Mohamed is a success story. At school he was known as a 'naughty kid', too interested in sport and not enough in studying. Today he works for one of the world's biggest football clubs. His dream job is down to his own talent, commitment, and hard work. His success reflects well on his teachers, his family and his friends. And it also reflects well on BTEC. Mohamed is one of many thousands of young people who, through BTEC qualifications, are taking a less traditional, but no less valuable, path through education and then beyond.
Here's his story. You can catch up with more stories just like Mohamed's on Twitter - #BTEC.
Nothing divides education opinion quite as much as the role of private business. For some, they are the necessary partners of delivery, picking up where tax dollars and public provision aren’t enough. For others, there can be no place for profit in the education of children, an ideological stance where anyone seeking a commercial advantage is immediately distrusted. And the larger the company, the louder that distrust.
Pearson makes more money than any other company in the education sector, so we receive our fair share of that mistrust. And it is fair - we should be made to work hard for people’s trust. We may make textbooks and digital content and administer tests and manage schools - but ultimately we are in the business of making people’s lives better. When you’re dealing in such a precious product as people, cynicism is not only understandable - it’s essential.
I work for Pearson, but that does not mean I am immune from this cynicism. I’m also a former teacher, a taxpayer, and I care deeply about what kind of world I want us and future generations to live in. When parents and educators rise up and shout “Show us - show us how what you do is helping our children make progress”, I am shouting with them.
When I was the principal of a school in India and parents asked why their child was falling behind, I wanted to know too. Now, having made my home in the U.S., I want to know why it comes a lowly 36th in global education standards, trailing behind the likes of Estonia, New Zealand and Vietnam. I want to know why far too many of our students are dropping out of high school or arriving unprepared in college or the workplace. I want to know, amongst all the great things that happen in our schools and classrooms, what doesn’t work and how we can make it better. And I don’t care where the answers come from - public money, private enterprise, a bit of both… I don’t care. All I care about is achieving better outcomes.
The challenges to delivering better education are many and varied, and we need to increase the number of people helping to find the solutions, not close the gates. That’s why I believe there’s a clear role for private businesses, Pearson included, in increasing choice and competition in education. Learners and customers will rightly demand that this involvement comes with accountability and transparency - as do shareholders. What good is that shining new private school down the road if there’s no evidence it’ll be the right fit for my child? That whizzy new website; get past the sleek design and smooth user experience - will it actually improve my students’ grades? How are you ensuring your products outperform the competition? Different questions, but all part of the same inquisition.
Our products may be traded in dollars, but they are held accountable by data. Collected, analysed, and made public. Without data, we all fall down, scrambling in the dark, banking on hunches, clinging to the “because we’ve always done it this way” mentality. With data, we all move forward - all of us. The teacher, more confident that her students will progress quicker in literacy and numeracy because she’s seen the evidence that the product she’s chosen has done that for others. The student, using tools that don’t just make him more literate and numerate, but also better at solving problems, being a team player, more able to think creatively… because that’s the sort of person the world says it needs. The parent… prouder and happier.
There is no silver bullet that makes all this happen overnight, but efficacy - this total immersion in being led by the data - will help get us there quicker. It’ll make decisions easy. If the data is telling us a product isn’t doing what we intended it to do and we can’t improve it, we won’t sell it anymore. Irrespective of how profitable it might be, it will have no place in our portfolio. Period.
Don’t believe me? Last year Pearson considered a multi-million dollar investment in a school chain in an emerging market. On the surface, it all looked great - months of due diligence and financial analysis said this was going to be a sound commercial investment. But when it went through our efficacy review, it fell short. In the past, that school chain may have become part of Pearson; but today, it is not, because we couldn’t be confident it would deliver for its students. That is what we mean about being accountable.
Last month, we made some of our data available publicly, and we’ll continue to do so until we - you - have the evidence to cover our entire portfolio. We’ll have nowhere to hide. And, that’s exactly how we want it.
We don’t expect our commitment to efficacy to win everyone over. There will always be people who are ideologically opposed to our business, regardless of the alternatives and whether they help people make progress or not. But for many others - who just want to see their child graduate, get that promotion, be prouder of their country - they’ll be able to judge whether we’re the ones who can help them or not. And if it’s not us, we’ll be glad that those that ‘did’ also made their data available so it was an informed choice.
