PISA test scores–How Will That Impact Education Policy?


By Esther Wojcicki, Palo Alto High School English-Journalism teacher

2014 may turn out to be frightening for education in America: we will likely see national hysteria over US students’ falling scores, both in the recently released PISA test scores (Programme for International Student Assessment) and as a result of the new generation of Common Core assessments. We will see districts scrambling for silver bullet solutions. But the biggest concern I have is those  such quick fix efforts could just make our education system bleed even more.

The PISA scores showed that the American students are falling even farther behind other countries… in spite of our obsession with testing and teacher accountability.

In the most recent round of testing, US students slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading. The 2013 test scores (released December 3) shows that the U.S. lags among 65 countries even after adjusting for poverty. Pretty shoddy statistics especially after we spend more than other nations on education–$7,743 per student per year. The OECD data show almost no link between spending on education and PISA test results.

We should be concerned that in our hysteria, our system will become more like the classic Chinese system (Shanghai is not typical of China) that excels at teaching to the test. The problem with teaching to the test is that it leaves no room for experimentation, creativity and, most important, for failure. When kids experience “failure,” they learn deep lessons: how to stay determined in the face of obstacles, how to change course, how to invent a new approach. That is how you inspire people to think innovatively and creatively.

Setting aside Shanghai, the Chinese system at large is a rote learning system focused entirely on testing. There is no room for rengades. In a typical Chinese classroom, experimentation is considered a wasted opportunity to teach to the test. Chinese education system is rote based. Is that what we want for our kids?

Just ask how many Nobel Prize winners China has for science. The answer? zero. The only resident Chinese Nobel laureate received a prize for Peace–and Liu Ziaobo is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, US schools have been teaching to the test–and our kids have been doing worse. There may be some problem with what we test for, but the main problem is that we test at all.

The PISA test actually asks students to problem solve and think; our tests don’t. We are focused on multiple choice tests that require students to memorize material. Countries that have higher test scores have engaged students who are involved in collaboration, teamwork, and project-based learning. These include Shanghai-China, Korea, Macao-China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Top performers place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encourage them to work together and prioritise investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes. They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them, according to OECD. Teachers also have considerable prestige.

American teachers have no autonomy in the classroom and little prestige. As a result of Race to the Top program, teachers salaries are tied to test scores, and many teachers are given a scripted curriculum to implement. The lower the student performance, the higher the likelihood of scripted teaching. All American teaching these days, whether it is scripted or not, is geared toward the high stakes tests.

Another important difference between the US and other top performing nations is that we are ignoring the needs of our gifted students. Our push to democratize education and improve all students’ test scores has resulted in a less rigorous curriculum for all students. No Child Left Behind does not require schools offer any gifted or talented programs, simply that nearly all students meet the minimum skill levels. As a result, funding for gifted and talented programs has shriveled as much as 90% nationwide and the overall curriculum has focused on the less talented students.

December 2013 NY Times’ editorial observed: “Schools have focused on the average and below-average students who make up the bulk of their enrollments, not on the smaller number of students at the top. It is vital that students in the middle get increased attention, as the new Common Core standards are designed to do, but when the brightest students are not challenged academically, they lose steam and check out.”

The NY Times recommended three strategies:

1. Increased government support for gifted programs;  

2. More advanced placement courses in schools nationwide;

3. Early college admission for the gifted students. 

These are all excellent suggestions but will they happen?

Increased government support for gifted programs is unlikely to happen. It is a great idea and it is long overdue, but we are in a continued financial crisis and the nation is focused on improving test scores of the lower performing students as evidenced by No Child Left Behind policies. It is achingly hard to change these policies in midstream.

Adding more advanced placement courses nationwide might be easier to implement. However, finding qualified advanced placement teachers in an atmosphere that is highly critical of teachers is difficult to do. More than 46% of U.S. teachers leave the profession after five years because of the intense stress associated with the present teaching environment.

Providing opportunities for early college admission for gifted students is more realistic. It does not increase costs; it does, however, require coordination with local colleges. Hopefully there will be growing discussion about this idea.

These are all reasonable suggestions, but most school districts will be looking for a silver bullet. Those bullets will likely include even more testing, a stricter adherence to the curriculum standards, and less creativity–a heart-breaking cycle that will lead to even more problems.

A glimmer of hope can be seen in the blended learning model that is being adopted in many classrooms. This is a model in which students learn at least part of the time via the Internet with some element of control of their learning. And by engaging students, empowering them and giving them the passion to learn through blended systems, we have a shot at real school reform–without the hysteria.


