Sunday, January 18, 2009

Who'd be a teacher in today's nervous educational system?

Comment from Australia -- but what it describes is true in the UK and USA too. It documents the familiar modern practice of allowing one whiner to dictate to everyone else. Policy should be changed only when there is an extensive demand for it, not just a demand from one individual

WANTED: A mature adult, with tertiary qualifications, good values, ability to work long hours to educate tomorrow's leaders in everything from maths to English to good manners. Need to be able to be criticised, abused and possibly even assaulted.

Who would apply to be a teacher in 2009? As the school doors closed last year, the debate centred around whether red pens should be used in classrooms and whether building a replica of Noah's Ark amounted to Christian indoctrination. But as those teachers preparing to go back into the classroom this month will tell you, that's only the beginning. Each day, someone will question the decisions they make. They accept that. But more and more often, the questions become complaints, which are taking up more and more of a teacher's time. And it's the consequence of that that we should be worried about.

Teachers are rethinking their career choices; many with years of experience are choosing to leave and none of the debate is focusing on where that leaves our education system -- or the children at its centre. The following is a list of real examples you will not have heard about; they are complaints given to organisers of the Queensland Teachers Union.

* A primary school teacher had a complaint lodged by a parent because she had given the kids a worksheet headed "Spelling demons". The parent's objection centred around "the association with the supernatural" and thought the children would be frightened.

* A primary school in a regional area in Queensland withdrew yoga classes that had been offered to students as part of their fitness program. The reason hehind the forced withdrawal? A parental complaint about yoga's association with "foreign religions" .

* Another primary school removed Harry Potter posters after a parent complained that the posters "introduced children to witchcraft".

* Similarly, a parent of a high school student complained about Macbeth being studied in English classes because it "promoted witchcraft".

* The parents of a high school student complained about the "grave health risk to their child" who was asked to pick up papers from the school grounds as a consequence of persistent disruptive behaviour.

* Melbourne Cup Day was difficult last year -- as it is every year - because of the litany of complaints it brings. For example, the last race prompted complaints from parents because students were not allowed to discuss "the big race". The teachers were accused of being un-Australian. But the same day - and race -- brought complaints from parents of children who were allowed to discuss it, because it allegedly promotes gambling.

* In cases wbere Santa was allowed to be part of recent classroom celebrations, these complaints were logged. 1. Santa promotes a fantasy figure and should be banned. 2. Teachers were promoting an unhealthy overweight role model to children and should be brought into line 3. The presence of Santa in the classroom promoted "greed". You'd think that would make a teacher's plan for the next Christmas easy: Ban Santa and stop the complaints. But no. An equal number of complaints are received each December when Santa is not part of celebrations. Parents have complained that (a) it is political correctness "gone mad"; and (b) that teachers are denying children exposure to a well-loved traditional and cultural figure.

Even the sun-safe "no hat, no play" rule - which has been in place in Queensland state schools for years - brings regular complaints from parents who claim their children have been "discriminated against" if they are not allowed on to the oval because they have no hat. The issue of homework, too, is fraught with problems. Some parents argue that children should do all their work during school hours. But those on the other side say not giving enough homework means teachers are not fully providing for their education and how can all education be achieved from 8.30am to 3pm five days a week?

Add to that the appalling pay given to our teachers, and you wonder whether we are setting our education system up to fail. Of course, parents should have a say in the education of their children. But surely once you investigate the options, and select a school for your children, barring real evidence that your child is being damaged, shouldn't we leave the education to those trained to do it?

The spectre of daily complaints and even legal threats must have an effect on those at the front of the classroom. Why would you go the extra yard, think outside the square, or add to the curriculum if the risk is a barrage of complaints and the threat of legal action? It's our children who risk missing out here.

The above story by Madonna King appeared in the Brisbane "Courier Mail" of Saturday 17, January, 2009

Short-Changing the Gifted

For elites, more should be required.

I see the College Board is axing four of its AP courses after the current academic year. The axees are: Italian, Latin-literature, French-literature, and the higher-level of their two computer-science courses.

AP stands for "Advanced Placement." These are courses taught to the brightest kids in high schools, allowing them to get college credits. Not just in high schools, either: the College Board is independent of the public-education and teacher-union power structures, and anyone can take an AP exam just by signing up and paying the (very modest) fee. AP is therefore a step in the direction of the general "certification" model of libertarian education, as described by Charles Murray in his recent book. AP programs are a Good Thing.

