Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An education success story -- the old-fashioned way

Tales of Dr. Ben Chavis have been drifting out of the Bay Area for a while now. However, there have been few high-profile media stories, and the educational apparatus in this country is no doubt doing its best to squelch reports of his accomplishments.

So it’s a good thing that Chavis has written a book, Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City, which provides a first-person account of one of the country’s greatest educational success stories. It’s true that Chavis is a controversial figure — the book provides ample evidence of that. He’s profane, boasts of humiliating his students when they “act a fool,” and isn’t afraid to tell a teacher or a parent who he feels is out of line where to stick it. He’s beyond politically incorrect and talks about race with a frankness that would make Chris Rock blush.

Chavis gets away with a lot because he’s undeniably one of the country’s finest educators. In 2000, he took over the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in Oakland, an inner-city charter school composed almost exclusively of low-income minority students. By the time he stepped down in 2007, he had turned it into the fifth-highest-rated middle school in the state — out of 1,300. (Of the four that rank higher, none has an underprivileged student body.) And Chavis’s curriculum and educational approaches are being spread with notable success to other middle and high schools in Oakland.

What the educational establishment really hates about Chavis is that he has achieved this success by exploding nearly every liberal myth about education. His approach to education is strictly old-school, and based on proven, effective methods. The only thing innovative about what he’s doing is that he’s doing it in the face of decades of “progressive” education. A few core tenets of his educational philosophy are:

Requiring near-perfect attendance.

Maximizing the amount of class time and number of school days. (Summer school is required, and teachers are expected to assign a minimum of two hours of homework each day.)

Heavily weighting the curriculum toward language arts and math. (Chavis’s schools spend twice as much time on those subjects as most other California schools.)

Liberally handing out disciplinary actions such as detention, and otherwise ensuring that order is maintained.

Setting and enforcing standards — e.g., every eighth-grader must pass Algebra I. (In many California high schools, it’s possible to graduate with just “General Math.”)

Making a big public point of not setting lower standards for minority students. (Too many educational institutions indulge in the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as President Bush memorably put it.)

None of this is, or should be, particularly controversial. Chavis’s one major departure is his insistence on keeping students in one self-contained classroom where one teacher teaches all the subjects and stays with the same group of students as they move from one grade to the next. Chavis maintains that this both increases educational accountability and introduces a level of stability important for underprivileged kids.

Otherwise, Chavis’s emphasis on hard work and high standards is simply the foundation of any good education. “What we’re doing is so easy,” Chavis told the L.A. Times last year. The trouble comes from the educational establishment, which is deeply in thrall to people Chavis calls “squawkers, multicultural specialists, [and] self-esteem experts” that this commonsense approach seems downright revolutionary.

Chavis doesn’t just dismiss the current obsession with self-esteem and multiculturalism, he despises it. The American Indian Public Charter School was on the verge of closure when Chavis inherited it. Its administration was incompetent, and its curriculum was a joke. Because Oakland has a significant American Indian population, thanks to government relocation programs from decades past, somebody in the Oakland Unified School District got sold on the idea of a junior high teaching kids Native American crafts such as basket weaving and bead making. Not to mention that the school went in for pseudo–Native American traditions such as passing a branch of burning sage around while everybody sat in a circle and adults told the kids about their problems. Chavis refers to the principal who preceded him as “Chief Bad Example.”

When Chavis dismisses diversity-heavy education, he doesn’t do so lightly. He is a Lumbee Indian born to an uneducated mother and raised in a sharecroppers’ shack in rural North Carolina. He’s certainly proud of his heritage, but where most modern educators insist that improving self-esteem is necessary to facilitate learning, Chavis insists they have it backwards. “Many Indian elders who live on a Navajo reservation know a lot about their culture. Does that qualify them to get into Harvard or Stanford?” he writes. Chavis once bought into the educational dogma he now wholly rejects; he writes that his eyes were opened when he was pressured by his dissertation committee to make the conclusion of his dissertation more politically correct: “That was a major turning point for me. . . . I started to question the sacred cows of education: parent involvement, volunteer work, more money for schools, culture, self-esteem, bilingual ed and minority holidays.”

Chavis’s educational insights have made him as effective an educator as he is unpopular with his peers: “Most public-school educators don’t see eye to eye with me. . . . I have no problem badmouthing educators who cheat minority students with their pity, community circles, bead making, general math for twelfth-graders, bilingual education for twelve years, sheltered English immersion, and low expectations. Can you think of a better way to screw over minorities in education and dumb us down?”

As a result of his frustration over the low standards set for minority students, Chavis embraces standardized tests. “We do not believe standardized tests discriminate against students because of their color,” writes Chavis in a document called “Common Sense & Useful Learning at AIPCS.” “Could it be many of them have not been adequately prepared to take those tests?” Where public-school teachers everywhere whine about “teaching to the test,” Chavis has dedicated his book to George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy for passing the No Child Left Behind Act. He repeatedly praises the legislation for mandating standards and making schools publicly accountable to them.

