Tuesday, January 08, 2008

British universities refuse credit for soft High School subjects

About time

TOP universities are drawing up blacklists of "soft" A-level subjects that will bar applicants from winning places on their degree courses. They are warning that candidates who take more than one of the subjects such as accountancy, leisure studies and dance are unlikely to gain admission. They say they lack the academic rigour to prepare students for courses and are alarmed at the way increasing numbers of state schools are using them to boost pupils' top grades.

Disclosure of the lists will anger the parents of many pupils whose schools have failed to warn them that the A-level subjects are effectively worthless for entry to the best universities. Ministers will also be concerned that they will undermine attempts to increase the number of state pupils at leading universities, traditionally dominated by independent schools.

Some universities such as the London School of Economics (LSE) and Cambridge University have already published lists of up to 25 subjects on their web-sites. Others are less overt but still operate lists. Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, said most top institutions would follow suit in "providing a steer on preferred combinations of A-levels".

She warned that a new analysis carried out by the group showed that a gulf was emerging between state and private schools, as comprehensives opted for "soft" A-levels and independents and grammars tightened their grip on traditional academic subjects. "Clearly if pupils from state schools are increasingly taking a combination of subjects which put them at a disadvantage in competing for a course at a Russell Group university, the task of widening participation in our universities becomes even more difficult," said Piatt, a former deputy director of Tony Blair's Downing Street strategy unit.

The list run by Cambridge advises potential applicants against taking more than one from a list of 25 subjects ranging from business studies to dance and tourism. It warns that such a combination "would not normally be considered acceptable". "Doing these A-levels individually is not a problem, it is doing too many of them," said Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge University. "We know there are bright students on track to get As but in subject combinations that essentially rule them out."

The LSE has named 10 subjects that it deems questionable. They include many of those named by Cambridge, but also others such as law. A spokes-woman for Oxford said that it did not operate a list but that candidates who opted for "meatier" A-levels were likely to gain some advantage.

The Russell Group findings are unlikely to please ministers, who have accused universities of failing to do enough to attract working-class students. In September, John Denham, the universities secretary, called the current system a "huge waste of talent", adding that there was a "social bias" across higher education institutions, "including some of the most sought-after".

The Russell Group research shows the widening divergence between subjects being studied at different schools. In media studies, for example, 93% of pupils were from nonselective state schools, far above the sector's 74% share of all A-levels. The situation is reversed in science, languages and maths. In the state sector, fewer than one in 10 A-level pupils in nonselective schools takes sciences, compared with one third at grammar and independent schools. In further maths, 35% of exams are taken at private schools, far above the sector's 15% share of all A-levels. Meanwhile, the number of independent school candidates taking languages has remained steady, while those in the state sector have plummeted.

"It is overwhelmingly the state school students dropping sciences and languages," says the research. "This is making it increasingly difficult for the Russell Group to recruit large numbers of state school pupils into these difficult subjects." The choice of subjects is increasing the dominance of independent and grammar school students already shown by their higher grades - the two groups together accounted for 52.3% of those gaining three As in 2006, although they made up only 21% of candidates.

Competition is becoming increasingly tough at the top universities, with 94% of the students who entered Cambridge last year securing more than three A grades at A-level. At Bristol, for example, there are 10 candidates for every place. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "More young people are staying on at school taking A-levels and achieving - surely that's something we should welcome."



One of the responses I received to my last article Would God Bless America stood out from all the rest for one reason: it was from an individual who admitted being the product of our "new and improved" system of education. Here is the response:
"H0w dare you promote misleading hate towards Humainist. And you know some of us are christians. i am a Humanist and a christian and cause of that i will not celebrate the pagan holiday Christmas. While you put down the humanist which simply means to leave each person better than when you met them. They believe in promoting the goodwill in others. yet here you blast them for doing the same thing Christ would do. Did you know Christ didn't celebrate Birthdays no it was a traditional Pagan thing The jews didnot celebrate Birthday. Nor did they believe in decorating trees that was pagan along with everything else that is celbrated this time of year.,. So your question is why would God Bless America ? Because unlike you me or anyone else he understands and see things from a total different perspective than us. He understands out of ignorance people say or do things but he looks at their heart. Remember you were to take Jesus in your heart and love him and it was your heart that was suppose to change. Not going and expressing this kind of fear which Yahweh says not to fear . But to spread the fear for what. what is your purpose and please let crucified the humanist they only want to help the child who dont have enough to eat or to reach the hand out to the one struggle to be free from Drugs. before you attack a group 0f people do your homework and see what they really are about. And also before judging who is doing what this holiday season find out what the origins are that are Christkmas if we are celebrating his birth well theres enough evidencve it didn't happen than. The time of year was pick to coincident with the pagan Holistice. did you know that. Do you know how much of Christmas is pagan. Seems the Cia has successfully brainwash you and you are ready to attack the very people who are fighting the battle against the elites. oh while you are checking out Christmas also check out Eostere you may find something out about that holiday yup pagan to. Maybe we should celebrate the Holidays of our Saviour and instead of advocating fear we should try to help our fellow man showing his Spirit by our action. And instead of Judging others based on our own faulty understanding of the sitution we should just stand and be quiet. And if you want the norms of society to change than please stand up and go out and state these out in public instead of behind a computer desk./ I have i have gone in public school and proudly proclaim my saviour and stating when will we see the changes of the heart instead of judging people based on who we think they are when will we see them for who they are." (As written.)

I shall call this individual "Ms Muffet" for reasons of anonymity. My response to Ms Muffet, in part, was as follows:
"Your inability to articulate yourself coherently is obviously the product of your government schooling. Were I your teacher, I would give you an F for what you wrote . To begin, you don't even make a logical argument because a logical argument is based on facts and there aren't any in what you wrote, just how you feel. Secondly, your spelling and punctuation are atrocious. Third, you obviously didn't proof-read what you wrote to see if it even made sense, which it doesn't."

In a later e-mail, Ms Muffet stated:
"No the grammer wasn't check my GPA is still 3.40 I'm not writing a college level paper so i don'tt need to check it." (As written.)

In other words, she doesn't feel what she wrote important enough to take the time to present herself as though she were writing the most important dissertation ever. No pride in self, no pride in work product. Yet she truly believes that anyone reading what she wrote should appreciate her, and further, appreciate her point of view. This is the product of misplaced self-esteem. Jake Halpern, writing for the Boston Globe, quoting Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has termed the present product of government schools narcissistic and entitled.

Not long ago, I had an exchange with an government school teacher, incensed by something I had written about government schools. This teacher, in her effort to defend her profession and her failure to properly educate children, finally got around to stating that it "wasn't [her] job to educate children for intelligence", she was educating children to be critical thinkers. Like the critical thinker in the form of Ms Muffet above?

Another teacher, run out of the government schools because he thought educating for intelligence more important, wrote me the following when I sent him the above response from Ms Muffet:
"I think I had this lady in one of my classes. In four years of teaching English, I saw a lot of essays and research papers written this poorly. The student, parent and administrators couldn't understand why I would mark such papers as failing and ultimately fail the student if he or she didn't allow me to teach him how to write an effective paper without grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure errors The System calls `conventions' and which they deem unimportant."[1]

Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure - commonly referred to as syntax - unimportant? What Ms Muffet wrote has all the earmarks of someone who is functionally illiterate.

How much money are we paying for the government schools to not educate children? Even one penny is too much. A small business owner had this to say recently about children coming out of the government schools: "They don't know anything; furthermore, they don't know they don't know anything; but they can certainly tell you how they feel about everything. And they really and truly believe you should appreciate them endlessly even though they don't deserve it." Notice this small businessman had no trouble articulating himself succinctly. His observations are astute, to the point, and quite accurate.

The new system of education, brought into being by Goals 2000, School-to-Work, and the Workforce Investment Act, along with the strategic plans known as Improving America's Schools Act (Clinton) and No Child Left Behind (GW Bush), has now been in effect for one full education cycle of children, pre-K through 12. This system of education, the American public was told (and swallowed, hook, line and sinker), would improve education, produce smarter children.

There were some of us who knew better because we delved into the writings of those advocating this system of education. From America's Choice, high skills or low wages!, (1990) page 25, comes this little gem that should have clued parents that this system of education wasn't what they were being told it was:
". in a broad survey of employment needs across America, we found little evidence of a far-reaching desire for a more educated workforce."

Get the drift? If not, here is another:
"We will need to recognize that the so-called basic skills, which currently represent the total effort in elementary schools, will be taught in one quarter of the present school day..."[2]

Remember when you were in grade school? Did you ever finish a text book in a year's time? Now, if it took a full school year to cram all the knowledge in that book into your head, such that your brain was growing in knowledge and ability to comprehend, how is it that schools today can do it "in one quarter of the present school day"? The obvious answer is that they can't and they aren't. Children are not being taught what children need to know to grow and comprehend.

