Monday, May 19, 2008

"Zero tolerance": For student safety or to control them?

Massacre. Suicide-bombing. Mass murder. Conspiracy. WMDs. They love those inflammatory words, don't they? Not just adolescents, who use the words as adolescents would, without gauging their impact, but also law enforcement types, who should know better. The climate that makes chatter of school shootings so endemic can be attributed to the few deranged souls who think up mayhem fantasies in their miserable little journals and cyber-caves. But they're not the only ones responsible.

"Massacre" and "conspiracy to commit murder" were the words (and official charges) of choice when three DeLand Middle School seventh-graders were arrested in March after their "plot" to gun down other students and themselves was uncovered. "The investigators determined the students did not appear to have weapons or means to carry out the threats," a Volusia County Sheriff's spokesman said soon after their arrest. Nevertheless, word of a massacre averted and severe punishment deserved spread through the community. The three children's grind through the system is only beginning.

What, so far as we know, had these children done? One of them posted threatening messages and satanic idiocies on his MySpace page, along with the obligatory references to the Columbine school massacre. No matter how baseless, those references have become iconic for anyone angling for his 15 minutes of fearsome fame. Innumerable journal entries by seething adolescents, in print and online, are no doubt filled with Columbine fantasies. They're ignored, as adolescent scrawls generally (or absent more incriminating evidence) should be regardless of medium. Once in a while they're "uncovered." What should be the occasion for a parent-child reality check, a dressing down or at most a trip to the local counselor, is turned over to law enforcement instead. The cycle of public fear and sensationalism kicks in. For the children in question, humiliation and cruelty (what any form of juvenile-criminal proceedings and detention consist of these days) follow.

There's been a spate of alleged plots in schools lately, locally and elsewhere. Spring is the season of threats. It's stupid students' way of commemorating the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, which took place April 20, 1999 and April 16, 2007, claiming 47 lives between them (the three gunmen included). Earlier this month two schools in New Smyrna Beach swirled with rumors of an attack. Since April, Malcolm X College and St. Xavier University in Chicago, Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., and three parochial schools in Michigan all closed when threats scribbled their way around each campus. Tales of suspicious backpacks, rumors endowed with the power of errant bullets and bad jokes elevated to threat levels worthy of the Department of Homeland Security's paranoia locked down or shut down schools in Oveido, Pittsburgh and South Bend.

And police in Chesterfield County, S.C., in what's becoming a habit of pre-emptive arrests based on private thoughts rather than action, arrested a high school senior who'd been writing threatening messages in his journal for up to a year. He'd referred to an alleged suicide-bombing plot against his own high school as "Columbine III." The boy's parents tipped off police in that one. The boy was charged, if you can believe this, with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

What almost all these allegations have in common is disproportion -- the disproportionate fantasies of the alleged perpetrators, whose frames of reference are cribbed from a culture that blurs the lines between video games, entertainment, celebrity and violence; and the disproportionate response from schools and law enforcement, whose overzealous narratives incite fear by feeding into overheated anxieties. But there's glamour in the language of violence and humiliation. Witness the Daytona Beach police chief's fetish for the word "scumbag," now emblazoned (as "scumbag eradication team") with an obscene image on shirts for the teenagers in the department's Police Explorer program. There's power in the language of violence supposedly averted, even if the upshot of it all is more irrational fear, not more security, and more children slammed into a juvenile-justice system designed to scare and punish, not heal and reintegrate.

We live, it's true, in one of the most violent states in the most violent society of the developed world, the most crime-ridden, the most prison-happy (2.3 million people behind bars and rising). Schools might reflect their world. But sensational incidents aside, schools remain among the safest quasi-public spaces anywhere -- not because they've been turned into fortresses of discipline and order, which they have, but because schools are simply not useful to criminals. Rather, they're being made too useful to the policing mentality of zero-tolerance discipline, perpetual surveillance and unquestioned authority that mirrors a larger transformation of society. Security is the excuse. But obedience to authority has little to do with security, and everything to do with control. Schools in this bogus age of terror are the cheapest, most impressionable, most unquestioning incubators of mass submission.


