Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Downward mobility haunts US education

Story originally appeared on BBC News.

An integral part of the American Dream is under threat - as "downward mobility" haunts the education system in the United States.

The idea of going to college - and the expectation that the next generation will be better educated and more prosperous than its predecessor - has been hardwired into the ambitions of the middle classes in the United States.

But there are deep-seated worries about whether this upward mobility is going into reverse.

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the US is now the only major economy in the world where the younger generation is not going to be better educated than the older.

"It's something of great significance because much of today's economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills - and that is now at risk," says Mr Schleicher.

"These skills are the engine of the US economy and the engine is stuttering," says Mr Schleicher, one of the world's most influential experts on international education comparisons.

Lack of opportunity

The annual OECD education statistics show that only about one in five young adults in the US reaches a higher level of education than their parents - among the lowest rates of upward mobility in the developed world.

For a country whose self-image is based on optimism and opportunity, the US is now a country where someone with poorly-educated parents is less likely to reach university than in almost any other industrial country.

It's the opposite of a Hollywood ending.

And about one in five young adults in the US are now defined in educational terms as "downwardly mobile" - such as children who have graduate parents but who don't reach university level themselves.

When the global story of higher education is so much about rapid expansion and the race to increase graduates, it's almost counter-intuitive to find a powerhouse such as the United States on the brink of going backwards.

It's easy to overlook the dominance of US higher education in the post-war era - or how closely this was linked to its role as an economic, scientific and military superpower.

The US had the first great mass participation university system. The GI Bill, which provided subsidies for a generation of World War II veterans, supported three times as many people as are currently in the entire UK university sector.

An American born in the 1950s was about twice as likely to become a graduate as someone born in the rest of the industrialised world.

As the cars ran off the production lines in Detroit, rising numbers of graduates were leaving universities to become part of an expanding middle class.


But the US university system is no longer the only skyscraper on the block. It's been overtaken by rivals in Asia and Europe.

Today's young Americans have a below-average chance of becoming a graduate, compared with other industrialised economies.

The US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a speech a few weeks ago, asked how the US had in "the space of a generation" tumbled from first place to 14th in graduation rates.

So what's gone wrong?

The spiralling cost of higher education in the United States is often cited as a barrier - and the collective student debt has exceeded a trillion dollars.

But Andreas Schleicher argues that a deeper problem is rooted in the inequalities of the school system.

He says that the level of social segregation and the excessive link between home background and success in school is "cutting off the supply" between secondary school and university.

The meritocratic, migrant energy in US culture is no longer operating in the school system.

"If you lose the confidence in the idea that effort and investment in education can change life chances, it's a really serious issue," says Mr Schleicher.

Middle-class squeeze

A US Senate committee examined this sense of imperilled optimism, in a hearing called Helping More Young People Achieve the American Dream.

The economist Miles Corak was among the expert witnesses - and he says the US education system reflects a wider picture of the "hollowing out" of the middle class.

"What you're seeing is the inequality of the labour market being echoed in education."

Prof Corak describes a polarising jobs market, with the very rich and very poor diverging - and a collapse in jobs in the middle ground, such as clerical or manufacturing jobs.

For such families, sending their children to college had once been a "defining metaphor for the country".

But it seems that the education system is no longer holding the door open to the brightest and the best, regardless of background.

The Philadelphia-based Pew research group compared the outcomes of young people in 10 western countries, in a project called Does America Promote Mobility as Well as Other Countries?

It found the US had the strongest link between family wealth and educational success - and the lowest mobility. Advantage and disadvantage were being further amplified in education.

Research manager Diana Elliott says in the US "income has a pervasive hold on mobility".


Another study by Pew, against the backdrop of recession, examined the phenomenon of downward mobility and found that a third of adults classified as middle class would slip out of that status during their adult life.

It reflected a modern sense of insecurity, where families could no longer assume their children would be as prosperous. In fact, about a quarter of children born into the middle class were expected to slip downwards.

