Saturday, September 26, 2009

DVD Review - 2 Million Minutes - The 21st Century Solution

When the DVD 2 Million Minutes first came out, I was late to the party in writing a review on this blog. It was a ground breaking portrayal of the contrast in some of the largest economies of the world. But the blog did have an impact - I was surprised to see how many people had not heard about until they read my blog. This time, I was determined not to be late. So here it is.

First of all, this DVD is not a direct sequel to the first 2 MM DVD. It is the fourth in a series, the second and third were a more in-depth look at the Indian and the Chinese education systems respectively. But the latest one is a drastic change in its focus. After telling us how well the Chinese and the Indians are being educated, Bob has now found an oasis of excellence in the US. And to help make the point, he has interviewed Craig Barrett, the recently retired Chairman of Intel Corp., the largest semiconductor company in the world.

To help find his success story, Bob went to the Newsweek rankings of high school, and picked the top school - Basis Charter school, which started in Tucson, AZ, and now has a second campus in Scottsdale, AZ. For those who are not familiar with Newsweek rankings, it picks its candidates from schools that have the highest AP test takers. Its challenge index, which divides the number of AP tests taken by the number of graduating seniors, is the primary benchmark. The Basis Charter school topped their 2008 survey, with a challenge index score of 17.167 - which means their graduating seniors had taken an average of 17 AP classes (equivalent to about 2 years in a regular college). One other unique feature of this school is that it is not a school for gifted and/or talented students, nor is it a magnet school. Anyone who applies get in, provided they can stand the rigor. One other big difference I found was that they start with 6th grade. This gives those students who are behind a chance to catch up to the rigors of its high school program. They do this in spite of the fact their charter schools get about $1000 per student less than other public schools.

How rigorous is the program? Let us take math, for example, which is the Achilles heel of most public schools. The expectation in Basis Charter Schools is that ALL STUDENTS take AP Calculus exam by 10th grade. This forms the basis for their calculus based science classes in 11th and 12th grades. So, in order to take AP Calculus, they have to take Pre-Calculus in 9th grade, Algebra II in 8th grade, Geometry in 7th grade, and Algebra I in 6th grade. Impossible, you say? Data show that this is not much different from top performing nations in Asia and Europe, and some developing countries in the world. Our best high school is about as good as an average or slightly above average school in those nations. But I digress. Once the gatekeeper requirement of Math is behind them, the students are ready to take other higher level science courses in their junior and senior years.

The result? The school has 100% college placement rate. Their students enter college better prepared than most other high school graduates. All this at a cost about 10% lower than sending an average student to school.

The main video could have been a bit shorter, in my mind. Or including a piece on K-5 school with similar attributes would have rounded it out more. These are minor quibbles. I thought that its main goal, of pointing out that excellence can be achieved within the public school system, at a lower cost, by those who had the fortitude to go against the entrenched monopoly of our public institutions, was achieved.

The one gem in this DVD is the extended interview with Craig Barrett. Although the DVD has snippets of the interview spread throughout the main feature, what really stands out is the added bonus feature. I think it is worth the entire cost ($25) of the DVD. In that interview, Craig answers a few personal questions, along with other questions on his view of the state of public education in the US. The one observation that he makes stuck in my mind as very astute. We have a dichotomy in this country. We have arguably the best post-secondary university system, both public and private, and arguably one of the most mediocre public K-12 education systems by international standards. He pins the underlying difference to the basic structure of these institutions. Our universities, both public and private, have to compete for the best students, the best faculty, and the best learning environment. When institutions compete, the customers, in this case, the students and their parents, win. The public K-12 system is devoid of any competition. Absence of competition, or a monopoly system, according to economists, leads to the lowest quality at the highest possible cost. So, the natural conclusion is - how do we introduce competition in our public education system? I will make this the topic of my next blog.

In the meantime, get your copy of the DVD, sit back, enjoy! Highly recommended.

Here is the publisher's site:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

When you are being chased by a bear...

When I look at the nationwide education scene, I often get reminded of this old joke:

Two buddies were hiking bare feet on a hiking trail, when a huge bear spotted them and started running towards them.

One of the buddies quickly grabbed his backpack, took his sneakers out and started putting them on.

The other one, now panicking, was puzzled. He said "Are you crazy? You can't outrun the bear in those sneakers!"

The first one replied "I don't HAVE to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU!"