Ultimately, accountability is about more than assigning blame or defending yourself – it’s about making the right decision to get what you want. Education would do well to lose the public vs private tags, and just see us all for what we are - people in search of progress.
In amongst the day to days of life as usual, we all have the odd date that gets hardwired into our memory banks. The days when something out of the ordinary happened, a bolt that breaks up the trudge of routine and stands-up screaming “you’ll never forget me!”. Life changing, hopefully life making, sometimes life breaking - the days that come to define us.
Mine is April 4, 2006. A little over nine years ago, but as fresh as yesterday. I will never forget it. The day I took Jaq, my beautiful two year old boy, to the doctor.
Jaq had always been a ‘challenging’ baby. Not in the way that all babies thunder in to shake up your life. He was certainly that - but more too. Something I couldn’t put my finger on at the time; just something that didn’t feel quite right. He would sometimes be totally engrossed in an activity, then seem suddenly detached as if there was nothing but empty space around him. Sometimes he would scream uncontrollably for hours on end, but shudder away from any attempts to comfort him. Other times, he would cling to me as if fearing he would fall off the edge of a cliff if he let go.
April 4 2006 was the day I learned Jaq has autism. I had found myself in the office of a developmental and behavioral doctor. A few weeks earlier, at Jaq’s two year check up, the pediatrician had explained that Jaq didn’t seem to be meeting the milestones like a typical child, and we should look into why that might be.
I remember feeling totally overwhelmed by the news. I had almost no understanding of autism; wasn’t that something very serious? And no idea why Jaq had it, or what to do to deal with it. And I felt guilty. Had I done something wrong? Had I not protected him from something? Was this all my fault?
In today’s world of hyper information at your fingers, it seems odd to recall that when I went looking for answers, they were hard to find. Today there’s a huge autism ‘family’ that stretches right around the world - parents, carers, teachers, doctors, psychologists…. and autistic people, all pulling together to better understand autism. In the last decade we’ve learned so much about autism. People are properly diagnosed, and early. We might be shocked by the numbers - it’s estimated that 1-2 people in every 1,000 worldwide have some sort of autism; but it’s a sign of progress that we know this. And we’re learning all the time what therapies work, and how to modify teaching and learning practices to suit individual needs.
But back on April 4 2006, I knew none of this. Slowly I learned. I learned about the science of it all - how autism isn’t one thing, but a spectrum with a myriad of moving parts. How everyone’s autism is unique to them - in the same way we’re all made up of shades of intelligence, ambition, shyness, humour, so too is it impossible to bucket autism into a neat single lump. I learned what worked for Jaq - the vacuum cleaner running next to his bouncy seat; or his big brother doing a funny ‘Sponge Bob’ dance. I have no idea why those things worked, but they did.
And I’ve also learned that, despite the conversations around autism being largely rooted in medical terms, we shouldn’t see it as condition to be cured. Sure, there are things that people with autism can do to improve their lives - but isn’t that the same for everyone? Don’t we all want to be a bit more determined, a bit cleverer, more confident, better to cope with what life throws at us? Aren’t we all striving to be better versions of us; and happier!
As Jaq’s grown older, we’ve used clinical assessments to inform the best therapeutic and educational interventions. These have been absolutely crucial for Jaq. Like any education of a child done well, it’s given him the start in life he needs. Jaq’s ten years old now. He’s in a mainstream school, and is considered ‘high-functioning’. That’s the official take. I consider him as my gorgeous little man - always trying his best, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always making progress.
If Jaq had been born years earlier, odds are he wouldn’t be any of those things. Education may have brushed him to one side, classing him as unable, lazy, troublesome. And that is the power of education. That when it makes progress, so do people.
I am proud to be “mom” to two adorable little boys — a three-year-old and a seven-month old. Becoming a mom has really changed me for the better. As anyone who is one will know, being a parent isn't always easy. In fact, it's often quite hard. It is a challenge like no other, but so are the rewards. I wouldn't change it for the world.
