The Conversation

How should kids learn English Through Old MacDonald’s or Ali Baba’s farm?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post from The Conversation by Joan Kang Shin, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Children love to sing songs. Think about the time when you were a child. What was your favorite song? What songs did you learn at home and at school?

Traditional children’s songs introduce children to the world around them. They do this in a fun and developmentally appropriate way. In the US, preschool age kids learn about farm animals like cows, ducks and sheep as well as their sounds, like moo moo, quack quack, and baa baa through the popular, traditional song Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Without realizing it, children learn language and content simultaneously. Songs build skills that help children distinguish the sounds of a language, and connect sound to script and assist with vocabulary building.

It is no surprise, then, that English language programs for young children frequently use songs to enhance language and literacy instruction.

Even when teaching children English in other countries, teachers typically use traditional songs from the US and the UK. However, English is the world’s lingua franca, a global language shared by many cultures. It is not solely connected to American and British cultures.

So, do kids around the world always have to sing about Old MacDonald to learn about farm animals in English? Or is there another way?

Global perspective on songs

Since 2004, I have been providing professional development to thousands of English teachers in over 100 countries through online courses and in-person workshops. This experience, primarily with teachers of young learners, has given me a global perspective on English language teaching around the world.

It also inspired me to search for a new approach for teaching English through songs.

Based on my own passion for using songs to teach children language and my interest in other cultures, I began collecting children’s songs in different languages through my global network of teachers.

Although distinctive in their language and melodies, the songs I collected from over 50 countries had much in common. The songs were all short, repetitive, catchy and easy to remember. They played with the sounds of the language through rhyme and rhythm and often had corresponding body movements. They also had common topics interesting to kids, like animals, nature, toys and family.

All the songs shared certain qualities that made them attractive to children. This led me to consider the possibility of using these songs as an interesting and compelling source of cultural material for the classroom.

International children’s song approach

The approach I developed is simple. It combines my research in using songs to teach children with my search for appropriate cultural materials for teaching English as a global language.

Teaching kids through songs from the world.
Murat Yilmaz, CC BY

It is called the “international children’s song approach” and uses songs from around the world to teach English to kids. Children can learn a version of the song their peers are learning around the world. Examples can be found in the English language program I coauthored, Welcome to Our World.

Instead of singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to learn about farm animals, children can sing a song in English that originally comes from another country or culture.

For example, children in Turkey learn a song about farm animals through a similar song in Turkish, called Ali Babanın Çiftliği or Ali Baba Has a Farm.

See the original song and a translation in English below.

Ali Babanın bir çiftliği var (Ali Baba has a big farm.)

Çiftliğinde inekleri var (On his farm, there are cows.)

Mö, möö diye bağırır (Moo moo, they go.)

Çiftliğinde Ali Babanın (On Ali Baba’s big farm.)

The melody for Ali Baba Has a Farm is completely different from Old MacDonald; but similar to its American counterpart, the Turkish song has a catchy, rhythmic tune that is repeated with other animals and their corresponding sounds.

Using the international children’s song approach, teachers from around the world can use an English adaptation of Ali Baba Has a Farm in their English language curriculum.

Welcome to Our World. This series for three- to five-year-old learners of English includes 24 songs that originated from 18 countries, such as I Have a Ball from Tunisia, Three Bears from Korea, and Tiny Little Boat from Spain, to name a few.

Of course, they continue to learn English through the typical children’s songs from American and British culture, but they also learn through English adaptations of their own as well as other international songs.

English is a global language

English is the most commonly taught foreign language worldwide. Statistics show that there is a “wave of English” building up in this century. This is hardly surprising considering English is the language of science, technology, commerce, diplomacy, tourism and the internet.

An estimated two billion people are learning English — that is, almost a third of the world’s population. In many countries where English is not widely spoken, there are government mandates to teach English as a foreign language in primary schools.

In countries such as South Korea, Turkey and Brazil, many children begin learning English in addition to their native language as early as three years of age.

Whether children are learning English as a second language, or even a third or fourth language, they are being exposed to it at earlier and earlier ages worldwide.

Using international children’s songs from around the world is an effective approach for teaching English as a global language to kids.

Language is a carrier of culture, and English is uniquely positioned to communicate across cultures around the world. Materials to teach it should embrace all cultures.

Why only sing about Old MacDonald and his farm? Why not sing about Ali Baba and his farm too?

The Conversation___________

Joan Kang Shin is Professor of Practice at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

How to turn lecturers into good university teachers

Lynn Quinn, Rhodes University and Jo-Anne Vorster, Rhodes University

Traditionally, it has been assumed that, once an academic holds a Master’s degree or PhD in their discipline, they can share their knowledge and teach students effectively. Most, though, don’t have a teaching qualification, nor have they been offered any opportunities to develop as teachers while studying towards their advanced degree.

This means that many lecturers feel like they have been thrown into the deep end at the start of their teaching careers. There has been some work in this field and many universities now offer formal and informal academic staff development opportunities.

But there is far more to good university teaching than just being able to project your voice, prepare a good PowerPoint presentation or keep your students interested. Academics’ deeply held views about their students must be challenged. They need to question seriously how issues of identity, belonging, privilege, diversity, racism and sexism can be addressed explicitly in the classroom.

Who is best placed to shape university teachers who are more than just technically proficient? This work is done by academic developers in teaching and learning centres in most universities. However, we believe that to do this work well, academic developers themselves need to engage deeply with questions of teaching, curriculum design and transformation.

How academic development has changed

The field of academic development first emerged in South African higher education in the mid-1980s. Its initial purpose was to support the small numbers of black students who had been admitted to historically white, English-speaking universities earlier that decade.

This approach to academic development was in line with the view that students lacked some of the requisite skills and knowledge to learn successfully in their new contexts.

By the early 1990s it became clear that not only were students under-prepared for the university context, but that academics were ill-equipped to teach a rapidly growing and increasingly diverse student body to learn successfully. Academic development then also started to concern itself with curriculum and staff development.

Many academics have common sense views about student learning. They tend to believe, for instance, that if a student is failing a particular course this is a reflection only on the individual student’s abilities.

These and other normative views about teaching and learning need to be challenged. Those who have been in the field of academic development for a few decades have developed more nuanced conceptions of teaching and learning and have been instrumental in helping to build the now extensive knowledge base of the field.

Developing the developers

In South Africa, there are ongoing and urgent calls from a number of quarters for the transformation of higher education.

This discussion is happening alongside debates worldwide about how best to professionalise academic staff. Each country brings a particular set of challenges or circumstances in its own higher education landscape to the table.

Rhodes University’s Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning offers a postgraduate diploma in higher education. There has been, in recent years, an increasing demand for the centre to organise academic staff development courses for a number of institutions in South Africa and on the continent.

We felt it would be more beneficial for the field if the centre worked with academic developers rather than directly with academic staff. This equips academic developers with the knowledge and skills they need to offer staff development courses to the lecturing staff in their own institutions.

Why this approach works

The resulting postgraduate diploma for academic developers is, as far as we are aware, the first of its kind in the world. The programme this year welcomed its third cohort of academic developers from universities around South Africa. The country’s Department of Higher Education and Training funds bursaries for course participants, demonstrating the government’s commitment to improving higher education.

The diploma offers spaces for academic developers to have serious, intellectual conversations. Some of these are about the nitty-gritty of teaching. Other debates deal with the broader context referred to earlier. The course participants consider, for instance, how institutions, teachers, curricula and teaching need to change to contribute to enabling all students to access the “goods” of the university.

Once this work is done, academic developers can return to their own institutions armed with knowledge and skills that can be shared.

The Conversation

Lynn Quinn, Associate Professor of Higher Education Studies. Head of Department of the Centre for Higher Education, Research, Teaching and Learning, Rhodes University and Jo-Anne Vorster, Course Co-ordinator, Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s why immigrant students perform poorly

Molly McManus, University of Texas at Austin

Immigrant students in the United States consistently perform worse academically than nonimmigrant students. This achievement gap is evident as early as preschool and only grows as immigrant students advance through high school.

But, what causes the achievement gap?

One notion that fuels anti-immigrant attitudes is the belief that immigrant students perform poorly because of their immigrant backgrounds.

This is misguided.

As a former teacher and now researcher of immigrant families, I am familiar with concerns about low academic achievement among immigrant students. However, as my work shows, immigrant students face barriers beyond their immigrant backgrounds, including restrictive learning environments in their classrooms.

A multitude of barriers

Research has also shown that immigrant students tend to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods, speak a language other than English at home and enter school later than nonimmigrant students.

Immigrant kids tend to be concentrated in poorer neighborhoods.
michael_swan, CC BY-ND

We know that poverty, language barriers and low levels of preschool enrollment contribute to poor academic performance.

There is also another, lesser known, factor at work here: school and teacher attitudes toward immigrant students. Immigrant students have been shown to perform worse when their schools or teachers harbor negative attitudes about their presence and abilities.


A recent report on immigration and education from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows the extent of the immigrant achievement gap.

According to the report, in 2012, students in the U.S. with an immigrant background performed worse than nonimmigrant students on the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), a test administered to 15-year-olds in 65 countries, including the U.S. Immigrant students in the U.S. scored about 20 points lower in reading and 15 points lower in math.

Many people are also concerned that immigrant students negatively impact the education systems that they enter.

Current research, however, shows the opposite.

The presence of immigrant students does not negatively affect overall school performance. Rather, schools that serve poor families tend to underperform and immigrant families are often poor.

Poverty affects over half of immigrant families. In 2013, 54 percent of immigrant families in the US qualified as low-income.

In fact, when family income is taken into account, the difference between scores from immigrant students and nonimmigrant students on the PISA disappears.

Language and preschool

Immigrant students also struggle when they do not have mastery of the dominant language in their new country.

In 2015, nearly 10 percent of students in K-12 in the U.S. were classified as English Language Learners. These language barriers explain a larger portion of the achievement gap than immigrant backgrounds.

Also, low levels of enrollment in early childhood programs have a huge impact. Early entrance into the school system increases students chances for success in later grades. However, many immigrant families do not enroll their children in preschool programs because of families’ legal status, language barriers and cultural sensitivities.

Discrimination and racism

There is actually more evidence to show that schools in the U.S. are negatively impacting immigrant students and their families, not the other way around.

Many immigrant students face discrimination and racism in the form of segregation and hostile attitudes at their schools. Also, many schools don’t offer essential resources, like family liaisons or other social services, that would support immigrant families as well as the larger school community.

Immigrant students are also affected by a rarely acknowledged but equally important factor: the receptiveness of their host country’s education system, also known as the “context of reception.”

Teachers’ views of immigrant kids leave a big impact., CC BY-NC

When teachers and staff have negative views of immigrant children and their families, it has a negative impact on the academic performance of immigrant students.

Negative views are particularly harmful when they involve deficit thinking, or the belief that immigrant students perform poorly because their families have less or know less.

Alternatively, immigrant students who enter a welcoming environment benefit from positive school outcomes. Research in education shows that students who enter positive contexts of reception are more motivated, better adjusted and more engaged in curriculum.

The OECD report also found that immigrant students who said they felt supported and cared for by their teachers scored higher on the PISA.

Value in diversity

Research shows that despite barriers, immigrant students often hold high aspirations for themselves. These high aspirations make them more likely to put in greater effort to take advantage of educational opportunities and succeed academically. This is part of a phenomenon known as the immigrant paradox.

Just consider this fact. Among low-income students who took the PISA, immigrants make up a larger share of high-performing students than nonimmigrants.

At a time when presidential candidates are threatening to build a wall along the US-Mexican border and governors are attempting to close their states to Syrian refugees, it is important to understand that immigrant students do not harm our education system or our communities. Instead, they bring valuable diversity.

The Conversation

Molly McManus, Ph.D. Student in Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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There’s a new addiction on campus: Problematic Internet Use (PIU)

Susan M. Snyder, Georgia State University; Jennifer E. O’Brien, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and Wen Li, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Problematic Internet Use is now considered to be a behavioral addiction with characteristics that are similar to substance use disorders.

Individuals with PIU may have difficulty reducing their Internet use, may be preoccupied with the Internet or may lie to conceal their use.

A recent study that I coauthored with UNC Chapel Hill doctoral students Wen Li and Jennifer O’Brien and UNC professor Matthew O. Howard examines this new behavioral addiction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals with PIU have been found to experience several negative mental health problems which could include depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hostility, social phobias, problematic alcohol use, self-injurious behavior and trouble sleeping (i.e., sleep apnea, nightmares, insomnia, and struggling to stay awake during the daytime).

Our study is the first to look at how PIU affects family relationships among U.S. university students. Intriguingly, we found that college students with PIU report effects that are both negative and positive.

Measuring PIU and its problems

To better understand PIU, we focused on students whose Internet use was excessive and created problems in their lives.

Study participants were undergraduate or graduate students enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill. We required that participants be individuals who were spending more than 25 hours a week on the Internet (time that was not related to school or work). Additionally, participants had to report experiencing at least one health, relationship or emotional problem due to PIU.

To recruit our participants, our team sent out an email on a Friday evening. We were not sure if this would be a good time to reach students, but we were surprised that within two hours, 39 students responded. Of those who responded to our email, 27 students attended our four focus groups and completed our questionnaires.

Roughly half (48.1 percent) of our participants were considered “Internet addicts.” These participants answered “yes” to five or more of our eight questions (e.g., preoccupation; inability to control use; lying about use; depressed or moody when trying to stop).

Half of the participants of the study were considered to be Internet addicts.
Southern Tier Advocacy & Mitigation Project, Incorporated, CC BY-NC-ND

Another 40.7% were considered to be “potential Internet addicts.” These participants answered “yes” to three or four items. All of the participants met the criteria for PIU using the Compulsive Internet Use Scale, a 14-item scale that included items like difficulty stopping; sleep deprivation; neglect obligations; feelings of restlessness, frustration or irritation when Internet is unavailable.

We used focus groups, which are group conversations guided by a facilitator, to discuss shared experiences or knowledge regarding PIU. Each focus group had six to eight participants.

Here is what we found

Three key themes emerged in the conversations: (1) family connectedness, (2) family conflict/family disconnection, and (3) Internet overuse among other family members.

We had examples of positive connections. Some participants reported that the Internet connected them to their families. For example, participants discussed using Skype, Facebook or email to maintain relationships with family while they were away at college.

A student we call Hannah explained:

But like using Skype helps keep you connected and also when we are at home we watch a movie together, it’s like family time, you know. And um, like you know, if we read the same, like article, then we can talk about it on Skype.

Another student, Lisa said:

I hate talking on the phone. So, that allows me a way to stay connected and especially with my mom who would… Normally, I would just not respond to her at all, but now we have an email dialogue going. That helps us stay more connected.

Despite the positive consequences that participants discussed, we found that across the focus groups, participants spent more time talking about the negative consequences of Internet use.

For these participants, Internet use caused family relationships to disconnect or become conflicted.

Instead of interacting with their family when they were at home, participants reported that they were “on the computer the whole time.” One participant described ignoring her family during her visits home as a result of her Internet use:

My grandma and my parents will complain about my Internet use because I will be sitting in front of the TV and I’ll have my laptop and so will my little sister. We’ll be sitting in front of the TV on our laptops not talking to each other. So, my parents will complain about that.

Andrew said,

I think for me, this year I went home and one of the reasons was just was to have more family time, but what I ended up really doing was staying on my computer pretty much the whole time, which was kind of defeating the purpose of actually going home.

Steve described how his Internet use affected a visit with his brother and his friends at a sports bar:

At one point we’re all watching the basketball game, and all four because we’re all on our phone, and he looked at us and he said, ‘Really guys, I am here for two days, you all just wanna [sic] be on Twitter and Facebook?’ So, while it can enhance with setting up social situations, it can also detract from them once you were actually in them…Yeah, he was very just like…He flew out for the weekend. You know he spent US$300 on an airplane ticket just to sit there and watch me on Facebook.

It’s not just the students

It may not be surprising that college students with PIU reported that members of their families also overuse the Internet.

Some participants expressed frustration at the lack of boundaries or rules in place for their younger siblings or other relatives. A participant we called Melissa shared about her little brother:

He just turned four, but they got him an iPad. Like, which I don’t agree with. I think it’s so stupid, but he is always, always on it. He gets really defensive if you try to take it away or put boundaries on it or something like that.

Small children are getting addicted to their devices as well.
Tia Henriksen, CC BY

Hannah, for example, described a cousin whose Internet gaming has impaired his vision, but he is unable to stop playing:

My cousin, he is addicted to video games. And he’s like, I think he is like 10, 12, something like that, I don’t remember. I feel like it’s a stupid game, there’s no deepness to it. You kill someone. They die. You get killed, it starts over again. He can play that for eight hours straight without moving. His eyes are really bad right now. He can’t control himself.

Participants described their parents’ PIU as well. Several participants described their parents as “constantly checking email” for their work. Others described their parents as regularly on computers, phones or iPads “on Facebook” or “browsing.”

Sarah likened her Internet use to her mother’s:

It’s not just the students who are addicted.
Chris Owens, CC BY-NC-SA

My mom talks about me using the phone at the table when we’re eating, cause like if there’s a break in conversation, ‘Oh, Facebook opportunity’ [others laughed and she laughed too]. And then, like, somehow in my mind [the] conversation is over, but it’s really not. So then she’s like ‘You’re always on your phone, what are you doing?’ But then, like two minutes later, she is checking the weather. So I don’t know [she laughed].

A few participants shared that they were the only ones in their family with PIU.

Cindy explained that her family was from another country, which may explain their low Internet use,

I find that I don’t really have family members with an Internet problem, and I am the only one who grew up here. So, that might be…

Gina said,

My parents are technophobes. They don’t even know how to turn on computers.

Although our sample size is small, we followed rigorous approaches to ensure that we obtained the best possible data. We conducted focus groups until we achieved data saturation, which means that when we reviewed the final focus group no new themes were discovered.

The conclusions come through loud and clear. PIU exists and it affects family relationships. While those effects may be both positive and negative, those who suffer adverse consequences from PIU may have difficulty addressing their PIU because of requirements to use Internet for classes via online assignments (e.g., writing blogs), online courses and materials accessed online.

All names have been changed to protect identity.

The Conversation

Susan M. Snyder, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Georgia State University; Jennifer E. O’Brien, Ph.D. Student, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and Wen Li, Ph.D. Student, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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A dean’s plea: let students discover knowledge without pressure to impress

Joann McKenna, Bentley University

Is today’s competitive environment making high school students pursue a polished resume and not their passion?

As a university vice president and an admissions dean, we’ve just finished contacting students whom we did admit, did not admit and would have liked to admit, but simply couldn’t.

Regardless of outcome, each group had in its midst students who have been caught up in the growing phenomenon of credentialism, a practice of relying on formal qualifications, that too often undermines what should be four wonderful years of self-discovery in high school.

More than a numbers game

Whether it’s taking an Advance Placement course that really doesn’t interest them, holding office in an organization because it will “look good,” on their resume or playing a sport that they really don’t enjoy, students are too often trying to impress, instead of trying to discover, enjoy and grow.

Every student seeking admission to college wants to present a “strong case.”

But what’s becoming increasingly clear to admission officers like me and to guidance counselors who advise high school students, is that “credentialism” is being practiced more and more by students, high schools and institutions of higher learning.

To some degree we have ourselves to blame.

College rankings rely heavily on metrics and lets face it, people love being on the “A” list. In some cases, the metrics are about the school; in others, about the students who apply and are admitted.

We begin, despite our best intentions, to question not whether a student is a good match for our institution but how admitting the student will affect our “profile.”

Too often I worry that colleges feel obligated to play the “numbers” game and admit students solely on the basis of board scores, grade scores, number of AP courses, number of extracurricular activities, number of recommendations and so on.

Students are not pursuing their passion

As a result, many students – urged on by their parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and, yes, colleges and universities – conduct their lives as though the only purpose is to build a resume to get into the “best” school they can.

So what’s wrong with that?

For colleges and universities,that means we assess students on professed interest and performance that don’t always reflect what the student is really all about and capable of doing. And that’s not good for the student or the institution.

It subverts our desire not just to recruit and admit a class but to create a class, one whose members will thrive synergistically, often energized more by their differences than by their similarities.

Students end up chasing the right courses to get into the right colleges.
Student image via

For students, it turns their high school careers into a grab bag of experiences, many of which were pursued to impress others rather than for self-discovery and the pursuit of interests and excellence for their own sake.

Don’t get me wrong.

Many students are truly driven by the best motivations to understand their interests, abilities, and aspirations.

But too many are told they need to go to the right schools, study the right courses, participate in the right activities, have the right friends, volunteer for the right programs, plan for the right careers…and on and on.

What often results is an early and unwelcome appreciation for Thoreau’s observation that, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Too many students fail to understand that they are quintessentially “a work in progress,” always in the process of becoming, never finished. (Most adults aren’t much different.)

And in our rush to help them prepare for the rest of their lives, we prevent them from taking full advantage of what’s going on right now in their lives.

Students deserve better, from everybody who is pressuring them to display success to impress rather than for its inherent self-worth.

Colleges need to restore love for learning

Can colleges and universities help?

We can proclaim that we seek more than numbers, more than honors, more than achievement for its promotional value. And we can demonstrate our commitment by accepting students whose accomplishments are rooted in exploration, passion, self-discovery and even plain old fun.

We tell students that college is a launching pad for successful careers and lives. And that’s what it should be.

Both high schools and colleges may do students a grave disservice if we suggest that resume-building trumps exploration in pursuit of self-awareness and fulfillment.

So what should we be telling our young people as they undertake their journey to what we pray will be successful lives and careers?

Here are some things that I suggest to help guide that journey:

  • Establish what really matters to you so you’ll have a compass.
  • Invest in yourself. You have gifts that need to be developed.
  • Do the best with what you have. It’s OK if you aren’t good at some things.
  • Take risks. But be smart about it.
  • Own it – it’s your life. Take responsibility for it.
  • Build integrity; above all else, this is what matters.
  • Find mentors who inspire you.

