plan to homeschool, however!

Allison said...

There aren't a lot of incentives in place for parents to assume that schools are terrible until proven otherwise. But more, (I repeat myself), there are few observables for parents to know if they are getting the schools they want for their children.

How can a parent, even a college educated parent, know what's happening in a school? Especially in a math or science curriculum?

They can't. Schools and districts do a great deal to keep parents from knowing the details of curriculum, teacher evaluations, methods for tenuring teachers, prior problems with teachers, etc. The whole LAUSD value added data issue came up because LAUSD refused to do anything public with data they had, and the LA Times had to commission RAND. And lo and behold, the evidence showed that the most easily quantified observables on teacher performance ALSO had no effect on student outcomes, so again, how can a parent know?

A parent can observe that there are no arts courses or theater courses at school, and know they will need to go beyond. But they can't easily observe the inferiority of the math curriculum, the lack of sustained mastery of time, or that a school can emphasize science and in reality, it's just eco-brainwashing. Individual observational samplings won't help them.

Parents make decisions based on what they can observe: class size, safety, teachers' experience in classroom management, newness/cleanliness/cheerfulness of building, and happy faces on children, and the occasional report card.

It's YEARS before they notice something is amiss, especially if the child got high marks, and then, it's pretty difficult to come to the conclusion that what was wrong was everything.

Assuredly, there is defensiveness and confirmation bias--if you're spending 1.4 million on a home on the coasts to get into a "good" public school, you might find it hard to accept that it isn't. But also, any attempt to do more, or find out more is met with a whole slew of tactics designed to marginalize the individual parent--Catherine's experienced this in spades. Then there is the concern that your criticism will in fact affect your child's schooling for the worse.

Crimson Wife said...

Political organizing at the level of the school district is not very hard

Yes, actually it is *VERY* hard for parent advocates to compete against the power of the teachers' union. This happened in the most recent school board elections in my district. The union stooges used their greater campaign financial resources to pay for lots of advertising & gain greater "name recognition". It's very discouraging to see the parent advocates get grossly outspent and then lose to the union stooges.

PhysicistDave said...

Crimson Wife wrote:
>Yes, actually it is *VERY* hard for parent advocates to compete against the power of the teachers' union.

I said it was easy if “the majority of voters already agree with you.”

If most parents are more or less satisfied with the status quo, which seems to be generally the case, then “parent advocates” will not have the majority with them, and, of course, the establishment candidates will easily win.

I have personal observations on this: when I was in junior high, the dad of a friend of mine was on the School Board. The dad of one of my brother’s friends was also on the Board. Neither Mr. Reid nor Mr. Schroeder had that much trouble getting on. Neither was a teacher or tied to teachers.

It is true that both gents were calm, don-t-rock-the-boat kinds of guys. And that’s my point – it’s not hard to get on the Board if you have very strong support in the community: both of these guys were well-like and avoided alienating anyone. If “parent advocates” have very strong support, they will get on the board.

I’ve never seen a situation where “parent advcates” do have strong support, and I doubt they almost ever do, simply because most parents are satisfied with their schools as they are.

That’s my point.

Incidentally, we have recently seen at a national level a historic flip in the House of Representatives because a few percent of voters changed sides, partly due to a fairly small number of voters (the Tea Party, etc.) who passionately wanted change. Change happens in a democracy -- *if* a majority strongly wants it.

Of course, political scientists have noted for a long time that the main function of democracy is to pacify the populace and to ratify and legitimize the policies of the ruling elite: most people most of the time are accepting of the status quo, and, so, most of the time, real change under democracy is very difficult.

But that is just because the majority usually does not strongly want change.

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

I generally agree with both Allison’s and ChemProf’s points: I’m a harsher critic of the schools than most other people here, and I certainly agree that the system is badly broken.

But, for the reasons all of us have laid out, the fact is that most people seem really not to think the system is truly broken, at least not when it comes to their own kids’ schools. Indeed, as ChemProf says, they very strongly do not want to hear the news about the problems in their own kids’ schools, and, as Allison says, it is hard to get the quantitative hard data.

