"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dissolution and Precipitation: Can We Transfer Ideas?

Susan R. Singer and William B. Bonvillian recently wrote an editorial in the journal Science. The article, "Two Revolutions in Learning", suggests ways in which online learning and research in science education can work together to produce transformative outcomes in education. Researchers in education can inform the online learning community with what works and what does not work while the online community can provide researchers with opportunities of quickly collecting vast data on learning. It is true that the online platform provides an additional arena to test and explore ideas on teaching and learning. It is easier to scale and it does have the appeal of being able to reach a broader population for subjects. Since online courses also carry the objective of making students learn, these courses need to be informed and guided by research in education.

Lofty ideas always look good on paper. When one gets into the details, things can get messy pretty quick. There are numerous notions and prejudices with regard to learning. An example is a distaste for spoon feeding. Thus, one objective of instructors is to help students develop the skill of transferring a concept they have learned before to a problem or phenomenon on which that they have not received specific instruction. The challenge is that this skill is quite difficult to accomplish inside the classroom. And, of course, this is likewise not easy in an online environment. To illustrate this difficulty, the simple phenomenon of dissolution and precipitation of ionic solids in aqueous environment serves as a good example. Kelly and Jones have specifically looked at this specific topic and explored the challenges students face in transferring concepts they have learned from dissolution to the phenomenon of precipitation in an article published in the Journal of Chemical Education. The article, "Investigating Students’ Ability To Transfer Ideas Learned from Molecular Animations of the Dissolution Process", examines in depth how students who have just viewed animations on how a crystal of sodium chloride dissolves in water, apply what they have just learned to explain why a precipitate of silver chloride is formed when clear aqueous solutions of silver nitrate and sodium chloride are mixed. There are various videos available on the internet that show how chemists imagine the dissolution of sodium chloride in water. Here is one example:

The advantage of an online content is evidently seen here since it provides a dynamic picture of the dissolution process. Sodium and chloride ions are being taken out from the crystal lattice by water molecules and the two ions are separated from each other. The video clearly shows that the particle that is inside the solution is not a sodium chloride molecule but separated sodium and chloride ions.

After viewing a video similar to the one shown above, the students are asked to make drawings that explain the dissolution process of sodium chloride in water. And most of the drawings correctly depict the concepts shown in the video. Ions are separated and there are water molecules surrounding each separated ion. The next material shown to the student is a demonstration of how silver chloride precipitates out upon mixing two clear solutions, one containing an aqueous solution of sodium chloride and another containing an aqueous solution of silver nitrate. This video is limited to a macroscopic demonstration, no simulation of how this process occurs at the molecular or ionic level was presented. An example of such video is shown below.

After seeing this video, the students are then asked to explain by making drawings how silver chloride precipitates out of solution. Not one of the students in the study is able to explain correctly how the precipitation occurs. The failure as noted by the authors comes mainly from the students' inability to keep the image of separated sodium and chloride ions when sodium chloride is in an aqueous solution. Thus, some of the explanations even make the claim that a silver ion tears away a chloride ion from a sodium chloride molecule or sodium chloride lattice. To explore further why students fail to transfer a concept from one phenomenon, dissolution, to another, precipitation, it may be useful to imagine a student's point of view. The following are sections from the ChemWiki web page of University of California at Davis:

Precipitation and Double Replacement Reactions

In order to use these solubility rules, one first must understand the way that ions react. Most precipitation reactions that occur are single replacement reactions or double replacement reactions. A double replacement reaction occurs when two ionic reactants dissociate and bond with the respective anion or cation from the other reactant. The ions replace each other based on their charges as either a cation or an anion. This can be thought of as "switching partners," that is, the two reactants "lose" their partner and form a bond with a different partner:

Figure 2: A double replacement reaction

A double replacement reaction is specifically classified as a precipitation reaction when the chemical equation in question occurs in aqueous solution and one of the of the products formed is insoluble. An example of a precipitation reaction is as follows:
CdSO4(aq) + K2S(aq→  CdS(s) + K2SO4(aq)
As you can see, both of the reactants are aqueous and the one of the products is solid. Because the reactants are ionic and they are aqueous, i.e. in water, means that these reactants will dissociate and thus are soluble. However, there are six solubility guidelines that help us predict which molecules are insoluble in water. These molecules will form a solid precipitate in solution.
Therefore, one may guess that the students may have been introduced before to precipitation reaction with the above presentation. Kelly and Jones write in their J. Chem. Ed. article:
It is possible that students in this study did not immediately connect the aqueous sodium chloride solution with the salt dissolution activity because the clear, colorless sodium chloride solution in a test tube depicted in the video looked like many solutions the students experienced in the laboratory course. As a result, perhaps students paid more attention to the fact that a precipitate was formed, which triggered their thoughts of double displacement reactions and solubility rules, concepts that were mentioned when students orally explained their written and drawn explanations.
The ChemWiki page at UCSD continues the lesson on precipitation with the following:

Net Ionic Equations

To understand the definition of a net ionic equation, let's look back on the equation for the double replacement reaction. Because this particular reaction is a precipitation reaction, we can assign states of matter to each variable pair.
AB(aq) + CD(aq→ AD(aq) + CB(s)
The first step to writing a net ionic equation is to separate the soluble (aqueous) reactants and products into their respective cations and anions. Precipitates, as we know, do not dissociate in water, so do not separate the solid into its ions. The resulting equation would look like this:
A+(aq) + B-(aq) + C+(aq) + D-(aq→ A+(aq) + D-(aq) + CB(s)
In the equation above, A+and Dions are present on both sides of the equation. These are called spectator ions because they remain unchanged throughout the reactionSince they go through the equation unchanged, they can be eliminated to show the net ionic equation:
C(aq)B(aq) → CB (s)
The net ionic equation only shows the precipitation reaction. A net ionic equation must be balanced on both sides not only in terms of atoms of elements but also in terms of electric charge. Precipitation reactions are usually represented solely by their net ionic equation. If all products are aqueous, a net ionic equation cannot be written because all ions are cancelled out as spectator ions. Therefore, no precipitation reaction occurs.

