Friday, August 28, 2009

Some educational fads debunked

Comment on "NurtureShock" by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

For more than a century American parents—ever more distanced from grandmothers and ­suspicious of tradition—have looked to social ­science to explain their children to them. Thus they have gobbled up books and articles by experts who ­periodically deliver the latest truths about ­child-rearing. Back in 1945, when Dr. Spock published his "Baby and Child Care," readers' devotion to expert opinion was so intense that he began his book with the reassuring words: "Trust yourself." Not that he ­believed it. The book was jammed with advice.

Now, in "NurtureShock," Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman survey the newest new findings about child development. Little in the book is all that shocking, but given our enthusiasm for turning tentative child ­research into settled policy, the studies that the ­authors discuss are of more than passing interest.

A striking example is the latest research on ­self-esteem. As Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman remind us, the psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a path-breaking paper in 1969 called "The Psychology of Self-Esteem" in which he argued that feelings of self-worth were a key to success in life. The theory became a big hit in the nation's schools; in the mid-1980s, the California Legislature even ­established a self-esteem task force. By now, there are 15,000 scholarly articles on the subject.

And what do they show? That high self-esteem doesn't improve grades, reduce ­anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.

The benefits of teaching tolerance and promoting ­diversity look equally unimpressive in the current ­research. According to "NurtureShock," a lot of well-meaning adult nostrums—"we're all friends," "we're all equal"—pass right over the heads of young children. Attempts to increase racial sensitivity in older students can even lead to unintended consequences. One ­researcher found that "more diversity translates into more divisions between students." Another warns that too much discussion of past discrimination can make minority children over-reactive to perceived future slights. As for trying to increase emotional intelligence, the education fad of the 1990s, it doesn't seem to ­promote "pro-social values" either. It turns out that bullies use their considerable EQ, as it is called, to ­control their peers.

Education policy makers will find more cause for embarrassment in "NurtureShock." Drop-out programs don't work. Neither do anti-drug programs. The most popular of them, D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance ­Education), developed in 1983 by the Los Angeles ­Police Department, has become a more familiar sight in ­American schools than algebra class. By 2000, 80% of American school districts were using D.A.R.E. materials in some form. Now, after extensive study, comes the news: The program has no long-term, and only mild short-term, effects. Oh, and those tests that school ­districts use to determine giftedness in young ­children? They're just about useless. According to Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman, early IQ tests predict later ­achievement less than half the time. Between ages 3 and 10, about two-thirds of children will experience a rise or drop of 15 points or more.

You might assume from these examples that the ­authors want to make a point about our national ­gullibility in the face of faddish science. Unfortunately, they deconstruct yesterday's wisdom at the same time that they embrace today's—even when research is on the order of "do-we-really-need-a-$50,000-study-to-tell-us-this?" or of dubious practical value. Kids lie, they ­inform us. In fact, 4-year-olds lie once every hour. Still, Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman are impressed by ­research showing that "lying is an advanced skill," ­supposedly demonstrating both social and cognitive ­sophistication.

As for teenagers, well, they lie too. Parents shouldn't worry about them, though; they fib not ­because they want to get away with stuff they shouldn't be doing but because they don't want to ­upset mom and dad. ­Depending on your point of view, you might not be ­surprised to learn that permissive parents don't get more truth-telling from their teens than stricter ­parents. In any event, teens like conflict because, it is now claimed, they see it as enhancing their ­relationships with their parents.

Given how often last year's science has become ­today's boondoggle, Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman's analysis would have benefited from a dose of ­skepticism. Yes, social science has become more ­rigorously empirical in recent decades. A lot of the findings described in "NurtureShock" might even be true. But that doesn't mean that we have the remotest idea how to translate such findings into constructive parental behavior or effective public programs.

In a famous 1994 study described by the authors, ­researchers discovered that babies of professional ­parents were exposed to almost three times the ­number of words as the babies of welfare parents. ­Parents took to buying $699 "verbal pedometers," a gadget that counts the number of words their baby is hearing per hour. Now experts are modifying the ­earlier findings. Turns out that it's not so much the number of words kids hear that matters but the responsiveness of adults to a child's words and explorations. Shocked? I doubt it.


An experience of a British "sink" school

Lack of discipline was all-destructive -- even with a dedicated teacher

During her second year as a teacher in an inner London secondary school, Oenone Crossley-Holland sat next to a man at a dinner party who had quit as a teacher after less than a year to join the Army. He was sent to Iraq, an experience that he described as “easier than teaching.” An easier war to win? she asked, tongue in cheek. “Yes.” The man was exaggerating, she says now, but adds that in Iraq “maybe you don’t have that demoralisation and the personal attack that you have in the classroom”.

Crossley-Holland signed up to Teach First, the scheme that gives high-achieving graduates six weeks of basic training and then parachutes them into schools in deprived areas to teach for a minimum of two years.

She says that Teach First warned her and other recruits that they would experience extreme highs and lows in school, but that nonetheless: “I hadn’t really got a clue. I thought it was going to be hard, but I had never experienced the hard where you feel just kind of utterly destroyed, and the hard where as soon as the kids get out of the classroom you cry.”

