Will America learn anything from smart schools in other countries?

❝ Every three years, half a million 15-year-olds in 69 countries take a two-hour test designed to gauge their ability to think. Unlike other exams, the PISA, as it is known, does not assess what teenagers have memorized. Instead, it asks them to solve problems they haven’t seen before, to identify patterns that are not obvious and to make compelling written arguments. It tests the skills, in other words, that machines have not yet mastered.

The latest results…reveal the United States to be treading water in the middle of the pool. In math, American teenagers performed slightly worse than they usually do on the PISA — below average for the developed world, which means they scored worse than nearly three dozen countries. They did about the same as always in science and reading, which is to say average for the developed world.

❝ …That scoreboard is the least interesting part of the findings. More intriguing is what the PISA has revealed about which conditions seem to make smart countries smart. In that realm, the news was not all bad for American teenagers…

❝ Here’s what the models show: Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

❝ eOf all those lessons learned, the United States has employed only one at scale: A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals, known as the Common Core State Standards, for reading and math. These standards were in place for only a year in many states, so Mr. Schleicher did not expect them to boost America’s PISA scores just yet. (In addition, America’s PISA sample included students living in states that have declined to adopt the new standards altogether.)

But Andreas Schleicher urges Americans to work on the other lessons learned — and to keep the faith in their new standards. “I’m confident the Common Core is going to have a long-term impact,” he said. “Patience may be the biggest challenge.”

❝ President-elect Donald J. Trump and Betsy DeVos, his nominee for education secretary, have called for the repeal of the Common Core. But since the federal government did not create or mandate the standards, it cannot easily repeal them. Standards like the Common Core exist in almost every high-performing education nation, from Poland to South Korea…

❝ For now, the PISA reveals brutal truths about America’s education system: Math, a subject that reliably predicts children’s future earnings, continues to be the United States’ weakest area at every income level. Nearly a third of American 15-year-olds are not meeting a baseline level of ability — the lowest level the O.E.C.D. believes children must reach in order to thrive as adults in the modern world.

❝ As we drift toward a world in which more good jobs will require Americans to think critically — and to repeatedly prove their abilities before and after they are hired — it is hard to imagine a more pressing national problem. “Your president-elect has promised to make America great again,” Mr. Schleicher said. But he warned, “He won’t be able to do that without fixing education.”

A number of nations, from Canada to Estonia, have proven themselves able to learn from the data stream of PISA testing. Results have improved. Education levels and the ability to utilize education in life and work has improved.

I won’t spend time criticizing the critics. They do a fair enough job of that – on their own. Though I have strong opinions [voiced here in the past]. What I will offer is the hope that our readers and anyone else who cares for the future of America’s children will fight for broadly democratic solutions that enable and equip all our children instead of just the privileged few. Public education – if you haven’t noticed – is in danger of death by $tarvation.

The Pope says atheists don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven


Osservatore Romano

❝ In comments likely to enhance his progressive reputation, Pope Francis has written a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences.

Responding to a list of questions published in the paper by Mr Scalfari, who is not a Roman Catholic, Francis wrote: “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.

“Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.”

Not bad. I know a few Christians who try to live up to that standard.

❝ Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for the Catholic journal The Tablet, said the pontiff’s comments were further evidence of his attempts to shake off the Catholic Church’s fusty image, reinforced by his extremely conservative predecessor Benedict XVI. “Francis is a still a conservative,” said Mr Mickens. “But what this is all about is him seeking to have a more meaningful dialogue with the world.”

Given the reliance upon conservative Christians demonstrated by our most reactionary politicians you have to wonder what kind of dichotomy is required of folks who consider themselves fundamentally dedicated to the best of their faith – who then support, work for, and vote for some of the most hate-filled creeps in American history.

Playing musical instruments accelerates brain development

❝ Learning to play an instrument boosts a child’s creativity, but new research shows it may also help grow the brain itself.

At a time when many elementary schools have cut or reduced their music programs, neuroscientists at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute found that music instruction may be important for brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain that process sound, language and speech.

❝ For five years, USC neuroscientists followed nearly three dozen children from low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles to see how children’s behavior and brains changed over time. One group of children learned to play the violin or other instruments starting at age 6 or 7, while a second group played soccer. A third didn’t participate in any specific afterschool programs.

When the scientists compared the groups two years into the study, they found that the budding musicians had more developed auditory pathways, which connect the ear to the brain…

A more-developed auditory system can accelerate a child’s brain development beyond musical ability. “This system is also engaged in general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills and successful communication,” Habibi says.

He and his team plan to explore whether music instruction could accelerate development of language, reading and other abilities in young children.

Praiseworthy.

In addition, a study in Mexico determined that “Experiencing music at an early age can contribute to better brain development, optimizing the creation and establishment of neural networks, and stimulating the existing brain tracts,”

I’ll second that emotion. I’ve long felt that direct involvement in music as a performer made significant difference to my childhood and overall learning. Just saying.