OECD report on homework

OECD’s recent report “Does Homework Perpetuate Inequities in Education?” has generated a variety of articles in countries like the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Those stories mention the reported range–from 14 hours in Shanghai to 3 hours in Finland–but often focus on how much or how little student in a particular country do in comparison to peers in other countries (or sometimes both). Many also mention the reported links between higher amounts of homework and a slight increase in test scores in mathematics in most countries, though, in the US, higher amounts of homework are linked to a slight decrease in math test scores. Not surprisingly, the results have been interpreted as proving “homework sucks” and as suggesting that homework is a “blessing.”

The news also begins to get into some of the complexities, such as the higher amount of homework that socioeconomically-advantaged students do in comparison to their peers, though barely touching some of the larger issues of the costs and benefits (personally and developmentally not just economically) of having children spend more or less time on homework. This is a tension and an issue across school systems, including China where, as Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School, describes in his interview with C.M. Rubin: “parents complain to each other that high stakes testing is robbing their children of their childhood, curiosity, and creativity,” at the same time that they are standing in line to enroll their four-year olds in cram schools.

More importantly, perhaps, how much homework children should have can be seen in light of the larger questions about how children (and adults) should spend all of their time. Both students in Finland and in South Korea only spend about 3 hours a week on homework, but what those Finnish and South Korean students do with the rest of the their out-of-school time, however, is dramatically different (as is evident from Amanda Ripley’s Wall Street Journey story last year on a teacher works in South Korea’s tutoring academies “The $4 million dollar teacher”). As Learning in and out of school in diverse environments (a report from the LIFE Center) points out, school occupies a relatively small fraction of the waking hours of people throughout their lifetimes. From that perspective, it’s not simply about whether to have more or less homework, it’s about breaking down the boundaries between what happens “in school” and “out of school” and supporting learning wherever and whenever it takes place.

“Where Teens Have the Most Homework,” The Atlantic

“’Long homework hours’ for UK families,” bbc.news

“Report shows Irish teens among highest for time doing homework,” Irish Examiner

“Six hours a week: Australian students record increased homework hours,” The Sydney Morning Herald

“Shanghai 15-year-olds do the most homework — eight hours a week more than Australians,” News.com.au

“Homework sucks and we have the research to prove it,” mic.com

“Homework: a blessing, not a battleground” (opinion), The Telegraph

“Study: Teens doing less homework,” stuff.co.nz

“Should schools ban homework?” CNNOpinion, Etta Kralovec, author of The end of homework

Learning in and out of school in diverse environmentsfrom the LIFE Center

Networking and collaboration in education

Daniel Muijs

Dr. Daniel Muijs

Daniel Muijs, Head of Research and Deputy Head of the School of Education at the University of Southampton, recently visited the National Institute of Education to provide consultancy services on scaling efforts of educational innovations, funded by the eduLab programme. Professor Muijs, editor of School Effectiveness and School Improvement, has published widely in the areas of educational effectiveness, school network and teacher leadership, among others.

Prof Muijs prefaced the workshop by sharing the recent trends with respect to school networks and collaboration. Networking and collaboration in education have become increasingly popular in the recent years; there are large numbers of such programs in the UK and internationally. In the UK, there is a proliferation of school federations and academy chains. Internationally, schools are configured into network and cluster arrangements such as in New York City and Singapore respectively.

He then clarified some of the key ideas used in the workshop through differentiating between the concepts of network and collaboration in education in that a network in education is defined as at least two organizations working together for a common purpose for at least some of the time. Collaboration in education, on the other hand, refers to the joint activities between actors from different organizations within the network. So, network is the umbrella concept within which collaboration takes place.

To account for the recent increase in the number of network and collaboration programs in education, one could examine the potential benefits that such networks and collaboration could bring to the table. For instance, it has been found that there is clear evidence that network and collaboration can broaden student learning opportunities, as well as increase teacher capacity. But, can it improve student outcomes? To answer the latter question, it is unfortunate that there is currently little strong causal evidence of the relationship between network and collaboration, and increase in student outcomes. However, there is evidence that specific forms of collaboration having specific impacts. Overall, Prof Muijs opined that there is a need for more quantitative studies on the causal relationship between networks and collaboration, and student outcomes.

