Wednesday, November 14, 2012

East Versus West: Differences in Learning

UCLA Professor Jim Stigler talks about the observations he made as a graduate student at University of Michigan while comparing American against Japanese classrooms. Apparently, in the US, a student struggling with a lesson implies lack of ability while in Japan, struggling is seen as an opportunity. In a Japanese classroom, it is clear that academic success is not so much about what a student knows but more about a willingness on the part of a student to work and struggle to learn. It is not about intelligence, but more about motivation. Japanese classrooms focus therefore on effort. It teaches the students that the process is important. It is the most important lesson in life, persistence in the face of challenges, profoundly affecting behavior. One vivid comparison involved giving a class of first grade students a problem impossible to solve. Inside the American classroom, students gave up within half a minute saying that they have not seen such a problem before while inside the Japanese classroom, students continued to work on the problem until the one-hour period was over.

There are certainly advantages and disadvantages between the two different cultural views of learning. Japanese students do well in science and math but American students are more individualistic and creative. There is perhaps a middle path that reaps the benefits from the two culturally different approaches. Of course, a middle path that combines the shortcomings of both approaches is likewise possible, one that destroys creativity and at the same time, does not encourage perseverance. This a serious question that one must ask especially with DepEd's K to 12. In an abandonment of "rote learning", are we sacrificing the lessons of perseverance and practice? The reason why Americans have been comparing their schools against those of the Japanese is to see why Japanese students outperform American students in math and the sciences. It is a quest for the reason behind an "Eastern advantage". The Philippines, although it is in Asia, does not have this "advantage". It must therefore look at what it has lost in its culture.

To learn more about Stigler's work, please listen to National Public Radio's Alix Spiegel,

Stevenson and Lee have also provided extensive comparisons between Eastern and Western schools in the following monograph:
In this monograph, they also noted the following:
Although more emphasis was generally given to effort than to ability as a basis for achievement, the relative strength of the belief in the importance of these factors differed among American, Chinese, and Japanese mothers. Relative to the Chinese and Japanese mothers, the American mothers placed greater emphasis on ability; Chinese and Japanese mothers placed greater emphasis on effort as an explanation for achievement.  
When parents believe that success in school depends on ability in contrast to effort, they are less likely to foster participation in activities related to academic achievement that would elicit strong effort toward learning on the part of their children, such as doing homework, attending after-school classes, and receiving tutoring. American parents, in fact, did not use these activities with great frequency as means for improving their children's scholastic performance, even though they were willing to provide such supplemental activities for their children in sports, music, and art. Mothers who emphasize the importance of ability may ask if such activities are useful for children of low ability and may accept the poor performance of their children. If the child has high ability, the mother may question whether such activities are needed. A greater emphasis on ability appears to be related, therefore, to American children's lower accomplishments in elementary school.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

K-12 Myth: The Promise of Employment

by Vencer Crisostomo
Repost from Philippine Online Chronicles

Before it went into recess last October, Congress rushed the passage of the K-12 law into 2nd reading. Several legislators opposed the move and questioned motives behind the railroading and said there should be an evaluation of the effects of the first semester pilot of the program before passing the law effectively adding 3 years to the basic education cycle.
The Department of Education's propaganda campaign, meanwhile, regarding the K-12 programhas been in full throttle these past months -- their offices churning out press release after press release -- in an attempt to get public support for a program that has already been rejected by various sectors a few years back.

As the school year opened however, the media blitz could not cover up the tragic state of the country's educational system which again reminded the public of why it is unthinkable to add more years to the education cycle in the first place.
DepEd has tried to respond by asking the public to set common sense aside, have faith on the government's goodwill and trust its claims regarding the program.
However, many of claims the DepEd is selling are myths being sold as truth. Among them, the promise of employment after graduating from the program.
Will more jobs be really available to the youth once they finish K-12?
According to the DepEd, the additional years will make our kids more "mature" and will give them "skills" needed to prepare them for jobs. This is the fantasy scenario being promised to the youth and their parents, packaging K-12 as a "bitter pill" or a sacrifice worth taking.
The problem with this claim is that it assumes that there are plenty of jobs available; it's just that students are not "employable" enough. This premise is, well, kind of ridiculous.
It ignores the fact that today, even college graduates have difficulty landing jobs. Unemployment has been on the rise, not because of shortage of "capable" people, but because there is no clear plan for an independent and sustainable development program which will provide jobs. The promise that the K-12 will solve the problem of unemployment is a false one.
What the program will successfully do, however, is increase the number of people competing over scarce jobs by creating more "semi-skilled" laborers in a shorter cycle and throwing more people as young as 18 years old into the wide ocean of unemployed.
A bigger labor reserve will push wages down further and subject our workers to greater exploitation. The real motive is thus revealed: to attract more investments by making PH labor cheaper.
More "employable," in the case of K-12 means more "exportable" and more "exploitable."