It’s so true that parents really are our children’s first and most important teachers. Every day I’m amazed by how quickly my boys are learning and growing. They will be attending school soon, and when they do I hope those first steps at home will have set them on a good foot in their academic lives... and continue to do so as they find their way into work and adulthood. The nuts and bolts of what they'll need to know for life might be taught in the classroom, but equally important will be the behaviors we will try to keep encouraging at home - ambition, resilience, determination, and kindness.
We are 40,000 strong at Pearson, and many of those 40,000 people are parents. So when, as a company, we say 'we’re putting the learner at the center of everything we do' it's not just a throw-away line or a bullet point on a strategic document -- it's a personal commitment that many of us first made not as employees, but as parents, aunts, uncles or grandparents, in our own home, to our own kids. It’s not a promise articulated in terms of 'learner at the center,' but rather "I'm going to love you and never give up on you." It's a promise that each of us takes beyond our own families, around the corners of the kids in our neighborhood, and across state and national borders. It's a promise we make to all children, wherever they may be: education has the power to make your life better.
That's why I’m excited to share the findings from a new NBC News National Survey of American Parents, which is shedding light on the current state of parenting in the U.S. Conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, the research paints a new portrait of the American family, and really encourages us to think about the crucial link between a strong family and a strong education.
A few of my favorite poll highlights are:
75% of America’s parents give high marks to the education their children are receiving
79% of parents reported having dinner with their families most days of the week
Two-thirds of parents say their children's overall academic performance is excellent (39%) or very good (25%)
A little more than half (53 percent) of parents are satisfied with their level of involvement in their child’s education, but almost as many parents (47 percent) wish they could do more.
As a parent, I know how central education is to the ‘growing up’ experience. New friends, new perspectives, life lessons – these are what I hear about every day when my kids come home from school.
A classroom provides a safe, supportive space where a child can learn about the world, interact with peers, and feel a bit of normality. It’s a place where it’s okay to ‘dream big’ and a bright future seems possible. But every day, millions of children miss out on the opportunity to attend school and to learn those skills. Half of all out-of-school children live in countries affected by conflict.
Our new partnership with Save the Children, Every Child Learning, aims to improve access to quality education for children who have been affected or displaced by conflicts and other humanitarian emergencies - starting with a pilot in Jordan, which has experienced one of the worst refugee crises in history as a result of war in neighboring Syria.
It's a project that'll take us out of our comfort zone, and that’s a good thing. We don’t typically operate in places where disaster and conflict is a daily reality, yet it is exactly in the places where education has been abandoned that we have the potential to help.
That potential isn't about the traditional philanthropic model in which businesses make a donation to a charity and observe project activity from the sidelines. Rather, it's about being active participants in assessing needs, identifying gaps, and co-creating solutions for the difficult challenge of providing reliable learning opportunities to vulnerable and displaced children.
Every Child Learning combines Pearson’s expertise in delivering educational products and services at scale with Save the Children’s experience running education programmes in some of the world’s most challenging environments. Together, we’re aiming to create much more than a stopgap intervention – the long-term ambition is to develop new models and ways of working that leverage the core competencies of the private sector and improve the quality of education in emergency and post-conflict settings.
Ultimately, Every Child Learning is about building innovative learning solutions that can be adapted and scaled in similar contexts around the world, creating Shared Value. What we learn in the context of our pilot initiative in Jordan, we’ll seek to apply elsewhere, so that we help to ensure the cost of conflict isn't counted in empty classrooms and lost generations.
I was recently asked why Pearson was so eager to sign up to support and develop the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, in the US, and other assessment systems aligned to higher academic standards. It's a fair question, and one that many teachers, parents, and others are likely asking as well. Why is Pearson so vested in this work? Why does Pearson agree to take on the scope of work, tight timelines, long hours, and political concerns wrapped around the delivery of successful high-quality assessments?
Quite simply, because it’s the right thing to do. Pearson has always supported the move by US states to adopt higher standards and assessments like PARCC that can measure student progress toward those standards. (We do, of course, get paid for this work, but our goal is bigger than that.)
It is the right thing to do for education and the future of our school-aged children. The evidence is overwhelming – too many young people leave secondary school underprepared for college or a career. Too many of these students enroll in university, accumulate upwards of $40,000 in student loan debt (not counting the spending of savings, of time, and family sacrifice), only to fall behind, become frustrated, and ultimately drop out because they are not ready.