None of this matches the image of the US as a place for fresh starts and self-made millionaires. Modern American history almost assumes an upward incline.

But evidence of this downward drift has been gathering in recent years. A study by the University of California, Berkeley, showed that school leavers in California in 1970 were more likely to stay on to higher education than their counterparts in 2000.

In terms of international education, that's like finding out that athletes were running faster 40 years ago.

Such current difficulties should not be mistaken for any kind of end-of-empire zeitgeist, says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Instead he says it's a more practical question of money. The rising cost of higher education is a deterrent. And there is a wider question of finance for higher education at state level.

He also says there is another "dirty little secret" of US higher education - that too many people who enrol at university fail to graduate - which pushes down the graduation rate in international comparisons.

Bouncing back

Andreas Schleicher also says there are reasons for optimism. Almost more than any other country, he says the US has the financial resources, the capacity and the flexibility to change course quickly and to catch up.

There are already plans to recover lost ground. President Barack Obama has been re-elected with a promise that the US will regain its global first place in graduation rates by 2020.

And as part of this drive, the American Association of Community Colleges, in a project called Reclaiming the American Dream, has an ambitious plan to create five million more college places.

But it's an aspiration against a gloomy background.

"The American dream has stalled," the association's report says, describing a society where typical family incomes having been falling for more than a decade.

"A child born poor in the United States today is more likely to remain poor than at any time in our history. Many other nations now outperform us in educational attainment and economic mobility, and the American middle class shrinks before our eyes."

It's as if It's A Wonderful Life had been remade - without the happy ending.

Jimmy Wales: Boring university lectures 'are doomed'

Story originally appeared on BBC News.

The boring university lecture is going to be the first major casualty of the rise in online learning in higher education, says Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

The custodian of the world's biggest online encyclopaedia says that unless universities respond to the rising tide of online courses new major players will emerge to displace them, in the way that Microsoft arrived from nowhere alongside the personal computer.

"I think that the impact is going to be massive and transformative," says Mr Wales, describing the importance of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that have signed up millions of students.

"It's also been slower than anyone would have anticipated. But I'm not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn't be our framework."

Instead he thinks that universities need to use online technology where it really works.

And from his own experience as a student, the traditional university lecture should have been condemned decades ago and replaced with an online video recording that can be stopped and started.

Recorded lectures

"I was taking an advanced calculus class and my instructor was reputed to be a fabulous researcher, but he barely spoke English. He was a very boring and bad teacher and I was absolutely lost and in despair.

"So I went to the campus tutoring centre and they had Betamax tapes of a professor who had won teaching awards. Basically I sat with those tapes and took class there. But I still had to go to the other one and sat there and wanted to kill myself.

"I thought at that time, in the future, why wouldn't you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people's heads?

"We're still not quite there. In university you're still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it's not working very well. It's not even the best use of that professor's time or the audience."

Online courses provide such libraries of video lectures, supplemented with interactive information, that can be used at any time on a tablet computer or laptop.

And Mr Wales suggests the future model of higher education will be to allow students to use recordings of lectures - and to use the teaching time to discuss and develop what students have been watching.

"It seems much more effective and is the direction I think we're going to go."

Wikipedia itself is central to this changing landscape in which huge amounts of high-quality information are available free anywhere with an internet connection.

The sheer scale of the information and the volume of its consumption has no parallel in history. Wikipedia's latest internet traffic is running at more than 21 billion page impressions per month.

But he says it remains uncertain whether universities will be ready to change. "There's a certain inertia in the system."

Adapt or die

"The really interesting challenge for big-brand universities is whether they are going to move into that space. If we thought of universities as normal businesses we would say, 'Will they be able to adapt to the PC revolution?' It's that kind of question. Will Harvard or MIT, Oxford or Cambridge, be able to adapt? Or will Microsoft come out of nowhere?

"It's going to be really fascinating to see it unfold."

In terms of technology in education, he says we should look at how it's being driven by interest in home schooling.

"In the US, for younger children, the home schooling movement is huge.

"There are a load of online educational resources, they're booming. Parents are looking for the best education for their kids, they realise these tools are working. There's a marketplace for it long before the traditional school is going to think about it."

Mr Wales himself grew up in a small private school run by his mother and grandmother in Alabama. There were four other children in his grade.

"It was like a one-room schoolhouse, the kind of place Abe Lincoln went to school," he says.

"Education was our life, something incredibly valued by my family."

Developing world

An important part of Wikipedia's future focus, he says, is going to reach the modern world's version of isolated school houses in the developing world.

In wealthier countries there might be the luxury of a debate about whether Wikipedia is better or worse than printed encyclopaedias. But Mr Wales wants to support languages in Africa where there have never been encyclopaedias in the first place.

Wikipedia operates in 286 different languages, but the content is very unevenly spread. There are more than 4 million articles in English, while Xhosa, spoken by almost 8 million people in South Africa, only has 147 articles.

"Our role in languages of the developing world is quite different from our role in English.

"We've still got a long way to go. I'd say we've increasingly turned our focus to the languages of the developing world. It's really of great importance. Our goal is a free encyclopaedia for everyone in their own language."

He rejects the idea that Wikipedia's instant knowledge represents some kind of dumbing down. It has long been accused of being the hidden hand in countless school and university assignments.

But Mr Wales says it plays a vital democratic role in allowing ordinary people to become informed in a way that would never have been possible before.

If there is a story in the news, people can find out the background for themselves. "We can see it in our traffic. There's a massive spike.

"In some rose-coloured view of the past we all went home and read books about it. The truth is that we didn't.

"It's remarkable that people now have the opportunity. It's not a Utopian state, but people have the possibility to do their own research."

Pub quiz

Mr Wales also defends what Wikipedia represents for free speech in countries with censorship and a lack of human rights.

"The impact of the knowledge we bring is important, but what is much more deeply political is the concept of Wikipedia, that ordinary people should be able to participate in the grand human dialogue.

"It's a very subversive idea in a society that is top-down and 'do as your masters tell you,'" he says.

The online encyclopaedia is now 12 years old, launched in the same month as iTunes and when Greece adopted the euro. It has grown to 26 million articles and has more than 500 million individual users a month.

Wikipedia's next development will be to make it easier for a wider variety of people to write and edit articles, with an editing tool that is more user-friendly.

"For people who aren't computer geeks, it's intimidating. The user base of active editors tend to be computer-savvy. We want to diversify, so they can be geeks but not computer geeks."

Of course, there's still a big unanswered question. How would the king of Wikipedia get on in a pub quiz? Would he have to illicitly check his smartphone under the table?

"I've declined to go on a TV quiz show. There's no upside for me. Unless I get every single question right I'm going to be subject to mockery. Because I'm meant to be the encyclopaedia guy."

Lack of sleep blights pupils' education

Story originally appeared on BBC News.

Sleep deprivation is a significant hidden factor in lowering the achievement of school pupils, according to researchers carrying out international education tests.

It is a particular problem in more affluent countries, with sleep experts linking it to the use of mobile phones and computers in bedrooms late at night.

Sleep deprivation is such a serious disruption that lessons have to be pitched at a lower level to accommodate sleep-starved learners, the study found.

The international comparison, carried out by Boston College, found the United States to have the highest number of sleep-deprived students, with 73% of 9 and 10-year-olds and 80% of 13 and 14-year-olds identified by their teachers as being adversely affected.

In literacy tests there were 76% of 9 and 10-year-olds lacking sleep.

This was much higher than the international average of 47% of primary pupils needing more sleep and 57% among the secondary age group.

Achievement gap

Other countries with the most sleep-deprived youngsters were New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Australia, England, Ireland and France. High-performing Finland is also among the most lacking in sleep.

Countries with the best records for getting enough sleep include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Japan and Malta.

