Category Archives: Newspaper Articles

Links to newspaper articles about international educational issues.

How does one of the top-performing countries in the world think about technology?

The following post was written by Sarah Butrymowicz and originally published on The Hechinger Report.

Going ‘at your own pace’ isn’t part of the equation in Singapore

SINGAPORE—Forty students in bright yellow shirts hunched over their computers in Singapore’s Crescent Girls School as they raced against their teacher’s digital stopwatch. They had just a few minutes to add their thoughts about a short film on discrimination into a shared Google Doc and browse the opinions of their classmates.

When the time was up, their teacher led a discussion about the meaning of discrimination and how to judge the credibility of an argument. The computers sat mostly forgotten.

“The technology just fades away, and that’s what we hope for it to do,” said principal Ng Chen Kee.

crescent21

Students at Crescent Girls School in Singapore discuss conflict and discrimination in groups while working on a shared Google Doc. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Crescent Girls has plenty of flashy gadgets, but balances those with these more subtle exercises in a way that’s emblematic of how Singapore tries to approach education technology. Glitzy tech that serves no purpose other than being cool is frowned upon. In classrooms in Singapore, digital devices are increasingly viewed as a means to bring students together in collaboration, rather than separate them further.

In contrast, American students who have tools like tablets and computers in the classroom often use them in isolation, powering through interactive worksheets and online quizzes. Indeed, technology’s main purpose often seems to be giving students personalized learning paths and a way to progress at their own pace.

In part, it’s because online learning in America grew out of a push to move away from rigid requirements of the number of hours a student should spend on a subject in favor of allowing them to move on once a concept is mastered. “That’s where the conversation started within the U.S.,” said Allison Powell, a vice president at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNacol). “In a lot of other places, it wasn’t about taking an individual online course. It was ‘Let’s integrate it into the classroom.’”

Singapore has been one of the highest performing countries on international assessments for decades, while the United States remains stuck below the top performers. Investments in education technology have been a key part of Singapore’s national plan for two decades and have been cited by some experts as a reason that the country has so much academic success.

Singapore, South Korea and Uruguay were praised by Richard Culatta, director of the United States Department of Education office of educational technology, as global leaders in technology in the classroom. “These are impressive places and they didn’t get there because they randomly decided to do it. These are countries that have not taken their eye off the ball,” he said. “There’s a point where if we’re going to remain competitive globally, we need to make sure we’re keeping up.”

In the late 1990s, the Singapore Ministry of Education unveiled its master plan for technology. The first phase was spent building up infrastructure and getting computers into schools. In the 2000s, in phases two and three, the ministry focused on training teachers in how to use gadgets and identifying schools to experiment with new innovations.

The Ministry of Education would not provide information on how much money it had spent on these initiatives, but in a presentation for the World Bank, said phase one had cost $2 billion over five years and phase two $600 million over three years. In 2010, the Ministry of Education committed another $610 million over eight years for technology in schools, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Crescent Girls School was selected in 2008 to be one of these so-called FutureSchools. With extra money from the Ministry and support from the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore’s teacher training university, these eight schools must develop and trial new types of technology. If they work, the plan is to spread them to other schools.

History teachers at Hwa Chong Institution are working to create new social media platforms for students to share reflections. Students at Canberra Primary School visit a 4D immersive lab in groups to learn about different environments, like the rainforest.  Crescent Girls has developed the “digital trails” platform, where students and teachers make interactive maps by adding text, photos and videos. The school also has a room full of touch-screen tables, loaded with games and applications to prompt discussion and teamwork. In one, four students, each with a different responsibility, must use geometry concepts to protect a submarine from enemies.

