February 2008 Archives

Dear Diane, I don’t want to argue about the word “constructivism” because words can, I agree, be slippery. But I urge you not to parody that viewpoint. There are few—if any—schools (in the public sector at least) where teachers are just “guides on the side.” Never were! I’ve seen hapless teachers. But not purposely. I also think that you have misread Dewey’s "The Way Out of Educational Confusion”. Or should I say “differently read”? (joke) I think he meant it in the same way as Ted Sizer did in describing a mindless Honor’s English...


Dear Debbie, Words are slippery things. Take the idea of “constructivism.” Yes, I agree with you that we all “construct” knowledge as we encounter new ideas. We try to make sense of new ideas by fitting them to what we already know, using the vocabulary and experiences that we have already accumulated. If we have a meager vocabulary—or none at all, as when we visit a foreign country and are unfamiliar with the language—and if we have no experiences that are connected to the new ideas, then we will not be able to do much constructing of knowledge....


Dear Diane, I just read a column about Sol Stern in The New York Times on why vouchers aren't the answer. I'm glad he's given up on them; alas, he has joined you in viewing a standard curriculum reform as the answer. The dilemma for me is not who is right on curriculum or phonics but with the idea of imposing either solution. Democracy uses the tool of "majority wins" because sometimes only one decision is feasible: we either go to war or don't, build the highway or don't. But I'm a libertarian wherever I can be—like about the ...


Dear Debbie, The reason that I directed your attention to the AIR study was that it included only the dozen nations that participated in both TIMSS and PISA. Otherwise, it is confusing to refer to the U.S.'s standing in these assessments because many nations participated only once. When several less-developed nations join in the assessments, our scores look better and better. Should we really congratulate ourselves because we got higher scores on TIMSS than Cyprus, Yemen, Botswana, and Iran? These countries were not included in the AIR study, nor was the “one district of China” to which you ...


Dear Diane, I’ve been exploring PISA and TIMSS scores via the Web and the more I know the less impressed I am at how significant it all is, especially with regard to whether we need a more centralized curriculum. For example, on the latest TIMSS there are nine participants above and 25 below us and 11 statistically in the same place. The top nine include one district of China and many quite small countries; and the list of “competitors” who aren’t part of the study at all (like France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Spain) is considerable. Furthermore, some do ...


Dear Deborah, I think a few words are in order about the AIR study of TIMSS and PISA. The 11 countries that have taken all of these tests are, in addition to the U.S.: Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia. It is true that Hong Kong is a city-state. It is true that none of these is as populous as the United States. It is also true that U.S. student performance was consistently mediocre in comparison to the others. Maybe that matters, maybe not. The report, referenced in my previous ...


Dear Diane, Agreed. It would be foolhardy to dismiss any data out of hand. Agreed also: There is stuff imbedded in these international studies that we can learn from. In fact, on the whole, the data goes against the current wave of top-down test-based reforms. (On a side note: the potential for data bias that you refer to is not necessarily a reflection of dishonesty on the part of the studies’ designers or implementers—but in the comparability of the data collected, the state of psychometrics, and how the data is publicly reported.) One thing we can learn from international...


Dear Deborah, I have read the reports of the international assessments over the years and think it would be foolhardy to dismiss them out of hand. The professionals who create them and administer them have no axe to grind; they don’t get bonuses if the scores go up or down. They are scrupulous about reporting the participation rates, the exclusion rates, the age of the students who took the tests, and all other relevant factors. Unlike district superintendents and state superintendents, they have no reason to boast about rising scores or seek better results. The analysis of the international ...


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