For her, teaching has been a constant struggle to maintain order in the classroom over recalcitrant students who drag down the few who are eager to learn. She describes an environment where even those who behave find the odds stacked against them in their often chaotic home lives. This was brought home to her in the most sobering fashion when one of her school’s students was stabbed to death by an ex-boyfriend.

Crossley-Holland, 26, was educated at Gresham’s, a boarding school, and then read English at Oxford. After a year teaching in India she was determined not to become a teacher, but several months of temping left her at a loss, so she opted for Teach First. It would at least provide her with witty dinner party anecdotes. She also thinks that there is “huge glamour attached to inner-city school teaching, in a way that glamour is attached to anything that people perceive as very hard”.

She certainly found the “grittiness” she was looking for. She was sent to an all-girls City Academy in South London where 80 per cent of the pupils were not white British, many born abroad, and more than 60 per cent qualified for free school meals. The difference between Crossley-Holland’s privileged background and that of her students was stark. Her father is Kevin Crossley-Holland, a poet, children’s author and an honorary fellow of his daughter’s Oxford college, St Edmund Hall. Her mother is an artist.

In Hands Up, the book she has written about her experiences, she recounts parties where she rubbed shoulders with Mick Jagger, and holidays in the South of France and The Gambia. The contrast between her social and professional lives couldn’t have been more stark. “It wasn’t a cultural chasm, I was an alien [to my pupils],” she says. “My life didn’t register on their radar and that was a huge source of frustration for me because I [wanted to say]: ‘you guys don’t even know what you are missing out on. If you let me give you this education you have no idea what opportunities you have’.”

This tall, freckly, red(ish)head, was such an exotic figure to her students that it took two terms for a student to ask “Miss, are you posh?”, a question that most of us would be able to answer as soon as she opened her mouth. “Quite often I was asked if I was Australian,” she says, laughing.

When she writes about her own middle-class dilemmas, such as whether buying a mattress big enough to comfortably accommodate her and her boyfriend is a sign of too much commitment, you want to tell her to stop being so silly and get on with it. She acknowledges that many of the students have slightly more acute accommodation issues, such as “not being able to revise for exams because they share a tiny flat with four siblings.”

Did she find it hard to make a connection with students because she was white? “I felt it with Muslim girls most, because the paths set out for them by their families were so different from paths set out for my contemporaries. It was hard to see how I could be a role model for someone who came from a totally different place, who was a part of a different culture and religion. I found it quite frustrating because I thought I had all these freedoms and choices and I found it hard sometimes teaching girls who didn’t have those choices. I felt mad on their behalf.”

She has now left the school, so we are talking in a classroom at the cosy prep school in Notting Hill where Will, who she married this summer, is a teacher. I ask how the classroom compares with her old one. “My classroom was way better; three times the size, better technology, bigger windows, better view.” It was only the behaviour of the pupils inside the classroom that was worse.

Although she did have good experiences with pupils, Crossley-Holland was shocked by the surliness, rudeness and aggression of the children in her classes. On one occasion she fled the classroom in tears, an episode that did at least conclude with some of the girls apologising, in tears themselves.

“Don’t start on me — I’m not in the mood,” a student snaps at her in the book. She tells another to sit down and is told “F****** shit. F*** you.” Although there are moments of optimism, for every student “who had turned a corner, there seemed to be a handful more on a downward slope”.

One of her most depressing observations is that students couldn’t understand why she was a teacher. “They thought I was capable of a better job — a better job, in their opinion, being almost everything bar emptying dustbins. They see teachers being battered by students day in, day out and not receiving any respect from them.”

She became “very demoralised by the lack of respect from the students.” It is a weird paradox that these teenagers are obsessed by the idea of being shown respect, but fail to show any to teachers. “Even when you earn it, that doesn’t mean that you get it every day. I think there is often an overwhelming sense of self that stops some students from having a wider picture of life and thinking about their place in the wider scheme of things.”

During her second year, struggling with exhaustion and stress, Crossley-Holland started to see a therapist. “She’d question me about why my students behaved in the ways they did — and for the more troubled ones it would always come down to the same thing: home life. Parents who were drug addicts, single parents who couldn’t cope; parents who didn’t know how to keep control of their daughters; parents who were abusive.”

She was tempted to leave at the end of the second year, but stayed on for another year only to conclude in her third year that she had to quit. “I felt I couldn’t keep going and I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve: to really teach and to properly make 90 per cent of the minutes in the classroom count. I was in a losing battle.” She looked around at the other teachers and saw some who were “visibly frazzled”. Others “had found a way of working within the system so that they could function. I realised I didn’t want to do it. I could do it and flog myself. But I didn’t want to continue in those circumstances.”

Will encouraged her to leave. “He thought that no job was worth sometimes being so unhappy and frustrated.” She has not left teaching, however. Nor has she fled to her husband’s private school as her former flatmate, another Teach First recruit, has done. “I am still attracted to that kind of grittier, more real [experience].” She has taken a job at another South London City Academy, but is “pinning a lot of hopes” on the fact that it is a new school. “They are approaching the education of these kids from the standpoint that they have to achieve the highest levels possible.”