Creating Classrooms That Work–using T.R.I.C.K. to Engage Kids

Creating Classrooms That Work

Here is a TEDx video that explains how the culture of the classroom can change student performance.  Students learn what they live; in other words, students learn from the way they are treated in the classroom. If we give them respect, they feel respected.  If we trust them, they feel responsible.   If we as teachers can  improve the culture in the classroom so students feel trusted and respected it goes a long way in engaging them.  Studies say that it just takes one teacher who connects with a student out of all twelve years of schooling to make a difference, but many kids graduate (or dropout) without having even one teacher who they connected with.  Suggestion:   Let’s  help kids get engaged by using  T.R.I.C.K which stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness in the classroom.


by esther wojcicki

This post is written by Greg Linden, my former student who is has been doing some amazing work with technology.  He just launched CODE MONSTER and I thought all teachers should see this. It is a great way to introduce programming even if you know little about it yourself.  Here is his blog post.

Code Monster from Crunchzilla helps parents teach a little programming to their kids.

A lot of parents want their kids to learn a little about programming. But, if you are a parent, there seem to be only two choices out there, either have your kids slog through all the syntax and pain of tutorials and textbooks made for adults, or have them learn a visual programming language made for kids that can’t be used for anything else.

Code Monster teaches Javascript, which is a useful and valuable programming language to know. When learning using Code Monster, the code is live, so changes kids make have impact immediately. They learn a bit about how to program, starting with early concepts like parameters, variables, and loops, moving through functions, eventually introducing some of the wonders of fractals, animation, and physics. Code Monster encourages experimentation. It makes programming fun.

Code Monster is an unusual blend of a tutorial and a game. It is not a tutorial or a lesson plan, but it does walk kids through many experiments with a real, useful programming language. It is not a game, but many of the children who have playtested it have found it fun, addictive, and exciting.

If you’re a geek like me, there are some techie aspects of Code Monster you may find interesting. For example, Code Monster uses live code so kids see the immediate impact from code changes, no hitting a run or compile button. Code Monster provides useful help messages if the player stops working on the code but has an error. There are several nice but subtle features — like preventing most accidental infinite loops — that are harder to do than you might think (if you think you know how to do that in Javascript, try it, I bet your solution doesn’t work). It only needs an internet connection when you first go to Code Monster (allowing working on lessons offline) and keeps your progress without saving anything remotely (privacy is important). The lessons eventually introduce quite sophisticated topics — like fractals, L-grammars, animation, and physics — that are very fun for kids but not normally taught to beginning programmers. But all of that tech stuff only matters because it makes Code Monster do the right thing; the important thing is that Code Monster fun and enjoyable to use.

Code Monster came out of my interest in online education, especially math and computer science education. I am convinced that, when this generation of children grows up, algorithmic thinking, large scale data analysis, and programming will be a major force multiplier for people working in many fields. People who have these tools will have the power to find breakthroughs in medicine, biology, economics, and many other areas; these tools will let them do things no others have done. I hope Code Monster can be a small piece of many more girls and boys becoming interested in computational thinking.

Please try Code Monster. It’s free and it’s fun. If you have kids (especially ages 9-14) , please have them try it. If you know people who have kids (or adults who are young at heart and might want to dabble in programming), please tell them about it (and share on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter too). I’d love to get the word out about it, and it’s all for a good cause, it’s teaching kids to program. Finally, if you have any suggestions or find it useful for your kids, please post a comment here or e-mail Greg Linden at monster@crunchzilla.com, he’d enjoy knowing how you like it and how he can make it better.

Teachers: Here is a Fun Way to Get Your Kids Involved in the Election–Engage2012.Org

BY Esther Wojcicki

If we want to know what voters are really thinking about the issues facing the presidential candidates, ask the kids. They always tell it like it is.

Check out this new website where kids can learn how to interview community members about election issues and post them to YouTube.


This competition called Engage2012.org is for students in K-12 and is run by the non-profit Media Arts Institute to encourage kids to make two-minute interview videos about one or more of these six issues facing the country and post them to YouTube, and then fill out this online application.

  • Voter Turnout
  • Jobs and the Economy
  • Education Reform
  • Health Care
  • Energy and the Environment
  • Immigration

The hidden agenda here is that it also gives students an opportunity to get involved in democracy while also practicing their 21st century media skills. There are also prizes up to $1,000 for the winning videos as well as national recognition on YouTube and ABC News.