When collaboration between schools is successful in bringing about the benefits, it can normally be attributed to a few factors such as the following: 1) trust; 2) clear focus and goals; 3) strong support and brokerage; and 4) clear wins for all.   Whilst trust could be facilitated by prior relationships, it can also be carefully developed in a step-by-step fashion. Having a clear focus, as well as shared ownership of goals can help too in promoting collaboration between schools. A strategy that could be fairly easily implemented to create the shared ownership of goals and build trust is to create a dialogue amongst the network schools to identify common problems facing the schools for them to collaboratively solve. Another factor that has been found to be important for the promotion of collaboration is the strong support provided by the leadership of the schools in the network. To further promote collaboration, external brokerage may be required too; the external brokerage being a neutral party can serve to develop trust amongst the schools. Finally, there is a need for clear wins for all in the sense of “what’s in it for me?”; every party in the network must perceive that they will benefit from the collaboration in the network.

However, when collaboration between schools fails to live up to its purported benefits, it is normally due to factors such as the lack of time set aside for collaboration and when there is a lack of clear goals for collaborating and when there is a lack of shared perspective and understanding of the goals of the collaboration. Collaboration will also fail if there are no clear wins for all in the network and when there is a lack of capacity on the part of the schools to leverage on the opportunities afforded by the collaborative set-up.

Finally, Prof Muijs touched on the role that leadership plays in successful school networks. According to the empirical evidence, one role of leadership is to provide active management support, for example, establishment of clear direction at the start as well as the provision of time for collaboration, and a clear management structure in the network like a clear professional development structures. Leadership roles such as distributed leadership might emerge and these should be duly recognized. The latter scenario calls for the need for principals to adjust and re-adjust their perspectives and leadership as the contexts evolve. Additionally, encouragement of distributed leadership in the network can aid in the promotion of collaboration between schools, and can be aided by it.

This summary was provided by IEN Contributing Editor Paul Chua.

Curriculum reform in Australia

In 2010, Australia established its first national curriculum: the Australian Curriculum. The Australian Curriculum has defined content and achievement standards for the entire country. After a staged process of development, it is now being implemented. Recently, this curriculum was reviewed for the first time by the Australian federal government. The review raised a number of concerns that have led federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne to announce he will work with advisors to make sure it is serving the needs of Australian students. Pyne has stated, however, that any changes to be made as a result of the review won’t be implemented until at least 2016, due to the difficulty of earning the support of states and territories.

To learn more about this curriculum reform and the context of reform in Australia, I spoke with Dr. Glenn Savage of the University of Melbourne. Dr. Savage, with Kate O’Connor, recently published an article in the Journal of Education Policy titled “National agendas in global times: curriculum reforms in Australia and the USA since the 1980s.” From his perspective, there may be similar driving forces for reform in the US and Australia, but the reforms themselves have been quite different.

Savage and O’Connor (2014) wanted to understand how curriculum reform in Australia and the US were playing out, given that both countries have federal systems and histories of state and local control over education. Their research identified three key historical phases in the development of curriculum, which are shared by both nations. The first is the late 1980s, when both countries developed national education goals for the first time. They see this phase as a shift towards thinking in national terms, but also as a precursor to the standards movement of the 1990s and the push towards nationalizing aspects of the curriculum. The second was in the 1990s, when both countries attempted to create national curriculums or frameworks. In both countries those efforts failed when the realities of actually having to put the reforms into practice came along. For example, in both countries there was strong pushback against the idea of moving towards a national approach. The third phase was when each country rejuvenated their national reform efforts as a result of global economic and social pressures in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Influences included the global PISA testing program, which put the performance of each country in a global perspective and helped put standards-based national reforms back on the agenda. 

While there have been common historical driving forces in both countries, Savage and O’Connor (2014) see current reforms as very distinct in scope and form. In the US, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are voluntary national standards that focus on the areas of literacy and numeracy, whereas in Australia the national curriculum is more extensive and discipline-based. Savage and O’Connor (2014) argue that the distinctive nature of reform in each country can be explained to a large extent by four key differences in the ‘national policy space’ of each nation: 1) contrasting system diversity and complexity; 2) different roles and expectations of federal governments; 3) different forms of state-to-state intergovernmental cooperation; and 4) the contrasting involvement of non-government policy actors. The authors argue that the distinctive features of each system mean that each country provides different “conditions of possibility for reform” (Savage & O’Connor, 2014, p. 18). Their key argument is that while global flows of policy ideas and practices are powerful, these influences manifest differently in different national contexts. As such, reforms must be thought of as both national and global

Looking ahead, Savage identifies several issues that Australia will need to work through in relation to the curriculum.

