Saturday, August 09, 2008


The Howard government made a big issue of declining educational standards but lost power before it could do much. Education problems remain, however, with the vested interests of Left-dominated government teachers entrenched against any reforms. Three recent articles below

Second-ranking government universities fear private competition

Lobby group Innovative Research Universities warns against allowing increased competition from private providers, and demands protection for existing public sector institutions in its in its submission to the Bradley higher education review. "We argue against applying a pure market model to universities - they are critically important to this country. We don't want to see the risk of market failure, as happened in the case of ABC childcare, effecting universities'' IRU executive director Lenore Cooper told HES.

IRU consists of six predominantly suburban and regional institutions, Flinders, Griffith, James Cook, La Trobe, Murdoch and Newcastle. Macquarie University vice chancellor and outspoken reform advocate Steven Schwartz took his institution out of IRU in June. IRU cautions against competition from private providers, arguing that further deregulation would "drive greater homogenisation" in higher education as all providers focused on low cost courses in high consumer demand and that student fees would rise.

Endorsing a 2006 Labor Party policy document the lobby argues that the "special role of public universities'' should be preserved and that "pure market-base forces are not the solution to current funding shortfalls''. "The opening up of Commonwealth supported places to private providers, which are driven by the need to maximise profits for owners and shareholders will inevitably result in those providers moving into the most profitable market niches,'' the submission states.

IRU also rejects further deregulation of student fees suggesting that study costs would either rise or if the market was price sensitive that "regional and outer metropolitan universities'' would lose income due to community pressure to offer a full range of courses at low fees. This would be "a recipe for lowered quality and financial decline''.

And the organisation also opposes research concentration, suggesting that it would be anti-competitive, and that its long term impact would be to "lock institutions into their existing profiles, stifle innovation in research and to deprive many Australian regions of the research support that is required to stimulate regional development''.

However the lobby also suggests that institutions undertaking insufficient research could lose their university status. "IRU's view is that a university must be able to demonstrate research strength in a number of areas. If an institution did not do enough research - it could elect not to be a university and thus not to compete for research funds. This would depend on how much research government specified was necessary for an institution to qualify as a university," Cooper said.

IRU proposes fine tuning the system to reduce the number of discipline clusters used by Canberra to allocate student funding and an end to what IRU says is the unfair subsidy of private providers which allows their students access to publicly supported loans while public universities are barred from offering full fee places to domestic undergraduates. The lobby also called for specific funding to increase university access for disadvantaged Australians in its submission. "There has been enormous change in the last decade and there will continue to be plenty of change but we don't want dramatic change,'' Cooper said.


Call for standards in testing Year 12 of school

One of the nation's leading education researchers has called for national minimum standards in fundamental skills that all students must meet before qualifying for their Year 12 certificate. Australian Council for Educational Research chief executive Geoff Masters said Year 12 certificates should come with a guarantee that students had achieved minimum standards in some basic skills.

At an ACER research conference next week, Professor Masters will propose minimum levels be set for fundamental skills including reading, writing, numeracy, science, civics and citizenship, and information technology. "Most students can complete 13 years of school and be awarded a senior certificate without having to demonstrate minimally acceptable levels of proficiency across a range of fundamental areas," he said yesterday. "Some things are so fundamental we should expect all students to achieve at least a minimum standard by the time they leave school."

Professor Masters said the available evidence suggested that many students leave high school without possessing these fundamental skills. He said the results from international tests run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that 13 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds perform at a minimum baseline, below which students are considered atrisk of not having the basic skills to work or participate in thecommunity. While there is no data on how many Year 12 students graduate without those basic skills, Professor Masters said there was no evidence suggesting that proportion would decrease between Year 9 and Year 12.

In fact, it was unlikely struggling students of that age had received the assistance they required to meet such benchmarks. Professor Masters said a national debate was required about the level at which the standards should be set and how the assessment should be conducted. He envisaged a system under which students could demonstrate they had reached the minimum standards earlier than Year 12 if they felt ready. The assessment could take the form of a national or state-based external exam or an online exam or use teachers' regular assessments where appropriate.

Professor Masters said the current certificates were based on assessing students' knowledge in subjects. "If someone is doing maths in Years 11 and 12, then you can be pretty confident they're going to pass a numeracy test," he said. "But not all students study maths or science, for example, in those years and there's no way of knowing what they understand."

Professor Masters said the standards should be set as part of a national consultation, but outline a minimum level of skill required in everyday life, such as reading and filling out job applications. The system should also report a range of proficiencies in the basic skills to give employers and others a sense of what students could achieve. "We should set the standard at the level we hope everyone should reach by the time they finish school," he said. "There's always a risk that standards are set too low and that the focus is then just on achieving low standards so there needs to be levels beyond a minimally acceptable standard."

Other skills that could be considered were employability skills nominated by employers, such as planning, organisation and teamwork. But Professor Masters said assessing these skills was more complicated than the straightforward tests used in literacy and numeracy.


Postmodern path to student failure

POSTMODERNISM is hobbling Australia's best and brightest university students by locking them into narrow, prescriptive and politically correct ways of thinking and using language. The domination of postmodern theory, especially in humanities courses, is setting up a generation of students for educational failure, University of NSW professor Gavin Kitching argues in a book to be published this week. Based on an analysis of all honours dissertations written by politics students at the university over 23 years, Professor Kitching concludes that the students had abused their intelligence in writing their theses.

In the book, The Trouble With Theory, he says even the best students produce radically incoherent ideas and embrace the "extraordinary proposition" that language uses people rather than being a tool manipulated by people. Professor Kitching, who describes himself as being politically left-wing, said postmodernism had become identified with being left-wing.