The analysis was part of the huge data-gathering process for global education rankings - the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The rankings of results for maths, science and reading were published at the end of last year, with Asian education systems dominating the top of the tables.

But the researchers also wanted to find out more about the influence of home life. There has been much analysis of the impact of family wealth and poverty, but the Boston College researchers also wanted to measure factors such as sleep and nutrition.

So the tests were accompanied by questionnaires for teachers, pupils and parents about sleep patterns. And this information was compared with pupils' test results, so that the performance in maths, science and literacy could be compared with levels of sleep.

Brain food

"I think we underestimate the impact of sleep. Our data show that across countries internationally, on average, children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show," says Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center.

"It's the same link for children who are lacking basic nutrition," says Mr Minnich, based at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

"If you are unable to concentrate, to attend mentally, you are unable to achieve at your optimal level, because your mind and body are in need of something more basic.

"Sleep is a fundamental need for all children. If teachers report such large proportions of children suffering from lack of sleep, it's having a significant impact.

"But worse than that, teachers are having to modify their instruction based on those children who are suffering from a lack of sleep.

"The children who are suffering from a lack of sleep are driving down instruction."

That means that even the children who are getting enough sleep are still suffering from this sleep-related dumbing-down.

Cramming school

The researchers uncovered regional trends that bucked expectations.

Asian countries are the highest-performing in maths tests - and Mr Minnich says this has often been associated with long hours and cramming in after-school classes.

"One would assume that they would be extremely tired," he said. "And yet when we look at the sleep factor for them, they don't necessarily seem to be suffering from as much sleep deprivation as the other countries."

Getting a good night's sleep isn't going to transform an underperforming country into an education superpower. For instance, the least sleepy pupils seem to be in Azerbaijan, but they are still considerably behind the most sleep-deprived pupils in Finland.

But researchers say that it does show how differently individual pupils might be placed on the ability spectrum, with lack of sleep representing the difference between being high-performing and average.

There are also big changes as pupils get older. Younger pupils in South Korea have among the lowest levels of sleep deprivation in the world, but in secondary school they have some of the worst problems.

There are differences within countries too. At the level of US states, among secondary pupils Colorado has a much worse problem with lack of sleep than Massachusetts.

What the study does not show is why young people are missing out on sleep - or why more technologically advanced countries seem to have the biggest difficulties.

But sleep experts point to a particular problem due to technology in children's bedroom - specifically the use of screens on smartphones or laptops late at night.

Serious barrier to learning
It isn't only that young people are kept awake by messaging their friends or using the internet. The light from the screen, held close to the face, is physically disruptive to the natural onset of sleep.

"Having a computer screen that is eight inches away from your face is going to expose you to a lot more light than watching a television on the opposite side of the room," says Karrie Fitzpatrick, sleep researcher at Northwestern University in Illinois.

"It's going to tell your brain to stay awake," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

"That light can reset the whole circadian rhythm system and say, 'Wait a minute, it's not time to go to bed'."

Lack of sleep is also a serious physical barrier to learning.

"Sleepiness is a problem at all stages that are relevant to learning, memory and academic performance," says Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

Research into sleep disorders and brain function has shown the importance of sleep in memory and consolidating information.

Without sleep, the brain struggles to absorb and retain ideas.

"There is a growing interest in the associations between adequate sleep and academic performance," says Prof Dijk.

'Loss can be reversed'

Dr Fitzpatrick says lack of sleep is going to leave pupils more emotionally volatile, more potentially disruptive and physically struggling to learn.

And she says that the loss of sleep and short-term attempts to catch up can cause further and complex disruptions to the way the brain tries to store information.

But there is good news. If you start getting enough sleep on a regular basis, the loss to learning can be reversed.

"As long you haven't gone into extreme sleep deprivation, if you go back to seven to nine hours per night, as long as there has been no permanent damage, you can probably restore the functionality of accumulating, processing and being able to recall memories," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

"The basis of learning will likely be restored to normal levels."

Otherwise trying to study without sleep is going to be tough. "Your brain is running on empty."