Chavis tells the truth with the bark off. Here he is on school funding: “Taxpayers have been conned for years . . . into thinking the problem with schools is they need more funding. This is the biggest lie in public education in this country. . . . The financial incentive in America is to be a failing school.” On hiring teachers: “If you want to do a child a favor, hire a great teacher to educate him. The whole political agenda of ‘We need more Indians, we need more black teachers’ is racist, ridiculous, and often provides inept educators with a way of getting on the payroll. Just because someone’s Indian doesn’t mean he’s a better role model for an Indian child than someone who’s not Indian.”

Throughout the book, Chavis emphasizes preparing his students for the world of free-market capitalism. In fact, number seven of the American Indian Model Students’ Ten Commandments reads: “Thou shalt beware of quacks who believe in communism. Thou hast the quickest route to freedom through free market capitalism and private property ownership. Hast thou ever heard of illegal immigrants risking their lives to enter Cuba?”

Dr. Chavis certainly has a knack for getting people’s attention. But despite his best efforts, the left-wing educational establishment doesn’t want to hear what he has to say. The educational system in this country is designed to chew up and spit out people who expose its failings. Remember Jaime Escalante, the teacher who had amazing success teaching calculus to barrio kids in Los Angeles? Edward James Olmos portrayed him in the film Stand and Deliver, and America got all warm and fuzzy over how he helped those kids. Well, Hollywood didn’t bother making the sequel, where Escalante was systematically targeted by teachers’ unions and drummed out of a job for working long hours and generally making other teachers look bad.

If Chavis is to have any measurable impact on the educational debate in America, he’s going to have to go over the heads of professional educators. Thrust this book into the hands of all the parents you know and implore them to read it. It’s hard to imagine a clearer call for pulling American education out of a haze of multiculturalism and fuzzy math, and getting back to the basics of the three Rs and hard work. Chavis is passionate, articulate, and entertaining. He’s also right.


British universities to axe places for UK students and take more foreign students

Remarkably perverse

LEADING universities are drawing up plans to slash thousands of places for British undergraduates and replace them with foreign students paying far higher fees to cope with an expected cut in government funding of 20%-25%. They argue that reducing admissions is preferable to making deep cuts to staff numbers and harming the quality of teaching, for which universities have recently faced fierce criticism.

The plans have been disclosed by Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of Leeds and the new chairman of the Russell Group of elite universities, in an interview in The Sunday Times today. “It is very, very worrying,” Arthur says. “The general view round the table is it is better to cut places than to cut [funding per student].” Arthur, who fears cuts of 20%-25% in government spending on higher education after the election, believes the number of people going to university has peaked and says the government’s target of 50% of school-leavers taking degrees is unlikely to be reached. Last week, even Gordon Brown, the prime minister, admitted for the first time that cuts in public spending would be necessary.

Arthur argues for a rise in tuition fees to at least £5,000 to make it financially worthwhile to take on British undergraduates. The current level is £3,225, but those from outside the European Union pay at least three times this amount. Imperial College London says it loses £2,500 a year on every British undergraduate.

One recently retired vice-chancellor described educating UK students as “the charity end of the business”, adding: “We do want to educate them and we have to but in financial terms they are nothing but a drain.”

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “If cuts happened on any scale, it is likely that significant numbers of the most prestigious universities would take fewer cut-price British students and more of the overseas students.” Some already plan growth in overseas numbers, partly to earn money. They include University College London (UCL), Leeds, Lancaster and Newcastle. UCL plans to cut 600 British and EU students by 2012, 6% of the total, and replace them with overseas undergraduates and with postgraduates.

Lancaster plans to freeze UK numbers and increase its overseas contingent by half by 2015. Currently, nearly 900 of its 8,800 undergraduates and almost 1,400 of its 3,100 postgraduates are from outside the EU. Newcastle this year increased recruitment of overseas students by 26% to shore up its finances. Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Reading and Sheffield are among those cutting hundreds of jobs. Sheffield is shedding more than 300. Exeter is cutting spending by 5% this year, as are Imperial and Warwick. King’s College London is reducing spending by 10% even before the scale of government cuts is known and has announced the closure of its engineering department.

Institutions now disagree on what to do next. Many former polytechnics and other new universities believe it must be a priority to increase the numbers of people taking degrees especially during a recession, even if the amount available to teach each one falls as a result.

Traditional universities in the Russell Group and 1994 Group want to preserve what they spend on teaching each student. They have been stung by criticism that the quality on which they trade to attract foreign students is declining. Concerns have been highlighted by student revolts at universities such as Bristol and Manchester and by a scathing Commons report.

While most vice-chancellors have denied there are any problems with the quality of teaching, David Lammy, the universities minister, warned them this month: “Even if you aren’t complacent about quality, you sometimes appear to be. I think you have to recognise that and deal with it.”

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter and president of Universities UK, which represents campus executive heads, said: “There comes a point when if you cut [funding per student] it will damage quality.”

Some are worried cuts could devastate institutions. The last time funding fell steeply was in the early 1980s, with a 15% overall reduction. Salford university lost more than 40% of funding.


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