First is the fall-out from the recent review of the curriculum. It is the first review of the curriculum and it has been heavily politicized. There are ideological arguments around it and it has raised questions about what a contemporary curriculum should look like. There is the possibility that the review could lead to the reshaping of certain elements of the Australian Curriculum.

Second is an ongoing debate about federalism and the role of state and tertiary governments in education. A Reform of the Federation White Paper, which was developed by a taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was released in late October. The goal is to work out the appropriate division of responsibility between states and government. In contrast to the US, national intergovernmental organizations have long been essential to the Australian reform process and have the capability of bringing all of the states together with the federal government to consider a number of education-related issues.

Another issue Savage identified is that even though Australia now has a national curriculum, there are differences in how states interpret and enact the standards. Despite a common national framework, state-based inflections emerge. While this can be positive, in that it allows for tailoring to state-based needs and issues, it can also present problems of consistency, which is partly what the national curriculum set out to tackle in the first place. In one example, the state of Victoria has adopted a hybrid curriculum called “AusVELS” that takes some from the national Australian Curriculum, and some from the prior Victorian Essential Learning Standards.

Savage also said that since federation in 1901, there have been debates around the role of academic knowledge versus vocational knowledge and skills. From the early 1900s, for example, many Australian states tracked students into either high schools (academically-focused) or technical schools (vocationally-focused). In 1980s, most states eliminated tech schools and established a common, unified school system that aimed to provide all students with the opportunity to go to university. While this effort was intended to be a more inclusive model, it has also led to an increase in high school drop out rates. In order to address this, the pendulum has swung back and there are now proposals at Federal and State levels to return to a more vocational curriculum.

Finally, Savage said there are now debates about what a curriculum should look like for the future. Some argue that the curriculum should prioritize disciplinary knowledge, while others argue more for 21st century skills and competencies so that students are ready to participate in global workforce. There are huge tensions around this issue as many feel the skills focus is too short-sighted and too focused on what students should be able to do, rather than what they should know.

As Savage explained, the issues that Australia is grappling with at the moment are also educational issues that many countries across the globe are dealing with, illustrating the point that educational policies need to be recognized as simultaneously national and global in nature.

Deirdre Faughey

Quality Assurance in Chile (Different context, same issues?)

Chile’s education system has embraced school choice and market-based reforms like no other system in the world, but on my visit to Santiago I heard many of the same questions about what to do for failing schools and how to assure educational quality that I have heard in the US and in countries like Norway, the Netherlands, and Singapore. These questions focus on what to test and assess, how often to assess, and how to publish the results, what to do about persistently failing schools (or, put another way, the persistent failures of policies to help schools improve); and how to ensure that municipalities, districts, charter operators and other public and private “school owners” comply with legal regulations and reach acceptable standards of educational quality.

Debating Testing & Assessment

Chile’s current national test, SIMCE, developed in the 1980’s and 90’s in response to concerns of a number of different groups. Some saw SIMCE as a way to check that public resources were being used appropriately, in a context of decentralization of schools’ administration. Advocates for school choice, in particular, emphasized that to have a “free” marketplace, parents and students needed information on school performance to make decisions. Many educators also saw the development of the test as the way to provide teachers and schools with information so they could make improvements. (For a history of SIMCE, see Meckes & Carrasco Two decades of SIMCE: an overview of the National Assessment System in Chile”)

Enduring differences of opinion around these issues, however, have fueled a cycle of reviews, commissions, developments and adjustments in SIMCE and the Chilean approach to quality assurance. These reviews have included a Commission in 2003 that addressed questions like whether the tests were measuring the right things, whether the tests should be given every year, and whether they should be sample-based (like NAEP in the US or national testing in Finland) or census-based (given to all students at a particular level as are the tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act in the US).

A new Commission, established just this year by the Bachelet government, is revisiting many of these same questions. In this case, however, the review is fueled by some of the same concerns about the amount of testing that many are also raising in the United States. I was surprised to find, however, that even Chile does not require the same kind of annual testing in reading and mathematics from 3rd-8th grade that my children have experienced in New York. Currently, Chilean students are assessed in 2nd grade in reading, 4th grade in math and language, and every two years in science and history. A new test for 6th grade (at the end of what the Chilean’s call “basic education” has already been introduced, but with the concerns about too much testing the current government may stop it. This latest Commission is expected to share their findings with the government shortly. The Commission’s report will again consider how often national testing should take place, in what grades and subjects, what the results should be used for, and how public the results should be.