Assessing British children can only improve their education

The whingeing [whining] about tests for 11-year-olds last week was predictable and depressing. To sum up what Chris Woodhead says below: The "experts" are offering little more than feelgood crap

Last week MPs on the education select committee jumped on what might well now be an unstoppable bandwagon and demanded an urgent rethink of the national curriculum tests in primary schools. Terrified by the prospect of a poor league table position, too many schools were, its members argued, force-feeding their pupils. Joy, spontaneity and creativity have been driven from the classroom. Something must be done, and now.

The fact that the problem might lie not with the tests, but with teachers who cannot accept the principle of accountability does not seem to have occurred to the committee. Neither did its members explain how problems in failing schools can be solved if we do not know which schools are failing.

At the moment, children are assessed by teachers in English and maths at seven and sit more formal tests in English, maths and science at 11. Two periods of testing in four years of primary education. What’s wrong, moreover, with some preparation for tests if the tests assess worthwhile skill and knowledge?

I have to confess to a dreadful sense of deja vu. Sixteen years ago the then Tory education secretary, Ken Clarke, horrified by the sloppiness he found in many of the primary schools he visited, asked Robin Alexander and Jim Rose to research what became known as the Three Wise Men report. I was the third wise man, parachuted in later to represent the interests of the fledgling national curriculum.

Now Professor Alexander is heading up a review of primary education, funded by a charitable foundation, and Sir Jim Rose has been asked by ministers, eager not to be upstaged, to mount his own investigation – though testing has been excluded from the terms of his report.

In retrospect, the Three Wise Men report was one of my more amusing professional experiences. At the time it was a nightmare. Jim Rose is a nice man, but he is not the Clint Eastwood of primary education. Consensus makes his day. I found that Robin Alexander bridled at any challenge to his opinions. He elevated preciousness into an art form. Working with him was marginally less stressful than being married to Heather Mills.

It was touch and go, but in the end we did it, and Robin even turned up for the press conference. The importance of subject knowledge; the need for teachers to teach the whole class and to stop trying to engage individual pupils; the vital role of assessment: the report emphasised commonsense educational truths that had been drowned by a tsunami of child-centred 1960s twaddle.

For all his prickliness, I never knew what Robin Alexander really thought. Now I think I do. Interim reports from his review show that he may well be part of the malaise Ken Clarke tried to cure. Reading a recent lecture he gave, I found just one reference to “teaching”, and that very much in passing. Instead he waxed lyrical about how children are “natural and active learners”; how learning takes place everywhere; how children learn from each other and not just adults; and how “we need to engage with and listen to children, and not just talk at them”.

There is a truth, of course, in each of these platitudes. What worries me is the sub text, which actually is not that sub. Throughout the lecture he cites evidence that his inquiry has uncovered – of “the loss of childhood”, of the “overcrowded” primary curriculum, of our “high stakes national testing regime” and of “teachers’ anxieties about league tables, inspection and the somewhat punitive character of school accountability”. Professor Alexander may, of course, choose to reject this evidence but the burden of much that has been said thus far suggests this is unlikely.

My prediction would be that this primary review will reject most, if not all, of the educational reforms that have taken place since 1990. I can understand why teachers who never accepted these reforms might applaud. But why are so many politicians and parents buying into a proposition that would kill off any hope that state education might improve?

Isn’t it obvious? The better a teacher teaches, the more a child will learn. The key to higher standards is better teaching. By which I mean: teachers who have real knowledge of and passion for the subjects they teach, the highest possible expectations of each and every child, and, obviously, the classroom teaching skills needed to keep order and inspire and enthuse their pupils. We do not need research and reviews into the nature of primary education. We need a remorseless determination to implement these commonsense truths.

Plus, of course, a system of national testing. Robin Alexander appears to be siding with those in the world of education who hate the fact that the tests shine the bright light of accountability into the murky corners of failing and complacent schools. Thus far the government is defending the tests. For once ministers are doing the right thing.


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