Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Who Counts

Yesterday morning, I happened to watch a TED talk by Andreas Schleicher from February 2013 about the implications of the international data PISA collects on schools.



This viewing was somewhat fortuitous as I learned later in the day that the news was awash with PISA's most recent findings. To quote NPR yesterday: "International standardized test scores have been released. The test is given to students around the world every three years. It measures their knowledge of reading, mathematics and science literacy. U.S. students usually turn in mediocre performances, and this year's scores were no different." (I should note that not everyone accepts PISA's conclusions or inferences.)

In his TED talk, Dr. Schleicher does an amazing job of explaining PISA's findings with clear examples and readily understandable graphs. Counts of literacy and numeracy scores are plotted and plumbed. But one thing he says perhaps goes by too quickly, and is not accompanied by any chart: "When we asked students what counts for success in mathematics, students in North America would typically tell us, you know, it's all about talent. If I'm not born as a genius in math, I'd better study something else. Nine out of 10 Japanese students say that it depends on my own investment, on my own effort, and that tells you a lot about the system that is around them."

Don't get sidetracked by the finding itself ("...students in North America would typically tell us... Nine out of 10 Japanese students say..."); that's just a chart in words. The critical phrase is: When we asked students what counts...

See the real question is not "What counts?" but "Who counts when we are counting?"

Each time PISA releases its results, the educational pundits, commentators, and blogosphere (here we are) wring their collective hands over the mediocrity of our educational system.  We count test scores and their connection to economic data and teacher expenditure and a half dozen other important things. And all that may be well worth taking account.

But why? Why are our results so mediocre year after year after year? Adults will site poor teaching, a lack of at-home support, and not-high-enough-standards. But to really answer that question we must ask students what counts. And this requires us to believe that their voice counts alongside all the test score data they produce and that we incessantly or, some might say, obsessively measure.

In about a week, QISA will release a national report that will not get nearly the press that PISA's report gets. Every year, we ask students what counts and, like PISA's results, not much changes from year to year. The report represents the voice of students and their thoughts and beliefs about what counts toward academic motivation and success. 56,877 sixth through twelfth graders across the country give a clear account:

  • 44% do not feel a sense of self-worth at school
  • 40% are not engaged by their learning
  • 40% do not feel supported by their teachers
  • 58% do not feel supported by their peers
They also point out that these factors have a direct impact on their academic motivation. For example, students who are engaged in school are 15 times more likely to be academically motivated. Students who feel supported by teachers are 7 times more likely to be academically motivated. Those are numbers worth focusing on.

The solution to our middle-of-the-pack problem may not be in higher standards or greater accountability (isn't that the very drum we have been beating even as our results stagnate?), but in realizing that the students themselves count.

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