Making test results public & the “discovery” of persistently failing schools

Whether and how to make test results public remains one of the most contentious issues in Chile (as well as in many other countries including Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands).  In the early 1990’s, SIMCE results were not published – even though the law governing SIMCE actually required it. However, demands to use the data for accountability and other purposes led to the publication of the results beginning in 1995. The data was used at that time in a number of ways including to provide rewards to some groups of schools and teachers and to identify schools that were not doing well.

In Chile the publication of tests results made visible the problem that some schools continued to get poor results year after year. Interestingly, at about the same time in the Netherlands, demands by newspapers to make public the results of school inspections revealed a similar pattern of repeatedly failing schools. In both countries, the recognition of persistently failing schools (which could also be seen as a problem of persistently failing policies) helped to highlight that information alone was not sufficient to lead parents and students to choose more successful schools, nor to equip teachers and schools to make improvements.   In response both Chile and the Netherlands eventually developed approaches to failing schools that included many elements reminiscent of the provisions for failing schools under NCLB in the US. These included the development of expectations for failing schools to improve performance, technical assistance to help them do so, and delivery to parents of information about the schools’ performance and their options to take their children elsewhere.

Ensuring Quality Assurance

In Chile, as in many other countries, quality assurance in general, has also become a focus for considerable policymaking over the past fifteen years. Following the “penguin riots” of 2006 (named for the black and white school uniforms worn by the protesting students), improving quality assurance was the main issue around which those in different places on the political spectrum agreed. Those agreements included a variety of changes in educational regulations that are still being put into place. Among these are the establishment of two new agencies (an Education Superintendency and an Education Quality Assurance Agency) so that the Ministry of Education does not oversee both school improvement and the assessment of the effectiveness improvement efforts (even Finland is in the process of creating new government agencies to deal with the division of responsibilities around quality assurance).

In Chile, the Education Superintendency will be responsible for ensuring compliance with legal regulations (Norway created a similar agency and “legal inspection” after years of having almost no way of knowing whether municipalities were complying with event the most basic educational requirements).

Meanwhile, the tasks of the Chilean Education Quality Assurance Agency will include evaluating schools using tests like SIMCE; assessing the extent to which schools reach established learning standards; and assessing schools on other quality indicators including academic selfesteem, school climate, and healthy life style. The Agency also will be responsible for using these assessments to classify schools into performance levels (High, Middle, Medium Low, and Insufficient). While the Chilean classification will draw on a variety of data, over 60% of the score will be based on students’ performance on the learning standards (similar to the emphasis of New York City’s Progress Report on test scores, up until just announced changes)

The results of this assessment process will determine how often Chilean schools will be inspected; guide the development of plans or contracts for improvement for low-performing schools; offer information parents’ can use in school selection; and, ultimately, could be used to withdraw the Ministry’s public recognition of the school (the Dutch created their own “risk-based” process to identify schools they felt needed additional oversight and support). Notably, however, with continuing debates and disagreements around the extent of testing and the process of closing failing schools in Chile, plans to classify schools beginning this year may not be fully carried out.

Thomas Hatch

 

“El Plan Maestro” & Teacher Education

During my recent visit to Chile, the deep and growing interest in issues of education was obvious as photographers and journalists crowded to document what was largely an academic gathering to discuss issues of teacher education. Lorena Meckes, a professor of education and one of my hosts at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, joked that eight years ago, “We would have had to buy all the journalists lunch to encourage them to write about education. But now, they call us up and say, ‘What do you have for us?’” However, as Cristián Cox, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, also noted: “Chilean society is obsessed with education, but also deeply divided about how to go about it.”

As one effort to address those divisions and develop some consensus regarding efforts to improve teaching in particular, while I was in Chile, more than twenty different institutions delivered a statement to the government titled “El Plan Maestro.” The plan—a play on “master plan” as well as the Spanish word for teacher—has been developed by organizations that include the teachers’ union, research centers, institutions connected to teacher education, as well as members of student groups. In addition to a set of policy recommendations more generally aimed at improving the quality of teaching in Chile, “El Plan Maestro” also includes a call for three changes particularly relevant for teacher preparation: 1) A greater focus upon the process of recruiting potential teachers; 2) Stronger criteria to determine the selection of candidates; and 3) development of a set of national standards for the accreditation of teacher education programs.