Unlike many developed or developing countries, the US has a decentralized education system. Almost all decisions were made at a local level at one time, until the state governments started funding schools. That has led to some interesting developments. Some states have realized, like the smart one in the story, that they just have to outrun the rest of the states in education in order to attract new businesses and promote economic growth. In these tough economic times, that rings true more than ever. Here are just a few examples of what different states have done, or are in the process of doing.

* Massachusetts, Indiana and California were some of the early pioneers in toughening up their math standards so that everyone gets college ready by graduation. They have realized that just because there are jobs for high school dropouts today, they will soon vanish. The future belongs to those who have the fundamentals in reading, writing, and math honed enough to switch to another field mid career. Career changes will be a necessity, not a luxury according to experts. So, let's say in 2020, when RoboX corporation wants to convert the old GM assembly plant in Fremont and build robots instead, they will be looking for technicians and programmers, not a high school dropout who puts bolts on nuts.

* Texas has made four years of Math and Science mandatory for all their high school graduates. When one thinks of high tech, Texas is unlikely to pop first into anyone's head, but I think they too realize that the days of big oil are limited, and the future belongs to those who understand technology. This makes their economy virtually future proof, because their graduates will most likely be CREATING the future we will all live in.

* Massachusetts and Minnesota have now asked to be separated out of the national pack in the TIMSS international study, which measures achievement in Math and Science over several grades. In the latest study, Massachusetts came in favorably compared to the top achieving nations in the world, such as Hong Kong and Finland. This pretty much validated their decision to set very high standards for all their students.

* New Hampshire, the tiny state which goes back into hibernation after the presidential primaries, has eliminated the 11th and 12th grades from their schools. Instead, the students go directly into community colleges, either to learn a trade or as freshmen in a 2 or 4 year college track. This has pretty much compressed what is taught in 12 years in 13 years of a typical K-12 curriculum into 11 years. Given that most curricula used in schools these days are thoroughly unchallenging even for an average student, this move is a bold but sensible one.

When I look at these examples, I pity the rest of the states that are scrambling to catch up. Many other states are now scrambling to catch up, and there is even talk of national standards. However, in my opinion, these attempts are only one small part of what is needed to compete. Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have been very eloquent in their support of education reform. However, they do not have direct control over what happens in schools. Each state, each district, each school, and each classroom has challenges that will need to be identified and worked out. In my home state of Washington, when I look at what is being done, it is clear to me that we will lag the rest of the states by a long shot. The big bear of international economic competition is merciless and relentless. Even when the US economy recovers, it appears that other states will have a jump on it before us, in terms of a well trained workforce.

Something better get done quickly before the kids in Washington state become (economic) bear fodder.

Monday, April 20, 2009

College Students Struggle with Basic Algebra

I found this on another web group on math. It quotes an article from the campus newspaper at Oregon State University, the premier state "tech", known for its strong engineering department. Now, you need to realize that this is a student run paper, with a staff made up entirely of students. Even they are now sensing that something is fishy. Maybe they are not so naive as we think. Another thing to note is that Math 111 is college algebra, which is a remedial math course, about the same level as a rigorous high school Algebra 2 course, for those who do not pass the college math placement test. Here is the headline:

"Math 111 continues to be slippery slope for OSU students
Problems with Math 111 are believed to stem from students' inadequate grade school teaching in math"

The article goes on to say "Math 111 has been rumored throughout campus to be one of the most failed classes at Oregon State. Many students go into class with that expectation."
and an observation from a freshman math professor "After 10 years of teaching the course, Argyres said he felt that many students go into the course feeling they can just memorize things, but he said it's really all about understanding concepts. He said he feels that this issue originates in elementary school." "When students never learned the basic information appropriately in high school, or earlier, it is significantly more difficult for them to succeed when they get to college algebra."

I was aware that the school district that my kids attended in Oregon used "Mathland" for elementary schools in the early 2000's, and switched to "Investigations" around 2005. Now they are moving to "Everyday Math". In other words, they have hopped from one reform curriculum to another, without really making a substantial move towards what I consider real math. Here is a quote from the OSU professor which pretty much sums it up:

"Mathematics is densely a foreign language with a foreign spelling routine with all these different symbols," Argyres said. "Part of [understanding the language] is understanding what we mean by the symbols."