However, it is not hard to actually sit in on classes, or, at least, to look through your kids’ textbooks, go over their homework, etc., but few parents want to do even this – either they will find out everything is fine (so what was the point) or they won’t (which will be distressing). It’s a “lose / lose” situation.

And, in fact, parents who should know better put on “rose-colored glasses” when looking at their own kids’ schools, just as parents tend to do when looking at their own children.

I know this sort of behavior is irrational, I certainly wish it were not so, but, alas, it is.

SteveH said...

I agree with Allison:

"Schools and districts do a great deal to keep parents from knowing the details of curriculum, teacher evaluations, methods for tenuring teachers, prior problems with teachers, etc."

It's not just about the union. It's their turf.

I've been to parent/teacher meeting where some internal discussion pops up and the other teachers quickly squash it. It's like an iron curtain. Our schools had a school/community long-term K-8 educational strategic plan workshop a few years ago, but most assumptions were off the table. It was mostly about how they could do a better job of full inclusion. Everything focused around the state tests as the only evaluation of a proper education. When advanced students were talked about, it was never about how full-inclusion was fundamentally wrong. There are too many issues here, both with process and with curriculum. If you don't like any of the assumptions, then there is nothing to be done. These are not mean people. Many are wonderful and quite sincere. They really think they are struggling to provide the best education possible.

How is a parent to react? I think the rose-colored glasses come out for some as the child gets older and they don't want to face what really happened. They might even react angrily at other parents who have done extra and who they think are creating super kids.

I remember talking to someone who said very naturally that they never trust the schools to get the job done. Most parents I talk to are trying to work with the system because they don't have any other choice. You never know what they do or don't do at home unless you specifically ask them.


Allison said:

"Then there is the concern that your criticism will in fact affect your child's schooling for the worse."

This is huge. I've tried to work for change in a friendly, constructive manner. It doesn't work.

I don't think that many parents feel that the system is broken. Most like the idea of public schools and understand that the schools have to teach all kids. That doesn't mean that they are happy. It also doesn't mean that they would all agree upon the same things to change.

However, there is a definite strain in our town over what the K-8 schools can do with the more able students now that we have full inclusion. Many parents take their kids out and send them to private schools (which may or may not help). This leaves fewer parents who are willing to fight. Some trust the schools and want to help them figure out ways to make differentiated instruction work. These are the team players who are usually elected to the school board. Then, there are those who see K-8 education in more tangible and specific terms. Even if we could have an open meeting about the needs of the more able kids, the views and solutions will be all over the board.

The only possible solution I see is to target specific things like our 6th grade math placement test. However, I can't say that I would receive a happy welcome if I said that I wanted to help parents understand exactly what it takes to prepare a child for this major turning point.

My position is that K-8 schools are playing fast and loose with the top end of full inclusion, and they know it. They see the kids being moved to private schools. I've talked with our middle school principal about this in a friendly way, but nothing will be done other than they will try harder with differentiated instruction. They won't, however, go on a campaign to tell parents not to trust the "proficiency" numbers on the state tests.

Anonymous said...

Do most of these parents care very much about how well their kids are educated, *OR* do they just want their kids to get into "good" colleges and graduate?

A co-worker of mine was sending his 3rd/4th grade kids to a $20K/year private school. He was *very* unhappy about the poor quality education they were getting. But ... the school was seen as a very good feeder into the high school he wanted his kids to attend. So they stayed. He was going to have paid close to $150K for each kid to get what he considered a poor K-8 education. But clearly the quality of the education wasn't the point.

I'm pretty sure that he would *not* choose a "better K-8 education, less chance of getting into the desirable high school" option if it was available.

So ... is he an outlier (well, yes, he is ... most people won't spend that sort of money for what they consider a bad education), or do many/most parents care more about the kids getting in to "good" colleges than they care about their kids K-8/K-12 education?

-Mark Roulo

lgm said...