The call for these changes grow out of a series of concerns about Chilean teacher education as a system. Teacher education programs vary considerably and are numerous—ranging from university-based institutions to private institutions, mirroring the K-12 landscape that includes a mix of public/private, not-for-profit and for- profit schools of variable quality. With no compulsory entrance exam, teacher education programs also vary in terms of selectivity—some programs serving students who have demonstrated high levels of academic performance and others who have not. Furthermore, there’s no required certification or exit exam to determine what students have learned in their teacher education programs or to what extent they are prepared to be successful in the classroom. Adding to this variability, applications to teacher preparation programs have skyrocketed with enrollment in teacher education tripling since 2002. (Current estimates suggest about 100,000 students are enrolled in teacher education institutions—including primary, secondary and special education).

While applicants for teacher education programs increase, educators, national committees within Chile as well as organizations such as OECD have raised questions about the nature and quality of the preparation. Many of these questions echo those in the US and elsewhere including concerns about the ‘gap’ between theory and practice and the relevance of coursework to classroom practice and to the everyday work of teaching.

Even before the delivery of El Plan Maestro, some recent policy developments since 2007 have begun to address these challenges for teacher education. First, institutions that prepare teachers must now be accredited. Second, policy makers put in place a new exit exam for all graduates (although it is not compulsory). Third, educators and policy makers have developed a set of standards—the Estándares Orientaciones para los Egresados de las Carreras de Pedagogía — for recently graduated teachers, published in 2010 by the Ministry of Education. These standards are intended to guide the development of curriculum within teacher education programs—from primary to upper secondary levels of teaching. The standards focus upon the disciplinary content knowledge, the pedagogical content knowledge, and the skills and practices that new teachers need to be able to enact in their classrooms. For instance, the standards include topics related to children’s literature as well as the representations of key ideas: “Teachers know a wide range of literature for children” and “Teachers know a range of representations of the concepts they will be teaching.” These new standards are intended to underscore a conception of teaching as a professional practice; as complex; and one which requires skills, strategies, and approaches that are research-based, and not easily learned through individual experience. In particular, the standards help communicate an understanding, that there are specific aspects of the practice of teaching that must be learned in the context of a deep and extended engagement with peers and more experienced teachers—not simply ‘on the job’ or in unsupported practical experiences in schools.

Despite these developments, recent results of the new non-compulsory certification exam revealed that of the 24 institutions participating, graduates from the less-selective institutions struggled. In at least 8 of those institutions, more than 50% of the graduates scored at what was identified as an ‘insufficient’ level on the exam. Of particular concern is the finding by Meckes, which suggests that the graduates who scored below the minimum requirements on the exit exams are more likely to be employed in lower-income communities. Conversely, graduates who were more successful on the exit exam were more likely to be employed by schools that served higher-income communities—again pointing to considerable inequities for children.

Looking forward, next steps include government funding for research on the current state of teacher education. For instance, faculty based at Centro De Estudios De Politicas Y Prácticas En Educación, CEPPE, at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, developed a survey of graduates of all the teacher education institutions across Chile (more than 28 different institutions have participated so far). The survey measures teacher candidates “opportunities to learn” and to reach the standards for teacher education. The goal of the survey is ultimately, to ‘lift up’ the curriculum and pedagogy within teacher education across Chile by sharing online data on the results of reports by graduates. An institution participating in this survey will get a series of individual, program-based results that describe, for instance, the extent to which teacher candidates report opportunities to learn about the theoretical basis for teaching writing as well as the opportunities candidates report to learn about practical strategies for teaching pupils to write introductory paragraphs and to develop an argument in writing.