These students then enter the job market riddled with debt, and yet are no better prepared than when they first left high school. This one phenomenon alone, to quote the previous Chairman of the Tennessee State Board of Education, demands "truth in advertising," so that students know how well prepared (or unprepared) they are for success. This is where new, higher standards and new assessment systems come in.
More than five years ago, an effort led by the states emerged to develop a common set of new, rigorous academic standards aligned to the skills and competencies that higher education campuses and employers require of high school graduates in our 21st century global economy. The standards include obvious things, like doing well in Algebra II and English III, and the less obvious things – which employers value tremendously – like being able to think and read critically, solve novel problems and read comparatively. Today, thanks to this collaborative effort, teachers in 43 states plus the District of Columbia are implementing those higher standards, called the Common Core State Standards, in their classrooms.
In turn, the need for states to get more accurate measures of such meaningful aspects of education is why Pearson supported the development of new assessments, including PARCC.
We can all agree and disagree on various aspects of both the new standards and assessments that measure those standards. But the fact is that both the Common Core and PARCC are meant to improve the college and career readiness of students. So, while you engage in discussions about what is good and what is bad about education in America, don't forget to focus on the most important aspect – namely, how can you help get our children ready for success in their future? A future that is unlike anything we have encountered in the past – full of technology, billions and billions of bits of information, and jobs that have not yet been created but require mastery of a new set of 21st Century skills and competencies.
I think Common Core and PARCC are a great start.
Jon leads our development and implementation of global assessment solutions. Connect with him on Twitter - @JonSTwing
I am a single parent. It’s funny how often that fact crops up early in conversations when I meet people. Perhaps it’s because I’m proud of my daughter, perhaps it’s a preemptive strike against the stigmas that still linger in the more conservative walks of society. Though single parent families are a strangely common and unremarkable concept, I still come across the odd menacing rumble of quiet disapproval; a glance, a tut, a carefully placed piece of humiliation. It’s rare, but it registers. One way or another, being a single parent seems to define me in a way that two parent families never need to explain themselves.
I had many fears when my daughter, Xairis, was born six years ago. I had the sort of childhood where I didn’t mix much with other kids. I never really played out, or went to parties, or babysat. I wasn’t unhappy… I never really stopped to consider that I ever needed anyone more than my brothers, sisters and cousins. Perhaps it was because of this lack of having been around children that, when I fell pregnant, I was overcome with a worrying sense that I was hugely unqualified.
Despite being 28 when Xairis was born, I was very much blazing the trail for parenthood in my social circle. None of my siblings had children, nor any of my close cousins. The only mother I really knew well enough to ask for advice - my own - had died a few years before.
After she died I had left the family nest of New England, and headed for the sunshine and warmth of Florida, to be with my partner - the man who became my daughter’s father. Pregnancy is tough enough, without also being in a new place, with no disposable income to talk of, surrounded by nobody I knew, and far away from the only people I did know.
But it’d be OK, I’d tell myself, because my partner has a child already and he’d know how to do things. Wouldn’t he! It turns out, he wouldn’t. It wasn't so much a question of interest as responsibility. He came from a home where mom took care of everything, allowing him to be the man of the house without having to carry the duties that come with that title. So it didn't really seem out of balance to him that it was the mother’s role to do all the heavy lifting. I guess in his mind, that's the way it was supposed to be.
In a way, I had been a single parent a long time before my little girl arrived. You expect your baby to utterly rely on you for their every need; not your partner. It had been good training for motherhood.
I was afraid I would make mistakes, but I was more afraid of not giving my little girl the right start; of hanging around in an environment where she might learn from the behaviours she was seeing. That’s why, when Xairis was about three, we left. Just the two of us, me and my new little girl, heading out in the big, big world. I didn’t know what I was doing. I made mistakes. Lots of them. I still do. But I’m learning how to be a better mom every day.
