Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Epidemic of Ignorance: Back-to-school blues

By Victor Davis Hanson

Last week I went shopping in our small rural hometown, where my family has attended the same public schools since 1896. Without exception, all six generations of us - whether farmers, housewives, day laborers, business people, writers, lawyers, or educators - were given a good, competitive K-12 education.

But after a haircut, I noticed that the 20-something cashier could not count out change. The next day, at the electronic outlet store, another young clerk could not read - much less explain - the basic English of the buyer's warranty. At the food market, I listened as a young couple argued over the price of a cut of tri-tip - unable to calculate the meat's real value from its price per pound.

As another school year is set to get under way, it's worth pondering where this epidemic of ignorance came from.

Our presidential candidates sense the danger of this dumbing down of American society and are arguing over the dismal status of contemporary education: poor graduation rates, weak test scores, and suspect literacy among the general population. Politicians warn that America's edge in global research and productivity will disappear, and with it our high standard of living.

Yet the bleak statistics - whether a 70-percent high-school graduation rate as measured in a study a few years ago by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, or poor math rankings in comparison with other industrial nations - come at a time when our schools inflate grades and often honor multiple valedictorians at high school graduation ceremonies. Aggregate state and federal education budgets are high. Too few A's, too few top awards, and too little funding apparently don't seem to be our real problems.

Of course, most critics agree that the root causes for our undereducated youth are not all the schools' fault. Our present ambition to make every American youth college material - in a way our forefathers would have thought ludicrous - ensures that we will both fail in that utopian goal and lack enough literate Americans with critical vocational skills.

The disintegration of the American nuclear family is also at fault. Too many students don't have two parents reminding them of the value of both abstract and practical learning.

What then can our elementary and secondary schools do, when many of their students' problems begin at home or arise from our warped popular culture?

We should first scrap the popular therapeutic curriculum that in the scarce hours of the school day crams in sermons on race, class, gender, drugs, sex, self-esteem, or environmentalism. These are well-intentioned efforts to make a kinder and gentler generation more sensitive to our nation's supposed past and present sins. But they only squeeze out far more important subjects.

The old approach to education saw things differently than we do. Education ("to lead out" or "to bring up") was not defined as being "sensitive" to, or "correct" on, particular issues. It was instead the rational ability to make sense of the chaotic present through the abstract wisdom of the past.

So literature, history, math and science gave students plenty of facts, theorems, people, and dates to draw on. Then training in logic, language, and philosophy provided the tools to use and express that accumulated wisdom. Teachers usually did not care where all that training led their students politically - only that their pupils' ideas and views were supported with facts and argued rationally.

What else can we do to restore such traditional learning before the United States loses it global primacy?

To encourage our best minds to become teachers, we should also change the qualifications for becoming one. Students should be able to pursue careers in teaching either by getting a standard teaching credential or by substituting a master's degree in an academic subject. That way we will eventually end up with more instructors with real academic knowledge rather than prepped with theories about how to teach.

And once hired, K-12 teachers should accept that tenure has outlived its usefulness. Near-guaranteed lifelong employment has become an archaic institution that shields educators from answerability. And tenure has not ensured ideological diversity and independence. Nearly the exact opposite - a herd mentality - presides within many school faculties. Periodic and renewable contracts - with requirements, goals and incentives - would far better ensure teacher credibility and accountability.

Athletics, counseling and social activism may be desirable in schools. But they are not crucial. Our pay scales should reflect that reality. Our top classroom teachers should earn as much as - if not more than - administrators, bureaucrats, coaches, and advisers.

Liberal education of the type my farming grandfather got was the reason why the United States grew wealthy, free, and stable. But without it, the nation of his great-grandchildren will become poor, docile, and insecure.


Australian Leftists defend selective schools

In the State of Victoria

LABOR has launched an assault on the Greens for their policy to phase out selective government high schools such as MacRobertson Girls High. The ALP has funded a mail-out highlighting Greens education policy ahead of this weekend's Albert Park and Williamstown by-elections. Labor's claims have been branded a lie by the Greens.

Former MacRob student Sue Loukomitis yesterday said she approached the ALP to assist after hearing of the "kooky" Greens policy. The policy states that the Greens would work towards "phasing out selective schools, streaming and other models in the government system".

Ms Loukomitis is a former Labor member who works for Auspoll, which is the party's pollster. She does not live in the Albert Park electorate where the letter was distributed. ALP candidate Martin Foley said education had emerged as one of the key issues in Albert Park. "People want to see a good-quality public school option in their community," Mr Foley said.