This isn’t meant to be a “feel good” list.

And it isn’t just a list meant for the students. We must remain committed to a holistic evaluation.

As educators, we need to restore equity, perspective and a reverence for excellence for its own sake.

We need to connect our kids with the wisdom – from family, friends and trusted institutions – that previously helped each generation blossom, for their individual and collective benefit.

If we can’t come together to change the system, then shame on us.

The Conversation

Joann McKenna, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Bentley University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Which countries must do more to help children who fall behind at school?

Gijsbert Stoet, University of Glasgow

Many of the world’s leading economies can do more to help struggling teenagers to get a better level of education that will equip them for later life. A new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), looking at why low-performing students fall behind at school, has found that much remains to be done to reduce the number of children that perform poorly in maths, reading and science skills.

One of the most striking aspects of the report is just how many children are low performers, even in highly-developed nations such as the UK, Australia, or the US. I find it shocking that one in six children in the UK has a low level of reading comprehension skills – 17% of those tested in both the UK and US, and 14% in Australia.

The new report is based on data taken from the OECD-funded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s largest and most influential educational survey. It aims to raise educational standards by providing detailed information about successful and less successful educational systems.

Every three years, 15-year-old children around the world take the two-hour PISA test. It focuses on some of the most fundamental academic skills: reading comprehension, mathematics, and science literacy. The new report is based on the 2012 PISA round, in which nearly half a million children participated.

The average score in OECD countries for each skill is around 500 PISA points. For example, in the UK, children’s scores in reading comprehension ranged from 121 to 788 points, with a national average of 499 points. Low performance is defined as a score below (approximately) 400 PISA points. According to the OECD, a low performer does not have the skills required to participate fully in a modern society.

The numbers of low performers in mathematics are worse than in reading – 22% in the UK, 20% in Australia and 26% in the US. Of course, it is possible that a child is a low performer in only one of the skills, but the numbers of children performing poorly in all of the three skills is still worryingly high: 11% in the UK, 9% in Australia, 12% in the US and 13% in France.

Which countries do best

There are considerable differences between countries. Those that generally score highly in PISA are, unsurprisingly, also the countries with the fewest low performers. Generally, East Asian countries and economic regions are successful in PISA (with the Chinese cities Shanghai and Hong Kong leading the league table) and have relatively few low performers. But there are European countries that have a similar level of success. For example, Estonia has one of the highest PISA scores in Europe, and only 3% of children are low performers in all three skills, leading the European league table.

There are no simple explanations for why some countries do better than others – many factors play a role. These include the educational levels and income of parents, their engagement, and whether or not children live in an urban or rural area. We should not only look at the leaders of the league table, but also at countries which are culturally and geographically similar.

Take Ireland, for example, which has 10% low performers in reading and 17% in mathematics and has seen a considerable reduction in low performers between 2006 and 2012. In Ireland, only 7% of low-performing children skipped school at least once in the two weeks before the PISA test, compared to 27% in the UK and 45% in Australia. Ireland’s data also shows a lower level of segregation by educational achievement. Such comparisons suggest that dealing more effectively with truancy and a more equal distribution of low performers across schools might help to drive down the numbers of low performers in other countries.

Gender gaps persist

This new OECD report also reports gender differences among low-performers. From other research, we already know that boys fall behind in education around the world, and in the UK in A-Level and GCSE exams. In particular, boys fall behind in reading, and girls, to a lesser extent, in mathematics.

Gender gaps at age 15.
OECD, PISA 2012 Database

These gender gaps are also reflected in the new report. As the graph above shows, more boys than girls are low performers in reading and science, whereas more girls are low performers in mathematics. Policies aimed at reducing gender inequalities have so far not been effective in resolving these gaps. A new approach is needed.

One of the problems that the report does not address is that countries with a larger mathematics gap often have a smaller reading gap and vice versa. This is enormously challenging, because some of the countries, such as Iceland or Finland, that are able to eliminate the mathematics gap affecting girls, have a particularly large reading gap affecting boys.

How to raise achievement

The final chapter of the report lays out a series of policies to tackle low performance levels. It gives examples of successful approaches, which include language training for non-native speakers and improving the quality of pre-primary education, which has happened in Germany. It also suggests that schools could foster high academic expectations, and use networks of schools to disseminate best practise.

It concludes that the percentage of low performers in any country can be reduced within a couple of years, if government is willing to reform the education system. While the number of low-performing children in the OECD is disappointingly high, with the appropriate educational reforms, based on evidence, a lot can be done to improve the situation.The Conversation

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Gijsbert Stoet, Reader in Psychology, University of Glasgow

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why commencement still matters

Ben Keppel, University of Oklahoma

We have entered one of the most pleasant rites of spring and summer – commencement season.

As a teacher at the University of Oklahoma for more than 20 years, I attend our ceremonies once every three years as part of my faculty responsibilities. Though my attendance is a service obligation of my department and my university, I inevitably end the evening vividly remembering the excellence in performance and character that I have witnessed over the past year.

I attend commencement – now without complaint – because I recognize that I need its ritual and ceremony as much as students and their families do. Even when the commencement speakers occasionally seem to be offering no more than another heaping helping of slow-roasted banalities, the totality of the experience – especially visiting with the families of my students – returns me, without fail, to the optimistic and idealistic frame of mind that led me to be a teaching scholar in the first place.

If ever I find myself unable to return to that emotional place, it will be a sure sign to me that it is time for me to move on.

So, what should we be thinking about at commencement – in addition to how far we have traveled on a difficult individual mission? To what other great works should we commit ourselves?

