Thursday, August 20, 2009

The case against national school standards

President Obama recently announced a $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" fund that he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will use, among other things, to "reward states that come together and adopt a common set of standards and assessments." Duncan has championed uniform national standards as a key to educational improvement since taking office. "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years," he said back in February, "it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America."

That goal now seems within reach. Both the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers recently stepped forward to lead the charge, and 46 states are already behind them. The day may soon come when every student in the country is expected to master the same material at the same age. Let's hope that day never comes.

The quest to homogenize standards and testing has always rested on a misunderstanding. According to Duncan, "standards shouldn't change once you cross the Mississippi River or the Rocky Mountains," because the kids "are no different from each other." In one sense, he's right. There's little reason to believe that New York children are intrinsically smarter or slower than those of Colorado, on average.

But averages don't take tests. Kids do. Even if students' average academic potential were the same in Texas and Vermont, the individual children who make up those averages would still be all over the map. To claim that all the children in a single large family could progress through every subject at the same pace is a stretch. To claim this of every child in a whole neighborhood is preposterous. To claim it of every child in a nation of 300 million people is the premise of national standards.

Children are not interchangeable widgets. It does not serve their interests to feed them through learning factories on a single, fixed-pace conveyor belt. Some pick up reading quickly and easily fly through ever more challenging texts. Others find reading a chore, progressing more slowly even when encouraged by supportive families and talented teachers. To demand a single pace for all students in all subjects is to simultaneously tie together the laces of the fleet and kick out the crutches of the slow.

Not only is it impossible to create a single set of standards that would serve every child equally well, such standards would fail to significantly improve our schools. High external standards have never been the driving force behind human progress.

The tremendous leap in Olympic athletic achievement of the past 40 years was not achieved because the organizing committee told competitors to start swimming faster or jumping higher. It happened because Olympic athletes are competitors.

The same thing is true across every sector of our economy. Cell phone makers have not relentlessly improved their products because of national mandates. They've done it to attract customers away from their competitors. Amazon did not diversify its business and create the Kindle because a consortium of Internet vendors demanded it, but because Amazon sought to beat its competition.

The progress we've seen in one industry after another, just as in athletic pursuits, has been the result of competition - something that our education system has sorely lacked. At the dawn of the 21st century, three quarters of American children are still assigned to schools based on where they live, by bureaucrats who have never met them. Stellar public schools cannot grow and take over less successful ones. Ineffective public schools have little fear of losing students to competitors because they have no real competitors - they enjoy a monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in public spending.

I published a paper in the Journal of School Choice collecting every scientific study I could find comparing public and private school outcomes. These scores of findings span the globe and cover everything from academic achievement and cost-effectiveness to parental satisfaction. And they favor competitive market school systems over state-run monopolies by a margin of 15 to 1.

If our goal is to help all children maximize their potential, we won't achieve it by shackling them together with their age-mates and forcing them to march in lockstep through the curriculum.

Instead, we must emancipate them from the confines of rigid age-based grading, allow and encourage them to progress as quickly as they are able, and oblige schools to compete for the privilege of serving them.


The Fascist Left at work again

Should a lawyer be fired for giving an opinion? Giving opinions is what lawyers do. But you must give the "correct" opinion according to the fevered brains of Leftist thugs, apparently

Anti-war activists protested Monday at the University of California, Berkeley to call for the firing of a law professor who co-wrote legal memos that critics say were used to justify the torture of suspected terrorists. Campus police arrested at least four people who refused to leave the university's law school building.

The demonstrators said John Yoo should be dismissed, disbarred and prosecuted for war crimes for his work as a Bush administration attorney from 2001 to 2003, when he helped craft legal theories for waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. Shouting "war criminal," the protesters confronted Yoo as he entered a lecture hall on the first day of class at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, where the tenured professor is teaching a civil law course this semester.

Yoo mostly ignored the demonstrators and waited for police to remove them from the classroom before he began teaching. Several officers then stood outside the lecture hall to prevent protesters and journalists from entering.

Demonstrators also staged a mock arrest of Yoo. Some dressed in black hoods and orange prisoner suits similar to ones seen in infamous photos of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which was closed in 2006 following reports of detainee abuse. "There is little doubt that John Yoo is a war criminal," said civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, speaking outside Boalt Hall. "John Yoo went to Washington and created the ideological, political and legal basis for the torture of innocent people."

Yoo, who returned to UC Berkeley after spending the spring semester at Chapman University School of Law in Orange County, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. Yoo, 42, has defended the controversial interrogation techniques, saying they were needed to protect the country from terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "To limit the president's constitutional power to protect the nation from foreign threats is simply foolhardy," Yoo wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last month.

He has come under intense criticism since the interrogation memos became public in 2004. The Berkeley City Council has passed a measure calling for the federal government to prosecute him for war crimes, and convicted terrorist Jose Padilla has filed a lawsuit alleging that Yoo's legal opinions led to his alleged torture.

Christopher Edley Jr., Berkeley's law school dean, has rejected calls to dismiss Yoo, saying the university doesn't have the resources to investigate his Justice Department work, which involved classified intelligence.

Berkeley law students are divided over Yoo, whose classes are among the law school's most popular. Liz Jackson, a second-year law student, said the university should determine if he violated UC's faculty code of conduct. "I personally believe he has blood on his hands," said Jackson, 30.

But Nathan Salha, 24, who took one of Yoo's classes last year and is enrolled in his course this semester, said he's a good teacher. "I don't think it's the university's place to fire him for political opinions," he said.


British High School exams that fail everyone

Few things are certain in August, except rain when you've planned a barbecue and an almighty row over A-level results. So I can confidently predict that tomorrow our Education supremo, Ed 'I'm Talkin' ' Balls, will grin for the cameras, welcome this year's record pass rate and praise the hardest-working, most intelligent pupils in the history of the world.

Cynics will point out that A-levels are now impossible to fail, unless you don't turn up for the exam. Meanwhile, the teenagers I know, just a few of the 250,000 anxiously awaiting their results, have been through so many hoops over the past two years they feel like human basketballs. This is supposed to be one of the best times in their lives, a period of expanding horizons, full of intellectual excitement and possibility. Instead, they feel exhausted, demoralised and very scared.

Who can blame them? Years of New Labour's social engineering have created a system that is so 'equal' that it fails almost everyone. It fails those at the bottom by giving them false expectations and a dodgy course at a bargain-basement uni where the only thing that is guaranteed at the end of three years is £23,000 worth of debt. It fails the brightest pupils by not stretching them - even steering them away from hard subjects so they get grades that make schools and politicians look better.

Let's be candid. Universities now trust A-levels in roughly the same way that Peter Andre trusts Katie Price.

Meanwhile, teenagers are coached to regurgitate buzzwords and key phrases. There are many words for this numbing production line. Education is not one of them. I can't tell you how upset I was when a clever girl who goes to our local comprehensive cheerfully told me she was doing George Eliot's great novel, Middlemarch, for English A-level and hadn't actually read the whole book. Apparently, too much knowledge could harm her chances in the exam.

As for the really tough subjects, Professor Rosemary Bailey of the University of London has said that A-level maths is now 'more like using a sat-nav than reading a map'.

Our examination system is surely what Albert Einstein had in mind when he said: 'It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.'

How the hell did A-levels go from being a nourishing meal that a young person could get their teeth into to a baby puree fit only for spoon-feeding? Blame New Labour again, with its barmy scheme to get 50 per cent of teenagers into university. Increasing numbers in the sixth form became more important than maintaining the challenging content at A-level.

The tragedy is that a plan designed to improve social mobility has had precisely the opposite effect. At least the excellent shadow education spokesman, Michael Gove, is determined to do something about the dumbed-down exam system. Under the Tories, more points will be given to 'hard' subjects, which means that schools will no longer be tempted to put their pupils in for easy subjects which cut them off from the best careers later on. Personally, I am ready to declare undying love for Michael Gove if he also scraps those wretched AS-levels, which mean our knackered teenagers spend all of their time in the sixth form cramming non-stop for endless exams.

We need to bring back the holy curiosity of inquiry and make A-levels a challenge, not a chore. Don't get me wrong, I'll be as happy as anyone to see the pictures of smiling teenagers tomorrow when they get their results. They've worked hard enough for them. I just hope the reality of life beyond A-levels won't wipe the smile off their faces.


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