Labor state secretary Stephen Newnham yesterday compared the Greens' education blueprint with their now-abandoned policy of decriminalising drugs. "The letter is completely accurate. They actually want to shut these schools," Mr Newnham said. The letter does not mention the ALP or Mr Foley, and the only indication the letter is from Labor is fine print declaring it was authorised by Mr Newnham. Labor made a dramatic U-turn on selective schools just before the November election last year, promising two new schools for talented students.

Greens MP Greg Barber dismissed Labor's interpretation of its education policy. "This is a lie. The Greens won't shut down any school," Mr Barber said. Voters this Saturday will choose replacement MPs for former premier Steve Bracks and his deputy, John Thwaites.


Learn from Asia

Comment from Australia

THERE is much to learn from successful overseas systems, but some Australian educationalists argue that all is well and we need not change. Education, especially in the classroom, in countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea is characterised as inflexible, outdated and conservative. Not so. Research published in The Chinese Learner, edited by David Watkins and John Biggs, as well as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study-related videotapes of Japanese classrooms demonstrate that Asian classrooms are interactive and lessons deal with concepts and skills as well as facts.

APEC has a role in strengthening education, a source of prosperity, in member economies, including ours. Beginning in 1993, the APEC Education Network has met regularly to collect information describing the education systems of members and to research topics such as mathematics and science education, the place of information and communication technologies in the classroom and ways to achieve an increase in the number of multilingual citizens. Australia has much to learn from members' education systems that achieve world's-best results in international tests such as the TIMSS. Held every four years, the TIMSS tests measure student performance in mathematics and science curriculums at middle-primary and lower and final years of secondary school.

Since the tests began in 1995, Australian students have performed above average, but we are in the second XI when it comes to results. While we like to win in sport, in education we are consistently beaten by students from Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. In the 2003 TIMSS test, out of 49 countries, Australia was ranked 14th in Year8 mathematics and 10th in science. At Year4 level, our students were placed 16th in mathematics and 11th in science. Of concern, when compared with Australia's results in the 1999 tests, is that countries we once outperformed now achieve better results. Indeed, notwithstanding the millions spent on curriculum development and the changes forced on hapless teachers, such was Australia's relatively poor performance that Geoff Masters, the chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research and a strong supporter of outcomes-based education, has admitted that all is not well.

"During the 1990s, considerable effort went into the reform of curriculums for the primary and middle years of schooling in Australia, resulting in new state curriculum and standards frameworks," he says. "In the same period, education systems introduced system-wide testing programs to monitor student and school achievement. It is not clear that these efforts have improved levels of mathematics and science performance in Australian primary schools."

Some other APEC-member education systems are able to get more students to perform at the highest level when compared with Australia. In the 2003 test, only 9 per cent of Year8 students reached the advanced level, compared with 25 per cent from Taiwan and 15per cent from Japan. In mathematics, only 7per cent of our Year8 students achieved the advanced level, compared with 44 per cent of students from Singapore.

It also needs to be noted that while Australian students are in the second XI -- as a result of OBE's focus on nurturing self-esteem rather than telling children when they have failed -- our students regard themselves as highly confident and successful. By comparison, students from Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, even though they perform at the top of the table, do not feel as confident. Why are Australian students underperforming? One reason is that, since the early 1990s, Australian states and territories, to varying degrees, have adopted an OBE model of curriculum. With this model, the focus is on teachers facilitating rather than teaching information. Students are described as "knowledge navigators"' and essential content gives way to new-age generic competency and skills.

As noted last year with Tasmania's so-called Essential Learnings and the debacle represented by forcing OBE into years 11 and 12 in Western Australia, it is also the case that the types of syllabus documents given to Australian teachers are second-rate. Not only are OBE curriculum documents full of jargon and edubabble, but what students are expected to learn is couched in hundreds of vague, confusing and vacuous learning statements that drown teachers in useless detail.

Stronger-performing education systems within APEC never experimented with OBE. More formal approaches to teaching are emphasised and, as a result, students have a clear idea of what is expected of them. There is less disruption and students, given regular testing and feedback, know where they stand in the class. The curriculum is academically based, competition is valued and students are rewarded for success. Teachers are also given clear, concise, year-level syllabuses that detail what needs to be taught. The last point is critical. Unlike in Australia, where teachers are supposed to be curriculum experts and each school has to reinvent the wheel in terms of mapping out what is to be taught, overseas education systems make more time available for teachers to mentor one another and to strengthen classroom practice.

The federal Labor Party and the Coalition Government have both announced that Australia is to have a national curriculum. One approach is to rely on those responsible for Australia's adoption of the OBE model to do the work, in particular the Australian Council for Educational Research and the Curriculum Corporation. As an alternative, given those APEC systems that consistently achieve results that place them at the top of the table in the TIMSS mathematics and science tests, why not look internationally and evaluate any new model of curriculum against overseas best practice?


No comments: