Friday, June 05, 2009

Dumbest Generation Getting Dumber

by Walter E. Williams

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international comparison of 15-year-olds conducted by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that measures applied learning and problem-solving ability. In 2006, U.S. students ranked 25th of 30 advanced nations in math and 24th in science. McKinsey & Company, in releasing its report "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools" (April 2009) said, "Several other facts paint a worrisome picture. First, the longer American children are in school, the worse they perform compared to their international peers. In recent cross-country comparisons of fourth grade reading, math, and science, US students scored in the top quarter or top half of advanced nations. By age 15 these rankings drop to the bottom half. In other words, American students are farthest behind just as they are about to enter higher education or the workforce." That's a sobering thought. The longer kids are in school and the more money we spend on them, the further behind they get.

While the academic performance of white students is grossly inferior, that of black and Latino students is a national disgrace. The McKinsey report says, "On average, black and Latino students are roughly two to three years of learning behind white students of the same age. This racial gap exists regardless of how it is measured, including both achievement (e.g., test score) and attainment (e.g., graduation rate) measures. Taking the average National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for math and reading across the fourth and eighth grades, for example, 48 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Latinos are 'below basic,' while only 17 percent of whites are, and this gap exists in every state. A more pronounced racial achievement gap exists in most large urban school districts." Below basic is the category the NAEP uses for students unable to display even partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at their grade level.

The teaching establishment and politicians have hoodwinked taxpayers into believing that more money is needed to improve education. The Washington, D.C., school budget is about the nation's costliest, spending about $15,000 per pupil. Its student/teacher ratio, at 15.2 to 1, is lower than the nation's average. Yet student achievement is just about the lowest in the nation. What's so callous about the Washington situation is about 1,700 children in kindergarten through 12th grade receive the $7,500 annual scholarships in order to escape rotten D.C. public schools, and four times as many apply for the scholarships, yet Congress, beholden to the education establishment, will end funding the school voucher program.

Any long-term solution to our education problems requires the decentralization that can come from competition. Centralization has been massive. In 1930, there were 119,000 school districts across the U.S; today, there are less than 15,000. Control has moved from local communities to the school district, to the state, and to the federal government. Public education has become a highly centralized government-backed monopoly and we shouldn't be surprised by the results. It's a no-brainer that the areas of our lives with the greatest innovation, tailoring of services to individual wants and falling prices are the areas where there is ruthless competition such as computers, food, telephone and clothing industries, and delivery companies such as UPS, Federal Express and electronic bill payments that have begun to undermine the postal monopoly in first-class mail.

At a Washington press conference launching the McKinsey report, Al Sharpton called school reform the civil rights challenge of our time. He said that the enemy of opportunity for blacks in the U.S. was once Jim Crow; today, in a slap at the educational establishment, he said it was "Professor James Crow." Sharpton is only partly correct. School reform is not solely a racial issue; it's a vital issue for the entire nation.


Not Worth the Paper . . .

New York’s public schools have replaced social promotion with universal promotion

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s vision of education reform is based on his idea of the “business model” of accountability and results—which sounds good in principle. Producing numbers that show bottom-line progress is essential to demonstrating Klein’s success. The city’s much-touted improvement in student test scores, though dubious, has convinced many observers that substantial progress is happening. To keep the momentum going and appease the Department of Education’s number crunchers, school administrators strive constantly to improve graduation rates. One of the easiest ways of doing this, unfortunately, is to water down course-credit standards for graduation.

For years now, schools have been switching to “annualization” of their course offerings. Under this structure, students who fail the first semester of a sequential course (say, English 5 and 6) can get credit for both terms if they pass the second semester. The practical effect of this change is to destroy the work ethic of those students who’ve figured out how to game the system. By their junior and senior years, they know that they can blow off the first term and, with some effort in the second, get credit for the full course. For the schools’ part, annualization obviates the need to create costly, inefficient “off-track” spring sections of sequential courses for students who failed the fall section. This helps cut down drastically on night school and summer school, and also sends graduation rates skyward. Under this flawed model, teachers face inexorable pressure to get their numbers up in the second term, however they can.