At the same time, given that the standards only specify a set of outcomes for teacher preparation without identifying the kinds of learning opportunities that might lead to achieving them, the government has also created a grant program aimed at improving the quality of teacher preparation, and in turn, at stronger teacher performance and increased learning outcomes for students. With this funding, eleven teacher education institutions have begun efforts to redesign courses, improve teaching practices within courses, and, in some cases, redesign specific experiences and assignments in courses in teacher education. For example, the faculty at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) has identified a set of ‘core practices’ upon which their program will focus (see related work at the University of Michigan and the CATE Project with which I am involved). Correspondingly, PUC faculty have redesigned courses and assignments and have also been working on professional development for other teacher education faculty to help incorporate these core practices into the redesign of the whole program. The funding is also being used to develop specific ways to address the considerable inequity for students, which is mirrored in (and amplified by) inequities in teacher education. One strategy the university has developed is to create a program and a credential or “certificate” specifically for teachers who will be working in low-income, urban areas. Other universities are using this funding to improve their coursework and student teaching experiences; at least one has introduced a mid-program assessment to enable a more timely determination of any gaps and weaknesses in candidate’s preparation; and another institution is using the funding to redesign their program to purposefully connect faculty and staff to the international research community.

–Karen Hammerness

Private, Subsidized Schools in Chile

Chilean private subsidized schools operate in a radically different environment from charter schools in the US. Since the imposition of the voucher-based system during the Pinochet dictatorship, virtually anyone, at any time, for any reason, could start and run a school. Furthermore, up until recent reforms, those schools could continue to operate largely without any evidence that students were learning or even that the schools were offering an education that complied with the legal regulations. Under these conditions, the percentage of students in municipal schools (so-called because they are run by municipalities much like district-run public schools in the US) has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, from over 55% of the student population in 1990 to under 40% in 2011. At the same time, enrollment has risen in private, subsidized schools to over 50% of the student population, with about 7% of students attending non-subsidized private schools that receive no public funding.

As Gregory Elacqua, Director del Instituto de Políticas Públicas, explained to me, several different kinds of both for-profit and not-for-profit private, subsidized school operators have emerged in Chile. These include a number of school operators with backgrounds in education or related fields who often start a single school and then may expand to a few others. Among these operators are former teachers – or now the sons and daughters of former teachers who inherited the schools their parents started. In some cases, the founders were kicked out of teaching in the public schools during the Pinochet regime largely because of their left-leaning politics. (In other words, even members of the political left took the opportunity to create schools in a system generally assumed to reflect the policies of the political right.) Organizations related to the Catholic Church have also opened and operate many private, subsidized schools. But a wide variety of other individuals and businesses with relatively little in the way of an education background have also started schools and networks of schools. These include an owner of a chain of restaurants and bars who also decided to start a network of schools (see Elaqua and colleague’s Scaling up in Chile for a description of several different kinds of private, subsidized school operators).

Despite the considerable differences in terms of what it takes to open and operate these kinds of schools, what I learned in my conversations in Santiago suggested numerous parallels in the issues for charter schools in the US and for private, subsidized schools in Chile. For one thing, the voucher system in Chile grew out of the work of Chilean economists, often referred to as the “Chicago Boys,” who were trained by University of Chicago economists Milton Friedman and Alan Harberger. Friedman, in particular, is also credited by many as inspiring work on vouchers in the US. Further, approaches to choice in both contexts reflects a basic set of assumptions: if schools are not successful in educating students, parents will not be satisfied, they and their children will choose to attend different schools, and the poorly performing schools will close.

Several key issues can interfere with this relatively straightforward logic, however. First, in order to have a choice, spots in schools that offer a higher quality education need to be available and those schools need to be near enough so that parents and students can get to the schools. While this seems obvious, many students have very limited school options in areas with small populations or that are not well-served by public transportation (e.g. rural areas and many urban areas of concentrated poverty). Nonetheless, school choice policies do not always take these factors into account. Evaluations of the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, for example, found that almost one half of the school districts that were required to offer school choice at the middle school level and about two-thirds at the high school level did not have any schools for parents to choose that were not already failing. Second, parents and students need to get information on school quality in a timely, accessible and clear way. Again, this can be much more difficult than it sounds, as the same evaluations of NCLB in the US also found that many parents did not get this information until after they were supposed to choose schools for their children. Third, even with good information on quality, parents and students do not always use quality as the primary basis for their choice of school. This can be particularly problematic if students from different backgrounds choose schools for different reasons, as may be the case in New York City (see High school choice in New York City).