We're in culture war. One side beleives sustained effort = academic acheivement. The other doesn't and wants socialism. Call it the Little Red Hen's story, the Ant vs the Grasshoppper, whatever, the majority wants something for no effort beyond showing up and stuffing the treasure in the loot bag.Some have noticed a few ants/hens working and wish to stomp on them, so that they don't get any more treasure than any other. Now that they've succeeded in stomping out real education, the ants/hens will abandon them and go to private or home school.

Glen said...

I thought my local school was just fine for the first three years. I thought I was on top of things. I had even asked about the math curriculum and had been reassured that they used something called "spiraling," which sounded to me like their term for what I knew as "spaced repetition" from the cog sci literature. Well, that sounded good. I imagined something along the lines of the Saxon Math approach though, at the time, I hadn't yet heard of Saxon. In any case, it was a good school system full of families with parents at Google, Oracle, Adobe, Apple, etc.--my industry. Parents like us wouldn't put up with a bad school system, after all.

It wasn't until I started getting serious about providing my son with math "enrichment" using Singapore Math that I discovered a mysterious anomaly.

After only a couple of months of afterschooling, it began to appear as though I could guess whether my son knew something in math or not simply by the heuristic of whether I had taught it to him or not. This didn't make sense, because he was at school all day long and only got half and hour or less from me at home, which included geography and other topics. I figured it was an illusion of some sort. Maybe I was just shadowing what they were doing at school.

My third grader insisted that, no, it was because I "did lots of math" with him, while at school they "mostly did other things because the teachers mostly like reading and writing, not math." That didn't sound right, so I went to work tracking down the source of this apparent "bug" in the system.

Of course, you know what I found. My son had been right. That was hardly the only surprise, and when I tried to tell my neighbors what I was discovering, I got another surprise: they didn't want to hear about it.

SteveH said...

I think one of the difficulties is to define the problem simply and clearly. I know that we (KTM) talked about this years ago; the idea that when we start spouting off to other parents about math, they look at us like we have three heads. I think the goal is to find some way to help at least some kids. They will show the way for others.

The message is important because we are saying that the K-8 teaching of math is not good enough for many students. It's not a matter of contributing a few helpful suggestions. I don't know how you fix that. At best, I think it would be useful to focus on the the assessments that schools use for sorting kids onto the fast track in math. These are things that the school says are important, not us. Perhaps more parents will catch on if they see those expectations in black and white.

I've mentioned before that the high school expectations in math were used to force the middle school to get rid of CMP and offer proper pre-algebra and algebra classes that lead to geometry as a freshman. The curriculum gap was clear.

It seems very difficult to drive higher expectations down into K-6. What's worse is that if you open up curricula like Everyday Math, you see reasonable problems. What you don't see are the low expectations and low mastery.

PhysicistDave said...

lgm wrote:
> We're in culture war.

My kids were recently at a sleepover at a friend’s house – all of the other girls go to traditional public schools (our kids are homeschooled).

Somehow, the girls (all middle-school age) got into a discussion of whether it was good to be intelligent. A couple of the girls declared, “It is good to be smart, but not too smart.” No one dissented. (The group had already labeled my kids the “smart girls,” so they had the sense not to defend being smart!)

That’s the culture war.

(Incidentally, one of the kids who was pointing out that one should not be “too smart” is an Asian American kid, going against the stereotype that Asian-Americans have not picked up the anti-intellectual aspects of American culture).

Of course, I’ve never heard “It’s good to be athletic but not too athletic,” or “It’s good to be a talented pop singer as long as you’re not too good at it.”

These kids were mouthing attitudes that are dominant in mainstream adult culture. As long as that is what Americans think, the schools are going to follow suit. As long as adults act as if Elvis was a more important person than Jonas Salk, the kids are going to pick up on it.

lgm also wrote:
> One side beleives sustained effort = academic acheivement. The other doesn't and wants socialism.

Well… they don’t think they want “socialism.” Most Americans honestly think they abhor “socialism.” Of course, “public” – i.e., government-owned, -financed, and –operated – schools are in fact “socialism” in the dictionary sense of the word: the US K-12 “education industry” is largely socialized (as is most of the university system, albeit in a somewhat more complicated manner).