Although she is full of praise for the other teachers in her old English department, one of the criticisms of her previous school is that the boundaries were not consistent when it came to behaviour and there were few effective sanctions for unruliness. A lot of forms were filled in, but there were not enough detentions or other follow-up actions once students were removed from classes.

She believes that parents, schools and the wider community all need to do more to instil better behaviour in students (she’s an advocate of members of the public picking children up on antisocial behaviour). Schools can work if there is “a really, really strict and clear behaviour code with real consequences for failing.” She would put the Army in charge of failing schools, “because if you have the discipline anything is possible. You can then begin to change a student’s culture and a student’s expectations.” The new academy that she will work in next, which has been open for a year, makes students move around in single file and in silence.

“One of the biggest problems is that you can’t teach 30 kids. The moment two start falling by the wayside and you try to tackle them it’s like a class full of dominoes.” After a revision session with five girls, she concluded that she had got through more work in an hour than in a month with the whole class.

Her new school is trying to combat this by giving the teachers more hours with the students. “If you only have students for three hours a week, sometimes there’s a recurring problem with a student, but it is not the most serious problem in the class, so you don’t give it your attention. But if you are seeing students for nine hours a week you will get round to sorting out those smaller problems.”

The idea is to find a middle way between primary school, where teachers get to know a class very well, and traditional secondary schools, where they may get a pupil for two or three hours a week. In order to spend more time with the students, Crossley-Holland will teach humanities as well as English.

Surprisingly, when I suggest that making a school work is very hard, she disagrees earnestly. “I don’t actually think it’s that hard. It’s not impossible to give any student a good education. You just have to get the conditions right.”

I wish her luck. Her determination is admirable. But as I say goodbye to her and Will, I know which of their two jobs I would rather have. “I’m not done with teaching yet, I want to keep trying,” she says. “I don’t know why, I must be crazy.”


"Superhead" turns around failing group of British schools, raising exam grades -- so the government is closing them down

It takes a very special head to make a British government school work well. There are not many such. And, again, discipline is the key

A zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour has helped to transform GCSE results at three failing schools taken over by a superhead, The Times has found. Hillcrest, The Grove and Filsham Valley, all in Hastings, East Sussex, had among the worst results in the country this time last year. But today’s results show that they have made a dramatic turnaround. At The Grove, 80 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSEs at A* to C in any subject, compared with 42 per cent last year. At Hillcrest, the same measure increased from 23 per cent to 76 per cent, while at Filsham Valley it rose from 49 per cent to 64 per cent.

The improvement is all the more dramatic given that one of the schools, Hillcrest, was operating under Ofsted’s “special measures” last year — indicating that it was failing to offer acceptable levels of education.

The dramatic improvement is attributed to Sir Dexter Hutt. He turned around Ninestiles, a failing school in Birmingham, and is now chief executive of Ninestiles Plus, a school improvement company. The three Hastings schools have been working together in a federation for the past year, overseen by Sir Dexter. He began by appointing directors to improve maths, English, science and ICT. These led teaching in the subjects in all three schools. The schools also introduced a strict and consistent code governing behaviour at the schools.

Sir Dexter said that the key to improvement was focusing on details: “The behaviour system has made a huge difference in every school we have worked with." He said that it sets clear boundaries for student behaviour: “It is consistent and fair. It is also a strict system, and it works. The results is a better working atmosphere in the classroom. Teachers are able to spend more time on teaching and less time is wasted dealing with poor behaviour during the hour-long lessons. Its purpose is to create a platform to improve teaching and learning.”

But despite the improvements in the schools, plans are in place to close all three in 2011, and replace them with two academies, which have the status of semi-independent state schools. The improvement in their results is calling this into question.

The growth of new academies will accelerate next month, with the opening of almost 70 institutions, the biggest expansion of the programme since its inception, and equal to more than 50 per cent of the number already operating. But some heads fear that the speed at which academies are being built could jeopardise their chances of success. The Government has ambitions to build 400, double the number that will exist by next month, at a cost of billions of pounds.

Today’s GCSE results are expected to show that pupils at the first academies, which opened in 2002 and 2003, have done no better than pupils at those that opened more recently. Last year, fewer than a quarter of pupils at academies that opened in 2002 achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with almost 30 per cent of those at academies opening in 2007.

However, the older academies started from a very low base, as they replaced the schools deemed most urgently in need of attention. And although their results may be far from spectacular, many are doing much better than the schools they inherited.

Philip O’Hear, the head of Capital City Academy, in Brent, northwest London, which opened in 2003, said improvement was a slow crawl. He described the academies programme as a “tremendously good policy for dealing with schools that have lost their way for a long time”, adding: “One thing that hasn’t helped is people seeing it as a quick fix. Where academies put down sustainable roots of improvement they’re starting to do well.

“Opening too many too quickly carries risks, and that’s a view I’ve shared with ministers. I think the rush to open 400 is an accelerated programme that carries risk. It takes time to embed the right school in the right community, and going for 400 means they won’t all be as successful.”


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