Money, dreams, debts and decisions

All the daydreams from which one’s future plans originate are idealized images that experience must and will “bring down to earth.” I used to wonder what my professors did with what I believed was the vast wasteland of time that existed between their class meetings with me and my colleagues.

I imagined them in their offices, relaxed and contemplating important problems from a safe distance. This vision, I now realize, conveys more about my own need for peace, reassurance and stability back in my teens and twenties than it did about what university faculty did or should do.

Of course, it did not occur to me to ask my professors what they did. I did not know that universities expect more of professors than teaching and research. I did not fully appreciate then that the same stress that I felt while striving to get an assignment “right” and done on deadline might also be integral to whatever career I would choose for myself.

I must note an additional difference between my life as a student and the student experience today: college cost far less when I attended 30 years ago than it does now.

Today, students graduate with a heavy burden of loans.
Hat image via

I was able to save for two years (while living at home) so I could devote my junior and senior years entirely to my academic work. Boy, was I fortunate! I did not begin to incur any student debt until I was halfway through graduate school.

As college costs go up and as loans become an increasing part of a student’s load, the path that I followed between 1979 and 1984 is simply no longer open to many students whose economic situations resemble mine 30 years ago.

When we commit ourselves at commencement to renewing the highest values of our society, let us see what we can do to change this. If we do not, we run the risk of having students choose majors based solely on the always shaky promise that they will earn enough in this or that career to pay for school.

The teacher’s workplace has pressures

It is to the everlasting credit of my undergraduate mentors that I never learned that the academy is like any other workplace: people, possessed by vanity and anxiety, feud and compete over the stupidest things and sometimes act out of the worst of motives.

I have since learned that “hostile work environments” are not restricted to the corporate boardroom, the temporary cubicle office of the often equally temporary white collar worker, or those who toil at the modern versions of the assembly line.
I have had much to learn about this particular world of work. I am a fortunate one. To an extent that was not true in my student days, universities rely more and more on temporary and at-will employees to do the bulk of undergraduate teaching.

These highly trained faculty are far more vulnerable to all kinds of pressures –- including those from entitled students and their entitled parents when their “star pupil” is shown to be a cheater.

In addition to these kinds of pressures, of course, they are often not paid a living wage. As we observe the pageantry of commencement and as we recommit ourselves to doing good and doing better, we need to end these practices before they devalue the experience of learning for all concerned.

There is value in commencement

The University of Oklahoma canceled commencement this year because of a severe tornado threat. As difficult as this was for students, parents and faculty, it only changed the scene, not the substance, of that day.

Those who missed the chance to “walk” for their degree have the satisfaction of knowing that they were all part of a historic moment created by nature — and endured without loss of life or serious injury.

Because the value of struggling to improve one’s self and one’s world remains vibrantly alive among students and teachers the world over, commencement still matters, even when the ritual itself must occasionally be canceled to make way for stormy weather.

The Conversation

Ben Keppel, Associate Professor of History, University of Oklahoma

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Read all of our posts about HBCUs by clicking here. 

Guns on campus: there will be no artist or doctor once the trigger is pulled

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

Jeffrey Alan Lockwood, University of Wyoming

As a rational academic, living in one of the most conservative states, where legislators are planning to allow firearms in virtually all public places, including the University of Wyoming, I have labored to understand my own deep antipathy to the idea of my students and colleagues being armed.

Gun advocates and opponents can each fire off statistics; however, the debate will not be resolved with data when the fundamental conflict is a matter of ideals. I could dredge up statistics about the frequency of gun accidents, while advocates could offer numbers showing that people with concealed gun permits rarely shoot innocent bystanders.

But dueling spreadsheets fail to get to the heart of the issue. Rather, my resistance to a well-regulated militia crossing the quad between classes is rooted in non-quantifiable principles.

Fear undermines classroom learning environment

The proliferation of virtual courses notwithstanding, the soul of a university remains its classrooms. These are the places of genuine human engagement, debate, thought, and passion. Students must come prepared -— ready to learn (by having done the reading), ready to argue (by thinking critically about ideas), and ready to change (by cultivating intellectual humility).

Here they are tested and challenged. This is where they flounder and flourish. Arming students seems inimical to learning. The presence, even the possibility, of a loaded weapon casts a pall over classroom discussion.

Arming students is inimical to learning as classrooms are meant to provide a safe space for intellectual growth.
K W Reinsch/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Fear undermines the openness and vulnerability necessary for learning. When getting ready for class means preparing to die (or to kill), an academic community has failed.

I remember going back home to Albuquerque – a city with a violent and property crime rate well above the national average– for Christmas when our kids were little to find that my parents had installed burglar bars in their windows. I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness that the city of my youth had failed so miserably that the people barricaded their homes.

Universities are meant to be safe spaces

My parents were free to live behind bars to protect their property, and the legislature wants to free me to arm myself in the classroom to guard my life. Somehow, these don’t feel like liberties. I want to work at a university that is big enough to provide students with a hundred opportunities and small enough to notice one anguished student.

Maybe I’m safer if a student in my seminar is carrying a gun. For that matter, maybe I’d be safer if I wore a Kevlar vest while lecturing. But I don’t want to teach where we prepare to shoot and be shot. I don’t want to be a part of failure. In all likelihood, no armed student will take (or save) my life. But the same cannot be said of that student’s life.

Suicide rates are already high

Suicide rates on college campuses are appalling. I said that numbers wouldn’t resolve the issue, but the fact is that suicide rates among young adults has tripled since the 1950s, having become the second most common cause of death among college students. Given current statistics, the University of Wyoming with an enrollment of 14,000 can expect at least two thousand of these students to contemplate suicide, two hundred to make an attempt, and perhaps two to succeed.