The above correctly applies what is known regarding aqueous solution of ions. The chloride ion is already separated from the sodium ion. The silver ion is separated from the nitrate ion. What actually occurs in the precipitation reaction is that the silver ion and chloride ion combine to form silver chloride, which then precipitates out of solution. The additional section above provides the correct transfer of knowledge from one phenomenon to another. Let us pause here, however, and ask ourselves: Is this not spoon feeding?

The findings of Kelly and Jones are highly informative regarding the challenges of helping students develop the skill of transferring knowledge;

...According to Crotty, a constructivist views meaning as not being discovered, but rather as a mental process in which understanding undergoes restructuring. When people gain knowledge they are trying to make sense of new thoughts that coincide with their previous ideas. Schwandt explains that learning does not occur in isolation; rather it is constructed against a backdrop of shared understandings, practices, and language. Thus, a given person’s knowledge must “fit” with reality; people’s life experiences are constantly testing the viability of their knowledge... 
...The wide variety in what students reported is consistent with the distinctive way people construct their unique mental models when they are from diverse backgrounds and have different prior knowledge into which to fit their understanding. It also suggests that students have difficulty interpreting what they see in the animations, even when the viewing is followed by a reinforcing discussion...  
The results of this study suggest that students learn to incorporate some features seen in animations into their own explanations, although they ultimately have difficulty transferring their understanding to new situations. When student responses were further probed we discovered that students were able to recall the process of salt dissolution, yet they did not relate that process to the same solution used as a reactant, an aqueous sodium chloride solution involved in a precipitation reaction. The teaching implication is that students need frequent reinforcement of the meaning of scientific terms such as aqueous and water soluble. Students also need help connecting concepts learned previously with new material. When showing animations to a class, an instructor can help students process the new information and make meaningful connections to other chemical systems and processes by asking them at the time to describe similar systems, and by varying the substances involved....
To this, one must wonder how students would jump to another topic, the world of coordination complexes, which I introduce in one of my lectures:

Chemistry of Coordination Compounds

Alfred Werner

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1913
"in recognition of his work on the
     linkage of atoms in molecules by which he has thrown new light on earlier
     investigations and opened up new fields of research especially in
     inorganic chemistry."

Cobalt (III) complexes
Alfred Werner was first to explain the existence and properties of a variety of cobalt(III) chloride compounds with ammonia:

1CoCl3 . 6NH3orange-yellow
2CoCl3 . 5 NH3purple
3CoCl3 . 4 NH3green
4CoCl3 . 3 NH3green
In addition:
When an aqueous solution of HCl is added to either compounds 1, 2, 3 or 4, NH3 is not removed.
Compound 1, when treated with an aqueous solution of Ag(NO3) precipitates all the chloride as AgCl.
Compound 2, when treated with an aqueous solution of Ag(NO3) precipitates only 2/3 of the Cl.
Compound 3, when treated with an aqueous solution of Ag(NO3) precipitates only 1/3 of the Cl.
Compound 4, when treated with an aqueous solution of Ag(NO3) precipitates no AgCl.
Werner's explanation
There are two kinds of chemical bonds present in these cobalt(III) compounds.  One is ionic (similar to the bond between Na+ and Cl- in solid NaCl) and the other is a coordination bond.  An example of a coordination bond that you may have seen before is the following:
The bond between B and N is a coordinate bond.
Coordinate covalent bond
A single covalent bond in which both electrons in the shared pair come from the same atom.  The molecule or ion which contains the donor atom is called a ligand.
Werner's complexes (Compound 1-4 are therefore described in the following manner)

By convention, the ligands are enclosed inside the brackets with the metal symbol.  These ligands are coordinately bound to Co(III).

Do we wait for students to transfer, or do we guide them? And what should one do in an online course?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Science: A Base for Relating, Reasoning and Representing

My son is required to memorize a poem for his first grade class. Those who have been following this blog would know that my son is very much interested in wild animals. Naturally, my son picks a poem about great cats to memorize. Here is one for a lion:

I've got a strong body
And very large paws,
Teeth made for killing
And powerful jaws.
When it's time for a hunt
The females take charge,
And the prey they go after
Are usually large.

Last year, in kindergarten, he memorized a poem about a jaguar:

It's Latin America
Where I always roam.
The tropical forests
Are the place I call home.
My light-colored coat
Is all covered with spots.
And within my rosettes
There are even more dots.

If eight lines will suffice for the poem next year in second grade, I think my son would probably pick the one for a black panther or leopard:

In dark Asian forests
I ambush my prey.
And my dark-colored coat
Doesn't give me away.
Like all other leopards
I have spots on my back
Though you can't always tell
'Cause my coat is so black.

These are poems from Ranger Rick Naturescopes: Amazing Mammals II, p. 18-20 (downloaded from Self-Directed Tour, Grades Three through Five, ANIMAL ADAPTATIONS, Teacher Guide).

Surely, these poems illustrate how science-based literature can be used for language lessons for young children. Descriptive natural science is indeed rich in vocabulary. My son has also been enjoying every issue of National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) Ranger Rick Jr., which abounds with stories and pictures about wildlife:

The following is an example of a page provided online by Ranger Rick Jr., which should give an idea of the reading level of this magazine:
Above image captured from http://www.nwf.org/Kids/Ranger-Rick-Jr/Lets-Read.aspx
Pauline D. Zeece wrote more than a decade ago an article in the Early Childhood Education Journal entitled "Things of Nature and the Nature of Things: Natural Science-Based Literature for Young Children".  In this article, Zeece pointed out:
...Competent early childhood education professionals have always used literature across the curriculum, including natural science (Shapiro, 1995). Tomlinson and Brown (1996) suggest that such literature provides accurate information in understandable and interesting language; creates a ready source of factual source of information about personal and group based sciencebased questions and interests; offers topical information from varied viewpoints; and presents excellent models of scientific methods of observation, hypothesis formulation, data gathering, experimentation, and evaluation. Thus, literature helps children develop inquiring minds and a scientific approach to thinking about and solving problems in increasingly sophisticated ways (Howe, 1993). Stories about natural science, in addition, foster an appreciation, understanding, and respect for living things (Mayesky, 1998)...
...There is an abundance of well written, information relevant children's books on the market today. Criteria for selection of natural science-based children's literature ideally parallel those used for other high quality literary resources. Additional consideration should be given to the representation and presentation of the science presented within these books. 
Quality, Natural Science-Based Books: 
• provide current, factual content. The world and its inhabitants portrayed are true to nature (Sawyer & Comer, 1996);
• contain clear and simple explanations. Captions and labels are clearly written and effectively displayed (Mayesky, 1998);
• present a depth and complexity of subject treatment that is closely matched to the developmental and interest level of an individual child or group of children (Howe, 1993; Sawyer & Comer, 1996);
• adhere to content that supports the overarching philosophy of a program and specific learning goals for young children;
• present information in captivating, beautifully illustrative narratives (Tomlinson & Brown, 1996); and
• possess a completeness and ease of use that allow children to quickly answer questions on scientific topics or enable them to explore scientific areas more effectively (Sawyer & Comer, 1996).

Scientists do science by discovery. This is true, but scientists also learn from others by reading works of other scientists. Scientists relate, reason and represent. In more than one way, both language and content are important facets of science. Excellent books for science are required for early childhood science education. Children need to see facts for the simple reason that they do not have the time to discover all of these on their own. Well-written science literature for children not only informs but also enhances the interest and therefore facilitates the discovery process. 

What is seldom appreciated in early childhood education is the use of science to aid in language learning. Nora Fleming of Education Week wrote recently about a partnership between the Sonoma school district in California and the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. The article, "Partnership Blends Science and English Proficiency" quotes Okhee Lee, a professor of childhood education at New York University and a researcher on English-learners and science:
"Science can be a nexus for learning English for English Language Learners (ELLs) because it provides a natural setting to learn a language. Engaging ELLs in these practices merits special attention, because such engagement can support both science learning and language learning, but unfortunately, instruction in U.S. classrooms has not tended to bridge the two."
And here are some observations from the teachers involved in this project:
On a recent day, pupils first learn the words to talk about the long brown-and-gray earthworms slithering in Petri dishes on their desks before they're allowed to observe them. Seeing, hearing, and discussing the science helps them with the vocabulary to label drawings in their science journals and talk about what they and their partners find examining the worms when the full class reconvenes. 
But the language learned in Sonoma's science lessons flourishes mostly by students' need to use it when they see and touch the natural world through in-class experiments, teachers say. That almost artful integration of language instruction into science makes students unaware they are actually learning; they just want to talk about what they experience.
In science, children will find the need to reason, relate and represent. And yes, scores are up among the students in this California program in both standardized reading and science exams...

Friday, March 29, 2013

We Are All Winners

When the median in an exam is 91%, it raises questions. A median as high as this coupled with a relatively small standard deviation, for example, 6%, provides a good description of the grade distribution. About eight five percent of the class scored 85% or higher in the class. Was the exam too easy? That would be the first question. There is a clear conclusion, however. Whatever measure was used (in this case, an exam), it was not discriminating enough to spread the scores.

In some states in the US, new teacher-evaluation systems are being tested. Preliminary results have been reported and Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week describes these in his article, "Teachers' Ratings Still High Despite New Measures". The highlights are the following. In Michigan, 98% of teachers are either effective or better. For Florida, it is 97%, Tennessee 98%, and Georgia has 94% of its teachers being rated effective or better. Thus, the preview from these new evaluation procedures says that most teachers in the public K-12 schools in the United States are either effective or better. Of course, a similar question is now raised. Is the new teacher evaluation methodology lacking in discriminatory capacity? Is the new measure incapable of distinguishing between a weak and a good teacher? The new teacher-evaluation measure includes observations in classrooms. These observations are made mostly by the principal. There is therefore that suspicion that principals are easy graders.

There is nothing wrong with a class having a median score of 91% if most of the students did do their part, if the exam indeed covers the material that the students expected to be in the test. In fact, it is possible to have even a higher median and a tiny standard deviation if all the students have indeed learned the material before the exam. Of course, even with this realization, there is still suspicion. Can nothing really be that good? Of course, high effectiveness is possible. Antibiotics can do this - able to clear completely an infection. It is thus possible in learning as well. All students can do well if the instruction is effective and learning does happen. But, the exam may still be too easy. One can never take that suspicion away. However, a teacher cannot give an unfair exam just to pull down the curve. Assessment requires sincere intentions. It cannot be attached to a desired result.

Thus, it is not surprising that the preliminary results of teacher evaluations are met with mixed emotions and responses. K-12 education in the United States is perceived to be facing challenges or problems. Teacher quality is an important factor so teacher evaluations must give a spread of effectiveness across schools in any state. All teachers cannot be performing effectively well if there are students who are not doing well in standardized exams. Certainly, that point can be made. Unfortunately, this point makes an important assumption: Teaching equals learning. One can only compare teaching evaluations against students' scores in standardized exams if indeed teaching equals learning. Teacher quality is indeed a major factor influencing learning but it is not the only one. Thus, one reaction to these preliminary results is that it clearly shows that the difference in learning outcomes in K-12 schools in the US is primarily due to socio-economic factors. One comment posted on the Education Week site sums up this interpretation excellently:
There are so many things disturbing about this article. First of all, the beginning idea that because an overwhelming percentage of teachers are rated as being competent at their jobs [means] the evaluation tool must be broken is ridiculous. Teachers are college graduates with certification which means they have passed the standardized tests, shown competence in students teaching and passed their coursework with high marks. Many hold advanced degrees. Most have years of experience. These are not people just off the street. 
Second, you cannot have a fair evaluation if you are going to mandate a certain percent fail or a certain percent can be superior. Forcing the data to a bell curve and then calling the bottom failing is ridiculous. You could do the same to Olympic athletes. There will be swimmers whose times are slower than others, but that does not mean that they are not excellent athletes. 
Teachers are doing their job as professionals but that of course, teachers can always improve. Athletes still train after they make the Olympic team. 
It is time to face the inconvenient truth that socioeconomic factors are the largest predictor of student achievement. Look at your state's AYP  (Adequate Yearly Progress) data site. The higher rates of proficiency will be at the wealthier districts. And that problem won't be fixed by teacher evaluation protocols.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hapag ng Pag-Asa (Table of Hope)

Hapag ng Pag-asa, Painting by Joey A. Velasco

The following is an article written by Fr. James B. Reuter, S.J., originally published on the Philippine Star.