..nasa balangkas ito ng .. patakaran ng gobyerno sa paglikha ng trabaho  ang mang-akit ng malalaking kapitalistang dayuhan at lokal para mamuhunan sa bansa sa pamamagitan ng paghahain ng mura, bukod pa sa siil, na lakas-paggawa, at ang itulak ang mga manggagawa at mamamayan na mangibang-bayan para lang makapagtrabaho.

Groups also question why the program is towards providing labor for foreign capital. Sarah Maramag notes:

What the K-12 program aims to achieve, therefore, is to reinforce cheap semi-skilled labor for the global market. With young workers, mostly semi-skilled and unskilled workers now making up an estimated 10.7 percent of the total Filipino labor migrant population, it comes as no surprise then that the government is now programming its youth to servicing needs of the global market.
The DepEd is packaging K-12 as a program to "improve" the quality of education, but the program is actually a neoliberal attack aiming to further press down workers' wages and subject more Filipinos to exploitation.
Packaging the K-12 as a program with a "nationalist" character thus is height of deception. The program, together with programs of contractualization and two-tiered wage system, is one that seeks to please big foreign banks and capitalists by making our workers and people suffer lower wages and further exploitation.
More jobs via K-12? DepEd's myth: busted.
Stock photos from POC. Some rights reserved

Monday, November 12, 2012

Health Care and Basic Education

Almost twenty years ago, a paper appeared in the journal Public Choice that cites the inevitable challenges of providing services such as health care and basic  education:
There are indeed striking characteristics that both health care and basic education share. For one, universal education, and child and maternal health care are among the Millennium Goals of the United Nations. Second, as pointed out by Baumol's article, these services are quite distinct from other human enterprises, such as building automobiles. Production lines designed to perform precisely each step in making cars can be made. There is room for custom-made automobiles, but for the purposes of general production, uniform lines can surely take advantage of advances in technology to lower costs of production and increase efficiency. Health care and education do not quite easily lend to these innovations. Each patient requires individualized attention and whether this is accepted or not, education is more about learning than teaching, making basic education as personal as health care. Both basic education and health care have a strong influence on a society's well-being. For these services to benefit society, these must be of high quality. A health care program or a public school that is failing can even do harm to society.

There are differences between health care and education. With regard to evidence-based research, health care is miles ahead of education. Reforms in education continue to be implemented without supporting data and studies remain poorly designed, without proper controls. On the other hand, the practice of medicine has been faithful to clinical trials and data. Health care, however, does not do well in terms of equal access. A public option, for example, in the richest country in the world, the United States, does not exist. But public schools still do.

The question that Baumol asks in the article is: Should these services remain in the public sector or should they be privatized? Current situations perhaps can answer this question. Health care is privatized in so many places. Excellent health care is available, but surely, not for everyone. Similarly, there are excellent schools that are both private and exclusive. These schools are, of course, not for every child. Privatization always tends to provide excellence first before access. Thus, there is that tempting conclusion that if quality is desired, one should privatize. To take the other option, that is, to continue with the public sector or government to provide or run these services, is then equated to low quality and inefficiency. Finland shows clearly that this is not the case. There are no private schools in Finland. Finland emphasizes equality and yet, Finland is in the top in terms of quality basic education. Excellence therefore can come with equality. When basic education is not seen as a vehicle to get ahead in life, better learning outcomes are achieved. Providing health care and basic education, without doubt, are different from making automobiles. The health and education of the members of the society are comparable to security, peace and order. I do not think societies have ever explored on a large scale the privatization of its police force or firefighters. I wonder why....

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"From Poverty to Power"

The following is an article posted in a blog by Duncan Green, author of "From Poverty to Power". It describes the "right to education" movement in India in the light of two primary schools, a teachers' group,  and a women's savings club. While thinking about the Philippine situation, I think Green's article is worth our attention:

India’s fight for the right to education

Originally posted on November 9, 2012

Still processing my recent visit to see Oxfam India’s work – posts continue next week with the great debate on India’s middle classes.
Education is fine example of the strengths and weaknesses of judicial activism in India. The Right to Education (RTE) Act was passed in 2009, arising out of constitutional amendment in 1999 that redefined the right to life as including education (!). Private schools challenged the act, especially its requirement that they reserve 25% of places for lower castes, but the Supreme Court upheld it.
To see what all this means on the ground, I duck out of my boring conference and head for Madanpur,  a colony for slum dwellers ‘rehabilitated’ in 2000 – i.e. their previous homes were steamrollered and they were shunted to the margins of Delhi. Its current population of 145,000 earns income from construction, domestic work etc – almost entirely in the informal economy.Girls shift at the primary school, Delhi
Oxfam India’s partner, the slightly ungrammatical EFRAH (Empowerment for Rehabilitation, Academic and Health) is an RTE activist NGO working with schools to implement the Act – part support, part watchdog (‘they like us, and they are afraid of us’). There is plenty to work on, as the gap between the Act and reality is great: it mandates school management committees with equal teacher/parent representation, but there are none to be seen in Madanpur.
We visit a primary school (up to grade 5, hundreds of kids milling in a tiled playground – right) and catch the headmaster trying to beat a retreat on his motorbike. He reluctantly returns for a few minutes before heading off again, pleading a meeting. We meet the teachers in a hot staffroom with stationary fans – the electric’s been off for 12 hours. They teach 2,500 kids in two shifts – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon; the teachers claim 80-90% attendance rates, but today it’s more like 60% (they blame the upcoming festival season).
The teachers’ big beef is not wages, but the ‘PTR’ – pupil teacher ratio. There are no classes with less than 50 kids, and many are standing room only. But they acknowledge it was worse before – at least there are more notebooks now.
An aside on service delivery v Oxfam’s ‘rights-based approach’: ‘You keep coming and asking these questions but our lives don’t improve with all these foreign visitors’, say the teachers. ‘Plan India gives us water tanks – but what do you give us?’ But EFRAH says the local government promptly diverted money elsewhere when it heard about Plan’s plan. Service provision certainly makes rights-based work more difficult. ‘Fine, you can come and talk about rights, but what are you going to give us?’
A few streets away, we meet a women’s savings group (left), arrayed in their best saris in a tiny but tidy, sweltering one room house. Their savings group, Delhimain complaint is that they don’t teach their kids anything at the school. ‘Any time you go there, the teachers are not in the classrooms, they are ‘doing paperwork’. The kids are just wandering around. We know there’s not enough teachers, but the ones there are don’t even try to teach. We have to get private classes on top’. All the women are paying for at least some private tuition – $5 per month per subject, all in ‘unrecognized’ private schools which are often no better than the public ones. The women’s big complaint is on the lack of a school management committee or any other source of accountability: ‘they never call us, never call meetings. Teachers and parents need to work together.’ Some parents are filing Right to Information cases to find out how many PTA meetings have been called and who was invited. Another recent RTI case asked how many teachers had been budgeted for, after which the school hired an extra teacher.
Next stop is a group of fifty 13-18 year old girls, in grades 7-10. When we ask what they like about school, there is a resounding silence. Instead, they have complaints – on the lack of toilets, electricity, having to sit on floor. They do like the morning shift though, because it reduces risk of ‘eve teasing’ (sexual harassment). When we ask them how much actual teaching they receive in a 5 hour shift, the average is about 2 hours.
They all want to work (doctors, teachers, police inspectors ‘so I can hit the boys when they harass the girls!’, media) and aren’t under pressure to get married, but ‘We are getting educated, but we can’t work.’ Male relatives stop them going out to work because they’re ‘afraid our character will be put into question’. They insist it’s still better to be a girl ‘we can handle households, children and outside work – but maybe we need to learn karate!’
So it all comes down (doesn’t it always?) to governance and institutions. A combination of increased spending, accountability via school management committees and improved teacher training (it’s largely privatized and ineffectual – recently only 6% of trainee teachers were able to pass a basic test) could turn things around. But that approach is under challenge by contending ‘solutions’ in the shape of privateShashi_Tharoor_WEF public partnerships and the pulling in of the private sector, whose consequences could include increased inequality and exclusion.
Meanwhile the government looks set to kick the RTE can down the road by postponing the deadline for its implementation from 2013 to 2015, underlining the point that in India, getting the law passed is just the start. Implementation is the real battle. Still, the week after my visit, Shashi Tharoor (right), who helped launch the new Indian edition of From Poverty to Power, was made education minister, so let’s hope he takes matters in hand.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

When will PNoy put the right people in charge?

by Flor Lacanilao

Scientists renew concern on climate adaptation

My post last week gave examples on improving the work of scientists and media in climate disasters. I mentioned, Our typical news report on climate-related issues often lacks evidence-based information (properly published experts or studies). For example, the news report “Reclaiming land seen as measure to deal with climate change” (Inquirer, 11/1/12) mentioned a department secretary, a bureau director, an architect, a government reclamation agency, and the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Science or NIGS  (see Key role of scientists & media in climate disasters, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8 Nov 2012).

But no scientist or properly published study was cited. It failed to mention the well-published NIGS geologist Dr. Alfredo Mahar Lagmay  
Here is another example of a news report in this week's issue of the journal Nature, showing how scientists and engineer scientists discuss plans on climate adaptation. 

Malcolm Bowman (who specializes in storm-surge modelling at Stony Brook University in New York) has "advocated a system of sea barriers or dykes," like those in London, the Netherlands, and Russia. The system pictured by Bowman and others consists of an 8-Km-wide barrier, 6 meter-high, that could be opened and closed at the entrance to the harbor, and other structures. The cost is about US$15 billion, Estimates of the damage caused by "Sandy" is between $30 billion and $50 billion.

On the other hand, some scientists worry that a single focus on sea barriers could be counterproductive -- like disrupting river outflow, increasing sedimentation, upsetting ecosystems, and  exacerbate flooding in areas that are not protected. Also, sea barriers do not protect against severe storms that produce inland flooding.

Cynthia Rosenzweig (co-chair of the NY climate panel and a senior scientist at NASA) says, “Sandy clearly shows that we have to do the barrier studies now. . . But I think we need to consider an integrated and holistic set of solutions, and not put all of our eggs in the barriers."  Scientists and government officials must ensure that any rebuilding is done with the long view of global warming in mind. She adds.

Full text in "Hurricane sweeps US into climate-adaptation debate" (Nature, 8 Nov 2012)
The way governance of science and education in the Philippines goes, I think the message to the Filipino academic scientist can be seen in the Science editorial last week, which says in part:

"Scientists insist on believable data both in work and in public life. Bright young scientists do not accept nonsense from those in power, and they will not be eternally patient with those responsible for it. The response of the scientist to nonsense is both conceptual and practical: to recognize it, expose it, and try to fix it."  (The Scientist as World Citizen (2 Nov 2012).

Flor Lacanilao
Retired professor of marine science
University of the Philippines, Diliman

Friday, November 9, 2012

Teaching "x = 'why'"

Previously, I shared in this blog the experiences of a Washington Post reporter who went back and spent a year taking high school math. A lot could be learned by returning to the classroom. Having been in a profession offers new perspectives, certainly a new vantage point, to see high school education. These are anecdotes yet useful insights can be drawn from all of these. Another useful immersion has been recently described by Harvey Mudd College professor of mathematics Darryl Yong. Professor Yong spent his recent sabbatical teaching high school math classes in a large urban school district. Yong wrote a wonderful piece describing his experiences as well as his thoughts on this unusual excursion in the Notices magazine of the American Mathematical Society:
The piece illustrates an example of how higher education may be able to help society understand the needs of basic education. For such an immersion to be genuine, it is important that classroom conditions are not altered simply to please a guest lecturer in high school. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of experiencing first hand what it really means to teach elementary or high school. Professor Yong clearly did not receive special treatment as the following excerpt demonstrates:

...As a final illustration of the kinds of frustration that teachers face, here is an excerpt of a letter I received from my school district a few weeks after the end of the school year.
Our records show that you have received an overpayment as a result of a change that was processed in June 2010. The total adjusted gross amount  of your overpayment (reduced by any
retirement contribution) is $12,197.66. This letter is intended to advise you of  your options in repaying the identified overpayment.
The letter was not signed by anyone, there was no contact person listed, and there was no phone number to call! The letter seemed to make it impossible to contest the overpayment; it only listed options for repayment and threatened referral to a collections agency if the amount was not repaid....
Seeing the above proves to anyone without any doubt that this immersion was real and what Yong has to say about teaching in high school reflects a genuine scenario. What he describes in his piece is therefore worth our time. His reflections provide a deeper vision of basic education seen through the eyes of a professor in mathematics. And here are the main points, which he appropriately calls lessons, that he raises in his essay:

  • Basic education schools are complex. Even this is still an understatement. When schools fail, explanations (or excuses) offered are usually too simplistic, thus, depriving society the complete view to address properly the problems. In the Philippines, the old ten-year curriculum described as congested has been pinpointed as the main culprit in the poor state of basic education. The explanation, however, is more of a justification to go to K to 12, than a sincere and in-depth examination of the situation. These are excuses and are no different from knee-jerk comments made by high school teachers regarding how poor they perceive elementary school education is. As Professor Yong writes, "Simplistic diagnoses are dangerous because they encourage quick fixes. Instead of long-term plans for systemic change, school reform becomes a series of short-lived fads that cause teachers to become jaded by unfulfilled promises of improvement." This explains in part why reform after reform, problems in basic education remain. 
  • It helps to have a teacher who has mastery of the subject content but this is no guarantee for high student learning. Yong cites a study made by  Hattie (John Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, 2009.) that shows that a how a student views himself or herself with regard to the subject counts significantly towards the learning outcome in that domain. If a student begins with a perception of weakness in mathematics, this has serious implications on the student's performance in math. Thus, if student's performance correlates with what we perceive as high quality teaching then effective teaching must be able to address and correct a student's preconception of the subject. Perhaps, this is a major difference between an effective and an ineffective teacher. The following excerpt from Yong illustrates this vividly:
I initially spent a great deal of time thinking of fun or creative lessons that would get students excited. These lessons rarely worked because they were often too complicated or inappropriate for my students’ mathematical development. Instead, I began to design my lessons and accompanying student work so that (1) all of my students could successfully complete the first problem or task independently, and in which (2) the sequence of problems/tasks matched my students’ tolerance for challenge and self-concept. 
This strategy not only increased student learning but also eliminated most of the discipline issues in my class and relieved the pressure of having to develop whiz-bang “fun” lessons every day. 
                    • There is a great need to understand correctly what the teaching profession entails. No different from the practice of medicine, the teaching profession is an ongoing learning. Only with the realization of the emotional, physical and intellectual demands of teaching, would society understand and begin to truly respect teachers. If society treats its physicians in a similar manner as teachers are currently treated in the Philippines, for example, one could only wonder what will happen to the quality of health care and medical services.
                    • The last lesson Yong shares is that the "Written curriculum does not matter." What matters is what actually occurs inside the classroom. In this respect, the teacher serves a central role.
                    Yong's experiences are rich with insights and I invite everyone interested in improving the state of basic education to read his article

                    Thursday, November 8, 2012

                    Teacher Quality: Getting the Right People to Lead the Classroom

                    Teachers shoulder a great responsibility of molding the future citizens of society. Yet, only a few countries (Finland is one example) demonstrate a highly selective process for teacher education. Teaching schools, for example, are far below medical schools in terms of competitiveness in most places. Raising the quality of teachers will involve two important factors: attractiveness and selectivity. The teaching profession must attract young minds who have the talent and teaching colleges must select only those who qualify. This is the case with the medical profession. And yes, it is perhaps the reason why health care costs are a great deal to any society. To achieve the same with basic education, it will come with comparable costs and priorities. After all, education is as important as health.
                    Marc Tucker, downloaded from
                    Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (United States) recently wrote an article, "Teacher Quality: Who's on Which Side and Why", outlining what it takes to make the teaching profession both attractive and selective. Below is an excerpt:
                    ...No one believes that high SAT scores or ACT scores, or high high school grade point averages by themselves guarantee that a candidate will be a good teacher. Everyone I know believes that a passion for teaching and an ability to relate well to young people are very important characteristics of good teachers. But these are not mutually exclusive qualities. The record shows that countries that recruit their teachers from a pool of people who score high on their college entrance exams, had high grade point averages and also show a passion for teaching and an ability to relate well to students produce higher student achievement across the board than countries that leave out one or more of these qualities when they are recruiting their students....
                    In addition to stating what seems to be obvious to many, the article also points out a dilemma faced by teaching colleges when becoming selective thereby connecting issues in higher education with those of basic education. Teaching colleges from the point of view of entrepreneurship do not favor the selectivity requirement to uplift teacher quality. Having less students hurts the bottom line of these institutions. Being highly selective and serving the needs of basic education do not make teachers' colleges profitable.

                    If I may use an analogy, research in the basic sciences can never be funded by the market. Yet, the United States and other developed nations fund research. It is one of the obligations only a government could provide. Thus, on similar grounds, teacher education falls into this category. A government must subsidize if not fully support teaching institutions so that these colleges can be more selective. This is only one of the factors. The other is making the teaching profession attractive. Again, with a public school system, the government is one of the employers of teachers. Salaries and working conditions can dampen without any doubt enthusiasm and dedication. All of these seem obvious but somehow there are some who still think that privatization and free enterprise can provide teacher quality. No, only a government representing the society as a whole that is genuinely committed to uplifting the teaching profession can.