Monday, December 15, 2008

Mediocre teachers + jargon = low standards

Huge numbers of British 11-year-olds can't read, write or do basic sums. The latest curriculum rehash will not help in the least

But what about the teachers? I feel like the child who had to point out that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. What we got this week, from the Government's primary schools adviser, was a rehashed curriculum in fine new garb, and a rather verbose way of setting out what good teachers do already - but not a word about what really matters: the quality of the teachers.

Sir Jim Rose's report is a tragic missed opportunity. If this is the limit of ministers' ambition for primary schools then they might as well go home early, clutching those little prizes which schools award the slower pupils for "effort". There certainly won't be any progress. Sir Jim is in danger of giving bad and mediocre teachers even more jargon and curricular complexity to hide behind. The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum is itself smothered in it. Sir Jim sums up his ideas: "The report explores a curriculum design based on a clear set of culturally derived aims and values, which promote challenging subject teaching alongside equally challenging cross-curricular studies." You what?

This sort of jargon filters down through teachers to the classroom, with lessons wrapped in equally incomprehensible verbiage. "Are we doing reading now?" I asked one primary school teacher recently. "Oh no", she replied, "this isn't reading - this is literacy." Er...

There is something wrong with the teaching profession. Not all of it, but some of it - and presumably the part that curriculum reviews are intended to reach. The teachers have turned insular and defensive; even their language has become alien. It's as if they inhabit a different world.

So spelling isn't spelling any more (there is but one mention of "spelling" in Sir Jim's 73-page report): it has become "decoding" and "encoding". Is it really necessary for an educational adviser to write out the following: "Children may know how to decode and encode print but must then apply that knowledge and skill to understanding the words on the page." You mean, children should be taught to read, sir? Good teachers - even barely competent teachers - do not need to be told that. Good teachers will already apply the best of the ideas in Sir Jim's report, while good schools will do some of what he recommends already, such as using specialised teachers in certain subjects. Good teachers do not hide behind jargon.

The problem is with the bad schools and the bad teachers, who rigorously apply the rules handed down by ministers and officials to groups of baffled children. Like the chilling Ofsted official who described Baby P as a collection of data last week, they can talk the strange talk, but they cannot walk the walk.

So children unable to write their alphabet sit in circles parroting the definitions of "phoneme" and "grapheme": "sound" and "letter" to you and me. "It's in the curriculum," shrugs a teacher. "Silly, isn't it?"

Incompetent teachers, or those lacking in confidence, and afraid of the authorities, stick rigidly to any script they are given, carefully ticking all the little boxes. And Sir Jim is about to hand them quite a script. Take the idea of a "theme" uniting all the primary subjects. This could be done well, so that a Second World War theme for the term incorporates European geography as well as a spot of French, and the mathematics of how many planes in a squadron returned if seven were shot down - that sort of thing. But it could be done badly, like the early-years teacher I saw writing down "a" for "aeroplane" in a child's first reading lesson - "because the theme this term is travel".

It's all very well trying to make the curriculum "relevant" but the fundamental purpose of education must be that the basic building blocks are taught well first. "Relevance" can crowd out education. Take mathematics: Sir Jim issues a familiar warning that children are not being taught how to apply their mathematics skills to the real world. Teachers have heard this complaint many times before. So keen are they to listen that many have overcorrected, asking a child, for instance, how he would hand out 12 chocolate bars among four children, but not teaching him that 12 divided by 4 is 3.

"What is that?" a six-year-old asked me the other day, pointing to a minus sign. He knew how to "count back two from five" (although he couldn't read the words; they had to be read to him) but he was unable to decipher 5 - 2 = 3. A seven-year-old state school child taking a maths exam for private school entry asked his mother of the multiplication questions: "Why were there kisses all over the paper?"