I was the first person to arrive on the scene of two suicide attempts when I was in college. I mopped up a lot of blood, but razor blades are not all that effective. Guns work much better. Filled with shame, my friends asked me to hide the evidence and lie in the emergency room. I did.

They were both extremely intelligent young men. But laboring under enormous stress and failed relationships, on a dark, lonely night, collapsed into a moment of utter despair. Lonely but not alone -— nearly half of all university students report symptoms of depression.

Enough of the numbers. Consider this simple statement from a college athlete who was battling depression: “If I’d had a gun, I’d have probably put a bullet in my head.”

Campus grounds are not for killing or being killed

Perhaps my perspective is darkened by experience, but my deepest fear is not that a student with a gun comes to my classroom in the morning, but that the student leaves his dorm room in a body bag that evening.

Campuses are places fraught with doubt, conflict, angst, disorientation, and drama. A university education is not easy intellectually -— or existentially. College is where assumptions die, identities expire, and beliefs perish. But this should not become a place where students come to kill or be killed.

A university should be where the dying dream of being an engineer is resurrected as a graphic artist, where an identity as a straight Christian gives way to being a gay ethicist, and where the parental narrative of being a biology teacher is reborn as a student’s own aspiration of becoming a doctor.

But once the trigger is pulled, there will be no artist, philosopher, or doctor. Maybe I’m an idealist, but how else does one avoid cynicism and fatalism? If we aren’t willing to imagine and risk, then there’s no “good fight” left in the professoriate. An academic life worth living requires courage, hope, defiance and compassion. It does not require guns.

The issue of guns on American campuses is a subject of vigorous debate. By 2013, at least 19 states had introduced legislation to allow guns on campus. Seven states now allow concealed weapons on campus. We carry here both sides of the debate. Today, we are carrying this article opposing concealed weapons on campuses. Later this week, we will be carrying another article arguing in favour of guns on campus.

_____The Conversation

Jeffrey Alan Lockwood is Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing, Department of Philosophy at University of Wyoming.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.

When researchers ask for data on penalization of black kids, schools resist, cover up

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**


Muhammad Khalifa, Michigan State University Felecia Briscoe, University of Texas at San Antonio
Students of color are more likely to be suspended. Rod LibraryCC BY

That students of color bear the brunt of the zero tolerance discipline policies in schools has been well-established. What is not so well known is that some school administrations are actually complicit in this act of racial disciplining.

Nationally, students of color are more likely to be suspended than white students. On average, black boys are suspended four times more than white boys. Latino students are also suspended more frequently than white students, and female students of color are also disciplined more frequently than white female students.

The policy ‘problem’

But this is not all. A recent study that we conducted over a period of two years in Texas found that schools were in fact negligent when it came to addressing such practices of disciplining. The study covered four school districts in Texas with a population of nearly 200,000 students.

As researchers, we have been studying this issue since 2010. But what prompted this study was the suspension of one of the researcher’s sons from school. The child was given a US $500 court citation. And when we showed up for our court appointment, we saw that all the children were either black or brown. Did it mean that white children never fought in school?

We knew this was part of what is now known as the school-to-prison pipeline for children of color. It led us to take on a scholar-activist role.

Most schools and districts claim to be following “race-neutral” discipline policies. School officials even point to their race-neutral suspension and expulsion policies to show how they are “fair” with students of all race and ethnic subgroups.

However, researchers have found that the problem lies in the application of these policies.

For example, black students are more likely to be suspended for breaking subjective school rules such as a lack of respect for teachers than for objective ones, like having a weapon. Researchers point to cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings from a primarily white teaching force as the reasons for the “disciplining gaps.”

Data on discipline

Our recent study found that some schools are, in fact, negligent and even defensive when it comes to addressing the problem of school discipline practices and the discipline gap.

The kind of responses we got when we asked for school districts’ discipline data resembled a “corporate cover-up.”

Some school administrators resisted our attempts to provide information under the  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and some others released data that were not helpful. For example, in the discipline data submitted by a school district, we were not able to discern the race of the children who had been suspended or expelled from school.

Some schools have been found to be negligent about school disciplining issues. Student image via

It is hard for us to imagine that schools are not keeping track of usable disciplinary data, considering that in recent years, widespread attention has focused on the disciplinary treatment of black boys and other students of color. President Obama has even initiated My Brother’s Keeper, a national program intended to help black and Latino boys succeed.

Responses from schools

Our biggest surprise was finding out that districts perceived our request for data as a threat. We found that school administrations became secretive, defensive and even more protective of the data. It seemed to us that districts were essentially complicit in the process of oppression of youth of color.

Even the districts that provided the data were very defensive when informed of the discipline gaps that occurred in their schools. For example, when presented with data in his district, one data administrator responded, “Well, other districts in Texas are higher than us” and “We are not far off from the state average.”

It was very troubling for us to see schools reacting in this way, especially when lives of youth were at risk. These responses were unacceptable and deflected the district’s responsibility.

In the end, only one school district, out of four, instituted a district-wide program for the principals of their schools to learn more about the racial discipline gaps. It was the only one to take steps on how to begin reducing and eliminating racial discipline gaps at both the school and at the district level.

As we conducted the study, we also realized that there is no national legislation that prompts schools to address disparities in education. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other national legislation have at least attempted to draw attention to racial disparities in achievement, no legislation exists that actually compels schools to address the problem.

This is unfortunate, given the close connection between the academic achievement gap and the discipline gap.

What must be done?

