Monday, December 18, 2006

The Dream Palace of Educational Theorists

By John Derbyshire

Education is a subject I find hard to contemplate without losing my temper. In the present-day U.S.A., education is basically a series of rent-seeking rackets.

* There is the public school racket, in which homeowners and taxpayers fork out stupendous sums of money to feed a socialistic extravaganza in which, when its employees can spare time from administration, "professional development" sabbaticals, and fund-raising for the Democratic Party, boys are pressed to act like girls, and dosed with calming drugs if they refuse so to act; girls are encouraged to act like boys by taking up advanced science, math, and strenuous sports, which few of them have any liking or aptitude for; and boys and girls alike are indoctrinated in the dubious dogmas of "diversity" and political correctness.

* There is the teacher-unions racket , in which people who only work half the days of the year are awarded lifetime tenure and lush pensions on the public fisc, subject to dismissal for no offense less grave than serial arson or piracy on the high seas.

* There is the federal Department of Education racket, aptly summed up by the teacher-union boss who declared, when the Department was established by Jimmy Carter, that he now belonged to the only labor union to have its very own cabinet officer. The DoE is also much beloved by politicians, who can posture as kiddie- and family-friendly by periodically voting to tip boxcar-loads of taxpayers' money into this bureaucratic black hole.

* There is the homework racket, exposed in Alfie Kohn's book The Homework Myth -basically, a device for getting parents to do teachers' work for them.

* There is the teacher-training racket, in which the "professional" training of our nation's educators has been placed in the hands of the clinically insane. You think I exaggerate? I offer you Dr. Kamau Kambon, a product of our teacher-training colleges-an atypical product only in that he has so many "professional" degrees. According to his Wikipedia entry: "Dr. Kambon holds a B.A. degree in education/history, a master's degree in physical education, both a M.A. and a M. Ed. degree in education/administration, and an Ed. D. in urban education/curriculum and instruction." Phew! This is one very thoroughly teacher-trained dude! Listen to what Dr. Kambon has to say about the proper priorities for American educators here. There is a wellnigh infinite supply of news stories about teacher-college lunacy at websites like that of the estimable F.I.R.E and Rita Kramer wrote a fine, if horribly depressing, book on the topic.

Towering over all these lesser scams is the college racket, a vast money-swollen credentialing machine for lower-middle-class worker bees. American parents are now all resigned to the fact that they must beggar themselves to purchase college diplomas for their offspring, so that said offspring can get low-paid outsource-able office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paid, un-outsource-able work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation.

(Professionals have their own credentialing systems: You may have graduated law school, but you'll still have to pass the bar exam, and so on. Then why make aspiring lawyers go to law school? Presumably for the same reason we insist on cube jockeys having bachelor's degrees from accredited four-year colleges. Why not let them study up at home from Teaching Company DVDs, then sit for a state-refereed common exam when they feel they're ready? Why not let lawyers learn on the job from books and as articled clerks, the way they used to? I don't know. College-going is just an irrational thing we do, the way upper-class German men used to acquire dueling scars, the way women in imperial China had their feet bound. Griggs vs. Duke Power probably has something to do with it. Since, following that decision, employers are not permitted to test job applicants to see how intelligent they are, the employers seek a college degree as a proxy for intelligence.)

* * * * *

And then there is the strange, precious little world of education theorists. Readers of the New York Times were given a glimpse into that world on November 26th, when the Sunday magazine of that paper ran a piece titled "What It Takes to Make a Student," by staff journalist Paul Tough. The story is billed on the magazine's cover under the different heading: "Still Left Behind-What It Will Really Take to Close the Education Gap." Which gap would that be? "[T]he achievement gap between black and white students, and the one between poor and middle-class students." Ah. So, two gaps then, actually.

Let's cut to the chase here. What will it take to close those gaps? I turned to the end of Mr. Tough's article.

The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate [sic] is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like-it might include not only KIPP-like structures and practices but also high-quality early-childhood education, as well as incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools-but what is clear is that it is within reach.

"KIPP" is an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program, a network of intensive college-preparatory schools for inner-city kids started up in 1994 by two idealistic young teachers, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, in Houston. There are now 52 of these schools nationwide. They get good results, but this is not very surprising. KIPP schools have long hours (typically 7:30am to 5:00pm), a longer than average school year, and strict standards of behavior. KIPP schools are covered in Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's 2003 book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, where more of the game is given away: "[T]here is an application process that tends to-and is intended to-discourage families unlikely to cooperate with the school. Indeed, one of the five pillars upon which the KIPP schools rest is `choice and commitment.' ...the fact that these are schools of choice is not incidental to their success." For sure it is not.