There will be many teachers who insist this does not matter; that children are picking up the concepts or themes, or developing understanding, or some such. But it does matter. So hard are educationists trying to keep the attention of every child with "varied and matched learning", to use some more jargon, that education has become frighteningly dumbed down. Middle-class flight from state schools is directly attributable to this happy-clappy, thematic, lowest-common-denominator, "entire planned learning experience" approach. Some kids enjoy learning times tables.

Listen to this terrifying sentence in the Rose report: "The teacher who once said: `If children leave my school and can't paint, that's a pity but if they leave and can't read, that's a disaster' was perhaps exaggerating to make a point." Exaggerating? It's appalling that the man reviewing the primary curriculum considers that an exaggeration.

Children are leaving primary schools unable to read and write and do basic sums - a fifth failed English this year, a fifth maths and almost four in ten failed in combined reading, writing and arithmetic - and they tip into the secondary system already five years behind their peers, too late for many ever to catch up. It is absolutely essential to get this right. Yet nowhere in Sir Jim's report (because it wasn't in his remit drawn up by the Schools Secretary Ed Balls) is there anything about improving the quality of teachers.

A McKinsey study last year, conducted by Tony Blair's former policy adviser Sir Michael Barber, examined school systems around the world to see what made the difference in the best. The absolutely key element, beyond new buildings and class sizes, the curriculum or the structure of the system, was the quality of teachers. Yet Britain is still stuck in a rule-bound, jobs-for-life education system that rewards laziness and mediocrity as highly as real talent and drive. The gulf between the public and private sectors gets wider and wider. Sir Jim is in danger of pulling up the drawbridge.


As conventional U.S. higher education scene turns into a Leftist miasma, alternatives spring up for those who want knowledge instead of propaganda

As classical education declined and new approaches arose to replace it, the university core curriculum turned into a restaurant menu that gave 18-year-olds dozens of classes to choose from, the easiest and most therapeutic usually garnering the heaviest attendance. The result, as many critics have noted, is that most of today's students have no shared notion of education, whether fact-based, requisite knowledge or universal theoretical methodologies. They either do not know what the Parthenon is or, if they do, they do not understand how its role as the democratic civic treasury of the Athenians was any different from-much less any "better" than-what went on atop the monumental Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Most likewise could not distinguish Corinthian from Doric columns on their venerable campuses, or a frieze from a pediment on their administration buildings.

For a brief four-year period, students inherit a now-foreign vocabulary of archaic terms, such as "provost," "summa cum laude," and "honorarium," which they employ but usually do not understand. While the public may not fully appreciate the role that classical education once played, it nonetheless understands that university graduates know ever less, even as the cost of their education rises ever more. Any common, shared notion of what it means to be either a Westerner or an American is increasingly rare.

The universities apparently believed that their traditional prestige, the financial resources of their alumni, and the fossilized cultural desideratum of "going to college" would allow them to postpone a reckoning. But by failing in their central mission to educate our youth, they have provoked the beginnings of an educational counterrevolution. Just as the arrogance and ideological biases of the mainstream media have made them slow to appreciate technological trends and the growing dissatisfaction of their audience, so, too, are universities beginning to fragment, their new multifaceted roles farmed out to others that can do them more cheaply and with less political sermonizing.

The most obvious challenge to university predominance is technological-in particular, Internet-based education offered by private-sector virtual campuses masquerading as traditional universities. As the American workforce increasingly needs retraining and as higher-paying jobs demand ever more specialized skills, students are beginning to pay for their education on a class-by-class basis through distance learning. Online classes, which do not require campus residence or commuting, also eliminate the overhead of highly paid, tenured faculty, campus infrastructure, and such costly elements of undergraduate education as on-campus lectures and extracurricular activities.

Unfortunately, private online schools also do away with the old notion of offering liberal arts classes to enrich citizenship and enhance technological specialization. Perhaps their unspoken premise is that if universities do not believe in the value of teaching Western civilization as part of a mandated general-education curriculum, then why not simply go to the heart of the matter and offer computer-programming skills or aeronautical-engineering know-how without the pretense of a broad education? And who is to say that paid-by-the-hour instructors at the online University of Phoenix are less responsible teachers than their traditional counterparts? After all, their market-driven employers must serve a paying constituency that, unlike traditional university students, often demands near-instant results for its fees.

At American Military University, it's worth noting in this light, online instructors receive compensation based on the number of students they teach, rather than the number of courses they offer. Cost-cutting measures are radical in the online education world. Bookstores and libraries become almost superfluous; instead, students simply pay fees for the use of Internet resources. The University of Phoenix actually negotiates deals with textbook publishers to make all of their books available online for a flat fee. The logic is to redefine education as an affordable product that finds its value in the marketplace among competing buyers and sellers.

It's hard to fault these companies; they are serving a need. It would be reassuring, certainly, to think that a psychology student at Smith or Occidental would receive a broader understanding of the discipline, its history, and its place within the liberal arts than would a counterpart graduating from the far cheaper online Argosy University. But it would be far from certain.

Traditional colleges and universities, seeking to compete, have started to enter the online education market. The present university system is partly subsidized by low-paid, part-time faculty without tenure who teach large classes and thereby support a smaller mandarin cohort of tenured professors with full benefits, fewer students, and little worry about the consequences of poor peer reviews or student evaluations. Indeed, since the 1970s, the percentage of tenured and tenure-track professors in the academy has declined dramatically, as the university seeks to exploit the many to pay for the chosen, though dwindling, few. Schools are now starting to complement these two tiers with a third-a new sort of distance-learning adjunct, paid even less, who offers classes via the Internet and may never venture onto campus at all, but whose courses carry the prestige of a well-known university brand. An informal survey suggests that distance learning now makes up as much as 20 percent of total offered classes at some schools.

One can also see a growing cultural reaction to the modern university in the spread of conservative Christian colleges. According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, enrollment in such schools increased 70.6 percent between 1990 and 2004, versus 12.8 percent for public universities and 28 percent for all private universities. The national news media have split into genres predicated on political partisanship: network news, public radio, and large newspapers for liberals; and talk radio, cable news, and Internet sites for conservatives. So, too, have our mainstream universities, promising free thought but in reality indoctrinating their students, become increasingly distinct from religious colleges and universities that take pride in a more classical curriculum.

The religious schools are recognizing their market advantage. What was once the old Bible school has now often become the popular conservative antidote to the liberal university. Liberty University and Oral Roberts University have seen endowments and enrollments soar as they have broadened their mandates to encompass general cultural conservatism rather than solely religious orthodoxy. Liberty University is no longer Jerry Falwell's weird and tiny Liberty Baptist College of the 1970s but has swelled to more than 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students, with another 4,500 enrolled in online graduate programs alone. Thirty years ago, Fresno Pacific College was a small evangelical Mennonite campus; today, its successor, Fresno Pacific University, is a generic traditional campus that offers an alternative to the cumbersome bureaucracy and politically charged culture of nearby California State University, Fresno. The teacher-credential program at Fresno Pacific's education school, for example, has earned regional acknowledgment for being more rigorous, better organized, and freer from therapeutic and political biases than its much larger counterpart at CSU, Fresno.

The growth of classically minded religious colleges is not limited to the Protestant evangelical movement. Against-the-grain Catholic schools have flourished, too, offering an alternative not just to Berkeley, Wisconsin, and Amherst but also to increasingly liberal Notre Dame and Santa Clara, which have abandoned traditional Catholic themes and classical values. Thomas Aquinas College, founded in 1969, to take one example, has won recognition for its traditional curriculum. A few nonreligious schools, too, like Hillsdale College and St. John's College, concentrate solely on the classical curriculum, offering Great Books-based courses whose very success serves as an effective critique of higher education elsewhere.

It's no accident that millions of laypeople don't find endowed professors at elite schools interesting or useful. Many public universities have rejected merit pay for faculty on the grounds that academic or teaching excellence is impossible to quantify. More elite private universities have embraced a star system of compensation, but in the liberal arts, the criteria of evaluation usually hinge on esoteric and jargon-laden scholarly publications, not teaching excellence. So those who wish to discover history or literature-to learn about the Founding Fathers or military history, say-often look outside the university, to public intellectuals on television and noted best-selling authors like David McCullough or John Keegan.

Private companies have made considerable profits by responding to the public hunger for inspired teaching of traditional liberal arts. The Teaching Company markets prerecorded lectures with rich content in history, literature, and other subjects from proven classroom stars, many of whom have found far less success under normal academic evaluation. Rosetta Stone's software offers foreign-language instruction in dozens of languages, without the embedded cultural sermonizing that often characterizes foreign-language departments' curricula. In a series of CDs from a company called Knowledge Products, marketed as "Giants of Philosophy," the late Charlton Heston narrates excerpts from the seminal philosophers of the Western tradition. Consumers understand that they are buying the words of the philosophers themselves, read and explained by a skilled orator and actor, and skipping the postmodern jargon and leftist bias.

In the future, to learn professions, many students will enroll in specific classes to master accounting, programming, or spreadsheets, and not feel the need to study inductive reasoning or be equipped with the analogies and similes supplied by great literature and the study of history. If, later in life, graduates feel robbed of such a classical foundation, they can buy CDs and recorded lectures or take self-administered correspondence courses. Since universities are no longer places for disinterested investigation in the manner of Socratic inquiry, one can envision a future in which there will be liberal schools and conservative schools, and religious schools and antireligious schools. But the old, classical, unifying university will then have completed its transformation into a multiversity: knowledge, imbued with politics and ideology, will be fragmented, balkanized, and increasingly appropriated by for-profit companies.

Traditional colleges and universities aren't about to die, of course. But their attractions-and especially the enticements of the Ivy League schools, Stanford, Berkeley, and such private four-year colleges as Amherst and Oberlin-will largely derive from the status that they convey, the career advantages that accrue from their brand-name diplomas, and the unspoken allure of networking and associating with others of a similarly affluent and privileged class. They are becoming social entities, private clubs for young people, certification and proof of career seriousness, but hardly centers for excellence in undergraduate education in the classical sense. For all the tens of thousands of dollars invested in yearly tuition, there will be no guarantee, or indeed, even a general expectation, that students will encounter singular faculty or receive a superior liberal arts education-let alone that they will know much more about their exceptional civilization than what they could find on the Internet, at religious schools, or on CDs and DVDs.

Once academia lost the agreed-upon, universally held notion of what classical learning was and why it was important, a steady unraveling process removed not just the mission but the mystery-and indeed, the beauty-from the American university. How ironic that the struggling university, in its efforts to meet changing political, technological, and cultural tastes and fads, willingly forfeited the only commodity that made it irreplaceable and that it alone could do well. And how sad, since once the university broke apart the liberal arts, all the religious schools, self-help courses, and CDs couldn't quite put them together again.


Some Australian students to be taught (optionally) that there's no God

This is fair enough but I hope that there is some place in the curriculum for kids to learn something about the immense impact Christianity has had on the development of our civilization. I am myself an atheist but I sent my son to a Catholic school because I felt his education would be incomplete without an exposure to Christian ideas

Victorian state primary school students will soon be able to take religious education classes which teach there is no evidence God exists. The Humanist Society of Victoria has developed a curriculum for primary pupils that the state government accreditation body says it intends to approve, The Sunday Age newspaper reported. Accredited volunteers will be able to teach their philosophy in the class time allotted for religious instruction, the newspaper said.

As with lessons delivered by faith groups, parents will be able to request that their children do not participate. "Atheistical parents will be pleased to hear that humanistic courses of ethics will soon be available in some state schools," Victorian Humanist Society president Stephen Stuart said.

The society does not consider itself to be a religious organisation and believes ethics have "no necessary connection with religion". Humanists believe people are responsible for their own destiny and reject the notion of a supernatural force or God.


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