By Fr. James B. Reuter, S.J.

The Philippine Star

At the entrance of the Major Seminary of the University of Santo Tomas , in Manila , you will see a painting. It is the "Last Supper" of Joey A. Velasco. It portrays poor children from Metro Manila, all between the ages of 4 and 14, at the Last Supper with Christ Our Lord. He has called it "Hapag ng Pag-asa", the table of hope.

To start with, it is not really a table. It is a big delivery box, knocked apart and nailed together again as a table. Joey Velasco himself has said: "This painting reveals a story of greater hunger than a plate of rice could satisfy. What these children are starved for is love."

Realizing that his little models were real persons, he investigated the life of each of them, and wrote a book, telling their stories. The title of the book came from a young woman who was mentally handicapped. She studied the painting and said: "You know, these children are not really poor. They have Jesus." So he called the book: "They Have Jesus: The Stories of the Children of Hapag."

To me, the most fascinating was the story of the child, in the painting, who is under the table, eating the crumbs that have fallen to the floor. Joey says: "The child under the table is ME!" The model for this child was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken in 1994 during the Sudan Famine. It shows a starving child who collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center in Sudan , Africa , in 1993. In the background, a vulture is stalking the emaciated child, waiting for him to die.

Three months later the photographer, Kevin Carter, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg , a suicide at 33. His red pick-up truck was parked near a small river where he used to play as a child. A green garden hose attached to the vehicle’s exhaust funneled the fumes inside.
"I’m really, really sorry," he explained in a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack. "The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses, anger and pain, of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners."

"The Doll of Tinay" is the story of a five year old girl whose mother is working abroad as a domestic, and whose father is a philandering drug addict. She is the only child, in the painting, who looks straight at Our Lord. She is hugging her battered doll, but Tinay is more battered than the doll. She was raped by her father.
Dodoy, eight years old, lives under a bridge. Joey Velasco was touched by the courage and cheerfulness of his mother, Vivian. They could not stand up in their little cubicle, because the roof was only four feet from the floor. But the mother worked hard as a lavandera. The whole family did all they could to send Dodoy to public school, though they could not afford books, or pens, or paper. They smiled; they hoped for a better future; and they prayed.

When he gets to the cheerful little home of Jun and Roselle , which is a squatters’ shack, Joey begins to crystallize his thoughts on the poor. "They have a firm trust in God as a compassionate, loving father. They have nothing. They really live a hand-to-mouth existence. But they smile and say: ‘We live on the mercy of God’… ‘Nabubuhay kami sa awa ng Diyos’."

"These poor people hold on to the truth that God will never abandon them, even if the walls of the earth crumble down. They begin and end their sentence with: ‘kung may awa ang Poon’ … ‘If God will have mercy on us.’ They inherited this phrase from their old people — from past generations. These are not merely words. This is their real life!"

"Jun and Roselle are poor children but they are rich in faith. They have what we call ‘abundance in scarcity’. Their house is filled with love and understanding. They enjoy each other. Nothing — not money, power, or fame, can replace family and friends, or bring them back once they are gone. Our greatest joy is really our family."

Whenever you try to help the poor, you always get back more than you give. You learn the meaning of courage. You learn the meaning of sacrifice, you see the beauty of love. Above all, you feel the strength that comes from faith, and hope, and trust in God. You realize the power of prayer.

The strength of this country is not on the top. It is not in the politicians. It is not in the military, or in the police. It is not in the big businessmen.

The strength of this nation is in the squatters’ shacks. Though we do not say it, our real power is in our courageous poor, praying under the bridge.


Standardized Testing versus "High-Stakes" Standardized Testing

My son is currently in first grade. During last year in kindergarten as well as this year, my wife and I sat down with his teacher to discuss his progress in school. There are no numerical grades yet at these levels of primary education in the United States. There are no numerical scores in my son's report card. These numbers usually begin to appear only after grade 3. The discussion with my son's teacher takes a significant amount of time as we go over various skills and competencies. The meeting basically informs us of where our son currently stands and warns us ahead of time if there is an area that warrants special attention. The absence of numerical grades or percentages, however, does not mean that our son has not been taking exams. He has been. And he does get a number that represents the percentage of the questions he answered correctly. These are "standardized exams", in a sense that the scores of my son in this exam can be compared against scores of other children. The questions are standard, but the results are "individualized". This is an appropriate description since the exam is used for formative assessment. Assessments are important since these inform the student, the parents and the teacher of where the student currently stands. Of course, the teacher has been making assessments on a regular basis, keeping track of the progress of each student, applying other methods of assessment outside of formal exams. We, as parents, likewise do the same. Thus, the meeting with my son's teacher is not a one-way discussion since we do compare notes while we assess our son's academic progress. The standardized exam is there to ensure that we have some objectivity in making these assessments. 

Before one develops a great distaste against standardized testing, one must keep in mind that there is a huge difference between standardized testing and "high-stakes" standardized testing. The addition of "high-stakes" changes standardized testing dramatically. How one uses, regards or responds to standardized testing makes a world of difference. There is nothing inherently wrong in giving exams to students except when the exam is testing the pupils on the wrong material but even in this case, it is not the fault of the exam. The fault here lies solely on the one who is administering the exam. When an exam is appropriate, it is a good assessment tool. Its primary usefulness is to guide future action.

When one reads that the top education country in the world, Finland, does not have "high-stakes" standardized testing, one must keep in mind "high-stakes" because that holds the true difference. Amanda Ripley of NBC News correctly notes the wrong impression of US education pundit Diane Ravitsch in "Testing Around the World":
...“Finland has no standardized testing at all,” edu-pundit Diane Ravitch said at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. “They don’t do year-to-year testing. No high-performing nation in the world does year-to-year testing.” 
Doesn’t that sound lovely? Imagine: a mythical land of reindeer, lingonberries and test-free schools. But is it actually true? Do the world’s top-performing school systems disdain standardized tests - and is that part of what makes them great? 
I spent the past year visiting and studying these schools, interviewing teachers, kids and parents. And what I found was much more interesting than what Ravitch says. 
First of all, let’s be clear: Finland does have standardized testing. They have had it for at least 159 years. They have less of it, for sure. (Which is not to suggest that they have less testing overall, but more on that later.) In fact, in every high-performing nation, tests are embedded in the wiring of schools - particularly in high schools. In the developed world, 76 percent of students attend high schools that use standardized tests, according to the OECD....
Amanda Ripley notes that one major difference between the US and Finland is that students feel the pressure of the standardized exams in Finland while in the US, teachers and school administrators are the ones who worry more. Students feel the pressure particularly on one standardized exam, the one they take after secondary education, which will decide where they would go next: a vocational school, polytechnic, or university. This is "high-stakes" for the students. In the US, the standardized exams can decide whether a school will be closed, teachers and principals will be fired, or schools get federal funding and teachers and principals receive bonuses. This is "high-stakes" for the educators. But this is just one of the major differences.

Katie A. Hendrickson, currently a graduate student in education and math instructor at Ohio University, published recently an article that examines Finland's testings in schools. The article, "Assessment in Finland: A Scholarly Reflection on One Country’s Use of Formative, Summative, and Evaluative Practices", is published in the peer reviewed journal, Mid-Western Educational Researcher:
The title of the article provides an overview of what exams are about in Finland. Exams serve three different objectives: Formative, Summative and Evaluative. Here are some excerpts from Hendrickson's article:

...Normative assessment takes place in early comprehensive school to identify students with possible learning disabilities and need for special education support (Kupiainen et al., 2009). Students are not placed in different classes by ability level; instead, all students are in the same classroom and an additional teacher is present in the classroom to assist struggling students (Grubb, 2007). First- and second-year students may participate in before- and after-school programs, and older students may be provided with special tutoring outside school hours (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2010). Students generally have only a half-hour of homework each night and do not wear school uniforms. Further, Finnish schools have a strict focus on learning, as they do not have tardy bells, athletic teams, marching bands, or school dances (Gamerman, 2008). School learning consists of courses in art, music, cooking, carpentry, and a long recess period, in addition to the typical language, history, mathematics, and science courses (Abrams, 2011)... 
...The assessment system of Finland is based around improving instruction, and the majority of the assessment is formative, or used to improve instruction and learning. Student assessment in Finland takes place in three arenas: within classroom practices, as the final comprehensive assessment of student progress at the culmination of basic education, and during the matriculation examination to serve as a criterion for college admission. Further, the national curriculum is evaluated through the help of an external evaluator and using data from a national standardized assessment, and teachers and schools use self-evaluation to improve education locally... 
...National standardized assessment takes place once per year with a selected sample of ninth grade students for the purpose of diagnosis and improvement of the national curriculum. Each year, a sample of approximately 100 schools is selected for national testing to evaluate the national curriculum. This standardized mathematics assessment is administered and evaluated by the National Board of Education (Kupiainen et al., 2009). However, school test scores are kept confidential to avoid ranking schools or teachers, and only national averages are released to the public (Valijarvi, 2004). The scores are used only to identify widespread weaknesses in the nation’s educational system and to improve the national policy or curriculum as needed (Grubb, 2007; von Zastrow, 2008)... 
...Finland takes a definitive stance toward both summative and formative assessment in its national curriculum. The United States has also taken a definitive stance toward national assessment, albeit in the opposite direction. Whereas Finland sees no need for high-stakes testing, the United States has pinned its hopes for improving education on widespread highstakes testing. The Finnish National Curriculum has fostered a supportive environment for the development of teacher professionalism and expertise, providing Finnish teachers with the freedom needed to make classroom and assessment decisions. On the other hand, teachers in the United States are subject to stringent requirements regarding curriculum and assessment. Policymakers in the United States might benefit from a consideration of the policy differences in Finland and the effect these policies may have on student performance. After all, if Finland is able to score so highly on international assessments with their hands-off policies, what does that mean for the rigid policies and high-stakes testing in the United States? 
Finland uses exams. And some of these exams are standardized. That should be made crystal clear. The major difference lies in how these exams are used. Assessments in Finland allow for students to develop metacognition, an awareness of how they learn, how they think, where they stand since these exams are not used as yardsticks but as guides. Assessments in Finland are used to evaluate the curriculum, not to rank schools, teachers or even the pupils. Assessments in Finland are used to inform the teachers if interventions are necessary or if a given teaching approach is working or not. The exams are mostly formative. Exams are not associated with prizes or penalties. This is the difference.

I would like to end with a statement from Daniel Koretz, professor of education at Harvard University and an expert on educational assessment and testing policy:
...The standards movement is based on the notion that the biggest impediment is the lack of standards and accountability. I don't think that is true. I think the lack of standards and accountability is significant but, in many of the schools that I have seen, I would not say that that is the biggest impediment to improved performance. If, for example, you have kids who are highly transient, who don't speak English, who come from dysfunctional homes, it's hard imagining that a better test is really going to solve the problem.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Teachers for the 21st Century

This year, the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP) was held in Amsterdam. One of the issues discussed was evaluation of teachers. And in line with this issue was a report from the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report is entitled, "Teachers for the 21st Century: Using Evaluation to Improve Teaching".

The volume is mainly based on the teacher appraisal chapter of the final synthesis report from the OECD Review on Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes, which was drafted principally by Deborah Nusche, together with Thomas Radinger, Paulo Santiago and Claire Shewbridge of the OECD Early Childhood Education and Schools Division. The analysis and case studies from countries taking part in the summit that are not represented in the OECD review were prepared by Kristen Weatherby. The volume was edited by Andreas Schleicher in collaboration with Kristen Weatherby, Marilyn Achiron and Giannina Rech and in consultation with the summit co-sponsors, education international and the ministry of education of the Netherlands. 

Reading through this report, I am reminded of a statement Pasi Sahlberg made while speaking at the Teachers College at Columbia University, "There's no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted." Among the countries surveyed in this report, Finland is not the only one that does not have a formal national policy for teacher evaluation:

Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Spain likewise do not have a national policy framework for teacher appraisal. The report, however, is quick to point out that;
"...the absence of policy frameworks for teacher appraisal does not mean that teachers receive no professional  feedback. In Denmark, for example, while teacher appraisal is not conducted systematically at the national level, teachers typically receive appraisal or feedback from their school leaders once a year. In Norway, teacher-appraisal approaches are not regulated nationally, but are designed at the local and/or school level. In Iceland, teacher appraisal is conducted at the discretion of individual schools and school boards...." 
It is also interesting to note that among the countries listed in the table above, only three, Chile, South Korea, and Mexico, have a reward scheme. Teacher appraisal is indeed a formidable task especially if class observations are included. In this area, time as well as manpower are necessary. The following is a table describing who does evaluations of classroom instruction in the countries included in this report:

It is therefore tempting to use test scores or other learning outcome statistics as a shortcut to evaluating teachers.  Unfortunately, these measures do not really help inform the teacher of what measures need to be taken. For a teacher appraisal scheme to be useful for professional development, the method obviously must go beyond test scores. The following box describes an example from South Korea:

OECD(2013), Teachers for the 21st Century: Using Evaluation to Improve Teaching, OECD publishing.
The report concludes with the following lessons:

Lessons on teacher appraisal
clarify the purposes of teacher appraisal and ensure that they are aligned with national education objectives.
establish teaching standards to guide teachers’ professional development and appraisal.
establish a coherent framework for teacher appraisal. 
use multiple instruments and sources of evidence.
provide support for effective classroom observations.
avoid using student feedback for summative appraisal. 
strengthen pedagogical leadership to enhance internal school appraisal processes.
Build the capacity of evaluators and those being evaluated for effective teacher appraisal.
Develop central expertise to continuously monitor and improve appraisal policies and practices. 
Use of results 
ensure that formative teacher appraisal feeds into professional development and school development.
use the results of summative teacher appraisal for career-advancement decisions.
ensure effective use of results by addressing the challenges of implementation.

Teacher appraisals must make teachers think more about their students. Tying teacher evaluations to salaries or bonuses simply divert the attention of teachers to themselves, their needs, and especially the fact that they are often underpaid and overworked. Teacher appraisals must lead into professional development.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Short Life

by Psyche Roxas-Mendoza
Originally published in Philippines Graphic (Notes) on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 12:45am

Five-year-old Kristof Tejada did not know his Ate was dead. Pressing his tiny palms together to form a pillow under his tilted face, he smiled, closed his eyes and casually said, “Natutulog [Asleep]” to explain why his eldest sister lay still inside a white, glass-covered, wooden “bed.” He said he did not know when her Ate would wake up.  

Dressed in a Divisoria-bought wine-colored terno blouse and long skirt embroidered with red flowers and green leaves, Kristel Pilar Mariz Pangilinan Tejada, 16, wore her fate with serenity –– a far cry from the tuition-harassed Behavioral Sciences student of the University of the Philippines (U.P.) in Manila who took her life last March 15 by swallowing silver cleaner.
Kristel Pilar Mariz Pangilinan Tejada 
Kristian, 8-years-old, the third child in the Tejada brood of four (not five as repeatedly reported in the media), has fond memories of his eldest sister.

Mabait na Ate si Ate Kristel. Kapag nakagawa siya ng kasalanan, nagso-sorry siya. Pag pinapalo ako ni Ate Krizia, pinagtatanggol niya ako [My Ate Kristel is a kind eldest sister. When she makes a mistake, she says ‘I’m sorry.’ And when my Ate Krizia spanks me, she comes and defends me],” Kristian said.

He turned serious when talk drifted on what became of his Ate Kristel. “Nag-aaral po siya sa UP Manila. Gusto niya mag-aral [She was studying in UP Manila. She wanted to study] tapos dun nga, sa tuition, (he points to the coffin)ganun na siya [she is now like that].”


Krizia, the daughter who came after Kristel, could not hide her anguish at losing her older sister. “Unfairsila. Hindi naman bobo ang Ate ko o nagbubulakbol para di payagang mag-aral. Ang ginawa na lang sana nila, pwede naman i-hold na lang yung grades kaysa pina-forced leave siya. Tapos, kung kailan nawala na ang Ate ko, saka nila pinayagan ng ganyan [They (UP officials) are unfair. My Ate was not a dull student. Neither was she a malingering one. They could have just withheld her grades, instead of forcing her to take a leave (of absence). And now that my Ate is gone, now, they decide to allow (the lifting of the ruling of not accepting in class students who have not paid their tuition)].”

She made it clear, however, that she bears no ill will toward U.P. “Sama ng loob sa U.P. meron, pero galit, wala. Sayang lang po kasi siya ang pag-asa namin. Ilang years na lang, magtratrabaho at magkaka-sweldo.[I have hurt feelings (for UP), but bear no anger. It’s just that it’s such a waste because Ate Kristel was our hope. A few more years and she would have gotten a job and a salary].

The cause of their Ate’s untimely demise did not dull the Tejada children’s love for study and dreams of finishing a college course or acquiring a skill necessary for gainful employment. Always, the common reason they cited was to help their family.

Said Krizia: “Gusto ko po mag-aral sa [I want to study at the] Asian Institute of Culinary Arts. Gusto ko, kahit saang lugar, pwede ako mag-work para makatulong sa pamilya ko. Kaya gusto ko maging chef [I want a profession that can get me a job anywhere. So I can help my family. That’s why, I want to be a chef].”

May ID po ako. [I have an ID],” volunteered Kristof, “Doon din ako sa Hizon nag-aaral [I also study in M. Hizon Elementary School, same with my Kuya Kristian].”

Kristian nodded his head in agreement and volunteered this about himself: “Grade 2 po ako, mag-Grade 3 na sa pasukan. Ewan ko po kung makakapasok ako (sa U.P.). Gusto kong mag-aral sa UP kasi gusto kong maging architect, kasi gusto kong makatulong sa Ate Krizia ko at sa magiging anak niya pag mag-asawa siya. Paglaki ko, ipapagawa ko si Nanay ng bahay. [I am now in second grade and will be in Grade 3 by next school year. I don’t know if I will pass (UP) when I grow up, but I want to study in UP because I want to be an architect. I want to help my Ate Krizia when she gets married and has kids. When I grow up, I will build a house for my mother]. 


All the Tejada children are good looking, with the two boys handsome enough to pass for child actors.

Kristian has light-brown skin. His round, deep-set, brown eyes and aquiline nose frame a poignantly innocent and expressive face. Kristof is fairer, more playful, smiles often, and could pass for a Korean boy.

Lean and petite, Krizia is the darker, female version of Kristian. Her late Ate Kristel was likewise a morena beauty at 5-feet and 3-inches, with a fuller body frame of 120 pounds.

But movies or stardom for her children was farthest from the mind of Blesilda Pangilinan Tejada, a graduate of the Philippine Maritime Institute (PMI) like her husband Christopher.

Sa akin, mas mabuti yung mas permanente. Sino ba ang ayaw maging artista ang mga anak nila. Pero mas mabuti pa rin ang may natapos. Mas nagtatagal. Mas mabuti kung nakatapos sila ng pag-aaral [I wanted something for them that was more permanent. Who would not want to have movie stars for children? But it is better to have a profession with staying power. It’s best for them to finish their studies], she said.


The second child of unlettered and impoverished parents, Blesilda’s mother was a housewife while her father worked as a dockyard ‘gang boss’ – a term used to refer to the head of working teams called ‘gangs’ that were tasked to operate machines that lift and move cargo on and off ships

Lumaki ako sa Kalye Batangas sa Tondo. Maganda ng konti sa barong-barong. Semento ang banyo tapos ang dingding mga bulok na yero. Rights lang kami doon. Walang titulo. [I spent my growing up years in a one-room house on Batangas Street in Tondo, Manila. It was a little better than a shanty. It had a functioning toilet with cemented walls. All the other walls were made of rusty galvanized iron.  We only had rights to the house, no title]. I studied Customs Administration at PMI. A neighbor told me a customs administrators earned good pay,” she recalled.

Blesilda narrated that when her husband Christopher first courted her, she turned him down. “I met him when I was 18. He persisted and later, I said ‘yes.’ We were on for four years before we got married in 1996. He was my first and last boyfriend.”

By then, Blesilda was pregnant with Kristel who was born on Sept. 8, 1996. A difficult pregnancy stopped the young mother from looking for a full-time job. For a time, Christopher worked at Del Bros. Hard times resulted in the lay-off of workers, including Kristel’s father.

The suddenly economically displaced Tejada family was forced to move in with Blesilda’s parents in Tayuman, Tondo. Christopher found work as a reliever taxi driver.

“We tried to live on the earnings of my husband, amounting to P300-P400 on a good day. Sometimes, when the taxi needed repair, we had no money at all,” Blesilda said.

A good chunk of their meager income went to Kristel’s schooling. “As a student of U.P. Manila, we gave Kristel P70-P80 a day,” Blesilda said, “Her jeepney fare from our house to the LRT station in Tayuman plus LRT fare cost P46. She was left with P34 for her baon from morning to the afternoon.”

Inside the Tejada household, Blesilda, Christopher, and the remaining three children – Krizia, Kristian, and Kristof – survived the day on a shoe-string budget: P50 for lunch, P50 for dinner, P30 for a kilo of rice, P40 for the kids baon of 2 biscuits per child, and sometimes P20 for fruits. Whatever was left went to the purchase of soap, kerosene, sugar, and other necessities.


Kristel’s academic history is chockfull of merits and honors. As a 12th grader at the Rizal Elementary School near Puregold Pritil in Tondo, Manila, she graduated in 2008 as class salutatorian. “In 1st grade, Ate Kristel also reaped 10 medals. In high school, she belonged to the Top Ten. She was subject proficient. Ate Kristel was also the president of her class from 1st to 2nd year high school,” recalled Krizia.

Kristian smiled as he remembered the day his Ate became class salutatorian. “We went to Jollibbee after Ate Kristel’s elementary graduation. I ordered spaghetti. They ordered burger steak. It was a treat from Mama and Papa].

Always on the lookout for educational opportunities for her children, Blesilda asked their community priest to help her daughter Kristel enter the Manila Cathedral School (MCS) in Tayuman, upon learning that the expensive private school under the Archbishop of Manila had expanded its scholarship program for poor children.

If Kristel made it to MCS, she would be able to study in a more academically competitive school that for starters, had just constructed a P67 million-school building. MCS had air-conditioned classrooms, modern computer laboratories, a fully stocked library, medical and dental clinics, and functional school gardens.

More importantly, MCS offered substantial partial and full scholarships to the less privileged, with reasonable payment terms. A partial scholarship could be paid on installment basis, while a full scholarship had the student paying only P1,000 for miscellaneous fees.

Janet Carpo, MCS secretary for the past 15 years, remembered well Kristel Tejada. “She was a kind student, reserved, but active in school activities. She was an active member of the Journalism Club.”

She added that Kristel was an MCS scholar from first year to fourth year. “On her last year at MCS (the year before she entered the University of the Philippines), Kristel was a full scholar, paying no tuition at MCS.”

Some 2,656 students are currently enrolled at MCS. Tuition ranges from P25,000 to P35,000, including miscellaneous and other fees. Grades are withheld from students who are not able to settle their tuition dues. Students are not asked to leave school, if they are unable to pay on time.


“There were four of them from MCS who passed the U.P. College Aptitude Test (UPCAT). Her three other classmates who made it attended review centers. Kristel had to content herself with a reviewer she bought at the National Bookstore. We could not afford to send her to a review center. I was beside myself with happiness when she passed,” Blesilda exclaimed.

She added that her daughter also passed the entrance exam for the University of Santo Tomas (UST), the other dream school of Kristel.

“When she had her UST exam, I waited for her inside UST. I noticed that there were so many empty mineral water plastic bottles littering the waiting area. I immediately went ahead and picked each one, intending to sell them. To my surprise, my daughter arrived. She had finished her test and did not think twice to help me collect the remaining empty plastic bottles. When we sold the bottles, we made about P100. It was enough to buy food for dinner that night,” Blesilda said.

The proud mother had a tarpaulin made in honor of her daughter’s academic success. “Congratulations Kristel for passing the UST and UP entrance exams,” the tarpaulin read. It was posted on the frontage of the MCS.

For Kristel, it was the fulfillment of a dream. Like her siblings, she couldn’t wait to finish her studies so she could be gainfully employed, earning enough to help her family.


Blesilda said that every day, her daughter would wake up very early to prepare for her subjects. “She would be up at 4 or 5 a.m. and leave at 7 a.m. if she had an 8:30 a.m. class.

She added that she gave Kristel P8 for her jeepney ride from their home to Tayuman LRT. “I learned later that my daughter walked to the LRT station to save the P8 jeepney fare, which she then added to her daily lunch money. And she never told me about it, until I caught her walking to the station,” Blesilda said.

But no matter how they scrimped and saved, money remained tight in the Tejada household. And there were more bad news ahead.

Blesilda’s in-laws used to shoulder the P5,000 monthly rent for the one-room apartment that she, her husband, and her four children resided in. But during Kristel’s freshman year, they were told that the rent money wasn’t coming anymore because both her in-laws had to undergo therapy treatments and had costly medicine to cover.

In May, Kristel registered in advance in UP Manila, together with hundreds of fellow first-year students about to begin their college life at the State U.

She was hopeful that somehow, when classes officially started on June 11, 2012, she would be able to get a scholarship or tuition assistance, owing to her family’s meager and unstable financial resources.

This was how school officials helped poor students at the Manila Cathedral School. It was going to be the same in UP Diliman.

But to her surprise, the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP), which supposedly addressed the needs of poor students, placed Kristel on Bracket D, the second to the lowest payment bracket.  This meant that she still had to pay P300 for every unit plus miscellaneous fees that in total, amounted to P10,000.

Blesilda said they could not produce the amount. June came and went followed by July, August, September, and October, the last month of the first semester – still no money to pay for Kristel’s tuition. Pressure built up in the Tejada home. Blesilda and her husband quarreled intermittently.

But all these did not defeat Kristel’s determination to study. At the end of the first semester, Kristel passed all her subjects. Said Krizia: “Her highest grade was 1.5 in History. She got a 3.o in a subject that required them to go on a field trip. I wish the teacher just gave my Ate Kristel a 1-100 exam, in exchange for the field trip. Wala kasing pera kami para magamit ni Ate na pambayad sa field trip [We didn’t have money that my sister could use to cover field trip expenses].

The Tejadas finally made good the first semester P10,000 tuition they owed UP. But by then it was December and the 2nd semester was now on its second month. Kristel had to pay another P10,000.

Mr. Tejada tried to secure a student loan for his daughter but was informed that the university had a rule that prevented students from being enrolled when the semester has already begun. “No late payment” was the policy and students who could not afford to pay were advised to go on leave.

At a dinner affair of the Association of Parents and Counselors in U.P. Manila, Mrs. Tejada approached U.P. Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto’s table. “Kinausap ko siya na kung pwede payagan na niyang maka-enrol si Kristel. Hindi na raw pwede, iyon daw ang rule. Hindi siya talaga pumayag [I asked him to allow Kristel to enroll. But he said, he could not allow it, saying it was the rule (no late payment). He did not allow my daughter to enroll].

Some said that Kristel’s loneliest day was when she was made to surrender her U.P. ID, which was promptly returned to her parents amid wave after wave of on-campus and off-campus protests after the freshie committed suicide.

UP President Alfredo Pascual immediately suspended the “no late payment” rule and likewise, the procedure that required students to file a leave of absence if they are unable to pay their tuition on time.

Dr. Manuel Agulto, UP Manila Chancellor, was in near tears explaining that it was indeed unfortunate that Kristel killed herself, but that he was not to be faulted for her death. He added that he was only implementing the rules; the procedures.

Agulto, director of the Institute of Ophthalmology, was elected by the UP Board of Regents as 8th chancellor of UP Manila at its meeting on Sept. 29, 2011.

In his investiture speech, Agulto vowed: “I will use my intelligence and strength to ensure that the university will serve the people.”

He likewise urged students to be disciplined and hardy in their work. “…When these stresses come, will you make excuses, will you complain and whine or will you do something about it? The answer completely rests upon you. How can you give meaning to your work? Before you reach the road of success, you will have to go through a lot of potholes and detours. Nothing came natural or easy for me. There were a lot of sacrifices. I literally worked Sunday-to-Sunday. No holidays. No Holy Week. Overnight success, there’s no such thing, my friends,” Agulto said.