All the recommendations offered by Mr. Tough-and by other education theorists, like the Thernstroms-have little trapdoors built into them like this. Look back at Mr. Tough's prescription: "...but also high-quality early-childhood education." Oh, like Head Start? That landmark Great Society educational program, launched in 1965, is still going strong. The Thernstroms reported that 20 million children had passed through it when they wrote their book, at a cost to the federal taxpayer of $60 billion. They go on to report that while there is some slight, disputable evidence of marginal benefits for white children from Head Start, "It does not seem to have improved the educational achievement of African-American children in any substantial way." Whether it has done anything for Hispanic children is not known.

Similarly with "incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools." Setting aside the fact that you are dealing with a line of work whose labor union is armed with thermonuclear weapons, even supposing you could establish a free market in public-school teachers, how could the worst schools-inner-city schools serving black neighborhoods-ever outbid leafy, affluent suburbs for those "best teachers"? And how many "best teachers" are there, anyway? As the Thernstroms point out, a lot of these prescriptions for school reform assume an unlimited supply of "saints and masochists"-teachers like those in the KIPPS schools, who, Mr. Tough tells us, work 15 to 16 hours a day. I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.

* * * * *

If you read much Ed Biz theorizing, you find yourself wondering how a single field of human enquiry can contain so much error and folly. One answer is that educationalists wilfully-ideologically, in fact-ignore the understanding of human nature that the modern human sciences are gradually attaining, and cling doggedly to long-exploded theories about how human beings develop from infancy to adulthood. From false premises they proceed to false conclusions.

The long and short of this new understanding is that human beings are much less malleable than everyone supposed half a century ago, and much less malleable than "blank slate" leftists-a category that includes practically all education theorists-have ever, for reasons not difficult to fathom, been willing to contemplate.

Reading recent results out of the human sciences always brings to my mind those "shape memory alloys" that so fascinate materials scientists. These are metal alloys that "remember" their original geometry, and can be made to return to it, or something close to it, usually by heating, after any amount of deformation and pressure. So it is with humanity. We come into the world with a good deal of our life course pre-ordained in our genes. At age three or so we begin to interact with other children outside our home, with results that depend in part on us, and in part on where our home is situated. We pass through various educational processes-formalized extensions of that out-of-home environment, and also highly location-dependent. We end up as adults with personalities and prospects that are, according to the latest understandings, around 50 percent innate and pre-ordained, around 50 percent formed by "non-shared environment" (not shared, that is, with siblings raised in the same home by the same parents-a somewhat controversial concept in its precise contents, but clearly consisting mostly of those out-of-home experiences), and 0-5 percent formed by "shared environment"-mainly parenting style.

(And we then, having reached adulthood, regress a little to our pre-ordained shape, like one of those peculiar alloys. It is a curious fact, well supported by a mass of evidence, that the heritable components of our personality and intelligence become more marked as we age. The IQs of 40-year-olds correlate better with those of their parents or siblings than do the IQs of 20-year-olds. The advice traditionally given to young men contemplating marriage-"Get a good look at her mother"-is very sound.)

You would never know any of this from reading Ed Biz propaganda pieces like Paul Tough's in the New York Times magazine. For example, he gives good coverage of some research on parenting. However, all the research he cites is premised on the notion that parents can mold their children in different ways by treating them differently. Parents do this and the kids turn out like this; if the parents had done that, then the kids would have turned out like that. He does not cite any of the research showing that aside from very extreme approaches-e.g. locking a child in a broom cupboard for the first four years of its life-parenting style makes very little difference to life outcomes. (Though parental decisions influencing the non-shared environment-e.g. where parents choose to live-may make a great deal of difference.) Parents behave aggressively towards children; the children grow up aggressive; See!-the parents' aggression caused that outcome! Well, not necessarily. What about child-to-parent effects-innately difficult kids drive their parents to aggressive distraction? What about genes? The kids have their parents' genes, and most features of human personality-including aggressiveness-are highly heritable.

None of that for Mr. Tough. Genes? What are you, some kind of Klansman or Nazi? No, no, no, the kids are little blank slates for teachers, parents, and politicians to work their magic on, These undesirable outcomes-these mysterious test-score gaps, these dropping-outs and delinquencies-arise only because we are chanting the wrong spells!

A very good rule of thumb when reading child-development literature is that any study that has not taken careful account of heritable factors-by comparing identical twins raised together or separately, fraternal twins ditto ditto, non-twin siblings ditto ditto-is utterly and completely worthless. That sentence is (a) true, and (b) guaranteed to get you thrown out of a high window if spoken aloud at any gathering of education theorists.