But Americans think of “socialism” as something that happened in Soviet Russia or, perhaps, still in Sweden, but not in the local schoolhouse.

It’s a bit like the conservative inability to see that the military is “Big Government”: the current US military may or may not be necessary, but it most assuredly is “Big” and it most assuredly is part of the “Government”!

Dave

lgm said...

My son ended up being the only person on his middle school team to qualify for JrNHS. The most vocal sentiment from his homeroom was "You don't have to do THAT good".

The going sentiment is that middle school grades don't count, so don't bother. And that goes right back to the grasshoppers - why work when you can play? Nothing bad will happen, and if by some miracle it does, we can take from the ants.

Lisa said...

My experience has too been that parents think passing the state test shows what a good education their children are getting. Long ago, when I expressed concern about my oldest dd's just average scores people and the school thought I was a nut job. (We after schooled for years to get her caught up). After 6 years of trying to work with our school to up (at least for my kids) the difficulty I gave up and am homeschooling my younger kids. Again, nut job. Average is where most people seem to want their kids to be. As pp said, being 'too smart' is bad. It makes you stand out. You might not get a date to the prom!

SteveH said...

It's a different world in K-8. In our high school, few think that average on the state tests means that one is prepared for a good college. Parents and kids are focused on the class grades and looking towards the SAT or ACT tests. In our case, the state requirements for a portfolio and senior exhibition are just an annoyance.

In K-8, many don't feel that there is anything to worry about yet. Besides, there is nothing else to look at except for the state tests, and the schools make big claims about teaching problem solving and critical thinking.

When kids get put onto the lower math track to nowhere in 7th grade, how are parents supposed to know that it was because of really bad K-6 math curricula? They see some kids do really well.

Some parents want more in K-8. Is it possible to get this? How?

Catherine, how do you think it might play out in Irvington if they think that the state tests are no good? I can't imagine that you can raise the low cutoff level much. Does anyone talk about defining some sort of high level targets for K-8?

PhysicistDave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PhysicistDave said...

Has everyone seen Tuesday’s NYT article comparing Shanghai’s PISA scores to the USA and other countries?

As the article explains, Shanghai is hardly representative of all of China, but the results are still surprising.

My wife and I found the article especially interesting because our family was in Shanghai less than two months ago: it was a startling experience. I mentioned that the city looked like a true twenty-first-century city; my wife’s cousin’s daughter, who joined us for the trip corrected me, saying that, no, it looked like a twenty-second-century city.

China still has lots of problems: one thing I noted in particular was that, for all their entrepreneurial/free-market spirit, the Chinese I spoke with still assumed that social problems would be solved by the state. They did not seem able to grasp the American “we’ll solve it ourselves” attitude (e.g., as exemplified by ktm).

So, the Chinese future is far from certain, but it was an enlightening experience.

Dave

Article is at: www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/education/07education.html?_r=2&src=me&ref

Allison said...

Dave,

How far off the main streets did you step in Shanghai? Because Beijing, is still a Potemkin city--go ONE block in the opposite direction from where your minders want you go to, and it's people using the street as the bathroom, dirt hovels, and the rest of the extreme poverty that exists in most of Chine. ONE block.

Glen said...

Beijing is no Potemkin village, and I haven't had a "minder" since the Reagan era. I'm blond, so I'm obviously a yangguizi (foreign devil), but I speak Chinese, and I've been free to wander around Chinese cities unminded for more than twenty years.

Unless you were in Beijing around the time of the Olympics (when there was a lot of Potemkinish nonsense going on), what you see in cities like Beijing, old Shanghai (Puxi), and Guangdong is the result of sudden development of an existing city. I saw the same thing previously in Seoul and Taipei. Money gushes in so fast that the rebuilding skips steps, going from hovel to glass and steel in one jump, creating some strange juxtapositions that wouldn't have happened if development had been slower or had taken place on empty land (as in most of the US or in Pudong in Shanghai), where everything can be new. A Potemkin village is a false front; this is a real front line of explosive development. And many of those back alley dwellers now earn very good money in the skyscrapers.