"It's postmodernism as intellectual radicalism - if you're on the Left politically you have to believe in all of this," he said. "There are other traditions of being left-wing which respect the facts, which don't believe the world is simply what we believe it to be, that think if you're going to make political arguments, you have to have evidence to support them. I want to reinstate that kind of rigorous, realistic Left liberalism."

Professor Kitching, a professor of politics and fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, argues that postmodernism locks students into inflexible and emotionally manipulative definitions of words in a way that ignores the nuanced nature of language and often defies common sense. This means that terms like terrorist, asylum seeker and gay are used to create stereotypes and not simply to refer to a group of people or to challenge the stereotype. He argues that postmodernist theory does "active intellectual damage" to able students and clouds their thinking. "Postmodernism is addling the brain and wasting the time of some our brightest young people," he says.

In an interview with The Australian, Professor Kitching said the book was not a critique of postmodernism but looked at the educational cost of theory in teaching. "This book is about what a group of intelligent students think postmodernism is," he said. "You could say they don't have it right, they don't understand it, they haven't grasped it. But if this is what they think postmodernism is, if it has led them to argue in these ways, then it's educationally damaging irrespective of whether they have it right or not." Professor Kitching analysed theses that achieved a distinction or high distinction. While they were only those in the school of politics, he said his experience as an external examiner and discussions with colleagues showed the problems ran through history and sociology.

From his analysis of the theses, Professor Kitching said students were captive to a form of linguistic determinism that held that language forces people to think in certain ways. Students equate the way language is used with the meaning of words, so that the word "terrorist" always means a person using extreme violence for political ends, and anyone called a terrorist is actually a terrorist. But he said such thinking excluded sentences such as: "Calling these people terrorists distracts attention from the justice of their cause. "They have a very narrow idea of how we use words.

"(They believe) words have given meanings, and these meanings have certain biases or prejudices. If you use words, you have to accept the biases or prejudices - you're stuck with them. That you can use words ironically is not something they can take seriously. "Clearly that's not true. We use words to refer to things, but we can refer to them ironically, we can refer to them sarcastically, doubtingly, aggressively."


Friday, August 08, 2008

The Harvard kindergarten

A BOOK REVIEW of "Back to School, Turning Crimson" By Philip Delves Broughton. Review by ANDREW FERGUSON

As Paris bureau chief for the London Daily Telegraph, Philip Delves Broughton had one of the most desirable jobs in newspapering -- indeed, one of the last remaining desirable jobs in newspapering -- and he did it well enough to earn the admiration of boss and colleague alike. He shared an apartment on the Left Bank with a charming and beautiful wife and a burbling baby boy. He dined with heads of state and traveled widely on his employer's dime. Despite the volatility of the journalism business, his professional future seemed exceedingly bright. So he quit and went back to school to study accounting.

Of course, these weren't just any old accounting classes. As he tells us in "Ahead of the Curve," his horrifying and very funny memoir, he entered Harvard Business School, joining 900 other strivers as a member of the Class of 2006. At 33, he was older than most of his classmates and wiser to the ways of the world but much less handy when it came to regression analysis.

Half-Burmese and Oxford-educated, Mr. Delves Broughton knew of Harvard -- and particularly of HBS, as it is known in our acronym-crazed era -- mostly as a brand, and he emerged with an ambivalence toward the brand that most Americans will understand. Like our common language, like our love for baseball and bleached flour, our resentful mistrust of Harvard is one of the things that have traditionally bound Americans to one another, from the snootiest Yale graduate to the lowliest stevedore. Meanwhile, everybody is trying to get in.

It is hard to account for the odd position that Harvard holds in the American imagination, and Mr. Delves Broughton's excellent book only deepens the puzzle. Some of what he found won't be surprising, particularly the sense of entitlement for which its students and faculty are famous. The self-regard must get handed out with the matriculation packets. Most graduate business schools, you might have noticed, award MBAs. HBS, according to the dean, specializes in "transformational experiences." Asked to account for a Wall Street Journal poll of corporate recruiters that ranked HBS 13th among business schools, the dean shrugged off the poor showing as sour grapes. What did you expect? HBS grads reject so many routine job offers that of course recruiters are going to resent the school.

Mr. Delves Broughton was prepared for the number-crunching nerdiness, the intense competitiveness and the unrealistically high levels of self-esteem. But there was much more. "HBS," he writes, "had two modes: deadly serious and frat boy, with little in between." The future titans of American industry celebrated the end of their first week of classes with a party at which everyone was expected to dress as his favorite hip-hop star. The central attraction was a "booze luge," an ingenious and super-efficient means of chugging vodka. At midsemester came the Priscilla ball. "The men were to dress as women and the women as sluts. . . . One man looked like Virginia Woolf in a white boa and black wig . . . while another wore a skimpy Heidi outfit and women's underwear, which failed to contain his errant . . . " -- well, you get the idea. And it cost only $120 to attend.

If Mr. Delves Broughton was surprised at the frat-boy excess, it is the other mode, the serious, non-frat-boy one, that the reader may find more disconcerting. The jargon-choked faddishness and fatuous therapeutics of pop business books and the modern workplace have seeped into HBS too. Or maybe it's the other way around. In any case, no serious student, even a serious Harvard student, should have to suffer through New Age group bonding games, as Mr. Delves Broughton and his classmates are forced to do. Another required "personal development exercise" is called "My Reflected Best Self." He quotes the instructions: "The Reflected Best-Self Feedback Exercise differs from other performance mechanisms in its explicit focus on understanding how key constituents experience individuals when they leverage their strength constructively."

Mr. Delves Broughton remains appropriately appalled at this, but as the semesters wear on and he unspools his story, he shows signs of succumbing to a version of Stockholm Syndrome -- a hostage identifying, if not with his captors, then at least with his professors, even those who pretend to teach "leadership skills." His prose, usually breezy and ironic, begins to sprout words like "team-focused." By the end of his two years in Cambridge, Mass., he writes, "I was happy I went." He knows how to do a regression analysis, and he has learned how to make an Excel spreadsheet do everything but play canasta.

He hasn't found a suitable job yet, though, and readers will be happy to see that he retains a hint of skepticism about the whole HBS enterprise -- enough, at least, to include this wonderful bit of data from a study by a banking analyst who tried to track the American equity markets in relation to the number of HBS graduates who chose to go to work in finance each year. If the figure was less than 10%, the market went up not long after. More than 30% and the market was headed for a crash. In 2006, Mr. Delves Broughton reports, 42% of the HBS grads went to work in finance. Right on schedule.


It's time for education reform

By John McCain

Campaigning at town halls across America, I am often asked about my plans to reform our public schools. And the answer begins with two points on which most everyone agrees: Every public school child deserves a first-rate education. And too many of our schools are producing second-rate results. Beyond that, the education debate divides quickly into two camps. Some say all that's needed is more taxpayer money, along with more prekindergarten and after-school programs. Others believe that the basic structure of the education system is flawed, and that fundamental reform is needed. You can put me squarely on the side of major reform.

These days, the cause of education reform crosses all boundaries of party, race and financial means. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have taken up the cause of reform, as have many others, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. These men are strong supporters of the Education Equality Project, a group dedicated to finally changing the status quo in our education system.

This group of leaders is no longer willing to accept a public school system in which many students never even graduate or learn the basics of math, science and English. As Chancellor Klein puts it, "In large urban areas the culture of public education is broken. If you don't fix this culture, then you are not going to be able to make the kind of changes that are needed."

The chancellor speaks for many, and especially for parents who cannot afford a private school. Consider the example of the Opportunity Scholarship program in Washington, D.C., which serves more than 1,900 children from families with an average income of $23,000 a year. More than 7,000 more families have applied for that program. What they all share is the desire to get their kids into a better school.

Yet Democrats in Congress, including my opponent, Sen. Obama, oppose this program. Not long ago, addressing the American Federation of Teachers, he dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as "tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice." That went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave children who are stuck in failing schools?

Parents ask only for safe schools, competent teachers and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public school fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.

If I am elected President, school choice for all who want it, an expansion of Opportunity Scholarships and alternative certification for teachers will all be part of a serious agenda of education reform. We will pay bonuses to teachers working in our most troubled schools because we need their fine minds and good hearts to help turn those schools around.

We will award bonuses as well to our highest-achieving teachers. And instead of measuring teacher achievement by conformity to process, we will measure it by the success of their students. Moreover, the funds for these bonuses will not be controlled by faraway officials. Under my reforms, we will put the money and the responsibilities where they belong - in the office of the school principal. One reason charter schools are so successful is that principals have spending discretion.

I am proud to add my name to the growing list of those who support the Education Equality Project. But one name is still missing: Barack Obama. My opponent talks a great deal about hope and change, and education is an important test of his seriousness. The Education Equality Project is a practical plan for delivering change and restoring hope for children and parents who need a lot of both. And if Sen. Obama continues to defer to the teachers unions, instead of committing to real reform, then he should start looking for new slogans.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

British grade-school exams a mess

From coloured graphs manipulated by statisticians to children bewildered by their grades, education is in turmoil

So who is going to carry the buck for this failure? Late results, unmarked papers, baffled teachers, confused children. "We don't want to see excuses about poor performance, what we want to see is clear plans to raise standards." Thus spake Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, in June, of the 638 schools he deemed to be "failing". He gave them 50 days to turn around or face closure or merger. (Their 50 days was up, incidentally, last Wednesday - funny that we haven't heard anything more about it. Or did they all file their reports late as well?)

Who will give Mr Balls his notice to improve? Yesterday, as his department published the results of Key Stage 2 SATs results for 11-year-olds, Mr Balls was nowhere to be heard. These are the results that headteachers have cautioned are seriously flawed: markers received the papers late; the new online system introduced by ETS, the American company to whom the marking had been contracted out, was too complex and slow. Some pupils did not exist, schools had the wrong papers returned to them, or were sent papers that hadn't even been marked; about a third of secondary school pupils did not get their results by the end of term, and legal action is now under way against ETS.

Meanwhile, many experienced markers have abandoned ship having got fed up with the chaos and ETS's unanswered premium-rate telephone lines - a child's education ransomed to profiteering on essential phone calls. It is already getting too late for another company to take over marking for the 2009 tests. This saga is nowhere near ended.

These are real children, with real futures, who have worked hard, and who are utterly confused. It is bad enough to be reduced to a set of numbers in the first place, without all the authorities behind that set of numbers failing even to produce them for you. But instead of coming out fighting for what was left of the results yesterday, Mr Balls has taken to hiding behind his statisticians.

Last week, the Schools Secretary wrote to a House of Commons committee that publication of the results was a matter for his department's "head of statistics", who had advised that they should come out on August 5 despite headteachers' widespread concerns about missing results and marking quality.

An education minister hiding behind his statisticians is like a chancellor cowering behind his economists: it is drivel and deserves to be treated with derision. Yet the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) was at it again yesterday, a spokesman now using the statisticians to deride as not "statistically robust" a well-timed report from the think-tank Civitas.

