Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Put PISA Tests in Perspective

The latest test results of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), are out and for the alarmists of America, the sky continues its free fall. Indifferent parents, incompetent teachers and irresponsible students collude within a toxic culture that values entertainment over education by several orders of magnitude. Is it any wonder, they ask, that our teens fare so poorly compared to their international peers in math, science and reading? End of discussion.

It is time to put an end to the alarmist, some would say nihilistic, reactions to PISA tests, or for that matter, to any standardized tests.

But first, the facts.

Source: www.yahoo.com

PISA tests are given every 3 years. The latest results reflect the test given in 2012 to 65 countries - 34 OECD countries and 31 partner countries. A total of 510,000 students, mostly 15-year-olds, participated. American teens ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading among 34 developed countries. Specifically, out of a possible 600 points, American student scored 481 in math, 497 in science and 498 in reading.

In all categories, students from the Chinese region of Shanghai topped the list, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea, Macau, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
There is no denying that American students have never done well compared to their top-performing peers in PISA tests. But how strongly does the PISA results correlate with a nation’s future, with its creativity and innovation?

Statistically it is possible to show some type of correlation between any two sets of numerical data. The correlation may be weak, medium or strong. It may also be bogus or genuine.

In the case of standardized tests, particularly at the international level, the correlation surely reveals something but not to the extent that our grim pseudo-analyst-pundits claim. PISA tests are not all multiple-choice, fact-driven exams. They include questions that require free-form answers and the ability to apply word problems to real-world situations. 

From that perspective, the poor showing of our teens is troubling. They have fallen short and will continue to fall short academically unless they take ownership of their learning. However, help is on the way in the form of student-centered Common Core Curriculum (CCC), which all the states, except Virginia, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Alaska, have adopted. The curriculum focuses on critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills and starts from the 2014-2015 academic year.

We will, of course, have to wait for several years before the results of CCC are in but there is no doubt that it represents a step in the right direction for America’s K-12, and by extension, community college, students.

But we must be wary of seeing too much in the results of standardized tests even after students have had several years of experience with CCC. We must be cautious in drawing sweeping lessons from any test. Creativity and innovation occur at the confluence of myriad factors that include culture, freedom, ability to challenge authority, and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Besides, top-performing Asian countries are known for teaching to the test and for their extensive programs of after-school tutoring. Very high scores in a test like PISA may simply mean that the students have mastered the art (or science) of acing the test, nothing more and nothing less. Their goal is not to become independent thinkers but to become excellent test takers. A Hong Kong educator puts it bluntly: “This after-school education is my world. I am one of the thousands of tutors helping Hong Kong students achieve high test scores. To me, the recent test results were no surprise: Of course East Asian kids test well. They are tested every day, even when they are sick. Our children sit for lengthy, rigorous and confusing examinations, starting at age 6. Weekends, summers and holiday breaks are golden opportunities to catch up on some R&R — review and revision, that is. But the thing about testing is that it creates excellent followers, not leaders. Doing well on tests requires constant test prep. Granted, when it comes to buckling down and cramming for hours on end, Asians kids will beat their U.S. counterparts to a pulp. But give them a task that is not testable or not directly related to school, ask them to do something not for their college application but for themselves, and they’ll draw a blank.”

Americana kids reading this cannot afford to feel smug. (We must also not ignore the fact that many of them are taught to the test as well.) They need to recognize that a creative and fulfilling life demands the kind of rigor and aptitude they have generally failed to show so far.

At the same time, Americans must also realize that teachers are at the heart of our K-12 system. Unless teachers are accorded the respect they deserve in our society (as they are in Finland, Singapore and other top-performing nations), with salaries consistent with their calling (meaning that their salaries be on a par with what lawyers, doctors, engineers and entertainers earn), we will only be paying lip service to improving the dismal showings of our teens while the alarmists continue their perennial lament of threatening clouds darkening our nation's future.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela and the Power of Forgiveness

On 12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela, age 46, was sentenced to life for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. On February 11, 1990, prisoner number 46664, who would not let despair dictate his soul, walked out from the Victor Verster Prison into the bright sunshine of freedom.

Mandela was first imprisoned in Pretoria and later taken to Robben Island, an infamous penitentiary near Cape Town that had previously been a leper colony. He stayed there for a few weeks, then taken back to Pretoria where he was charged in the Rivonia trial, from which he was sent to Robben Island for life. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars.

The world has paused to remember this iconic figure who breathed his last at age 95 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela’s timeline is etched in the memory of multitudes but even those not aware of the milestones of his life saw in him a revolutionary and a visionary the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again.

His ‘I am Prepared to Die’ speech, delivered from the dock during the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, on 20 April, 1964, will always serve as an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere.

Of all the traits that defined Mandela, perhaps the two most remarkable were his humility and his willingness to forgive.

“I am not a saint,” Mandela often told his admirers, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Here was a man who had attained the moral high ground through superhuman courage and patience in the face of evil, yet who could resist the seductive pull of arrogance. He was aware of his flaws and frailties, some of which his countrymen were to witness during the five years (1994-1999) he was the President of South Africa, such as charges of cronyism and selling out the liberation struggle to white interests.

But Mandela’s rare gift was that he never lost sight of his goal: democracy, equality and the rule of law for blacks, whites, Afrikaners and every other race in his tormented country. He could do it because he had the humility to know that it was not about him but about South Africa and its people. The source of his humility sprang from a combination of high purpose, generosity of spirit, strength of character, grace and daring, a combination tragically absent in any of today’s leaders anywhere.

Mandela’s inclination for reconciliation over revenge marked him even more as the definitive moral leader of our time. Half-a-century of inhuman apartheid had stoked the flames of revenge among his dispossessed, nameless, faceless, vote-less people. A blood-bath between blacks and whites in South Africa seemed inevitable. But Mandela would have none of it. "Great anger and violence can never build a nation,” he declared. “We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.”  And, "Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.” And again, (from his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, 1995), "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

This, from a man who was forced to toil day after day in a limestone quarry without sunglasses under a merciless sun that destroyed his tear ducts and, for years, robbed him even of his ability to cry!

Freed after 27 years, only a Mandela could say with conviction that he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.

Ever the humble man, Mandela pointed out during an interview that “I am not the only one who did not want revenge. Almost all my colleagues in prison did not want revenge, because there is no time to do anything else except to try and save your people.”

For many, Nelson Mandela became a revered and iconic figure only after his story of sacrifice and magnanimity became widely known. For decades during the cold war, however, American presidents backed apartheid as a vital front in the war against communism. In 1981, President Reagan went so far as to call South Africa’s diabolical regime “essential to the free world.” Both Reagan and Margaret Thatcher labeled Mandela’s African National Congress Party a terrorist group. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that Mandela be released from jail. When, in 2004, Mandela criticized George Bush for launching the Iraq War, (just as Martin Luther King had criticized Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War in 1965), he was denounced by some in the mainstream media for his “vicious anti-Americanism” and for his “longstanding support for terrorists.”

But when President Clinton visited South Africa in March of 1998, he told Mandela in a joint session of parliament in Cape Town that "For millions of Americans, South Africa's story is embodied by your heroic sacrifice and breathtaking walk out of the darkness and into the glorious light."

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Madiba) went for the stars. Not for him petty fights and small dreams. “There is no passion to be found playing small,” he said, “in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” His definition of a life of purpose: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” As viewers saw in the 2009 movie “Invictus,” he had the courage to surprise his adversaries with restraint and generosity.

This fierce yet gentle freedom fighter has now made his final walk to eternal freedom. And we are the poorer for it.