I do not get child support and I don’t have my family network close by. I don’t get any help from Xairis’ father - something I have chosen to accept. The relationship had taken its physical and mental toll on me. In the end I decided that the struggles of being alone would be financially and emotionally easier than the struggles of asking him to be reliable. So having a job is a financial necessity. But even if it wasn’t, I would still work. Knowing that you have to work hard to earn what you want is one of the best examples you can give a child
Xairis is now in school, which makes life a little easier. But I still pay for wrap around school care, as well as someone to look after her in the evenings I’m working. She enjoys reading, and loves learning; animals and dinosaurs are the flavor of the month at the moment. But recently she’s been having difficulty focusing in class, so I’ve also employed a private tutor to give her the the 1-2-1 attention she needs right now. Her teachers tell me that her hyperactivity requires some kind of extracurricular outlet, but I’ve long since run out of time and money.
I am blissfully aware that with someone good by my side, I might be less strapped for cash, have more time, provide more, be a better parent. That dinner, bath and stories wouldn’t need to get squeezed into the last drops of the day before one of us falls asleep. That I wouldn’t need to rush in the mornings, just so we can steal a few more minutes together by strolling to her daycare center. (We’ve been trying to get up even a little earlier, so we can do some yoga and meditation together - alas it’s turning out to be a class of one!)
But amongst the waves of guilt and frustration, I am optimistic, because I know she’s got education on her side. Unlike tens of millions of children around the world, she gets to go to school. She gets to be taught and to learn. To a degree, she’ll get to decide the way she wants her life to turn out. In the list of things I want for my daughter, an education comes way, way above a father.
I know that my daughter feels very loved, and knows I am doing my best. She embodies many of the things I still strive to be. She is resilient. She lets problems slide off her back. She entertains herself. She’s popular, but isn’t attached to any one person. She regularly goes without the things her friends expect to get - new toys, clothes, vacations, time with mom. But she’s rarely without a smile. One day, out of nowhere, she turned to me and said: “Mommy, dya know what? Before I was born, I asked for you to be my mom”. My heartbreaker and my everyday-maker.
President Obama offered up an ambitious plan to make the first two years of community college free of charge. It’s a highlight of his budget proposal and will be a tent-pole issue of the administration’s education policy for 2015. And it would expand access to more people across the country.
But students throughout the educational ladder, from pre-school to college, are falling further and further behind in basic skills. Mathematics and literacy top the list. The widening gap between expectation and reality threatens the value of college as fewer students are prepared to succeed in degree programs, such as those offered at community colleges, and thrive in the careers higher education makes possible. The costs of teaching twice – both financial and the overall strain on the system – is the largest undiscussed threat to our higher education system.
Let’s take a look at the landscape. Fifty percent of community college students and twenty percent of four-year students need to complete remedial core competencies before advancing to a degree program. The cost: $4 billion every year. This is an unsustainable system. The burden on state and federal education resources must be addressed before more students are sent to college unprepared.
From my perspective in a career working across the educational system, there are three core areas where modest improvements would lead to lower remediation costs and more students obtaining the skills they need.
Assess outcomes at every stage. For decades, educational investment policies have been driven by “old metrics” such as the quality of facilities and class size. These are important, but with the technologies and methods we have now, we can focus on the ability of a lesson plan to deliver results. These can be achieved in real time, without waiting for test results. High stakes tests have a role in education, but they are a lagging indicator and do not allow for immediate intervention if a student, or a class, is struggling.
Efficacy of products and services is a critical concept for the entire education industry. School districts, teachers and taxpayers alike all need to be able to see the utility of every tool that’s used and every dollar that’s spent.
Ed tech is a catalyst. Students today are digital natives and expect a seamless integration between technology and the classroom experience. The largest 1:1 digital learning initiative, in Huntsville, Alabama, is already paying off. The district saw reading scores improve by 18% and math scores improve by 27% in just two years from 2011 to 2013. The graduation rate improved 14% over the same period. Students’ digital habits are helping to raise standards, and we need to be prepared to meet their expectations with learning that’s available anytime, anywhere.
But it’s not the only answer. We know that pouring money into new devices doesn’t solve the educational puzzle. New tools are only effective when teachers are trained on how those tools can help them identify their students’ challenges, and help them overcome them. Better equipping our teachers to make a difference with good professional development is a smart investment.
As instruction methods evolve, so too should evaluation and accreditation. Competency-based learning means using mastery as the metric of student success instead of the amount of time spent in class. With more flexibility and focus on the student, remedial needs could be cut from whole semesters of coursework down to modules for the specific skills a student needs to progress.