Civitas found the overwhelming majority of secondary schools that it spoke to had their own doubts on the validity of official SATs results. Nine out of ten of Year 7 teachers who replied to a random survey by Civitas believe the Key Stage 2 SATs tests exaggerate a child's abilities, with around a third of pupils getting higher scores than they deserve. Most secondary schools have to test the children again in their first weeks to determine which level they are really at, as specific coaching at primary school has enabled pupils to skim higher marks in the SATs than they really merit.

And why the coaching? Because the scores feed into the league tables, thence into the furrowed brow of a local parent obsessing over the numbers for her child's potential school. Testing and league tables have their place in our education system, but not at the expense of clarity and honesty; the numbers should elucidate, not confuse.

You choose your statistician and your statistics to suit your case. I was reading an article in the Royal Statistical Society journal a few months ago which argued that school league tables themselves are statistically meaningless as a measure of educational quality. Funny the DCSF doesn't have any departmental statisticians telling it that. And this year's tables will be more unreliable than ever because of the added uncertainty over the accuracy of ETS's SATs results.

No ministers will ever admit to the imperfection of their charts because, in the face of scepticism about the achievements of their Government, these multicoloured graphs have become the only measure by which they can trumpet their success. This explains the obsession with testing: it has become not a tool of policy, but policy itself. By their test results shall you praise or damn them. Imagination and good leadership have shrunk to lines on a graph.

As the date of publication of the SATs results approached, what were education ministers doing? Sending out multicoloured charts to the media to demonstrate their latest anti-obesity drive in primary schools. Hey, your kid may not be able to read, but at least he knows he's fat.

This row over SATs is not just about exam results, it is about a style of government that reduces people to blobs on graphs, to data entered in a system and then manipulated by the statisticians. It is government gone wrong: contracted-out responsibility, lack of accountability, and a ministry that can send out 3,840 pages of instructions to head teachers in a single year, but cannot get exam papers marked on time.

It is a tale of children being failed by a system that turns them into numbers on a chart; which treats their individuality as a problem, problems as targets, and then contracts pupils out to the lowest bidder with a premium-rate phone line to tout.

Great expectations fallen on hard times: it is a tale, ultimately, of the four in ten children, born in the year Labour came to power promising "education, education, education", and leaving primary school today still without real competence in literacy, numeracy and science. Funny that those statisticians cannot come up with a chart illustrating that.


Education politics in the USA

Teachers' unions are expert at presenting the interests of their members and of public school students as one and the same. Which is why it's always illuminating to see how the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, spends its political money.

Each year, NEA members pay into a "Ballot Measure/Legislative Crises Fund" that allows the union to spend tens of millions of dollars on all manner of state and national political issues. Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency, a longtime union watchdog, has tracked this fund's spending. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, not surprisingly, the NEA spent $2.3 million -- on top of $1 million spent the previous fiscal year -- fighting a school voucher referendum in Utah.

But other expenditures reveal this national NEA cash -- which is separate from PAC contributions that must adhere to federal campaign-finance laws -- as a fund for various and sundry left-wing political causes. Mr. Antonucci reports that during the current fiscal year the NEA sent the Hawaii State Teachers Association $20,000 to conduct polling on a state constitutional convention. It sent the Massachusetts Teachers Association $60,000 to oppose a state income-tax repeal. And it sent the Florida Education Association $200,000 to oppose property-tax cuts in the Sunshine State.

Expect more of the same going forward in a state near you. "Unlike most previous years," writes Mr. Antonucci, "NEA finished 2007-08 with a surplus of nearly $5.9 million, which means the union will enter the 2008-09 school year with almost $20 million available to spend." It's a shame the NEA doesn't spend as much money and effort trying to improve lousy schools as it does trying to keep taxes high.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Don't worry, kid, you don't need to know that

By Vin Suprynowicz

The Review-Journal editorialized, back on July 25:
"To understand and explain American exceptionalism, like it or not, it may be necessary to at least understand why aeroplanes were not used in the Civil War, why the British couldn't use the train to get back and forth between New York and Philadelphia in 1788, and why the Jackson Democrats kept making such a fuss about the National Bank.

"Nevada's Council to Establish Academic Standards was scheduled to meet July 21 to adopt new public-school history standards. When some attention was drawn to what they're up to, they promptly postponed their meeting for 'lack of a quorum.'

"Behind all the double-talk about replacing fact-driven, chronological history with a more 'thematic approach,' the unmistakable goal is to dumb down our history classes still further. The draft proposal under consideration is 'gobbledy-gook,' says Carson City School Board member (and former history teacher) Joe Enge. The stated goals are 'so broad I could drive a truck through them,' Mr. Enge says.

"Extrapolating 'themes' from history is great. But a young person cannot possibly judge -- let alone generate -- a useful interpretation of any facet of American history if he or she cannot locate the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Bunker Hill, Guadalcanal, Normandy, and Yorktown on a globe ... place them in their proper chronological order ... and name a commanding officer from at least three. "Go ahead, ask them."

In response, one Cheryl Grames Hoffman of Las Vegas writes in:
"Kind sir, I can assure you that no job or law school application has asked any questions about the names and places of American battles of any century. More importantly ... such a view obstructs a constructive conversation about how best to teach history to kids.

"I taught American history at UNLV for three semesters, and I really, really did not want my students simply to spew facts at me. Instead, I wanted them to learn the relevance and meaning of some key facts, and then to show me they could convey that relevance and meaning in a clear and convincing way. Sure, it would be cool for young people today to know the facts of the Great Depression. Even cooler would be for them to be able to speak and write about it well. Employers, I think, place value on that ability -- not on knowledge of important battles in our past.

