Monday, August 22, 2005

Less is Good, Nothing is Better: How the State Can Improve British Education

By Sean Gabb

Even before Mike Tomlinson reported on examination reform, everyone agreed, and competed at agreeing, that British state education was a mess. Schools all over the country are turning out generations of innumerate, semi-literate proles. They have become places notable for bullying, truancy in its various shades, drugs, unwise sex, the occasional murder, and a pervasive contempt for achievement. Yes, there are those whose job it is to disagree with this proposition. Naturally enough, there are the teachers and educational bureaucrats; and there are the relevant Ministers, who every summer put their names on news releases lauding the latest set of examination results. But everyone knows they are talking nonsense. If examination results were an indicator of excellence, we should be living in a nation of Shakespeares and Newtons. In fact, grade inflation and a continuous debasement of the whole examinations system have made the results largely worthless. We can no more make people educated by giving them pretty certificates than we can make them rich by giving them bags of forged banknotes. State education is a mess.

The standard response is to whine or boast about levels of funding. But this is a manifestly threadbare response. In 2002, the authorities spent £49.354 billion of our money on schooling and further education. Given a total of 10.094 million children and young people in the maintained sector, we have spending per head of around £4,900. Many independent schools charge less than that - and get better results. Indeed, there are schools in black Africa that do better. These are places without school books, without roofs over the classrooms, where the teachers are dying of aids, and where bandits every so often turn up and conscript the more promising children to fight in what are pretentiously called civil wars - and they still turn out children with a better English prose style than the average inmate of an English comprehensive.

There is no one explanation for why things are so bad. But this does not mean the problem is intractably complex. Though there are others, there are three main explanations.

In the first place, there is the emphasis on vocational learning that we owe to the vulgar economic liberalism of the Thatcher and Major Governments. The belief here is that the main or even sole purpose of education is to promote economic development. Accordingly, any subject from which no tangible return could be imagined was either removed from the curriculum or fragmented or simplified into nothingness. History and Classics were the most obvious victims - and, in lesser degree, Music. Much of the time thereby freed was filled with the almost obsessive teaching of Information Technology.

Now, there is a case for teaching children how to type: left to themselves, most people develop typing habits that reduce their general efficiency. There may also be a case for teaching the basics of the Microsoft Office suite. But these are things to be learnt over a few weeks. All else specified in the Information Technology syllabus is useless or would be picked up anyway by the children themselves. No one has yet developed a course in Mobile Telephone Studies. This has not visibly left any of my students at a disadvantage. In my experience, much of the time given to Information Technology is used to play games or look up trivia on the Internet. The time would be better given to teaching German or a musical instrument.

In the second place, there is the fact that the main purpose of state education has always been to legitimise the wealth and status of the ruling class. We can see this was so in the past. Without all the drilling in the playground, and all the team sports, and all the hours given to nationalist propaganda, would those ten million young men have marched even semi-willingly to die in the killing grounds of the Great War? Nothing fundamental has changed since then. All that has changed is the personnel of the ruling class and the nature of its legitimation ideology.

Because it is suited to our present assumptions, we cannot see this ideology so clearly as we now see those it replaced. It is there, even so. It is that axis of anti-liberal, anti-western, anti-science, anti-Enlightenment and pro-collectivist values and coercive social engineering that we call political correctness. With the decline of traditional socialism, this has gained a growing and hegemonic role in most developed societies. As an ideology, it manifestly promotes the power and privileges of our new ruling class - this being a coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, educators, lawyers, media people and associated business interests who derive wealth and status from an enlarged and activist state. The ideology is used to stigmatise and demonise any dissenting opinion, and to censor and silence it; and information is socially constructed in order to balkanise society into alleged "victim groups" who provide tribalistic bases for the exercise of political power and the extraction of economic profit by the ruling class. As ever, education is the chief mechanism by which this legitimation ideology is transmitted from one generation to the next.

As illustration, take the way in which GCSE English Literature is taught. Some years ago, while short of cash, I acted as an assistant examiner. Two of the most commonly examined books - both American - were To Kill a Mocking Bird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Doubtless, these are worthy enough texts in their own right. But they are nothing much compared with the great classics of English literature produced in these islands. Judging by the several thousand pages of answers I must have read, however, they had been preferred because they allowed English lessons to be made into sermons of racial hatred that passed unrebuked only because the objects of hatred were white.

In the third place, there is the centralised, authoritarian control that both of the above require for complete enforcement. We have the National Curriculum and we have endless testing to see that arbitrary and often incomprehensible targets are being reached.

The combined result is a demoralised teaching profession, bored and apathetic children, and a collapse of standards as these were once universally defined. The system was not very good before the 1980s. Since then, it has rotted away to the point where just about everyone with money either avoids it altogether, choosing the independent sector, or rigs it by moving into middle class catchment areas.

The politicians promise reform. But all reforms so far discussed can only make things worse. Labour promises more money and a restructuring of management - not only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but also replacing the canvas with silk. The Conservatives promise "choice" - though always supervised by the same philistine and politically correct bureaucracy that messed up the present system. The more adventurous Conservatives even talk about a voucher scheme. This has its merits. But conservatives of all people ought to know that any scheme of improvement takes its whole tone from the circumstances in which it is introduced. Any voucher scheme introduced now would give our ruling class a perfect excuse to spread the corruption deep into the independent sector. It would do this by setting criteria for the reception of vouchers, and would enforce these criteria through the usual agencies of inspection and control.