Education today is focused on life-related issues (affective domain), knowledge (cognitive domain) is only incorporated as it used and applied in addressing life-related issues. It is easy to see, in the absence of knowledge, how children can be effectively dumbed-down. In what Ms Muffet wrote, this is clearly evident.


Educators can also learn from what already works

Comment from Australia

As our approach to teaching embraces more traditional methods, the overseas experience can inform our choices. Looking back over the past 12 months, it is clear that 2007 was a watershed year for education. Much of what has been argued on these pages in terms of increased testing and more rigorous examinations, adopting a back-to-basics approach to curriculum, holding schools accountable and better rewarding teachers, is now mainstream in terms of the debate and is being advocated by ALP state and federal governments.

How can we ensure, though, that initiatives planned for 2008 and beyond will be effective in raising standards, better supporting teachers and schools and ensuring that students receive a well-balanced, academically sound and fulfilling educational experience? One approach is to learn from what is happening overseas, in addition to our own experience, and to evaluate classroom practice by what the research suggests works.

Ensuring that children are literate and numerate in the early years of primary school is critically important and there is an increasing consensus overseas about the best way to teach such skills. In Britain, the Rose report, in part based on the success of the Scottish school Clackmannanshire, recommends adopting a synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading, a recommendation the British Government has accepted. In opposition to the prevailing whole-language approach -- whereby, on the assumption that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak, children are taught to look and guess and memorise words by sight -- synthetic phonics "is a sounds-based approach that first teaches children the sounds of letters and how they blend into words, before moving to letter combinations that make up words".

Adopting a more structured approach to literacy and numeracy is also supported by the US research associated with Project Follow Through. The billion-dollar nationwide project evaluated different approaches to teaching and concluded that formal methods of classroom interaction, described as direct instruction, are more effective than the type of teaching associated with Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education. Summarising what we can learn from Project Follow Through, Australian mathematics researcher Rhonda Farkota noted: "Student-directed learning has consistently more negative outcomes than those achieved in traditional education ... On all measures of basic skills, cognitive development and self-esteem, it (student-centred learning) was shown to be vastly inferior to traditional education."

One of the most respected and influential international tests is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, held three times since its inception in the mid-'90s, involving 46 countries and testing students at years 4, 8 and 12. On identifying the characteristics of education systems that achieve at the top of the table -- the results place Australia in the second 11 -- it is possible to identify what leads to success. Stronger performing systems place a greater emphasis on competitive examinations and testing (which are often used to stream students in terms of ability), give teachers clear and succinct road maps detailing what is to be taught, and expect students to master essential knowledge and understanding associated with the key disciplines at each year level.

Research carried out by German academic Ludger Woessmann also concludes that top-performing TIMSS countries have a robust non-government school sector, which leads to increased competition and pressure to do well, schools have autonomy over hiring, firing and rewarding successful teachers, and the influence of teacher unions is restricted.

While critics of George W. Bush's initiative No Child Left Behind -- whereby federal funding is linked to education systems setting clear objectives in terms of raising standards, students are regularly tested, classroom practice is based on what the research suggests works and there are consequences for underperformance -- argue that NCLB has failed, the evidence suggests otherwise. As noted by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, setting performance targets, regularly testing students and holding schools accountable have raised standards, as reflected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. She states: "According to NAEP, more reading progress was made by nine-year-olds from 1999 to 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined. Maths scores have reached record highs across the board."

Given that many overseas education systems have been implementing the types of initiatives on the agenda in Australia for 2008, such as moving to a national curriculum, increased testing and holding schools accountable, it is also vital that we learn from their mistakes. As argued by the conservative US think tank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, too much testing, forcing teachers to focus on the basics and imposing a centralised, top-down approach that fails to recognise the unique quality of individual schools can be counterproductive.

Forcing unproven and faddish curriculum change on schools and making them conform to inflexible and intrusive accountability measures can also overwhelm and frustrate teachers, leading to the type of situation evident in Western Australia, where teachers are deserting classrooms and it is impossible to attract newcomers to the profession.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I got a good laugh at "Ms. Muffet"'s initial reply, in which I counted at least 65 (I may have lost count) spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors, and then four more in just two sentences in her reply to your reply! She said she's a product of the education system. It shows. At least "Ms. Muffet" created something that could be used as a comprehensive exercise in spotting and correcting syntax. I wonder how many English teachers across the nation will pick this up to use for that purpose.