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A Japanese approach to Khan Academy

@Michael P.: Taking your last comment first, I think that is a very important point that is generally ignored by politicians and education deformers. There’s an old saw in education: you test what you value. To me, that means that everyone notices what’s going to be tested and assumes that’s the only thing that matters (at least to those controlling what’s on tests). Teachers decide (or are pressured by administrators and perhaps parents and/or students) to focus upon only that which will be tested. (Of course, kids are always asking, “Will this be on the test?” but that used to mean in-class assessments. In any case, it reflects the culture in which if something isn’t going to be assessed, it can safely be ignored. Mathematical (and other) knowledge isn’t valued as anything but whether it can be exchanged for “points” somewhere).
In my experience, however, the most educationally-conservative folks in the US math wars only seem to value K-12 tests of the multiple-choice flavor. They don’t want anything where “subjectivity” can rear its head in the scoring process: no partial credit, no rubrics, no performance tasks. I have tried without success to provide evidence that multiple-choice questions don’t provide accurate evidence of what students know (any problem that involves more than one step or “bit” of mathematical knowledge likely will not be able to show just where the student went wrong), and yet one justification for the influx of so much testing is to provide “useful feedback” for teachers so they can properly adjust instruction. To say that I’m skeptical about that as a real or realistic goal would be a vast understatement. But it seems that those in power are much less concerned about whether the tests they promote (and demand that the public pays for and that teachers are held accountable by and that students are, at earlier ages than in any sane country, tortured with) are really delivering truly meaningful data.
As for the economic points, I’m still skeptical that we’re really being judged along a fair set of criteria. There may have been a time when the US did more sorting into college-bound tracks and other tracks such that a lot of students who are now still part of the tested 10th grade population would have been “elsewhere.” And we do know that goes on in other countries. I don’t think that other countries mainstream special education students the way we are doing these days, particular in places like Detroit, where money is so tight that they seem not to have any other options. I’m not convinced that some of the high performing Asian countries are really testing a fair cross-section of students. And I know that we pay for services I mentioned last time (food, transportation, and special education) that many of the countries we’re being compared with don’t. I think you didn’t address that in your reply, and it seems awfully important, along with our world-leading percentage among industrialized nations of children living below the poverty line.
But none of that changes my view that we have a lot to learn from SOME of what goes on elsewhere, in math class and in general. I have always liked what I’ve seen of K-8 math education in Japan and see many things I wish were part of US math culture. But we really don’t have anything like that in most classrooms: we continue to stress math as imitative, procedural, computational, and, frankly, dull as dishwater.
I also greatly admire many of the things the Finns do. But it seems that what the politicians and deformers notices are only their test scores: not their values, not their much more child-friendly view of education, not the Finns’ apparent lack of interest in winning some imagined international testing competition or in competition as a central value for education.
I think there’s room for debate on whether there is a fair comparison going on, and I know that there are researchers who consistently argue that “money doesn’t matter. I don’t happen to trust their work very much, but it certainly is out there.

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