"Studying history is a means to an end: it can provide an opportunity for kids to master a much-needed set of skills. Let us focus on providing them a means for learning how to think critically, to synthesize data, and to present it for others to scrutinize. The end, however, is not that young people become more patriotic and less apathetic about all that has transpired before they arrived on this planet. The end is that our youngest citizens are ready to join us upon graduation as productive members of society, equipped with valuable, transferable skills. "Isn't that really what most folks would like our educational system to accomplish?"

Well, no, Ms. Hoffman. If all we wanted was to teach the process of "synthesizing data" we could cancel the history courses and have the young people write papers analyzing the philosophy of Batman.

You cannot process and interpret data until you've got some. English class is for learning how to craft a paper -- to improve their diction and delivery the young folk can join the Debate Club. In history class we expect them to actually commit some stuff to memory.

If I'm reading this right, what we have here is a history teacher (albeit "former") saying it's silly -- that it "obstructs a constructive conversation about how best to teach history to kids" -- to expect college history students to be able to tell us whether Gettysburg or Yorktown came first (We said "place in chronological order," not "give specific dates") and to name a couple of the commanding generals. Because the question never comes up on job applications.

I don't remember ever being asked to do long division on a job application, either, or how many electrons there are in a helium atom. (We would want our students to be able to "spew some facts" about what happened at Lakehurst in May of 1937 before they substituted hydrogen in their balloons with helium, wouldn't we?)

What prospective employers and institutions of higher learning do ask is whether you've got an eighth grade education, or a high school diploma, or maybe spent four or five years at a day school best known for its semi-pro basketball team and being closed on weekends.

As recently as 1965 an affirmative answer to the "eighth grade" question meant you could do long division, algebra and at least stumble through "Madame Bovary" and/or the "Commentarii de Bello Gallico." The "high school diploma" question used to mean no one had to re-check to make sure you knew "1781; west shore of the Chesapeake; Cornwallis surrenders to Washington" with extra points if you knew what the Comte de Grasse was up to, that week.

Apparently nowadays asking about the diplomas will no longer suffice; thanks to "educators" such as Ms. Hoffman we're going to have to actually start checking this stuff.

How do you discuss the "relevance and meaning" of Continental logistics problems or the Treaty of Paris or the 1789 debate over the need for a stronger central state if you think Yorktown was fought after Gettsyburg and you believe the American commander in 1781 was Meade or Eisenhower or maybe Robert E. Lee or you just don't care because you're convinced none of that matters, it's all just "spewing facts," that studying history is a "means to an end" -- an undisclosed "end" that apparently has more to do with moaning about the lack of advancement opportunities for 18th century women than requiring anyone to retain any "facts" or be able to explain what happened at Pearl Harbor or Bunker Hill or the beaches of Normandy ... or even who was in charge?

How do you "think critically" about whatever theories and "trends" the government-school teacher wants to spoon-feed you if you don't know enough "boring facts" to say, "Wait a minute; that doesn't fit"?

Should we wonder now why so few of our public servants seek to emulate Washington -- how would they even know how? -- if they have no idea what he did on Dec. 23, 1783, and then on March 4, 1797, arguably the two most important acts taken by any single man in delivering us our freedom ("If this is true," said no less a figure than George III, "then he is the greatest man of the age") ... exceeding even what "the indispensable man" did on Christmas night, 1776, a date any American should be ashamed at having to look up?

I wipe away tears of pride. Ms. Hoffman sneers that we're "just spewing facts."


Education as a Civil Rights Issue

Civil rights groups have begun a welcome attack on a House bill that would temporarily exempt the states from the all-important accountability requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002. The attack, led by powerful groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, was unexpected, given that the nation's two big teachers' unions actually hold seats on the conference's executive committee. Recent events suggest that the civil rights establishment generally is ready to break with the teachers' unions and take an independent stand on education reform.

Despite innocuous packaging, the House bill looks very much like a stealth attempt to gut the national school accountability effort. Introduced by Representatives Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, and Timothy Walz, a Democrat from Minnesota who is a former teacher, it is supported by the National Education Association, the influential teachers' union that has been trying to kill off No Child Left Behind for years.

The bill, which is unlikely to pass, would permit the states to ignore the parts of the law that require them to pursue corrective actions at failing schools. That would encourage lassitude in states and districts that have already dragged their feet for too long. It would sap the energy of states that have shown clear progress since the law was passed and are eager to move forward. Once stopped, the reform effort could take years to get moving again.

The support of civil rights groups for the No Child Left Behind Act has been muted in the years since the law was first passed. But with the reauthorization process under way, the groups are making it clear that they view education reform as a civil rights issue. They want changes in No Child Left Behind - but only changes that strengthen the law - and they are fully prepared to fight the unions for those changes if necessary.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A new British "university of life"

It is not so much a school for scoundrels as an academy to turn hooray Henrys into smart Alecs. A new "university of life" will teach its students how to talk at the dinner table, what books to read and how to sneer at British holidaymakers. A group of philosophers, actors, wits and businessmen has been assembled to offer courses on everything from sparkling table talk to French philosophy.

The School of Life, whose faculty includes Alain de Botton, the philosopher and author, and Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4, may appear to critics to be an attempt to bolt intellectual pretentiousness onto old-fashioned snobbery. Its backers, however, insist it will help clients who have been too busy in the pursuit of money to develop their social skills and intellectual depth. De Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, will offer students an insight into ways to revive a relationship, choose a good doctor, enjoy a holiday, make friends and respond to an insult.

