Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is more better?

Our school administrators seem to think that piling more instructional minutes on the kids -- maybe even extending the school day -- will make their standardized test scores go up. I think that kind of single-minded focus on raising test scores ultimately harms the kids and dumbs down their education. But even if I did believe in raising test scores at all costs, I wouldn’t leap to the simplistic conclusion that more time sitting in class will produce higher scores -- an idea that treats kids as more like machines than like people.

I recently exchanged emails with Pasi Sahlberg, who has written widely about the Finnish educational system. Finnish kids’ standardized test scores are among the highest in the world, even though the kids don’t start school until age seven, and spend less time in class. Sahlberg explains:

As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.
(Read the whole article.)

My fifth-grade daughter here in Iowa City gets forty minutes a day for recess and lunch combined, all in one break in the middle of the day. She has an hour of math instruction every day (as does my six-year-old first-grader!), plus an additional half-hour of math once a week. I asked Sahlberg how that schedule compares with that of a typical ten-year-old in Finland. His response:

In Finland the law stipulates that one lesson in school is 60 minutes of which 15 minutes have to be for recess. This means that a 10-year-old who typically has about 5 lessons a day has 60 minutes for recess plus some additional for lunch. You are not much wrong if you say that these pupils have about 75 mins daily for recess and lunch. Mathematics is normally taught about three lessons a week at that age.
So our ten-year-olds get two-and-a-half times as much math instruction as Finnish ten-year-olds get, and about half as much recess and lunch.

But if we could just add more instructional minutes, maybe we could catch up, right?


FedUpMom said...

Chris, this is excellent. Could you cross-post it to Kid-Friendly Schools? Thanks!

KD said...

I agree that simply adding minutes to the school day is no guarantee of results. I also believe before the district adopts approaches like a longer school day or a balanced calendar, it should be looking at other variables.

I can easily see how one could get more accomplished in less time depending on the approach used in the classroom. I found it interesting that you used the word "instruction". Many times, especially with the previous math curriculum, I'm not sure how much instruction was going on in the classroom. Under the previous curriculm kids were supposed to "discover" math, and the teacher was to function as a "guide on the side" as opposed to a "sage on the stage". While the guide on the side approach sounds nice in theory, I think it is hard to do in practice.

At the current time US schools can choose from a diverse variety of approaches to math instruction, so it would be hard to compare what Finland might be doing right vs. what the US is doing wrong.

KD said...

One more comment, regarding standardized tests. Iowa has a very long history of using standardized tests. Most of my school career was in Iowa, in a private school. It was my understanding that all schools, even private schools were to administer the tests. In those days the results were never made public, and the tests were supposed to help look at ways in which they could improve. I'm not clear though that the schools really did anything with the data though.

The sample- based learning tests mentioned in the article sound interesting, as a way to inform school administrators.

StepfordTO said...

"Mathematics is normally taught about three lessons a week at that age."

This is unbelievable. My daughters have math daily, with double periods (80 minutes) several times a week. This is an EQAO year (Ontario's standardized tests) for my girls, so the teacher is really piling on the math. Yet the example of Finland shows us once again that more is indeed not better. The Ontario government has been bragging its head off about the province's most recent PISA scores, but it neglects to mention that although reading scores are quite high, math scores have actually dropped somewhat compared to previous years. Perhaps it has something to do with the math overload that my daughters are currently experiencing?

Chris said...

Thanks, FedUpMom. I'll cross-post it.

Chris said...

KD -- Yes, there was a time when standardized tests were used for diagnostic purposes, to get a sense of what a particular child was already able to do and what he or she still hadn't mastered. When that's what they're used for, there's no need to aggregate the scores and compare classrooms or schools. Seems like ancient history now.

As for the way math is taught, that's a subject I've largely avoided here. I don't have a strong or particularly informed opinion about how math should be taught, though our household has not been without its struggles with Everyday Math. My main worry is that we push math more than we need to in elementary school, when a lot of it might be learned with less time and anxiety if we waited until the kids were a little older. (See my post here.) Raising kids' math scores isn't worth much if it comes at the cost of making them dislike or fear math over the long term.

You might be interested in northTOmom's discussion of constructivist math programs here, updated here.

janhunt said...


See "Doing More Time in School" by Dr. Peter Gray: .

Jan Hunt