Read the full article here:

Monday, March 16, 2009

Businessweek - Innovation and Math, Science Education Linked

Here is a recent article (March 16) on the ranking of different nations based on their record of innovation. Innovation as in creating new products, new wealth, and therefore greater standard of living for their citizens.

The top of the list is Singapore, followed by South Korea.

We have seen Singapore and South Korea top international math and science tests year after year. It has also resulted in a better quality of life for their people. 25% of the Singaporeans were millionaires last year. That percentage is expected to cross 40% in 2014. The "global slowdown" is not expected to change this appreciably. Why Singapore? One reason given below:

"Government commitment to education is one reason many large drugmakers have made Singapore a base for their manufacturing and research. In January, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced plans to invest $65 million to expand its Singapore operations. Schering-Plough (SGP) is opening a center to conduct research and clinical trials in the country, and Novartis has made Singapore the center for company researchers investigating treatments for malaria, tuberculosis, and dengue fever. "Science education is very good here," says Thierry Draganc, project manager for Novartis' malaria research team. "There's a nice constant flow of young graduates." "

Where is the US in all this? Well, we came in 8th. One of the biggest reasons given here:

James P. Andrew, the leader of BCG's global innovation practice and co-author of the report, says "the quality of the workforce" in the U.S. is the biggest problem that many respondents had. As part of the survey, BCG questioned some 800 high-level executives at U.S. companies, and many put concerns about human resources at the top of the list of concerns. "Are we developing the skills at the high school level?" asks Andrew, explaining the responses researchers often encountered. "Are we making it easy for the best and brightest to study and stay in the U.S.?"

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama's National Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Public Broadcasting

I just finished watching Arne Duncan on the Charlie Rose show.

I had to pinch myself several times during the show, just to make sure I was not dreaming. Here is the nation's highest education official, saying things that I wished every education official had said. Many of these things have been expressed right here in the blog. But there he was, on national TV, saying the right things, popular or not. If a fraction of what he said became reality, we would be in fat city. Here are some highlights of what he articulated:

1. School facilities to be kept open for 12 hours a day or longer.

2. High quality pre school for all

3. Teacher merit pay, and much tougher tenure requirements

4. Removal of ineffective teachers, based on student achievement

5. Higher pay for STEM teachers

6. Start/expand charter schools

7. National standards for core subjects

There is tons more stuff because it is a 1 hour interview with no commercial breaks, but it was a riveting interview. Charlie Rose, the interviewer, is no slouch. He asks very pointed questions, until the guest cries uncle. In other words, you know exactly where the guest stands on every issue. But first, something about Arne Duncan's past, as articulated in the interview, caught my attention. The first thing he has going for him is that he is not an education insider. He was not trained in the education circles to think like a teacher or an administrator. So, he does not have the baggage that comes with someone who is predisposed to defend the status quo. This was quite evident when he unequivocally said the system needs to shed poor teachers, based on student achievement. Second, he said he grew up in a neighborhood where getting to adulthood alive was considered a great accomplishment. His mother ran a tutoring program for disadvantaged kids, and those who stuck with education not only got to live, but some went on to achieve much greater things. Third, he and the president appear to be in lockstep with all the proposals. Lastly, there is an unprecedented amount of money being doled out, $112 billion to be exact, to help implement the ideas. This is the largest spending of our future tax dollars since the GI bill. This is the first instance of such synergy that I have seen, that makes me optimistic.

Do I see pitfalls? Sure. Through the grapevine, I heard the money will be fast-tracked to the state governors, with no rules or accountability clauses spelled out, yet. If the past is any indication, the moment the money hits the states, it gets caught up in local politics, and rarely meets its intended goal. But it is a start. I hope the local citizens will hold their elected representatives accountable for spending that money so it accomplishes its intent.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Educating Middle India

This is from my personal blog site: It's Action Time

"So, what do you think of Mr. Obama?" said the middle aged frail lady with a visibly tan skin dressed in a green sari. "I watched his entire inaugural ceremony. He is a very impressive fellow. We have high hopes that he will bring peace to the world". She was Mrs. Damayanti, the Headmistress(Principal) of the Canara High School, Urwa Branch in Mangalore, India (yes, there is a place called Mangalore - or more recently, Mangaluru). "By the way" she continued with the curiosity of a little child "what is that tall building that looks like a needle in Washington? I asked a few people, and they could not tell me." When I said it was called the Washington monument, she thanked me and said she will tell that to everyone in her 10th grade social studies class.