As the private school options have increased, Chilean policymakers have also devoted considerable attention to making understandable information on quality and choice available to parents. Nonetheless, the data is mixed on the extent to which parents base their decisions on that information, as distance from the school, among other factors, also may be highly influential (see I would walk 500 (miles if it paid)). Complicating parents’ choices in Chile, up until recent years, private, subsidized schools have been able to charge “co-payments” and some schools have been able to select their own students. While the recent reform proposals described in our last post would largely eliminate these advantages, these factors have made it harder for parents and students from lower-income backgrounds or who do not fit the criteria of the most selective schools to get into the schools of their choice (see When schools are the ones that choose).

Although the extent to which Chile’s choice system has contributed to educational improvements remains a matter of debate, using PISA results as a yardstick, Chilean students have improved their performance, but segregation has increased and economic inequality remains extremely high. As the debates over choice continue, some are turning to a focus on how to ensure quality of all schools, regardless of levels of public financing or extent of public or private ownership. As Bárbara Eyzaguirre – a member of the previous Chilean administration who worked on the development of new standards – explained it, while there has been choice in Chile, it has been too easy for both public and private schools that are not doing well to continue to function. In fact, schools in Chile have not needed to maintain a minimum number of students in order to stay open, and in many areas private schools are able to attract students even if they are not performing that well (providing little incentive for them to improve).

As a consequence of concerns about quality and persistently failing schools, over the past 20 years Chile has worked to develop a quality assurance system (more on this in a future post) and raise standards across all schools. Furthermore, many successful private, subsidized schools have also attempted to expand their operations and to develop networks of schools. Elaqua’s analysis in Scaling up in Chile raises the possibilities that larger networks of schools might provide a more effective education than single schools or smaller networks. One explanation might be that these networks have the advantages of scale, though it is also possible that more successful schools or school owners are more likely to join or start networks.

The challenges of scale in Chile also sound similar to the issues encountered by charter operators in the US. For example, Eyzaguirre, originally trained as a psychologist, has worked with colleagues to create a small network of not-for-profit private, subsidized, schools. The schools serve students from lower-income families, with what she describes as a relatively traditional approach. It’s an approach that focuses on “the basics”, includes large class sizes (as many as 45 students to a class in some cases), and takes into account the need to operate with limited resources so that the schools can be replicated in other underserved areas. Even with good results and commitment to expand, however, the network has to deal with the challenges of finding or building and paying for school facilities – another critical issue for charter schools in the US. In addition, the network has plans to expand to 10 schools, but they face a human capital problem in limited numbers of teachers who are well-prepared to teach in their schools. In response, the network has developed their own professional development and training programs (as charter operators like KIPP have begun to do in the States). In the process, the focus of the work expands from student learning to adult learning, organizational management, and quality assurance – the traditional functions of the districts, municipalities and other bureaucracies that many charter advocates hoped that they would escape.

Thomas Hatch

Proposals for change in Chile

For the next several weeks, I will be sharing a few posts from Chile, where I have been visiting and talking with several educators and policymakers who shared their reflections on where the Chilean education system may be headed. The Chilean system has seen some remarkable educational improvements since 2000 at the same time that income inequality and segregation has increased. I am particularly interested in learning more about the Chilean system as Mario Waissbluth, President of the Chilean citizen’s movement Educación 2020, has described it as almost the opposite of the Finnish approach, which I wrote about during my visit to Finland with my family last spring. For background, Waissbluth wrote a series of posts for Diane Ravitch’s blog that chronicle the development of recent policies in Chile. The election of Michelle Bachelet as President earlier this year, and her endorsement of many of the changes that were demanded in significant student protests led some in the US to conclude that a massive change was underway. At the time, we talked with Waissbluth and Dr. Beatrice Avalos-Bevan, Associate Researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Education, at the University of Chile; both explained that while some changes were being proposed, much was left to be done.

Just this week the Chilean legislature passed several key proposals designed to change key aspects of the education system. The proposals included 1) requiring the conversion of for-profit schools into non-profit schools; 2) the elimination of fees or “co-payments” that private, subsidized schools can charge parents; and 3) the enforcement and expansion of bans on primary and secondary schools’ selection of students. While many see these initiatives as a critical step forward, those I spoke to point out that these are just a few steps among many that need to be taken to improve performance and contribute to greater equity in what has been a largely unfettered pro-market voucher system. At issue in particular is how fast and in what order the government can move ahead on these and a related slate of proposals.

The government’s choice to focus first on requiring for-profit school operators to convert into non-profits has been particularly controversial and has taken center stage in the public and political debates since March. Several aspects of the conversion plan have proven problematic, particularly the issue of ownership of school facilities (which has also been a critical issue among charter school advocates and critics in the United States). Thus, the plan requires both for-profit and not-for profit schools to give up ownership of their school buildings. Since many of these organizations rely on the facilities to generate revenue, the conversion plan has significant legal and financial implications for the school owners as well as those banks and other institutions that have money tied up in school buildings.

Further, the proposal for a new, more centralized selection process has also faced some opposition. Although Chile passed legislation several years ago, banning primary schools from selecting students through their own application processes, for the most part, that ban has not been enforced. Therefore, the new legislation extends the ban to most secondary schools and establishes a new set of reporting requirements that should make it easier to enforce the ban.

Combined with the potential loss of revenue from the elimination of the co-payments that subsidized private subsidized schools have been able to charge parents, all of these proposals have generated a heated political debate since March. Amongst those opposing the proposals have been several powerful constituencies including some members of the Catholic Church (who have large numbers of not-for profit schools that are often highly selective and many of which own their own buildings), the for-profit school owner’s guild (who are very well-connected politically), and new middle class parent groups that have formed because they want to preserve their ability to choose to send their children to selective schools. The result has been a series of protests, ad campaigns, and public statements warning parents that hundreds of schools could be closed, and they could lose their chance to send their children to schools of their choice (all of which reminded me of recent protests in New York City over the newly-elected mayor’s campaign promise to limit the growth of charter schools –DeBlasio and Operator of Charter School Empire do Battle). Thus, as Waissbluth explained it, this first slate of legislative proposals in Chile is managing to incubate a middle class revolt that some worry has the potential to block further reforms.

Despite the controversies, with a number of compromises which include allowing for a very gradual shift in ownership in school buildings and allowing some highly selective schools to continue to screen their students (making them somewhat akin to the highly selective “exam schools” in New York City), the proposals will now go for debate in the Chilean Senate. Some think that the Senate will pass some version of the proposals before the end of the year or the spring at the latest.

Yet, these initial reforms are only a small part of the reform proposals. Committees are already at work developing reports suggesting initiatives to strengthen teacher preparation and the teaching profession as a whole, and a cross-section of 20 institutions presented the government on Monday with “El Plan Maestro” (a play on words suggesting the “Teacher plan” and the “Master plan” simultaneously). The government is expected to present their proposals to strengthen teaching in the coming months.

In relatively short order, the government is also expected to fulfill campaign promises to propose changes to the municipal structure of public schools. These will likely include the development of a position similar to the superintendent in school districts in the United States. Currently, the schools are at least nominally the responsibility of the mayor, though many mayors have not made schools a particular priority.

The most contentious issue – when and how to reform higher education – looms as well. Creating free, high quality higher education has been a key concern of the students who led the protests in 2006 and that ignited this reform cycle in Chile, and many are continuing to press for immediate action. At the same time, others are concerned that pushing for reforms in higher education in particular is so contentious that it could halt the progress on other issues.

In short, Chile may be in a cycle of political negotiations punctuated by protests.   Right now what some see as radical reforms have been proposed, but negotiations have led to some compromises that make political passage possible.  But if the changes end up being too limited or fail to address the core concerns of the students in particular, then students may withdraw their support or take to the streets again.  Further protests could create a backlash that contributes to political stalemates or might create enough space to push slightly more radical reforms that are again likely to be tempered in political negotiation and compromise.   Adding to the pressure, all sides have to take into account the fact that a change in Chilean law about ten years ago means that Presidents can no longer serve consecutive terms. As a consequence, the current President, Michelle Bachelet, has only until the end of this four-year term to accomplish her objectives.

Despite the urgency, however, the evidence from countries like Singapore and Finland suggests that comprehensive efforts to create high-quality education systems takes decades even in countries with relatively stable political environments. Chile has to pursue such efforts in the context of an educational system that was imposed by a violent dictatorship, that has contributed to increased segregation, and that fosters competition rather than cooperation among individuals and organizations.  Given those conditions, it will not be easy to forge the social relationships, common purpose, and cooperation that have supported the development of education systems in countries like Finland. Chile may well transform its educational system, but to do so, it may have to rely on a mix of protest, political negotiation and compromise until it develops the social bonds that can support collective commitment and shared responsibility for education for all.

Thomas Hatch