A student at Marsling Secondary School in Singapore navigates around a virtual environment for the first time. His teachers plan to make a digital gallery for the students to show case designs and comment on each other’s work. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

A student at Marsling Secondary School in Singapore navigates around a virtual environment for the first time. His teachers plan to make a digital gallery for the students to show case designs and comment on each other’s work. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Beyond the FutureSchools, the Ministry is also bankrolling other tech endeavors for schools. Researcher Kenneth Lim has set up a lab at the NIE where he’ll design custom immersive virtual environments for any lesson teachers want, such as a lesson on perspective in an art class or one on water shortages in geography.

The worlds are designed to be incomplete and act as a virtual workbook, where students can try to fill in the blanks. They wander around with their avatars, talking to classmates in person and online. “Their whole threat level is lowered,” Lim said. “They make mistakes.”

Singapore is trying to move beyond the much-criticized culture of high-pressure testing and studying by memorization here and in many other Asian countries. That’s why officials are focusing on soft skills, like collaboration and confidence. Technology, like Lim’s work, is becoming a popular way to allow students to learn by exploring without worrying about the consequences of failure.

On a January morning, Lim and his team helped eighth graders in a Design and Technology class at Marsiling Secondary School enter their virtual world for the first time and practice drawing basic shapes. The end goal was create a gallery that would allow students to comment and help each other on their work.

It’s the first major technological project the school has undertaken, and as Principal Foong Lai Leong stood in the corner watching, she was trying to think of other courses that might benefit from some digital lessons. Science and art, definitely, she decided. Maybe even certain topics in math.

There’s no pressure from the Ministry of Education to use technology for any particular subject or in any way. It is encouraged, but always with a reminder to “be wise, be judicious,” said Ng Pak Tee, an associate dean at the NIE. “It should not be a teacher looking at a technology saying, ‘Wow.’”

This careful and deliberate introduction of digital devices into the classroom sets Singapore apart from many places in America. While some districts or schools have rolled out programs thoughtfully, they’re still the minority, Powell said. “I get calls from superintendents and principals on a daily basis [saying], ‘I went out and bought 500 iPads. Now what do I do?”

Education reform in Chile

Is the government really putting an end to private education in Chile? A recent article in Xinhua.net (which was also picked up by Shanghai Daily) makes it seem so. On April 20th, Diane Ravitch noticed the article and posted it on her blog using the headline: BREAKING NEWS. However, later that same day, Ravitch posted two more posts: “More on Chile’s education reforms,” and “Chile: Dismantling the most pro-market education system in the world.” In each of these posts, Ravitch calls upon Mario Waissbluth, President of Educación 2020 Foundation (a Chilean citizen’s movement founded in 2008, which put forth reform proposals) for clarification.

Dr. Mario Waissbluth

Dr. Mario Waissbluth

I also wrote to Professor Waissbluth for more information and he made it clear that Chile was NOT actually ending private education, as Xinhua.net and  Shanghai Daily made it seem. Waissbluth pointed me to his clarifying post, in which he explains that the educational system in Chile is far too complex for such a simple solution. He details the cultural hurdles that Chile must overcome to address what has become, in his words, “a true apartheid.” He also explains what will be changing in Chile: 

Education Minister, Mr. Nicolás Eyzaguirre (with a powerful political and financial experience and profile) has announced the first wave of legislation, to be sent to Congress in May, whose details are now being drafted. They include, amongst other things, the radical ending of academic selection and skimming, the gradual elimination of cost-sharing (to reduce social skimming), the phasing out of 3,500 for-profit schools (to be converted into non-profits), the radical pruning of the standardized testing system, the strengthening and expansion of the public network of schools (so that they can compete in a better way with the charters) and a major reform to the teaching profession, from its training (completely unregulated so far), to improving salaries and working conditions.

While it is not an overall end to private education, these changes do seem – to use a word Waissbluth employs in the quote above – somewhat radical. What seems even more striking, to an outside observer, is the fact that these changes have come about after the student protests that came to be known as the “Chilean Winter” of 2011-2013.

Valentina Quiroga

Valentina Quiroga

It will be interesting to understand better the link between these protests and the reforms. For example, in February Valentina Quiroga (one of the student leaders involved with the protests) was appointed undersecretary of education.