Certainly Mr. Tough will have none of it. The child is a blank slate. Parents act on it, causing this and this. Then teachers act on it, causing that and that. Bingo!-you have a finished adult. Or, as Mr. Tough summarizes the interesting (but perfectly gene-free) work of sociologist Annette Lareau: "[G]ive a child X, and you get Y." So simple! One wonders if there has ever been an education theorist who has actually raised children, or retained any memory of his own childhood.

* * * * *

In the end, all left-liberal prescriptions for educational improvement end up with two demands: that governments should spend more money on schools, and that parents should work harder at parenting. Never mind that the spending-improves-education theory has been tested to destruction. Never mind that the demographics of the Western world are in free fall because of the ever-increasing demands in time and money placed on parents. (Raising two children in suburban America, I dream fondly but futilely of my own 1950s English childhood, when by far the commonest words I heard from my parents were: "Go out and play. Make sure you're back in time for supper." How on earth did civilization survive?)

Never mind that obstructionist, feather-bedding teacher unions firmly control one of our nation's two big political parties. Never mind the mountains of evidence from the human sciences that everything education theorists and their liberal camp followers like Mr. Tough believe about human nature is false. Never mind, never mind. The Ed Biz show must go on-for the sake of the children, you know



Some notes from Australia

News that the University of Sydney will soon possess the sole remaining chair in Australian literature signals a genuine crisis in our literary culture. In Australia we seem to be witnessing a disinheriting of the national mind - the alternately rapid and gradual, wilful and accidental disappearing of our literary heritage, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. I say "our" advisedly, for this heritage, which stretches back to medieval times, is certainly ours, as much as Henry Lawson or Patrick White is. The language of Milton's long poem Paradise Lost is still the tongue of people living today in this country. Milton's works are the birthright of anyone who understands English.

The state of literary education in Australia may be even more dishevelled than Rosemary Neill's sorry story, "Lost for words" (The Weekend Australian Review, December 2-3) made out. That article pointed up a lack of commitment to the teaching and professional study of acknowledged classics of Australian literature. I suspect, however, that the formal study of literature generally is imperilled at most levels of the educational system. How much classic English literature of any kind is now vigorously and creatively taught by well-trained experts anywhere in Australia? If Christina Stead and A.D. Hope are becoming invisible in many schools and universities, the picture is unlikely to be different with Chaucer or Shakespeare, Blake or Wordsworth, Austen or the Brontes, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Sylvia Plath, Derek Walcott or Toni Morrison. I mention only English-speaking authors. I doubt Euripides, Dante or Chekhov are faring any better than English-language ones. How many graduates can enjoy foreign authors in the original? How many children have had opened to them the wonderful Aladdin's cave of our myths and fairytales, rhymes and stories?

Explaining what has led to the disarray of literary education in this country is difficult. I offer one explanation, which takes me back to my epigraph. Milton gambled that, should he write a great poem, succeeding generations would "not willingly let it die". They would feel a responsibility to introduce new readers to this awesome example of the power of theimagination. During perhaps the past century, schools and universities were places in which this attitude of care for the cultural monuments of the past was cultivated. But, worryingly, and for complex reasons, the commitment of our society to the project of tending the cultural and literary heritage seems to be waning. We are in danger of losing that attitude of care that all authors who hope to be read in the future rely on, the attitude that transmits works of literary genius to future readers and writers. Our educational institutions need firmly and confidently to rediscover their role as indispensable stewards of the literary and cultural heritage. Nothing less than the future of Australian literature is at stake.

For if the formal study of great literature, ancient and modern, is neglected, the outlook for literary creativity here is dim. A significant literary culture needs educated readers, discriminating and cosmopolitan critics, informed editors and sound scholars. Every substantial creative writer was once an enthusiastic reader. No readers, no writers. And knowledgeable, passionate readers do not just happen. They are formed by schools and universities that know their mission to include the expert teaching of the best that has been written.

Milton trusted Paradise Lost would survive. People would understand its value and not recklessly let it fall into oblivion. But contemporary Australian poets, novelists and playwrights have reason to be pessimistic about the long-term survival of their works, no matter how excellent those works may be. For we seem to be shrugging off our curatorial responsibilities towards the literary tradition. We can hardly, then, expect "after times", as Milton put it, carefully to study and teach the works of our present-day writers.

Reversing the disappearance of our literary heritage will require wise and bold leadership from university administrators, politicians, educators of all kinds and public servants, and the support of all who love imaginative writing. A first step should be a comprehensive audit of the state of literary education in Australia.



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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