I mentioned I was there to learn more about how the Indian education system is working these days. Her school is more typical than most. It is neither a public nor a private school, but somewhere in between. It falls under the category of a "government aided" school, where part of the funding comes from the state government, and the rest comes from a private foundation. "The state funding has been going down, so we have had to raise our fees", she said. "We used to charge less than Rs.1000 (about $20) a year a couple of years ago, but now we have to charge Rs.4000 (about $80) a year tuition. With activity fees, it comes to about Rs.4200 (about $84). This school is typical of where middle class India gets educated. Probably a good third of Indian students (about 70 million of them, larger than the entire US K-12 student population) gets educated in such schools.

Other points to note in such schools:

1. Curricula are controlled by a state or national "board", consisting of scientists and education leaders. There is no free for all when it comes to choosing materials for math, for example. Nor is there any argument over what content should be taught, and how it should be taught. Text books are purchased by students, not the school. Anyone is free to write a text book, as long as it has the minimum content set by the board. (I bought the K-5 and 9-12 math text books at a local bookstore. Total bill came to less than $12).

2. No social promotions. Semester final exams are routine, and if someone flunks two semesters, then they repeat the year. At the end of 10th grade, everyone takes an exit exam, which also doubles as a placement tool for college prep school, which are separate from K-10 schools. Our school had an 85% pass rate, better than the state average of just under 80%.

3. Teachers' job descriptions, just as curricula, are controlled by the state board of education. After 6th grade, it is mandatory that a teacher have a degree in the field they teach. In addition, they are required to have a 1 year teaching certificate. However, there appears to be an oversupply of graduates willing to teach, so it is common to see specialized math and science teachers at grade 3.

4. Most students are taught all their subjects in English in this school. This has been a growing trend, opposite of what was in vogue about 10 years ago. This school had about 60% of the students being taught all their subjects in English. The rest must take English as a second language, starting in grade 2. The 10th grade exit exam has three languages (two native languages and English), and the students must pass all three to exit 10th grade. All 10th grade graduates are expected to be trilingual.

5. More and more students opt for Science tracks once they pass 10th grade. In our case, well over 50% of the graduates went on to take two years of Physics, Chemistry, Math, and a science elective (Electronics, Computer Languages or Biology), plus two languages (English and a native language). These courses are not offered "cafeteria" style, but somewhat like a "combo meal" style. The main choices are science, business (commerce), and arts. Depending on the staff and the size of the school, they may offer two or three varieties of science combos, one or two commerce combos, and one arts combo. Science:Business:Arts enrollments are currently running at the ratio of 4:2:1.

Mrs. Damayanti was especially proud of her computer lab, where she says most kids are "smart enough to teach the teachers". They learn basic programming, in addition to the usual applications such as Microsoft office.

After the visit, I was impressed how much the school could accomplish with so little. The fact that it is a typical school (not a high end private school), makes it all the more significant.

In the next blog, I will write about "tuitions" - the Indian version of cram schools.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Change is in the air. Yes, we just installed a new (half) African American president in the White House, who has promised to end the war in Iraq, and create 3 million new jobs in the next couple of years. We have a new Superintendent of Pubic Instruction, Randy Dorn, who on his second day in office declared the WASL dead. That is all the good news regarding "change" that I can see right now.

I think the latter calls for some celebration. The much maligned WASL was a thorn on the side of many parents, students and administrators. It took too much time, too much money, and only provided information to a few in the office of the state superintendent. Terry Bergeson was defiant to the end, defending the test's virtues that only she could appreciate. Fortunately, the voters thought otherwise.

We now have a new system of tests. You may read all about them on:

The key difference here is that the grades 3 - 8 tests will be replaced by a new series of tests called Measurement of Student Progress (MSP). These are shorter, computerized tests which take a short time to grade. High school tests will be more end-of-course tests, rather than one battery that is administered to all students. Dorn is also trying to have the legislature approve the removal of WASL as a graduation requirement. All this will not affect the 2009 tests, but will start with 2010.

One big hole in the "new" MSP is that the tests will still be unique to the state of Washington, with no way to compare the results between Washington and other states. This will be problematic in an era of global competition, where one needs to measure how our kids stack up with other states or nations. I am hoping that this message will be heard at OSPI and rectified soon.