It is also interesting to note that coverage of Chile’s education reforms has been somewhat limited, and information in English-language news sources is not easy to find. We will continue to pay close attention to the evolving situation in Chile and will follow-up with another post in the coming weeks.

Deirdre Faughey

For more information:

Reforma educacional: las claves del proceso que busca poner fin a la selección en los colegios

Chile: Students set to win free higher education

Chile’s Bachelet to unveil $8bn tax hike to fund education boost

Chile: Bachelet elected, social reforms begin

International Cooperation in Education

Our monthly scan of news and reports often reveal numerous discussions of ways in which different countries are collaborating to support the development of education. These collaborations are reflected in a number of reports on the development and deepening of partnerships around particular educational issues, or as part of larger efforts addressing many aspects of society. This month’s news includes cooperative agreements that focus on issues like vocational education, technology, and system building.

Vocational Education:

One of the ways in which countries are working together to improve education is as part of a larger effort to meet the needs of the labor market. For example, Germany is working with Bulgaria on a joint vocational education project that aims to help Bulgaria make reforms to existing legislation, standards, and programs. As Bulgaria’s Education Minister explained in www.focus-fen.com  “Bulgaria would like to introduce the dual education system so that there is a link between vocational education and the labour market.” The Slovak Spectator reported that Germany will also be working to build a similar collaboration with Austria.

Meanwhile, as reported by Thailand’s public relations departmentThailand, Laos, and Vietnam are working together to create tri-country vocational certification programs that will allow students with opportunities to study in each country. Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network (AUN) Nantana Gajaseni said that each ASEAN government should support the grouping of educational institutions specializing in similar fields of study as clusters, in order to push for education development in this region.

Technology:

Finland and Estonia are also working together as part of a specific endeavor to develop cloud technology that will “step up” educational and technological cooperation between the two countries. According to the Finnish government’s press release, “This joint effort aims to enable the creation of cloud services in education and learning and the use of digital materials and find new ways of learning and teaching in the learning environments in both countries. In particular, we wish to help change the school culture to become more student-oriented and inspiring and promote approaches to teaching where the focus is on experiences of success.”

System Building:

As noted in Business Reporter, Denmark and Pakistan have been expanding upon a supportive relationship, as part of Denmark’s interest in “conflict-hit” Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Denmark supports civil society organizations in the area, such as the Youth Parliament, to which it has given financial aid of 3.5 million dollars. In his most recent visit, Denmark’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Jesper Moller Sorensen, highlighted the importance of education in nation-building, and suggested that Pakistan increase education spending as a means of investing in the country’s future.
A new cooperation between China and South Africa has also been announced. According to Business Day Live, South Africa is “hoping to get lessons from China on curriculum development and implementation; teacher training and development; vocational education and training; and research and development to improve basic education.” The agreement also includes a cultural exchange and the teaching of Mandarin in South African schools.

 

Bilateral Partnerships:

Cooperative education efforts have also been seen in countries that seem to be looking to build alliance in multiple arenas. For example, The National reports that the United Arab Emirates and South Korea have been building a bilateral strategic partnership since 2009, which is now expanding to the areas of education, cultural, medical and health care sectors. The Kuwait News Agency also reported that Canada and Kuwait are working on ways to enhance cooperation in scientific, cultural, and educational fields, and to facilitate visa procedures for Kuwaiti students and their parents.

 

Memoranda of Understanding:

In the news we also see multiple examples of countries signing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on educational cooperation. Examples include:

Centralized-Decentralization emerging in Singapore

In this post, Corresponding Editor Paul Chua briefly describes an emerging conception of “centralized-decentralization” in Singapore’s efforts to enable schools and educators to support the development of students’ 21st century skills. The post grows out of Chua’s recent conversations with IEN editors Thomas Hatch and Deirdre Faughey, and with Dennis Shirley, who was visiting Singapore to discuss some of his work on convergence pedagogy and mindful educational change.