The education department has taken other questionable steps to boost graduation rates. Consider the fate of summer school. Even as recently as 13 years ago, when I first taught summer classes, the course standards and rules were strictly enforced. Three absences resulted in a student’s automatic termination from the program, and a disciplinary infraction would have the same result. But Harold Levy, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last schools chancellor, instituted a kinder and gentler system of asking, if not begging, kids to show up. Teachers were paid to call home and implore parents to send their kids, while a smiling Levy appeared on the evening news, manning the phones himself. Principals would let kids come late, allow them to disappear for two-week vacations in the middle of summer, and drop the issue of passing them into teachers’ laps, asking them to use “discretion.” Then, under Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, the old Summer and Evening Division was eliminated altogether in a cost-saving move. A vastly shrunken summer-school operation, run individually by the schools with no outside oversight, retains very little of the old system’s tough standards.

The schools began implementing a program known as “credit recovery,” driven, again, by the pressure on city high school principals to improve their dismal graduation rates. Through credit recovery, a student can receive credit for a failed course after attending at least nine hours of class and completing a total of 25 hours of work. The credit-recovery classes are held during school vacations or in after-school programs. They’re sometimes referred to as “boot camp,” in order to conjure up images of Camp Lejeune in July. State and city directives always call for “rigorous” standards for these programs, but one doesn’t need to be an education policy expert to judge that nine hours in class is a paltry substitute for 16 weeks of class work, or even the 36 hours of summer school in the old system. What amount to extra-credit assignments cannot substitute for course proficiency. Besides, no statewide mechanism for auditing these programs really exists, so it’s left up to the full faith and credit of each school to ensure that they’re reputable. Stories about schools “stuffing” credit-recovery programs to boost graduation figures are legion.

But it gets worse. Until now, students who’ve failed a course must have spent a certain amount of time in that class (known as “seat time”) to be eligible for credit recovery. Last month, however, the State Education Department issued a draft proposal declaring that “seat time” will no longer be a prerequisite. Instead, a school-based committee made up of certified teachers and the principal will set the standards. “The provisions . . . do not require specific seat time requirements for the make-up opportunity since the opportunity must be tailored to the individual student’s need,” the memo declares. This alternative approach renders Chancellor Klein’s own regulations— which call for 90 percent attendance and “successful completion of standards in subject areas”— meaningless.

New York City’s much-heralded end to social promotion in schools has been replaced by something even worse—totally empty, if not universal, promotion. Partly as a result of new policies like credit recovery, this June’s graduation rates will likely reach record highs. Klein’s supporters will once again sound their optimistic refrain about educational progress. But at some point, ordinary New Yorkers, largely excluded from the education debate, will begin to realize that the progress is not what it seems.


Half of England's comprehensives (mainstream government schools) did not offer physics, chemistry and biology High School courses last year

The figures - requested by the Tories - show that in two areas not a single pupil studied the separate sciences. The government has said that every pupil doing adequately in science by the age of 14 should be able to pursue the three subjects. In the new curriculum, most schools do a core science GCSE with "additional science" for those who are interested. These have supplanted the double science course that most pupils followed from the early 1990s.

Separate or "triple" science GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biological sciences are the norm in grammar schools and independent schools.

The figures show that, on average, 46% of comprehensives entered at least one pupil for separate sciences. But no pupils at all in two local authority areas - Islington and Slough - were entered for separate sciences last year, although Islington says two of its eight schools do now offer them. Just under a quarter of exam entrants (23.4%) did only core science in comprehensive schools, while 57.2% took core plus additional science.

Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said: "It is truly shocking that there are whole areas of England where not a single child has the opportunity to sit separate science GCSEs. "Without a good understanding of physics, chemistry or biology at the age of 16, it is almost impossible for pupils to get top marks in these subjects at A-level and progress to a science degree at a top university."

Schools Minister Sarah McCarthy-Fry said: "The number of pupils taking triple science has increased significantly since 2007 and we are investing £6m over the next three years to double this number." But she added: "It is misleading to suggest that pupils who don't take triple science are not receiving a strong grounding in physics, chemistry and biology. "Through core and additional science, pupils will receive a good foundation in all three sciences which will set them up for further study at A-level."

The Association of School and College leaders said the figures were misleading because they related to students who began their GCSEs in 2006. "The entitlement to triple sciences took effect in 2008 so students starting triple sciences under the entitlement will not appear in the GCSE results until 2010," said policy director Malcolm Trobe. "Other schools may be offering three separate sciences but no student is choosing to take all three."

The pupil entitlement to be taught triple science is not however matched by an obligation on schools to teach the three subjects.


No comments: