Monday, November 30, 2009

Charter colleges?

The editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education—academe's trade journal—recently gave the well-read back cover of an issue to Hamid Shirvani, president of California State University-Stanislaus. Under a provocative headline—"Will a Culture of Entitlement Bankrupt Higher Education?"—Shirvani compared colleges and universities to the auto industry and noted that "resistance to change in academe has helped create inflexible, unsustainable organizations" like General Motors. He then, like Gorby in 1985, recommended a vague reform plan—"review redundancies, rethink staffing models, and streamline business practices"—along with several specific suggestions, such as larger classes and larger course loads for faculty.

One problem with such economically necessary reforms is that they will reduce traditional education's ability to compete with online offerings: If students don't get personal attention from classroom professors, they're often better off taking online courses (see "Class without rooms," Oct. 10). A second shortcoming is that Shirvani's reforms do not deal with the problem of left-wing-only campuses. American universities are not yet as disliked as Soviet institutions in 1989—football teams still spark loyalty—but as more donors and legislators rebel against campus intellectual repression, higher education's support base will shrink even as costs rise beyond the ability of financially beleaguered parents to keep up.

My own choice in this situation has been to leave the socialist sector of higher education and attempt to make a competitive private college work. That's hard going in today's economy, and for those who still hope to work within government-funded institutions a new alternative has emerged. Rob Koons, the University of Texas professor removed last fall as head of a UT Western Civilization program (see "Losing a beachhead," Sept. 12), is proposing that Texas legislators back the creation of charter colleges, as they now support the creation of charter schools.

Charter colleges could offer specific majors or they could be "core curriculum charters" that would offer "at least eighteen semester hours in ethics and the classics of Western civilization and of American thought." Core curriculum charter colleges could offer great books seminars including courses on the Bible, ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance and Reformation, and the American tradition: Students in that last course could study works including the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Thoreau's Walden, and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery.

Charter colleges would receive per-student funding as charter K-12 schools now do. They could rent space in university buildings. Their liberty would be limited: They would have to be nonpartisan and nonsectarian in terms of control by religious institutions. They would have to offer a viable business plan, a governance structure satisfying the principles of professional responsibility and academic freedom, and a set of procedures and standards for hiring and retaining instructors. Whenever the government cat stalks the premises, intellectual mice cannot play as freely as they otherwise might.

Nevertheless, the development of a charter college system would end the hegemony of the bureaucratic, central-planning model of higher education that has grown up during the last 60 years. Competition would improve the quality of education at state universities by ending unchecked and innovation-stifling educational control by faculty majorities. Competition would push academic specialists to consider the interests and goals of students instead of offering fragmented and hyper-specialized courses that merely fulfill their own research objectives.

We need campus glasnost: more intellectual diversity and free speech. We won't achieve it without a thorough perestroika that allows room for moderates and conservatives as well as liberals and radicals.


Promotion of failure by Britain's school inspectorate

A whistleblower tells how her fellow school inspectors fret more over pupils’ lunch boxes than their literacy

One day last summer I found myself sharing a table with three seven-year-olds in an inner-city primary school. It was chaos. The three children were giggling, kicking each other and chatting. Their attention was on what was immediately in front of them — each other. Somewhere on the periphery of our vision, the teacher walked about, struggling to keep order. Elsewhere, behind our heads, hung a whiteboard with work on it — gleefully ignored.

I was getting crosser and crosser. It was not just that my knees were hurting nor that the girl opposite, with striped bobbles at the end of each plait, had spat something pink and sticky onto my handbag. No, what upset me was simple. Nobody was learning anything.

When I helped Cedric, the boy next to me, with his comprehension, I got a shock. He could barely read, let alone write an answer to the question. He shrugged, threw a rubber at the girl with the bobbles and was sent out of the class.

It was the last straw. I liked Cedric, who was obviously bright. I forgot I was meant to be an observer and confronted the teacher. Instead of sending children out, I said, why not improve discipline and concentration? We could rearrange the tables to face her and she could stand in front of the board. She looked at me with horror. “The pupils are working together, directing their own learning,” she said, her voice almost drowned by noise. Had I not appreciated what was going on?

Ofsted’s annual report to parliament, submitted last week, makes clear this is taking place across the country. More than a third of schools are providing inadequate teaching. Also last week Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks & Spencer, one of the nation’s biggest employers of school-leavers, summed up the implications of the incident I had witnessed: “They cannot do reading. They cannot do arithmetic. They cannot do writing.”

I have spent the past year visiting schools and interviewing teachers, pupils and parents in an attempt to find out why black Caribbean and white working-class boys are failing. Again and again I saw the dire impact of educational ideology and government initiatives on children’s lives. A 16-year-old heroin dealer from Streatham, south London, summed up the effect this had on him: “School shatters your dreams before you get anywhere.”

Ofsted’s report blames schools and teachers for the shortcomings. What I saw made me think further: what about Ofsted’s inspection process? How much is it to blame for what is going wrong?

Shortly after encountering Cedric, I was in a scruffy south London sandwich bar. My informant had insisted on meeting there because she feared being seen with me. Amy (not her real name) was an Ofsted inspector and she was very angry. She had taught English for 20 years and had inspected schools for more than five. Far from protecting the education of our children, she told me, Ofsted inspectors were “ actively discouraged from inspecting what really matters”. Take reading and writing: despite the introduction of a literacy hour and a big increase in spending on education, a third of 14-year-olds have a reading age of 11 or below. One in five has a reading age of nine.This is an extraordinarily high level of failure. Why do we accept it?