Of course, that's not to say that the Shanghai PISA results aren't an educational Potemkin village. I suspect they are, but I could be wrong. My kids think they work hard on math, but their cousins in Shanghai work much harder (though less efficiently, I think.)

Allison said...

Well, you could wander away from where you were supposed to go, but someone would meet you on the street who claimed to be a friend of a friend from college days at UC Berkeley who wanted to ingratiate themselves to you and then have you "help" with their English, while shockingly! they were always people who worked in your tech industry. All lies, all spies, but all "friendly". You might not think of them as minders, but I do.

Friends in banking sector and tech sector all had the same experience, and when they walked a couple blocks, so they same poverty they'd see while traipsing around with a backpack 20 years ago.

Bostonian said...

The file "Race to Nowhere", which decries standardized tests, including A.P. exams, is being shown at many middle and high schools in upscale towns around the country, including my own. The New York Times has an article about it today, "Parents Embrace Film on Pressures of School".

PhysicistDave said...

Allison asked:
>How far off the main streets did you step in Shanghai? Because Beijing, is still a Potemkin city--go ONE block in the opposite direction from where your minders want you go to, and it's people using the street as the bathroom, dirt hovels, and the rest of the extreme poverty that exists in most of Chine. ONE block.

Well, my wife and her cousin’s daughter are both fluent in Mandarin, so we were “on our own” most of the time in Shanghai: we got around via subway, taxi, and, of course, walking. Naturally, the non-“showy” parts of the city were not as impressive as the Bund and Nanjing Lu (the main tourist shopping area). On the other hand, we did not see any contrast as big as, say, between Times Square vs. Harlem (of course, Harlem’s problems are due to pathologies beyond mere poverty).

China is still a poor country. I guesstimated that white-collar workers in Shanghai had a standard of living comparable to that of my grandparents in the States when they were kids circa 1915-1920 (I got all the info I could about monetary income, appliances in the home, food they ate, etc.). The real poverty seems to be in the countryside – the little that we saw of the countryside suggested that some rural areas are at, say, nineteenth-century American standards of living.

The Chinese themselves strongly emphasized that the country is still poor: they know they are better off than a decade ago, and much better off than in the Maoist era, but they are well aware that they have nothing like our standard of living.

It was interesting that they were quite open about the enormous challenges they face – everything from dealing with air pollution and traffic congestion to establishing a legal system that defines and protects property rights and finding a middle ground in their educational system so that their kids do not commit suicide because of the pressure. The country is now going through a huge real-estate bubble: the regime is trying to bring about a “soft landing” (this, again, is a general topic of discussion). It will be interesting to see if the Beijing technocrats are any more successful at that than Greenspan and Bernanke were.

Perhaps what was most remarkable was the air of confidence about the future: they know they face huge problems of various sorts, but they believe they can deal with them. The young people (under thirty) we saw on the streets looked busy and serious but also confident and happy – young women dressed stylishly, young men in suits in a hurry to get something done.

The most “futuristic” thing was not the futuristic buildings (though some were indeed pretty cool!) but that the people seemed to be truly looking forward to the future.

I don’t think most Americans do.

Incidentally, it was pretty much an unquestionable dogma that the progress they have made in the last three decades (my wife had visited in ’79, right after the reforms began, so she could testify to the breath-taking changes) was due to the creation of a market economy: of course, that dogma happens to be true. On the other hand, a willingness to study hard and work hard has helped quite a lot, once they had a market economy.

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

Glen wrote:
>Of course, that's not to say that the Shanghai PISA results aren't an educational Potemkin village. I suspect they are, but I could be wrong. My kids think they work hard on math, but their cousins in Shanghai work much harder (though less efficiently, I think.)

The NYT article suggested that no one, including the Chinese, claims that the Shanghai scores are representative of what you would get for China as a whole. The point is that this is what China can achieve, working at its very best, even though it is still a poor country.