Those who would be welcome to attend evening and weekend classes include Katie Price, the model and bestselling author also known as Jordan. Price said she was barred from part of the Cartier polo tournament at Windsor last weekend out of "pure snobbery".

The school, which opens in Bloomsbury in central London next month, was founded by Sophie Howarth, 33, a former curator at Tate Modern. "It is not a finishing school. Nor is it conventional evening classes," Howarth said. "We are going to be teaching essential stuff to bright people and acting as a travel agent for the mind. We are pitching at bright, busy people who want to make the most of their careers and lifestyles and limited time off. The etiquette lessons will not be about which spoon to use or how to fold a napkin but more a menu to good conversation."

Lessons in politics will examine the theories of philosophers from Plato to Karl Marx but will also look into whether it would be more politically effective to become a billionaire than prime minister.

Learning courses - which include lessons in love, work, family and play - will cost $400 a term, starting in September. Meals will cost $90 for three courses. There is also the opportunity for a "one-to-one" with an expert for $100 an hour and a chance to listen to a "sermon" from a guest speaker or go on specialised holidays with a guest lecturer. The "sermons" are not religious but will discuss modern ethics.

Experts such as Susan Elderkin, author of Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains, will give students a spot of "biblio-therapy" with tailored reading lists. Students will also be invited on field trips. De Botton will teach them the meaning of travel at Heathrow airport for two days for $600 a head; and Martin Parr, a photographer, will lead an expedition to the Isle of Wight to observe "the vulgarity, nostalgia and brashness of British holidaymaking in its full glory".


Australia: Teachers union has proposed a national system of performance pay

Unusual for a teachers' union. "All teachers are equal" is their usual mantra

The teachers union has proposed a national system of performance pay that would restructure the profession to pay the best teachers more money to stay in the classroom. The Australian Education Union is calling on the Rudd Government to fund a national system of accomplished teachers that would assess teachers against a published set of standards and pay them at least $100,000 a year. The system would be voluntary and insert a new salary band for classroom teachers above the existing wage scale, which most teachers top in their first eight or nine years.

Federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said a new career structure was required to move away from the current system under which teachers are forced to leave the classroom and undertake administrative positions to achieve further pay rises. "This is a two-step process in giving professional pay for teachers," he said. "First we need to ensure as a country that we have a competitive professional salary to attract teachers in the numbers required to ensure a qualified teacher in front of every single classroom, no matter where it is in the country. "Beyond that, I restate our preparedness to negotiate a framework that further recognises and rewards demonstrated teaching skills, knowledge and practice."

Primary school teacher Anthony Atkinson welcomed the plan to recognise the profession's best performers and to give new teachers a guide to what is expected of them. Mr Atkinson, who is in his second year of teaching at Merri Creek Primary School in Melbourne's inner suburbs, said the system would focus attention on the professionalism of teachers. "I like the idea of having a set of standards that are a way of recognising things when still in the classroom," he said. "Anything that gives you a roadmap for your professional development ... is definitely going to be helpful."

The union proposal is based on a report commissioned from Educational Assessment Australia at the University of NSW, which developed a set of standards for assessing teachers as accomplished performers. The report looked at professional standards developed by the teacher registration bodies in each state and territory to compile a set of about 100 indicators for measuring the quality of teaching practice.

The majority of questions dealt with standards of teaching and practice, curriculum and programming, lesson planning and content, assessment and reporting, implementation of teaching practice, professional development, and participation in the school community. The EAA study sought to indicate the proportion of teachers who met the accomplished teaching standard, and found half the 1833 surveyed teachers met 57 per cent of the criteria.

Education Minister Julia Gillard said the AEU report was timely and would add to the work being done by governments to improve rewards, incentives and career structures for teachers. "Better ways to reward quality teaching certainly need to be developed and any reward system needs to be based on transparent standards for assessing teachers," she said. "We need to find ways of valuing teachers who are teachers of excellence because we want to keep the best teachers in front of classrooms."

Opposition education spokesman Tony Smith also welcomed the union's turnaround on performance pay, saying the AEU had "come out of the Stone Age" to discuss the issue.


Monday, August 04, 2008

Eminent British educationist says that centralization of education is the evil and school choice is the answer

Chris Woodhead was a champion of the Tory education reforms but now admits they have failed. Here he explains why

Twenty years ago last week the educational landscape changed. Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act, the most comprehensive and controversial piece of education legislation since the second world war, became law. I did not know it at the time but my life was about to move on, too.

Naturally, most teachers were deeply suspicious. They dismissed the idea of a national curriculum to be defined by politicians as an intrusion into their professional domain. They hated the introduction of national curriculum tests to be taken by children at seven, 11 and 14, and they hated the prospect of inspections every six years, with more published reports .

The idea that heads should take greater financial responsibility for their schools was more welcome, and entrepreneurial head teachers could see that the introduction of a new category of grant-main-tained schools could free them from the clutches of local authority bureaucrats. Most, though, were nervous of this new independence. They may not have liked their local education authority, but they liked the idea of standing on their own two feet even less.

My reaction was more positive. The basic logic seemed right to me. Why shouldn't parliament set out what it expected the nation's children to be taught? Given that broad specification, why not devolve as much responsibility as possible to the individual school to take financial and educational decisions that made sense in its particular circum-stance? And why not hold schools accountable, through tests and inspections, for the quality of those decisions and the standards achieved by their pupils?

The devil, as always, would be in the detail, but there was nothing here that was not good management practice. Tell people what you want them to do, give them the resources and space to get on with it and hold them accountable. I hoped, too, that a national curriculum would mean a national entitlement to study a broad range of subjects, ending what can only be called the eccentricity of local provision in many schools.

I thought it would raise expectations in those schools that did not demand enough of their pupils. Likewise the prospect of real accountability and, yes, the danger of public humiliation might focus a few minds that needed focusing. And, working as I was in a local authority, I was only too aware of both bureaucratic waste and the eccentricity of some local politicians.

A couple of years later I found myself in charge of the national curriculum. Then in 1992, when responsibilities for the curriculum were merged with testing, I headed up the new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Later I took over Ofsted, the inspectorate. That is what I mean when I say my life changed. I became responsible at different times for most of the key aspects of the act.

I have therefore to ask myself a difficult question. How much am I to blame for the failure of a series of educational reforms that in principle I continue to believe make basic sense, but which in practice I now consider to have done more harm than good?

If David Cameron and his Conservatives were to ask me what to do about it all, I would tell them to abolish both the national curriculum and Ofsted. The tests at 11 and perhaps at seven should be kept but are in need of radical reform, as is the so-called autonomy of schools. The idea behind the act was that they should be autonomous institutions, free from local authority and central government control, but the tentacles of bureaucratic control are as strong now as they were in 1988 - stronger perhaps.

Baker and subsequent Conservative politicians saw the national curriculum as a challenge to progressive, child-centred educational theories. So the English curriculum insisted on the teaching of spelling and grammar and listed the classics of English literature that should be taught to pupils as they moved through school. The history programme of study sought to ensure that children learnt something at least of the nation's story - and geography, in a similar fashion, focused on a fair number of geographical facts.

My own view was that these were much-needed developments but, as the years have gone by, the original knowledge-based core of the curriculum has come under ever greater attack. With hindsight, what has happened is utterly predictable. The national curriculum now enshrines the very educational beliefs it was originally intended to confront. Hence my belief that it has become part of the problem and should be abolished.

Inspections made a contribution when they focused in a rigorously objective way on what matters most in a school: the quality of leadership and teaching. Now they are based on the school's own self-evaluation, teachers are rarely observed and the evidence from inspection seems more often than not to be used to buttress ministerial claims that everything is progressing wonderfully. Once again a good idea has been rendered impotent, if not downright dangerous.

The tests, in particular those sat by 11-year-olds, matter because they give parents some sense of how successful the school their child attends, or might attend, is in teaching basic skills of English and mathematics. But at the moment, as we all know from news reports, the testing system is in chaos, so even here it is hard to say the reform act initiated a change that has survived the years.

I tried in the different jobs I did to insist on what I thought mattered. Many people of course disagreed with what I wanted to achieve, but not many have accused me of failing to fight my corner. I fought and perhaps I should have fought harder. But in the end, whatever I did or anybody else tries to do in the future, my conclusion is that any attempt to reform the nation's 24,000 schools from the centre is doomed to failure.

Our current government is never going to deviate from its centralist path. Cameron could. He could develop a truly Conservative approach to state education that finds ways to empower parents as consumers and relies on the wisdom of their choices. That is the prize. The history of the past 20 years shows there is no alternative.


Detroit crookedness again

The FBI is investigating Detroit Public Schools for possible misuse of at least $500,000 in funds connected to a program aimed at retaining and attracting students in the beleaguered district, according to board members and a confidential memo Superintendent Connie Calloway sent to board members Monday. In the memo, obtained by The Detroit News on Monday, Calloway told board members "the FBI has picked up two boxes of files in connection with the Detroit Public Schools' Retain and Gain Initiative." The program was launched February 2007, months before Calloway started with the district. Calloway ended the initiative.

Calloway said she was contacted by the FBI about the program in July 2007, shortly after she became superintendent. "Since then I have had several discussions with the FBI related to Retain and Gain," the memo said. "DPS has also moved forward with an internal investigation." The Retain and Gain Initiative probe involves allegations of undocumented employees and undocumented work hours, among other allegations and could involve up to $1 million more in missing funds, according to one board member. The district has lost nearly 61,000 students since the 1999-2000 school year.

An FBI spokeswoman in Detroit had no comment on the memo. "We cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation," Sandra Berchtold said. School board members Monday night confirmed the investigation. Board member Marie Thornton said the probeis another black eye for the district. "The FBI needs to do their job and someone needs to go to jail," Thornton said. "Peoples' heads need to roll."

Former Detroit Public Schools Board President Dr. Jimmy Womack said he doesn't believe the FBI will find any wrongdoing. "Based on the information that was shared with me before Dr. Calloway got here and since she's been here it is not likely they are not going to find something," Womack said. But Womack added he's skeptical the FBI approached Calloway. "The FBI doesn't just come to you," he said. "They have to have a reason to come to you."

William F. Coleman III was removed as superintendent of the trouble district in March 2007. Lamont Satchel was interim superintendent until Calloway's appointment.

Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a former district spokesman who was a member of the team involved with the initiative, said he had brought concerns to Calloway regarding another employee. He said the funds originally promised for the initiative, $1.5 million, were not available. "Given some of the concerns I had ... I'm not surprised" about the investigation, he said Monday.

The Retain and Gain probe joins another FBI investigation into the district's Risk Management Office. That office oversees the district's insurance and assesses its financial liability and cost. The probe involves allegations of millions of dollars in improper wire transfers. It is the latest in a series of money problems that have struck the district recently.

According to a federal audit of funds from 2004-06, DPS misused $53.6 million in federal funds designated for low-income children and should return that amount to the U.S. Department of Education or provide documents that the money was used properly.

The district is trying to eliminate a $408 million deficit and pay past-due vendor bills. The district must make $522 million in cuts over two years; it also received $38 million in emergency payments from the state this month.


Sunday, August 03, 2008

Final grade school exams in Britain expected to show quarter of pupils without grasp of basics

Fewer children are expected to start secondary school in September with a decent grasp of the basics, according to official forecasts

The number of 11-year-olds reaching national standards in English, mathematics and science will drop across the board, it is predicted. Sats results published next week are expected to show a quarter of pupils failed to reach the level expected of their age in maths. At least one-in-five is predicted to fail in English.

It follows new rules introduced for the first time this year - preventing schools "inflating" scores for thousands of borderline pupils. In the past, children just missing national standards had exam papers automatically reviewed - resulting in some many papers being upgraded. The loophole has now been closed.

Government statisticians said they expected results to drop by up to two percentage points when they are published on Tuesday, putting standards back at levels achieved in 2004. But there are fears that results could also be affected by the chaos surrounding the marking of this year's Sats papers. Results for 6,000 primary pupils had still not been delivered to schools earlier this week following errors by the company handling the process. Thousands more results for 14-year-olds were also outstanding.

Ofqual, the exams watchdog, said the delays would not affect marking, insisting "there was no evidence of widespread problems with the quality" of scripts. But some teachers have complained of irregularities, including papers being returned with no marks at all.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "The Government would have been better advised to hold them back so we could be assured that we were looking at authentic results. "So many doubts have been expressed that there has to be question marks against whatever results are published next week. If we are going to compare them properly against previous years, and use them as an accurate reflection of the performance of the system, we need to know that the results are as accurate as they could be."

The National Association of Head Teachers said the decision to publish national figures "beggars belief". It said it received 300 complaints from members about inaccuracies, which may only represent the "tip of the iceberg".

Some 600,000 children took Sats tests in their final year of primary school. In 2007, 80 per cent of pupils gained the level expected of their age in English, 77 per cent in maths and 88 per cent in science. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said it expected results to fall following the removal of so-called borderlining. In a statement, officials said it was likely to cause "a fall in the proportion of pupils achieving the expected level by up to two percentage points". It is believed English results will be worst hit.

Since the mid-90s, pupils with results two or three points below the pass mark in tests had papers automatically reviewed. But results for those who only just scraped over the borderline were never re-checked. It means thousands were marked up - but no-one was downgraded. Since 1999, average results have been boosted by 1.2 percentage points in English, 0.2 points in maths and 0.6 points in science, according to the Government's National Assessment Agency.

Nick Gibb, the Conservative shadow schools minister, said: "If these are more accurate figures, it just shows that the small rises in results we have seen in the last few years have been completely bogus. It will just reiterate the fact that standards of reading, writing and maths have plateaued over the last six or seven years. We should be getting all children to the required standard."


Inside the new U.S. education bill

On Tuesday night, a congressional conference committee passed legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) that if enacted - and it seems it will be - will drive up both the price of college and your tax bill. But don't bother trying to nitpick it; the legislation is 1,158 pages long and is expected to be voted on by the full House and Senate today. It is doubtful many members of Congress will read even a little of the bill before it's given a final yea or nay.

And what's the significance of 452 billion, you ask? In dollars, it's the newly projected size of the federal deficit, a huge shortfall to which the new HEA will only be adding digits. Consider just some of the broad lowlights, which is all that are available given the bill's sheer, mountainous size, and the time constraints under which it's being rammed through Congress.

First and foremost, the new HEA would increase the Pell Grant maximum from $5,800 to $9,000, a 55 percent leap. If the same number of Pell recipients as we had in 2008 - almost 5.6 million - were to receive maximum benefits under the new bill, it would cost more than $50 billion. The chances of that happening aren't huge - most Pell recipients don't qualify for maximum awards, and Congress rarely appropriates full authorized amounts - but Pell outlays will almost certainly rise, and their potential is fiscally frightening.

Still in the direct-costs-to-taxpayers column, the bill would simplify the process for students to get federal aid, easing the way to government money for students who are so unmotivated they won't even go through the current process to get college dough. There's also a new loan fund for colleges damaged by natural disasters, and added cash for graduate programs serving large minority populations.

Next, we have new rules and regulations. Colleges will have to report a lot more information about what supposedly drives their costs and prices. The U.S. Department of Education will get new authority to regulate private loans, which use no taxpayer money and are, as a result, the only truly fair student aid because both lender and borrower voluntarily agree to terms. There's even a requirement that colleges come up with plans to enable students to legally download music and movies.

And then there's the real kicker: This bill would do nothing to rein in rampant tuition inflation, by far the biggest problem in higher education. Indeed, by giving students yet more taxpayer-furnished aid, it will just keep exacerbating the problem, heaping more cheap money on kids so that they can demand bigger hot tubs, more famous professors, and fancier dining-hall food.

Just look at the numbers: It's no coincidence that while the inflation-adjusted price of college has gone up roughly 70 percent over the last two decades, aid per-student rose almost 140 percent. The more money students get from others, the more they're willing to pay and the more universities are happy to charge.

Unfortunately, this all seems inconsequential in Washington. The conference committee passed its HEA monstrosity 40-4. The bill is expected to breeze through the House and Senate - if it can physically be squeezed through the doors - on its way to a presidential signature. It's just another sign that numbers like 1,158 and $452 billion mean nothing in D.C. Vote counts are the only numbers that really matter.