Monday 17 June 2013

Quality pre-school 'helps kids level up': Stanford professor

S'pore's good showing in international test bears this out, says US education professor
By Sandra Davie, The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2013

Amid the government push for quality pre-school education, a visiting Stanford University professor has highlighted an international test showing the importance of this early-stage learning for Singapore students.

The test of 15-year-olds from 65 countries and economies showed Singapore students excelling in mathematics, science and reading, and, importantly, that those who attended pre-school did better than those who did not.

Renowned education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, 62, said, in citing the research in an interview with The Sunday Times: "(It) shows quite clearly that quality early childhood education can make a huge difference to children from disadvantaged backgrounds."

The one-time education adviser to US President Barack Obama was in Singapore earlier this month to deliver the CJ Koh Professorial Lecture organised by the National Institute of Education (NIE).

Her remarks come just three months after the announcement that government-run kindergartens would be introduced with the aim of lifting standards in teaching the nation's toddlers.

The test mentioned by Prof Darling-Hammond was the three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), done in 2009. In it, Singapore ranked fifth in reading with a mean score of 526, second in maths (562) and fourth in science (542). The average score among OECD countries was 500 points.

The study compared the students' scores to whether they had at least one year of pre-school education. Those who had more than one year of pre-school education scored higher than those who had not attended pre-school.

The difference in scores between the two groups of students, after taking into account their socio-economic background, was 78, which the surveyors say is statistically significant. The findings are in line with several other studies around the world which have shown that pre-school education makes a difference in later years.

The study also found that the socio-economic background of Singapore students plays a stronger role in how well they do in the reading test, in particular, compared to students in Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea.

It measured the socio-economic background of the students based on information they gave such as their parents' educational level and occupation, family structure and their home possessions - such as whether they had a room of their own, and Internet connection.

Singapore, like New Zealand and the United States, had above average reading scores but also above average impact of socio-economic background. This means that the better the background, the better the students performed.

In places such as Finland and Hong Kong, the link between test performance and socio-economic background was not as strong.

Prof Darling-Hammond welcomed the Government's push to raise the quality of pre-school education in Singapore and make it affordable to children from disadvantaged homes. She also cheered the move by the Education Ministry to start running its own kindergartens from next year which will use the latest research in early childhood education to develop the best teaching methods and practices.

A third of the places will be set aside for children from lower-income households, making high-quality pre-school education within their reach.

NIE dean of education research Lee Wing On said the link between socio-economic background and Pisa scores of Singapore students is still quite close to the average for the 34 OECD member countries.

He quoted another set of Pisa figures showing Singapore, as well as countries including China, South Korea and Finland, had a larger proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who performed better than expected.

The study called them "resilient" students. These were from the bottom quarter of society in their country, in terms of socio-economic background, but whose performance was in the top quarter of the Pisa test across students from all countries.

Almost one in two poor students in Singapore was "resilient", compared to one in three in the 34 OECD member countries and the Pisa average of one in four among 65 countries.

He said Singapore is on the right track in raising the quality of education and providing opportunities for students who are lagging behind to catch up.

Prof Darling-Hammond agreed, noting that government spending on the Institute of Technical Education and schemes such as the learning support programme in schools showed its intention to give disadvantaged students access to quality education.

Good grade for exam system
Tests well designed, but Stanford professor asks if PSLE is used in the right way
By Sandra Davie, The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2013

President Barack Obama's former education adviser has praised the way examinations are done in Singapore, while at the same time highlighting some shortcomings in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, 62, contrasts Singapore's situation with standardised school testing in the United States, especially the "fill-in-a-bubble tests", where students are posed pages of multiple-choice questions.

"They are of little value. Students are asked to pick one answer over five - they just spit back an answer."

The renowned professor notes that this is "quite different from the way Singapore teachers do it", applauding the move in schools here to use other forms of assessment at different levels, such as project work, practical science tests and oral tests.

Prof Darling-Hammond, who was here earlier this month to deliver the CJ Koh Professorial Lecture organised by the National Institute of Education, gave her views on the ongoing education debate in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Her comments may come as a surprise to those who complain of the local examination-oriented system, although they might agree with her in welcoming debate on the age for taking the PSLE, and its scope. Even the most well-designed examination is not able to measure what a student is capable of, she notes.

As an internationally renowned education researcher, her comments carry much weight. Indeed, they came after she looked at a sample of the questions posed in school tests and national examinations here.

Her finding: Teachers tend to use questions that encourage students to apply, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information instead of simply recalling facts. Education experts describe such questions as "higher-order", as they are open- ended rather than requiring a yes/no answer.

In history, for example, students may be given two accounts of the same event and asked why the two differ.

She attributes the move to emphasise critical thinking in the curriculum and examinations to Singapore students' strong performance in Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, which look at how 15-year-olds perform in mathematics, science and reading. The test is administered once every three years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

"I know initially there was trepidation if Singapore students would do as well in Pisa as they did in the international maths and science tests, since Pisa tests higher-order skills.

"But looking at the emphasis on thinking skills since the 90s, with the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation initiative, I was not surprised that they came out tops," she says.

In the 2009 Pisa test results released in 2010, Singapore students came in fifth for reading, second in mathematics and fourth in science out of 65 countries and economies.

But despite her praise for the examinations here, she says the debate over the PSLE is timely and useful.

The PSLE has been one of the hot topics in the Our Singapore Conversation series of dialogues with the people, with several complaining about the stress it brings on. Several participants have also asked for a relook at how the scores are used for entry into secondary schools.

Says Prof Darling-Hammond: "They may be well-designed exams but we also need to ask - are they used in the right way? These are questions that every society has to take up."

The way she sees it, the PSLE debate has raised two important questions.

First, whether it is appropriate for children to take a high-stakes examination at age 12.

The second issue is how the scores are being used to determine the academic route that students take in secondary school.

She does not want to prescribe the age at which a "sorting examination" like the PSLE should be taken, but notes that most school systems do it at age 15 or 16.

"That's when most youngsters are beginning to discover what they are good at and where their interests lie."

She has more to say on how the PSLE is being used to determine the schools and academic pathways that students take in secondary school.

She says that even the most well-designed examination is not able to measure what a student is capable of.

"While examinations can provide one source of information, it is something that you do on a single day, taking up a set of questions in a particular way and not everybody demonstrates their capacities on tests for a variety of reasons.

"One, because the tests are necessarily narrow, they are not going to measure everything. They can't possibly. Some people are highly anxious about testing and that impacts their performance. And almost any kind of test is going to have cultural biases because the references that are used are going to be more familiar to people with some experiences."

She is all for broadening the criteria used for entry into schools, especially the "selective schools" where there is keen competition for places.

"Besides the examination results, a child's school experience and achievements as well as portfolios and interviews can be used."

She holds the view that top schools should aim to have diverse student bodies.

She brings up the 10 per cent rule that the Texas university system has adopted where all public colleges and universities, including the highly selective University of Texas, Austin, must admit any Texas applicant who graduates in the top 10 per cent of his or her high school class.

In Singapore, the majority of places in the local universities are allocated based on the A-level, International Baccalaureate or polytechnic examination results which are converted into an admission score. A small number of students are admitted based on other criteria such as their non-academic achievements.

As for the Texas approach, studies have shown that the policy has led to more than just diversity in the student body. The 10 per cent students, relative to others, have done better by any measure - they have lower attrition rates and graduate in a shorter time period.

"So, that opening up of that opportunity and doing that in the cause of diversity has had really no negative effect. And lots of positive effects on the level of achievement and the level of integration and diversity in the society."

She agrees that admission based on broader criteria is "less tidy, less transparent and more time-consuming" but it is needed to ensure that there are opportunities readily available to all the different groups in a society.

"It's essential for any society like Singapore that wants to be a successful multicultural society."

Limitations of exams
"While examinations can provide one source of information, it is something that you do on a single day, taking up a set of questions in a particular way and not everybody demonstrates their capacities on tests for a variety of reasons."
PROF LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND, Stanford University education professor


Q: Why is there a need to take into account the broader achievements and abilities of a student?

The nature of work and society is changing at breakneck speed, pushed along by the growth of new knowledge and technology.

A Berkeley University study found that between 1999 and 2002, there was more new knowledge created in the world than in the entire history of the world before that time. And the amount of knowledge in technical fields is doubling every two years.

The Fortune 500 companies in 1970 privileged reading, writing and arithmetic as the top three skills they were looking for. In the year 2000, they privileged teamwork, problem-solving and interpersonal relationships as their top three skills.

The problems we are facing on the environment, global warming and accessibility to food - all these are big, intractable problems, and to solve them we need people with very different sensibilities, different knowledge bases and different capacities to come together.

If we are just relying on who did well on a particular test, we are not going to have the range of talent in the leadership of our world.

The paradigm of the future is going to be: "Can you learn to learn, can you access new information, can you teach yourself new things, can you be resourceful, can you work with others to solve problems you wouldn't be able to solve by yourself."

Q: Is it useful to have a national conversation about education issues?

There are two really good things about the national conversation. First, people have to recognise that there are folks who have views other than their own. In a community where people have to make joint decisions, it's very helpful to know what the range of views is. It's educative for the individuals involved and for policymakers.

We are enriched by hearing each other's perspectives. We may or may not end up agreeing with them, but our awareness is broadened. And the complexity of the issue is made more apparent to the people who are all "touching one part of the elephant".

It informs the policy community to know what the range of views is and what the range of experiences and concerns may be, so that their decision-making is enhanced by appreciation of those views and acknowledgement of the complexities.

Certainly at the end of the day something is going to be decided. What gets decided may also be fashioned in a way that it can accommodate a variety of views, maybe not every view, but a variety of views.
Influential figure in US education

Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, 62, has been hailed as one of the most influential people in education in the United States.
By Sandra Davie, The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2013

She is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and also heads the Centre for Opportunity Policy in Education at the university.

Before moving to Stanford in 1998, she taught for a decade at Teachers College, Columbia University. She spent the 1980s in Washington as a social scientist at the Rand Corporation, a global policy think-tank.

Before and after graduating from college, she taught in various classrooms.

Her research, teaching and policy work focus on issues of school restructuring, teacher quality and educational equity.

From 1994 to 2001, she served as executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a high-level expert panel. Its 1996 report, What Matters Most: Teaching For America's Future, led to sweeping policy changes affecting teaching and teacher education.

In 2006, this report was named one of the most influential affecting US education, and Professor Darling-Hammond was named one of the nation's 10 most influential people affecting educational policy over the last decade.

She was an adviser to President Barack Obama during his campaign and helped draft his ambitious education programme, especially the sections that call for recruiting and training thousands of new teachers each year.

But since then, she has opposed the standardised test-based school reform policies of the Obama administration.

She graduated magna cum laude from Yale, and earned her education doctorate from Temple University.

She lives in Stanford, California, with her husband. They have three children.

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