It is important that schools make policies and goals for racial and ethnic groups more explicit. For example, a goal for “75% proficiency for students in math” is not as impactful as “75% proficiency for each student subgroup based on their racial, gender or language-based identity.” The reason we say this is: what if the population of a school is 25% Latino and that happens to be the same population of nonproficient math students?

At the policy level, what is needed is intensive training on implicit racial bias in most districts. In addition, school districts should be required to report overall suspension rates and discipline gaps within each of their schools.

Furthermore, state or federal policies must begin to regulate both the collection of discipline data and the rate of compliance of schools.

Parents too need to pay more attention. Parents of color and from other subgroups should begin to identify which schools are more likely to suspend students of color.

All this together can be a powerful impetus for districts and schools to attend to this problem. Otherwise, disciplining practices will continue to have devastating consequences for our kids.

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.


Muhammad Khalifa is Assistant Professor of Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Felecia Briscoe is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at The University of Texas at San Antonio

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.


The growing link between intelligence communities and academia

Scott Firsing, Monash University

The idea of university professors or students working with the FBI or CIA probably makes you raise your eyebrows.

But then perhaps you’re picturing someone like the fictional Henry McCord in Madam Secretary . He’s a Georgetown theology professor who was asked to plant a bug for the National Security Agency (NSA) at the home of a scholar believed to be connected to a terrorist.

Such covert operations do happen. But mostly, professors will be called to deliver a guest lecture to agents or a university will be contracted to help with research. This is true for organizations in the United States like the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the NSA, and for their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

Such interactions make even academics wary. A tenured professor in the United States tends to be a liberal who is suspicious of the intelligence community’s (IC) methods and activities overseas.

But the tactics used by America’s current and potential future enemies are constantly changing. This volatility and diversity of threats means that the IC needs higher education’s help.

Intelligence post-9/11

The events of September 11 2001 were a catalyst for change in the intelligence profession. In the 14 years since, the number of institutions associated with the field has grown so “large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work,” according to a two-year investigation published by the Washington Post in 2010.

The IC has transformed and greatly expanded to address the shortfalls that became evident after 9/11. One of its moves was to expand the CIA’s Sherman Kent’s School of Intelligence Analysis which opened in May 2000 and became part of the new CIA University founded in 2002. Mainstream academia also started to develop specialized degrees in intelligence, homeland security and national defence.

Those outside the IC may question why we need structures and organizations like the CIA, FBI and others.

National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland.
NSA website

In his 2014 book Scientific Methods of Inquiry for Intelligence Analysis, academic Professor Hank Prunckun explains that intelligence is important because it allows control to be exercised in a given situation – and control equals power.

Prunckun calls intelligence “an exact science based on sound qualitative and quantitative research methods.”

His book forms part of the Security and Professional Intelligence Education Series, another resource developed for the emerging IC after September 11. This is a range of books focusing on intelligence, foreign policy, national security and business intelligence.

Some universities have already recognized the role and value of intelligence. There are a number of new bachelors and master’s degrees, particularly in the United States, which focus on the areas of intelligence and national security.

Graduating into intelligence agencies

The goal of these new university degrees is to help create the next generation of professionals for the IC. One of the pluses of this arrangement is that universities have four years to develop skills like critical thinking and report writing. Intelligence organizations have only a limited amount of time to teach these abilities.

Here are five skills or characteristics that students who want to work in intelligence communities can develop at university.

  1. A global focus: students need to start understanding how the world works. Many universities offer basic global politics courses, but regional focus minors, say in African geopolitics or the working of South East Asia, are helpful too. Students considering a career in intelligence should also try to study overseas to broaden their horizons.
  2. An inquisitive nature: thinking critically is arguably the most important skill one can develop in universities. Universities need to train problem-solvers who understand analytic methodologies and strategic concepts – and who can apply that knowledge. My conversations with staff from organizations like the NSA show they want young, creative thinkers who can think out of the box to identify gaps or problems. They don’t want “yes” men and women.
  3. Technological savvy: a minor in technology is recommended in this era of internet saturation and “big data.”
  4. A sense of immediacy: when I say current affairs, I mean seriously current. Universities must be quick to adapt to changing concepts and threats – like offering courses in cybersecurity or the IS.
  5. Communication skills: intelligence agents must be able to communicate effectively in writing, in a boardroom or in an elevator when they have just seconds with a director or policymaker.

Multilingualism is a huge bonus, too.

Research is another area where academia can contribute to the IC. It can be used to fill in gaps. There is also a major role for university students in open source intelligence – information that is already publicly available but needs to be gathered and analyzed.

Students are often the same age as those who are joining extremist groups, and they are familiar with the latest social media platforms. They know what to look for and where to find it.

What does the future hold?

It’s early days for intelligence studies as a university subject or academic discipline. In many ways, it is like criminology 100 years ago. Then, criminology was trying to distinguish itself as a unique speciality within the emerging disciplines of psychology, sociology and economics. Specific societies and journals were created. Observations, experiments and theories were developed.

The number of universities offering an intelligence studies-related degree started with a handful. It has now expanded to a few dozen. Universities are starting to develop curricula that feature practical real-world exercises and structural analytical techniques. This is often happening in collaboration with the IC. Like most businesses or agencies do, universities are starting to develop specific niches.

This expansion is being led by the International Association for Intelligence Education (IAFIE), which was formed in June 2004. Its mission is to advance research, knowledge and professional development in intelligence education. It is becoming more truly “international” as organizations like the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies and Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers come on board.

The field will only grow. It’s a necessary expansion to produce the professionals needed to ensure America’s national security and that of its allies for generations to come.

The Conversation

Scott Firsing, Research Fellow, International Relations, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.