There is much hand wringing today in education circles over the less than stellar performance of U.S. students on a test that measures academic performance of students around the globe.
Known as Programme International for Student Assessment (PISA), the test is given every three years to 15 year-olds from 65 participating world economies. The test includes science, math and reading questions.
For the most part, U.S. scores fell in the middle of the pack as students from Shanghai, China dominated all subjects. Other Asian countries did well as did students in Finland and the Netherlands.
The words "stagnant", "mediocre" and "disappointing" seemed to dominate descriptions of the U.S. scores. Here's what some have to say:
"Today’s PISA results drive home what has become abundantly clear: While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools—has failed to improve the quality of American public education." Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
"There's absolutely no reason we should settle for mediocrity, especially when it comes to our kids. American students are capable of high achievement on the international stage, and there are just as many exceptional educators in our great nation, but our system has been failing them. While some bipartisan progress has been made to put in place student-centered reforms that are beginning to show results, far too many political and educational leaders are sitting still." Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst.
“It is no coincidence that the countries with the strongest PISA scores also have rapidly growing economies. Global leaders recognize that in order to continue strong economic expansion, they must invest in their youngest learners. But the U.S. trails behind almost every developed country in the world when it comes to access to high-quality preschool. In fact, countries like China and India are dramatically expanding access to preschool, reflecting growing consensus that transcends political ideologies and geographic boundaries—that skills development starts at birth and lays the foundation for achievement in school, college, career and life." Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund.
Our performance is not worse than it was on earlier PISA assessments – in fact, it held rock steady through each of the successive PISA surveys. " That is the problem. With each survey, more and more countries surpass the U.S.in these important education rankings." Marc S. Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center for Education and the Economy.\
From the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Farmington district is taking steps to provide students with a “choice school” next year, in an effort Superintendent Jay Haugen said is part of the district’s emphasis on trying new things.
Haugen shared the idea for the choice school — an option involving self-directed learning and letting kids learn at their own pace — at the Nov. 25 board meeting. A committee will begin meeting to discuss and design the school on Dec. 5.
It would emphasize creativity and critical thinking, he added, with teachers acting as guides and students using iPads to learn.
“I think what we’re sure of is we’re going to design it,” he said. “We’ll make our best run at opening it next year.”
The school would probably serve kindergarten through grade 8, with the first students in fourth through sixth grade. The goal would be to have 100 students enrolled at the district’s Instructional Service Center, where there are empty classrooms.
Kids in grades four through six are just beginning to develop strong interests, making it the perfect age to transition to the new school, he said.
“But part of the design is, are we even going to call them grades?” he asked.
In recent years, the district has tried to emphasize technology and taking risks. Farmington was among the first districts in the metro area to issue all students iPads and was designated an Innovation Zone last spring by the Minnesota Department of Education, in partnership with the Spring Lake Park district.
“This is exactly the stuff we’re trying to do district-wide,” said Haugen of the school.
Haugen cited the Lakeville district’s Impact Academy and an Edina choice school as models.
At the board meeting, Haugen shared this year’s districtwide enrollment numbers, which include about 265 students living in other districts choosing to enroll into Farmington schools.
But there are also 1,198 students who live in Farmington that leave the district, enrolling elsewhere.
Haugen said that getting some of those students, who are mostly elementary-aged, to enroll back in the district is an ongoing goal, and creating a new kind of school would be part of that effort.
The idea for the new school “literally came up about two weeks ago,” he said.
“But we pride ourselves on being nimble as a school district,” he said.
Schools sometimes “spend way too long up front” researching an idea, rather than just trying it, he said.
Sharon Van Leer, a multicultural affairs specialist at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, had her election to the South Washington County school board affirmed in a recount last week.
She will join Katie Schwartz, a full-time student and stay-at-home from St. Paul Park, as the two new faces on the seven-member board when they are sworn into office in January.
Van Leer, of Woodbury, entered last week's recount with a five-vote advantage over Molly Lutz for the last of the four four-year seats on the Nov. 5 ballot. During a two-day recount ending Friday, Van Leer picked up one additional write-in vote, according to a school district news release.
Schwartz, Van Leer and incumbents Tracy Brunnette and Katy McElwee-Stevens won the four-year seats up for election this fall. Incumbent Laurie Johnson won a two-year term.
Van Leer, who is black, grew up in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul and now lives in Woodbury. She and her husband, the Rev. Thomas Van Leer, raised six children and 30 foster children.
On Monday, the gift cards began trickling into Lakeville schools.
The $100 Cub Foods gift cards came with a letter from a Lakeville couple instructing them to be given to families that were struggling financially so they could have a "nice Thanksgiving meal."
"It was one of those letters that kind of warms your heart," said Linda Swanson, the district's communication director.
After one school posted news of their gift card on their Facebook page, officials from other schools said that they had received the same letter and gift.
In fact, all 14 district schools received one, making the couple's total donation $1,400, according to Swanson.
Swanson said the district sometimes receives impromptu donations, but this was different.
"From time to time we do get very generous donations ... but to my knowledge, we've never had a donation to every school of this nature that was anonymous," Swanson said.
Swanson said she wants to thank the couple, though no one knows who they are.
"Some families fall through the cracks and don't get the assistance they need," the letter said, and included a Bible verse about generosity.
School counselors and deans will decide who gets the gift cards.
"We will make sure that the families that need it get it," she said.
A statewide choir directors association is singing the praises of Lin Warren, vocal music director at Hastings High School for 28 years.
Warren was recently named the state's 2013 Choral Director of the Year by the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) of Minnesota, and he will formally receive the award at the ACDA statewide convention on Saturday.
Award recipients must have more than 11 years experience directing choirs, set high standards and support ACDA.
Hastings' vocal music department has around 400 students singing in one or more of the nine choirs, according to the school's website.The choirs have been chosen to appear at many conventions and music festivals, both in Minnesota and nationally, under the direction of Warren and other teachers.
Warren has also won many other honors for his work with high school choirs.
In 1988, he received the Outstanding Young Choral Director Award from Minnesota's ACDA chapter. The Hastings district selected him as Teacher of the Year in 1989 and Employee of the Year in 2009.
Warren has held many positions with ACDA and helped to coordinate two national conventions.
He received a Bachelor of Music from Hastings College, Hastings, Nebraska and a Master of Arts in Music from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.