[Before continuing, I had better apologize for the gross act of political incorrectness I committed in the second sentence of my previous paragraph. It is of course not the case that some kids are "bright" while others are "dull." There are only "privileged" kids and "disadvantaged" kids. As the lady from the New York Times told Charles when interviewing him about his book: "Given the opportunity, most people could do most anything." To suggest otherwise is shameful, bigoted, and hurtful. I am sorry. Sorry sorry sorry! May I continue please? Thank you!]

Since AP programs are a Good Thing, the cancellation of four of them is a Bad Thing. It's especially a Bad Thing in the educational environment of today, when more and more public-education resources are devoted to the slower students [Gosh darn it, there I go again-Sorry! Sorry!] in pursuit of No Child Left Behind goals. If no child is to be left behind, teachers can justify giving most of their attention to the stragglers while ignoring the ones who are forging ahead. Something like this has been happening.

The cancellation of Italian is a doubly Bad Thing. This is the first time a language AP program has ever been cancelled in the 50-odd years these programs have been available. Cancellation of programs is anyway a rare thing. A music-appreciation course was dropped in 1991; I don't know of any other instances. In the case of Italian, the College Board declared that they were faced with "a question of funding." Some part of the fault lies with the Italian government, which had promised to help out with the funding. Unfortunately, the Italian government is even more hopelessly incompetent at getting anything done than the average national government-which is to say, very, very incompetent indeed.

The College Board emphasizes that these are small programs. Only 1,930 students nationwide took the AP Italian exam last May, compared with 4,322 for Chinese and over 100,000 for Spanish. We are, indeed, drifting towards a situation where "foreign-language instruction" in public schools means Spanish. My own two kids were given a free choice of foreign language by their over-indulgent parents when the time came. They both opted for Spanish (from menus that included French, Italian, and Latin). We couldn't dissuade them. Why Spanish? "Because all my friends are doing it." References to Exodus 23:2 were of no avail.

I'm guessing, in any case, that my kids made the right choice. Though decently good students when pushed, neither shows signs of being an academic superstar. For ordinary middle-class Americans, Spanish probably is the best choice of a high-school language, to the degree it matters. (Which is not, in my opinion, much. Very few of us can attain mastery of a foreign language by school instruction. Most of us, in fact, once we have graduated, lose whatever of our school language we had. Learning a foreign language is a good mental discipline, and in a few scattered cases it will have some future advantage; but vocation-wise, high-school language instruction is mostly pointless.)

For the gifted few, though [Sorry! Sorry!], a different logic applies, or should. Charles Murray:

The proposition is not that America's future should depend on an elite that is educated to run the country; but that, whether we like it or not, America's future does depend on an elite that runs the country. The members of that elite are drawn overwhelmingly from among the academically gifted. We had better make sure that we do the best possible job of educating them.

These brightest [I am flagellating myself!] kids are exactly the ones taking AP programs in their Junior and Senior years of high school. The number is about a million, taking an average two programs each. That's out of a total of about 16 million high-school-age Americans. For these members of our future elite, the rules should, as I said, be different. For them, considerations above and beyond the merely utilitarian and satisfactory should apply.

Of course we want all our young people to leave school acquainted with the civilization they belong to. I should be ashamed for my own kids to enter adulthood unfamiliar with at least the names, nationalities, and approximate dates of Plato and Aristotle, Alexander and Caesar, Henry VIII and Louis XIV, Newton and Darwin, Shakespeare and Dickens, and so on.

For elites, though, more should be required. These students should engage with our civilization and its high culture, and that involves good, close acquaintance with at least one modern European language and one ancient one. For ancient languages the choice is of course Latin or Greek. In modern languages, I'd put French at the head of the list, with German close behind, Italian below that, and Russian and Spanish, in that order, considerably below that. For complicated historical reasons, Spain simply didn't contribute much to European civilization. Spain had novelists, poets, painters, composers, philosophers, and scientists to be sure, but nothing like as many-not remotely as many-as the other great European nations. To take just one aspect of civilization dear to my own heart, try clicking on the various European regions here to see the birthplaces of great mathematicians.

To the degree-which, I say again, is not very far-that there is any point in teaching foreign languages to average, un-brilliant kids like mine, Spanish should be the language of choice, just because it's the other big language of our hemisphere, and most likely to be some use to them in adult life. On the gifted few, though-the ones taking AP programs-we should press those languages that encode the high civilization of the West. So far as modern languages are concerned, that means French, German, and Italian. With the decision of the College Board to drop Italian, something has been lost. Not much, perhaps; but at this point in our civilizational decay, how much can we afford to lose?


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