News and research on education around the world often focuses on issues of autonomy – the extent to which schools and the educators in them have flexibility in decision-making—and the role of central authorities in dictating practices and maintaining system quality.

In Singapore, while strong central decision-making was credited with contributing to high performance on international tests like TIMMS and then PISA, concerns were also raised about the degree of responsiveness and innovation that such a centralized system could support, especially when trying to shift schools to a focus on 21st century skills.

As a consequence, the Singapore education Ministry started to give increased autonomy to schools to make local decisions.   For example, the Ministry developed the Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) initiative to take the emphasis off rote learning and to encourage schools to develop learning experiences that engage students, promote critical and creative thinking, and support students’ holistic development.  As part of the TLLM initiative, schools were given the flexibility to develop their own pedagogical approaches (e.g. inquiry-based learning approaches, problem-based learning, Socratic questioning) as long as those approaches were aligned to the intent of TLLM.  The Ministry also created “white spaces” in the schedule in which schools were free to develop their own unique courses and learning programs, such as “Introduction to Film Studies” and the like.

At the same time, however, concerns about maintaining system coherence and quality also led the ministry to retain the layer of supervision (centralization) between the Ministry and schools by creating the position of superintendent.  Among other tasks, superintendents were charged with forming and facilitating principal learning communities designed to help school leaders to deepen their understanding of the rationale of the policies to be implemented.  In this way, the Ministry hoped to lessen the pressure on schools to comply with every detail of policies and to encourage them to make adaptions for their local context that were still consistent with the overall intent of the policies.

Since that time, Singapore has pursued several other policies that reflect this centralized decentralized approach (or what Charlene Tan and Pak Tee Ng have described as decentralized centralism). For example, for many years, Singapore maintained relatively high class sizes of about 40 students per teacher. When the Ministry decided to reduce class size several years ago, however, it did not dictate a particular size for all classes. Instead, it created a new matrix of student-teacher ratios that determined the overall allocation of teachers to schools, but left schools with the flexibility to determine the optimal class size for different kinds of classes. Thus, some schools have decided to have larger classes of higher ability students while creating smaller sizes for students who are making progress more slowly (e.g. 20 students per teacher or even smaller like 10 to 15 students per teacher).

Thus, centralized decentralization is built on the premise that decision making needs to be made “on the ground” by principals and teachers since they are closest to the students and can make the decisions that respond to local conditions.  However, much as the flip side of increasing autonomy has been increasing accountability for results, from the Ministry’s perspective, centralized guidance (such as  the parameters of the schools student-teacher ratio) is needed to maintain some semblance of coherence as a system. Ultimately, the approach is designed to enable the system to reap all the benefits associated with tight coupling and a strong central authority without overly constraining the local actors, which would deprive the system of innovation and creativity.  Making centralized decentralization work, however, may well depend on the professionalism and capacity of superintendents and school leaders to resist rote compliance and learn how to make local adaptations that do not stray too far from policymakers’ expectations.

Centralized decentralization: the calibrated application of the forces of centering and calibrated release of the force of centering (resulting in decentering) in order to achieve coherence and optimal results and outcomes for a system. The approach rests on the ability of the policy maker to anticipate the responses of schools to the policy, to understand how the policy sits within the system, and to calibrate the level or point at which to apply the system’s constraining force.

India’s ongoing effort to implement the Right to Education Act

Recent reports from India show that the country is grappling with several issues surrounding the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, also known as the Right to Education Act (RTE). RTE was signed into law in 2009 with the aim of providing every child between the ages of 6-14 with a high quality, compulsory education. Yet, as outlined below, the country’s efforts to comply with the law have brought to light various issues that have hindered an already confusing and complicated process.

The apparent first step in the effort to educate all children involves enrolling them in school. In some parts of the country, such as Navi Mumbai, 80% of public school seats remain unoccupied. The Times of India quoted one official as saying that last year only a handful of the over 3,000 available private school seats had been filled. The Indian Express noted the particular concerns raised by parents of nursery school children, as well as children with special needs. As one Delhi school principal shared, “In totality, there are no dearth of seats in city schools. But when everyone is looking to get their children into the ‘so-called best schools’ in the city, it is then we have a problem. And frankly, the problem will continue till the problem of supply and demand is solved.”

Reports from areas such as Aurangabad show that private schools, which are legally required to designate 25% of their highly coveted seats to disadvantaged students, are finding ways to bypass this requirement. By altering the application schedule, or failing to post admission dates in public spaces, and in some cases even creating illegal admission tests or enrolling fictitious students, these private schools violate the RTE. As a result, civic organizations are taking up the effort to disseminate information to parents, and the government has promised strict oversight of admission procedures. However, this year the government has also transferred the admission process online, which raises questions about how those who are illiterate and/or do not have access to the internet will be able to apply for school admission at all (some reports indicate that this online system is purposely intended for “unaided,” or private, non-minority schools). Reports from Chennai show that the government has declared only a one week time period for enrolment, which would further hinder the process and is contrary to the spirit of the RTE.

Even with these enrolment issues, some reports point to a drastic increase in applications from urban poor families, from 140,000 last year to 360,000 for next year. As more and more families seek to enroll their children in school, the standard lottery admission process has proven tedious and contributed to an increase in complaints. Many of the complaints derive from the lack of transparency, which has led some parents to apply to a number of schools to increase the changes of their child getting in.

Once students are enrolled in school, concerns arise about what goes on inside of schools. On this topic, reports point to schools’ lack of compliance in terms of infrastructure and teacher training. According to dnaindia.com, only 59.67% of students are in schools that have met the teacher student ratios outlined in RTE. Further, while RTE mandates that all teachers in the country be trained by 2015, India has 660,000 untrained teachers and 500,000 vacant positions.

Student attendance is an additional concern, as The New Indian Express reports that the Education Department in Karnataka has called for an RTE amendment that would establish an authority to maintain attendance records, notifying the parents of absent children. A recent article in The Times of India, quotes Ossie Fernandes, director of Human Rights Foundation (HRF), as saying, “there is no auditing…to check whether RTE is implemented.” Fernandes went on to suggest that if government and private schools are serious about implementing RTE, they should be open to independent school inspections.

Yet, some say that India must first address the larger issue of childhood poverty and slavery, which has forced many children into the workplace rather than the classroom. According to the recent Global Slavery Index, India is home to half of the world’s modern slaves. Despite the government’s 2012 ban of all types of child labor under the age of 14, little has changed in the past two years. With a poverty rate of approximately 25%, and more than 50% of the population under the age of 25, a recent editorial in The Nation suggests that implementation and enforcement of either the child labor law or the RTE will require the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182.

Education Reform in Japan

Dr. Christopher Bjork’s most recent publication, Japanese education in an era of globalization, which he co-edited with Gary DeCoker, was published in May of 2013 by Teachers College Press. The following post is based on a conversation in which he discussed educational reform in Japan.

As Dr. Bjork explained, education reforms in Japan in the 1990s aimed to “relax” strict educational standards and policies that many viewed as contributing to anti-social student behaviors, such as bullying and violence. In an attempt to relieve students of stress caused by high stakes testing, long hours spent in school, and rote learning, Japan implemented progressive, student-centered policies that privileged creative thinking and collaboration.  These changes were designed augment student interest in learning.

Teachers tended agreed with the goals of the relaxed education (yutori kyoiku) reforms, but often had difficulty implementing the initiatives in their classrooms.  Secondary instructors, in particular, were reluctant to diverge from practices that had proven effective in the past.  Dr. Bjork attributes this resistance to the cogent influence of entrance examinations, which act as gatekeepers and determine students’ future level of education attainment. Concerns about student performance on these exams made teachers reluctant to adopt strategies that they saw as unrelated to the content of the exam, and parents less willing to rely on the school system to sufficiently prepare their children for the challenges that lay ahead. As a result, many parents looked to private tutoring programs to fill what they saw as a gap in the children’s education.

Today, despite the country’s superior performance on the 2012 PISA test, the conservative government of Japan has a new agenda for overhauling the education system, which includes improving English fluency among teachers and students, teaching morals, and revamping the college entrance exam. A flurry of reports over the past few months also show that there is much debate over the government’s plan to revise curricula to state Japan’s territorial claims over disputed islands in teaching guidelines.  Although some vestiges of the relaxed education policies remain in place, their impact fell far short of the Ministry of Education’s initial projections.  The goal of alleviating pressure in the schools proved more ambitious than had been anticipated.

Scanning the globe

Several reports over the past month highlight issues such as educational funding, early childhood education, new schools and school closure, and curriculum:

Funding

In the Phillipines, http://www.philstar.com argues that the country is not contributing enough to education. While education spending increased from 1999 to 2011 (13.9% to 15%), it has yet to reach the target 20% of the national budget. According to UNESCO, “The share of national income invested in education, which equalled the subregional average in 1999, had fallen behind by 2009 at 2.7 percent of GNP, compared with an average of 3.2 percent for East Asia.” In CanadaThe Globe and Mail reports that school boards have increased their spending over the past decade. In Canada as a whole, expenditures have increased 53 per cent – or 5.3 per cent a year, a rate much higher than inflation. In Australia, The Australian Teacher Magazine reports that the government is in the midst of a debate over the funding of education. While the government has committed to a new educational funding system for four years starting from 2014, officials are debating the timeline for the new funding system as well as the question of whether the funding should go to private schools as well as public schools. Meanwhile, The Norway Post reports that the Norwegian government is making plans to increase spending on teacher training.

Early Childhood Education

In Bulgariahttp://www.novinite.com reports that, in order to avoid a loss of EU funding, new legislation is being drafted and must go into effect by September 2014. Legislation includes revisions to a draft law on pre-school education, which include making pre-school education non-compulsory for 4-year-olds. Meanwhile, The Helsinki Times reports that Finland, where approximately 63% of children aged 1-6 attended daycare in 2012, is considering a new law that would “secure the high quality of early childhood education,” as well as all other issues, including funding and teacher quality.

New Schools and School Closure

According to Norways The Foreigner, Conservative Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has proposed lifting current restrictions on establishing private schools. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the government has amended the Children and Young People Bill in order to defer decisions about school closures to new review panels. The aim of establishing these panels is to improve transparency and remove allegations of political bias from the process. In Lithuania, the Education and Science Ministry has approved a network of Russian-language schools, emphasizing that education programs of foreign countries and international organizations must be consistent with the education goals and principles in the Education Law of Lithuania, as well as the law on national security and other legal acts.

Curriculum

In Finland, The Helsinki Times reports that a high school reform task force delivered a proposal to the Minister of Education and Science in which they proposed reducing compulsory subjects, such as the study of Swedish, and introducing new interdisciplinary studies. The proposal has been met with resistance from some teachers and politicians. Meanwhile, in The New York Times, questions about the relationship between identity and the curriculum surface for Palestinian children who are educated in Israel, and Muslims who are educaed in Germany. The debate over language instruction is ongoing in countries such as The NetherlandsLatvia, and Japan.

In AustraliaAustralian Teacher Magazine reports on a new review of the national curriculum, which leadership feels should be pared back to basics. Kevin Donnely, one of two men who will conduct the review, raises concerns over teaching and learning, and considers the relationship between educational spending and learning outcomes. As he explains, “We really do need to know whether the millions and millions of dollars that’s gone into education over the last 20 years, where results have flatlined or have gone backwards – we want to know how effective that money has been.”