The only answer is to get the state entirely out of education. The education budget should not be expanded, or its administration reformed. It should simply be abolished. That £49 billion - now, I believe, £63 billion - should be handed back to the people in tax cuts; and these should be directed at the poorest taxpayers. The schools should be sold off or given away, and the bureaucrats be made redundant. The people should then be left to arrange by themselves for the education of their children.

The argument that parents would not or could not do this falls flat on any inspection of the third world, where parents make often heavy sacrifices and choose often highly effective schemes of education. There is also the experience of our own past. A generation ago, E.G. West showed how growing numbers of working class people in the 19th century paid for and supervised the education of their children. The beginning of state education in 1870 should be seen as ruling class coup against an independent sector that looked set to marginalise its legitimation ideology. And that reaction was promoted on the basis of fraudulent statistics.

Left to themselves, it is inconceivable that parents would not do substantially better than those presently in charge of state education. How they might do this is for them to decide. Some would pay for a conventional independent education. Some would send their children to schools run by their ministers of religion, or by charitable bodies. Some would educate their children at home. Many do this already, by the way; and Paula Rothermel of Durham University caused a stir in 2002, when she looked at a sample of children educated at home and found they performed consistently better in standard tests than schoolchildren - indeed, she found that the children of people like bus drivers and shop assistants were receiving a better education than those committed to the care of state-certified teachers. Parents could hardly do worse than the present arrangements manage. They could easily do better.

This is not a "left" or a "right" wing cause. It is about allowing children to get an education which is not directed to moulding them to believe as suits the convenience of their betters, and which really will enable them to make the best of their own lives.



They want as little as possible to be known about their appalling results

By the end of this school year, the state could deny diplomas to tens of thousands of high school seniors who didn't pass the California High School Exit Exam. But don't ask state officials exactly how many or who they are or what schools they attend. There won't be an exact count until the spring of 2007 - nine months after failing students are denied their diplomas and successful ones will have tossed their graduation caps. Until then, a precise count is only available from individual school districts, which vary greatly in their ability to produce the information on request. "We're struggling with what's the best kind of information to give (to the public) without going too far into estimates," said Deb Sigman, director of testing for the state Department of Education.

The situation flies in the face of the state's move toward greater public accountability. And it frustrates parents curious about how the pass rate at their child's school stacks up against other schools, as well as civil rights advocates concerned about pass rates of African American and Latino teens. "You can't make head nor tails of how many kids actually failed, or dropped out in lieu of taking the test," said Kelly O'Hagan, president of the Sacramento Council of Parent Teacher Associations. "If the state's using it (to determine graduation) they need to know which schools are performing well." The class of 2006 is the first required to pass the exit exam to receive a diploma, though the testing program has been in development since 1999.

Sigman expects to have a good idea of how many seniors have passed by the end of this school year. But the final number won't be known until 2007, she said, because some districts allow students to take the test for the last time after their senior year.

Incomplete reporting can have political consequences, said Patty Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, D.C. Her organization studies exit exams in the 25 states that have them or are developing them. Sullivan said states that report the information well tend to have greater public support for the exams, while states that report only limited information suffer battles that threaten the exams' staying power. "Arizona has people so confused about what's going on and the result is that kids are not taking the test seriously," she said. Other states, including Massachusetts, are able to report the percentage of each class in each district and school that have passed the exit exam - after each administration of the test. "Our attitude is: The numbers are the numbers, and they speak for themselves," said Heidi Perlman of the Massachusetts Department of Education.

In California, public school students in the class of 2006 first took the test as sophomores. Those who didn't pass got two more chances as juniors. If they still haven't passed, they can try three more times as seniors. School districts are supposed to keep track of which students pass the exam each time it is given - but they don't report that information to the state. "We can't (require) that without a law," Sigman said. So even though the state reported Monday that an estimated 88 percent of California's incoming seniors have passed the math section of the test and 88 percent have passed the English section, officials are unable to report the same information for each school and each district. "That's a total redesign of the system," Sigman said. "That's not to say it isn't a good idea, but it wouldn't happen overnight."

Yet it's information Debra Durazo would like to see about her son's school. She knows that her son passed the exam as a sophomore. He's now beginning his senior year at Sacramento New Technology High School. "I'm curious (about the pass rate) because it's a new school," Durazo said. She said she'd like to see how the senior class at New Tech compares with other schools.

The state's reporting system also frustrates researchers and advocates who want to know how many students passed both the math and English sections of the test, as required for graduation. State education officials say they can't report that figure because they don't have identification numbers that would allow them to match students' English scores with their math scores. A system is in development, said Keric Ashley, the Education Department's director of data management, but won't be complete until at least 2008.

Jeannie Oakes, an education professor at UCLA, said the lack of information portends a crisis. "Because we don't know the combined test results for any one student, we simply don't know ... if there are 49,000 students at risk (of not graduating) or 96,000 students at risk, or somewhere in between," she said. "It really seems terrible that we have to make guesses about something that important." Oakes is calculating exit exam pass rates using a formula different from the state's. She said if students who drop out after 10th-grade are included, the pass rate is 8 to 20 percentage points lower than the state reports. And her analysis shows that students who fail the exit exam tend to be clustered in the same schools.

Ashley, the education department's data manager, said he expects the state's reporting method to improve . "We're probably going to have to work out some way to do this better," he said.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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