That last qualification is really the key: with our affluence, our easy access to public libraries, our ability to buy whatever books we want, our almost universal Web access, our greater amount of leisure hours that we could spend to help our kids educationally, our greater income that we could spend on tutors, etc., America should be light-years beyond China educationally. Shanghai may be China’s “showcase” city, but Shanghai is still much poorer than even, say, Biloxi, Mississippi.

So, what would the Shanghai kids’ scores be if they had their values and work ethic and our wealth and income?

I agree with Glen, based on what I have heard from my wife’s family and from discussions with people in China, that Chinese students tend to “work hard” rather than to “work smart.” One Chinese I spoke with was very interested to hear that I had felt free as a student to challenge teachers I thought were wrong on some point. The Chinese are quite aware that their educational system is not optimal.

Again, though, the Shanghai kids outscored the American kids even though everyone agrees that they have an imperfect educational system. We Americans are (or used to be) the world’s leaders at innovation, individual initiative, entrepreneurial risk-taking, etc.

We should be beating them. Easily. It should not even be close.

Dave

Glen said...

The NYT article suggested that no one, including the Chinese, claims that the Shanghai scores are representative of what you would get for China as a whole. The point is that this is what China can achieve, working at its very best, even though it is still a poor country.

But my point is: I don't believe it. I can't prove it, and I could be wrong, but I think that "this is what China can achieve" by other means than education. The government has maintained control for 60 years without an election in part by endlessly stoking resentment toward foreigners and presenting the communist party as the only thing standing in the way of further humiliation. Inflating Chinese ego by putting on a show for the world is a survival strategy for the party.

China's goal in an international comparison like PISA is NOT to assess their own relative strengths and weaknesses in order to improve; it's to present an image of Chinese greatness to the world. They have to make sure they'll look good, or they won't participate. For decades now, the Chinese have participated in the International Math Olympiad, where they could aggressively filter more than a billion people at every school down to the very best of the best, who would be trained like gladiators by government trainers in nothing but math contest, until the winning six would emerge to represent the Chinese People. At the same time, they were apparently refusing to allow TIMSS or PISA access to a broader sample.

Now, after twenty or so years, they are finally ready to allow the world to look at a larger sample, and we get what? One city? Are we to believe that the logistics of enabling a math test to be administered by PISA contractors in more than one city were too much for the people who run the Great Firewall of China? Or was it the logistics of rigging a test with so many participants in more than one place at a time?

I don't believe the results were even representative of Shanghai. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a combination of such things as strategic student transfers, falsification of birth records (as they did in the Olympics), PISA-focused tutoring and curriculum modification, and so on, were employed for quite a while before China could prepare one set of schools in one city with enough ringers that they were ready to allow them to be "randomly sampled" by the testers.

Glen said...

[cont'd]

When the best nations in the world all cluster in the mid-500s, statistically tied (roughly), yet the only Mainland Chinese site the Chinese government has ever allowed to be tested scores a full half standard deviation above them all, is this gap more likely the result of China's skill at education or their skill at propaganda?

With no apparent advantage over other Chinese (or Koreans) in genes, IQ, hard work, academic competition, family and peer pressure, curriculum, teacher training, after school cram schooling, or any other educational factor I'm aware of, the source of the Shanghainese advantage might come from something quite different.

Allison said...

--Inflating Chinese ego by putting on a show for the world is a survival strategy for the party.

Yes, because it's really a show for people in China as much as for the world.

Nothing in China is what it seems. Odds are it's the biggest economic bubble ever, and it's about to burst. There's no reason to think these scores are any more authentic than their ability to make diesel submarines or miniaturized warheads or anything else they suddenly have.

The PRC uses stoking national pride to try and create a unified nation. They are interested more in keeping it all together more than anything else.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote:
> Nothing in China is what it seems. Odds are it's the biggest economic bubble ever, and it's about to burst.

As I said, the Chinese recognize that they have a huge real-estate bubble, probably worse than the one that the USA had. The cause seems to be the same, by the way: artificially low interest rates and easy credit created by the government monetary authority.