Students can use cameras or smart phones to make these videos and there are instructional videos onlinejust to help learn how to make a video using either a camera or your smart phone. Here are some resources for students and teachers. Videos can be up to two minutes long but shorter videos are also welcome

This exceptional opportunity is made possible through the cooperation of some major companies and foundations including YouTube, the ABC News digital divisionThe NewseumThe Poynter InstituteThe Harnisch FoundationAdobeBaruch College of The City University of New York, the Student Press Law Center, the University of Oregon School of Journalism and CommunicationCreative Commons., andHarvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Students who may not want to make a video but still want to be involved can help organize their peers who want to make videos. These student organizers can sign up to be Student Ambassadors as part of the project’s Student Ambassadors Program. There is even a competition for them.

The 10 Ambassadors from around the country who motivate the most students from their schools and community organizations to participate in the challenge may each receive an award worth up to $500 in value.

The Engage in Democracy 2012 Student Journalism Challenge was founded in the spring of 2012 by leaders and educators from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, the Media Arts Institute, Baruch College and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The project will be administered by educators from the University of Oregon, Baruch College, the Media Arts Institute and by student leaders from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

The competition is coordinated by non-profit project supported by the Media Arts Institute.

The project’s primary goals are to motivate K-12 students to participate in the democratic process, include student voices in national discussions surrounding election topics and encourage curiosity, exploration and creativity in both children and adults throughout the nation.

Now kids have a chance to get involved. The competition will close at midnight on Nov. 5, 2012. Winners will be announced on Dec. 21, 2012.

Writing Support for Teachers and Students

A new writing support for students just appeared in the last couple of days that I thought many teachers would find helpful. Here is the link to it http://www.shmoop.com/essay-lab/

It is the kind of support that you as a teacher can feel comfortable sending student to because it well done and can actually help them with their writing. Would be interested in knowing what other teachers think!   Please comment.

Reading Level Search: New Way to Search on Google

By Esther Wojcicki

Reading levels.

We’ve heard of them, but most people have no idea what it really means. They only know that some texts are harder to understand than others.

Now Google has come up with something revolutionary that will help all of us, but especially teachers.

Google searches now allow users to choose reading level of the results of a search. Amazing. This is a great help for all users.
There are three level to choose among: basic, intermediate and advanced. The difference between the levels is based on two criteria: vocabulary, sentence structure. Complex sentence structure correlates strongly with sentence length. Idea complexity arises from the vocabulary. The more advanced level has longer, more complicated sentences and more difficult vocabulary, while the intermediate level is just one step down in terms of difficulty, and the basic level is the easiest level to read.

There are complex ideas presented at all levels; however, there are more advanced results for complex topics and more basic results for easier topics. When searching for global warming, for example, results are available at all three reading levels; however, only nine percent of the global warming sites are at the basic level, 17% are at the intermediate level and 72% are at the advanced level.

Generally speaking, more complex topics will result in fewer basic websites. Basic documents can give a surprisingly good introduction to complex topics, so don’t write them off.

Another example is a search on Einstein’ theory of relativity, only two percent of the search results returned were at the basic level while 91% are at the advanced level.

The reverse is true for Mickey Mouse! It’s not surprising that fifty-five percent of the results returned are basic and only two percent are advanced. If you click on each level, you will see the results change right there on the page. It is fun to do.

So how do you do a reading level search? After typing in a query on Google.com, look at the column of tools on the left side of the search results and you will see “All Results.”
At the bottom of that column, click on “More Search Tools.” Then you will see a list of tools and in the middle under Dictionary, you will see “Reading Level.”

After you click on Reading Level you will see at the top of the page, three reading level choices: basic, intermediate and advanced with the percentages right next to the levels. The percentages indicate how many results are in each reading level, and you can simply click on the level to display the results that you want.

Filtering results by reading level is a whole new new search experience. It’s great for educators, parents, and anyone wanting a choice of reading levels.

Also on HuffingtonPost

Why Every Student Should Learn the Skills of a Journalist

How do we make schools more relevant to students? Teach them the skills they need in the real world, with tools they use every day. That’s exactly what Esther Wojcicki, a teacher of English and journalism at Palo Alto High School, is attempting to do with the recent launch of the website21STCenturyLit. I interviewed Esther about the site, and how she hopes it will serve as a useful tool for both students and educators.

– How do you describe the mission for 21STcenturylit?

The mission of 21STcenturylit.org is three fold: it is to teach students how to be intelligent consumers of digital media, to teach students how to be skillful creators of digital media, and to teach students how to search intelligently.  We are living in an age when digital media and new digital tools are revolutionizing the world. Schools need to help student learn these skills, not block and censor the Internet.

To continue reading, go to this website