Remediation is a huge impediment to students even finishing a degree, as the time and money required to master essential skills often put the dream out of reach. Enabling more students to go to college for little or no cost is the right thing to do, so we need to ensure that we’re preparing all our students for success in college and in the workplace that follows. The value of a college education is only as good as the ability to gain new skills, instead of relearning old ones.
I was recently having coffee with my friend, Jodie, a teacher in England. She was telling me a story about an English test she had once given her class. The scores from the test showed that several of her students had clearly not grasped some important concepts. Alas the test had been designed simply to produce a score, rather than to uncover insights. It gave the grades, without the whys. And without those whys, how could she know what to revisit, with whom, and how?
In particular, one of her ‘star’ students, who she had expected to fly through the test, had not. It turned out that on the morning of the test, he had had a big fight with his brother, and this had clearly affected his performance. Yet the test simply told her that he hadn't understood the topic.
There is a rapidly accelerating debate amongst educators around the world – from developed and developing economies, and from schools, universities and professionals – about the purpose and use of assessments. A new consensus is emerging advocating for the use of new technologies to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of assessments.
Today’s publication of Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment contributes to this debate and advocates for a new set of principles and guidelines in the way assessments are designed, conducted, and applied.
We probably all know what we mean by “assessment”. In the broadest sense possible, it’s any appraisal, judgement, or evaluation of a student’s work or performance. These evaluations can be formal (e.g., standardised testing) or informal (e.g., classroom observations), and determine what students know, how much they understand, what they can do, and what they struggle with.
But for me, and for an increasing majority of the education community, assessment is so much more than a certification of a student’s ability or a mark of their likelihood to succeed in further study or employment. Assessment is - or at least it should be - a way to help teachers teach better; a way to inform them of their students’ needs and make the appropriate interventions.
Yet assessments have historically been used predominantly to hold teachers, schools, and systems to account for the performance (and largely academic performance only) of their students. As such they have tended to ignore the full compliment of a student’s ability: Does he display emotional intelligence? Can she solve a problem? Can they work well as a team?; and subsequently focus on a too narrow definition of ‘value’ for outcomes.
A cappuccino and more conversation later, Jodie recalled a particular student who failed her math and science tests, but always shone when it came to creative writing. Unfortunately, back then, creative writing wasn’t a skill anyone tracked. So the writer in her - the thing that gave her most potential - was ignored, and so unnourished.
However, the scent of a renaissance is now in the air.
New technologies are rapidly making assessments more reliable, less subjective, and less time consuming. For example, adaptive testing technologies (i.e., tests that evolve in real time based on student performance) increase the accuracy of the assessment and can reduce the number of questions a student needs to answer. Automated exam marking can reduce the subjectivity of grading for more qualitative subjects such as history, English, and creative writing. And personalised learning tools can integrate assessments into the day-to-day activities of a classroom, so teachers get real-time feedback on student performance, rather than having to wait until the end of a unit or semester.
In this new environment, assessments are no longer this conveyor belt of one-moment-in-time temperature checks. No longer do they rely solely on the assessed only having one chance to prove what they know. No longer do they simply produce the letters and numbers for someone to carry about for life.
Rather, the assessment renaissance is cultivating a new approach; a virtuous circle of insights, interventions, and improvements, where teaching and technology come together in perfect harmony.
The authors of the new paper detail the steps that policymakers, schools, teachers, and parents need to take in order to prepare for this renaissance. Among their recommendations is an investment in training teachers, so they can better use technologies to make assessment less subjective, less time consuming, more reliable, and ultimately more purposeful.
When Jodie was just beginning her teaching career, she said one statistic in particular left its imprint. Only 10% of students who were assessed as below average at the start of secondary school went on to achieve good grades by the end. She told me she wanted to know why, in all the intervening years, they weren’t able to uncover the reasons why 90% of students weren’t getting better? When, Jodie asks, will assessments become less about pleasing the school management team and more about understanding how she can become a better teacher and help her students achieve their ambitions?
Well Jodie, the renaissance is upon us.
Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment is authored by Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser, and Dr Peter Hill. It is available at research.pearson.com.