How far does the bubble extend beyond real estate? No one knows: they have been trying to slowly shut down or privatize the inefficient government enterprises, but that is not the real issue. The real question is how much of the market sector of their economy is a bubble due to artificially low interest rates, to the artificially low value of the RMB, etc.?

That’s like asking whether the US real-estate market has really bottomed, whether the US auto industry can survive long-term without being propped up again and again by Washington, etc.

Economics is not physics: there is no way of answering such questions except waiting and seeing what happens.

The physical development of China is very real – skyscrapers, freeways, etc. So is the much higher standard of living of ordinary people – stylish clothing, livable housing, decent food, etc. And, this has all been achieved without mortgaging their future by going in hock to the rest of the world, as the USA has done.

But, while the Chinese now have a market economy, it is, like the US economy, not a fully free-market economy, but a “mixed economy.” And, mixed economies are inherently unstable. When their crash comes – and, yes, mixed economies inevitably have periodic crashes – will it be bigger or smaller than the US crash of the last three years?

I don’t know.

But, if I had to bet, I would bet that, in 2050, China clearly will have a higher total GDP by anyone’s estimate (not GDP per capita) than the USA. Do you think I’m wrong?

Dave

P.S. If they asked *my* advice, I’d tell them to establish a purely laissez-faire free-market economy, abolish the central government and break up the country into its constituent provinces (rather like happened to the Soviet Union), and then break up the provinces further into independent city-states (I’d recommend the same for the USA). But neither China nor the USA will follow that advice: the question is what will actually happen given the policies both countries are actually pursuing.

PhysicistDave said...

Glen wrote:
> The government has maintained control for 60 years without an election in part by endlessly stoking resentment toward foreigners and presenting the communist party as the only thing standing in the way of further humiliation.

Well… that was not what I heard in China at all. The Shanghai Expo, for example, rather clearly sent the message “We have been behind the world; now we intend to rejoin the world.” The “Footprints” pavilion, for example, which was a survey of world archaeology, was fairly balanced – not at all “China invented everything,” but, rather, the standard view that civilization began in the Near East.

Does China expect to be a major power in the world fifty years from now? Well, sure: it would be surprising to everyone if they are not. But, in fact, when I would bring up with Chinese the enormous progress they had made in the last three decades, they tended to object that they still had so far to go. I saw no attitude at all of “China ├╝ber alles.” It was more “We know we have to roll up our shirtsleeves and work hard to become equals with the West.” The people I talked with were quite clear and explicit on this.

This was, by the way, a bit of a surprise to me: my parents-in-laws’ generation, who fled the mainland from the Maoists, do very much have an attitude of “Of course, we are better than the Western barbarians.” So, not seeing this attitude among the under-thirty Chinese was a surprise to me.

Glen also wrote:
> I don't believe the results were even representative of Shanghai. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a combination of such things as strategic student transfers, falsification of birth records (as they did in the Olympics), PISA-focused tutoring and curriculum modification, and so on, were employed for quite a while before China could prepare one set of schools in one city with enough ringers that they were ready to allow them to be "randomly sampled" by the testers.

Well… the NYT article indicated that outsiders were involved in the PISA testing and believe it was a fair sample of Shanghai. As I said above, no one thinks Shanghai is representative of the PRC as a whole.

And, if they did engage in “PISA-focused tutoring and curriculum modification,” perhaps some US schools should do that also! Just maybe, that strategy results in better-educated students.

In any case, anyone familiar with the Chinese knows that their culture values education enormously more than contemporary American culture. We have seen that for years with the Singapore test scores, for example, and you and I know it from personal experience.

So, my general point stands, regardless of the validity of the Shanghai PISA scores: the USA should easily be beating all of the various Chinese countries for all the reasons I mentioned in my previous posts. We’re not. Unless you want to claim that all of the data from East Asia has been fudged – on PISA, TIMSS, etc. – this really is a severe indictment of the United States.

Dave