There is compelling evidence that synthetic phonics is the best method of teaching children to read. Unfortunately, in the surreal world of education, success is not enough. However good the evidence, synthetic phonics is unfashionable among teachers such as Cedric’s because it depends on direct teaching, not learning through play.

In her report, Christine Gilbert, the Ofsted chief, blamed primary schools for the fact that a third of pupils start secondary school without a grounding in the basics. This is disingenuous. It is her inspectors who are not enforcing the rules — as Amy learnt in an inner-city primary school with weak Sat scores. She asked the chief inspector why nobody was checking the reading method used. Was it synthetic phonics and how well was it being taught? He shrugged and said: “I don’t ask the question.” Presumably it was contrary to his educational philosophy. Amy, outraged, complained to Ofsted. And was duly “fobbed off”.

Ofsted’s lack of interest in these basic skills is clear from the self-evaluation report every inspected school must present. Amy pulled one from her bag. It was dauntingly thick and contained 48,000 words: of those, a mere 12 dealt with literacy and numeracy. They read: “School X promotes good basic skills, especially in literacy, numeracy and ICT.” Amy dismissed this as “wish fulfilment”. She went on: “It ‘promotes’ but what does it achieve? It says nothing about achievement.” Amy wanted to replace the useless self-evaluation with maths and reading tests done by Ofsted inspectors without warning: “That would make schools sit up and take notice.”

What was Amy allowed to inspect? She sighed. Ofsted orders inspectors to concentrate on social welfare, behaviour and attendance. They have to check if children are “independent learners” in charge of their own education and if a child enjoys “ownership” of its work. Work should not be corrected in red ink by the teacher.

This, like many educational fads, misses the point. Amy put the low standard of writing, even in good schools, down to the low standard of marking. She was shocked to see that a child’s work was often marked only one in three times for accuracy. Even then, children were not asked to write corrections.

When she complained — again — to the chief inspector, “I was rapped over the knuckles for ‘discouraging’ the children. Well, it’s going to be a lot more discouraging when they get to 14 and can’t read the sign on the front of a bus”.

As for government initiatives, “don’t even get me started”, said Amy. “I spend more time looking in children’s lunch boxes then testing their literacy.” In the topsy-turvy world of state education a fizzy drink causes more horror than poor spelling.

The latest buzzword initiative is “community cohesion”. Ofsted inspectors must ensure that a school “has developed an understanding of its own community in a local and national context, including an awareness of each of the three strands of faith, ethnicity and culture, and the socioeconomic dimension”. Nor is that all. Each school has to demonstrate it “has planned and taken an appropriate set of actions, based upon its analysis of its context, to promote community cohesion within the school and beyond the school community”. What does this mean? And why is a body guilty of such gobbledegook in charge of our children’s education? There is no mention of the impact that illiterate teenage boys have on community cohesion.

As well as ideological fads, Ofsted is subject to political pressure. The emphasis is on what makes the government look good rather than what might benefit pupils. Take the “deprivation factor”. A school can be well below average in Sats results but still be classed as satisfactory purely because of its intake. Schools with ethnic minorities, for example, parents without college education, children with special educational needs and even too many boys, all contribute to the deprivation factor. This is nothing more than an excuse for failure. A “deprivation factor” is not going to get a young man a job, buy him a house or take him on holiday.

Progress of learners is another dodgy item on the inspectors’ list. “We are besotted by progress,” said Amy. “The majority of the Ofsted report is based on what the school plans — not on what is actually going on in the classroom.” As long as a school demonstrates progress, it can achieve a “good” and sometimes an “outstanding” Ofsted report — even if the result is still below average. This emphasis on progress has serious implications. A good report means the school will not be inspected so frequently. It misleads parents and the public. Amy pointed out: “If the end result is still weak, however much improvement there has been, how does that help the child?”

Now we came to the crux of what had made her so angry. She leant towards me and said: “We forget that for these children this is their only chance of an education.”

Back in the primary school it was break time. In the staff room the teachers complained that the boys misbehaved every afternoon. They saw this as immutable. I suggested the PE teacher organise football every lunch break. The teachers — female and two stone overweight — looked at me as if I was talking an alien language. They dismissed competitive sport as promoting “negative feelings among our children”.

Cedric had spent his surplus energy putting a schoolmate’s head down the loo and was confined to the library. I showed him a book on castles. He had never seen a castle. He was immediately engaged and asked intelligent questions. In the afternoon he lasted barely 10 minutes in class before being sent to stand in the corridor.

I left the school gloomy. I was interviewing teenagers and young men in their twenties. I knew what lay ahead for bright, energetic boys like Cedric. Our warped inspection process, the emphasis on government initiatives and ideological fads create countless victims. Cedric possesses talents that should be the making of him. Instead he is already another statistic of failure.


British "regulator" is simply making schools worse

Ofsted has become a Left-wing front dedicated to maintaining the pretence that schools under Labour are getting better all the time, writes Simon Heffer.

Things are not looking fabulous for Ofsted, which last year soaked up £222 million in ensuring that schools get progressively worse and pupils progressively thicker. Friends in the education world tell me much has changed since the golden age of Chris Woodhead, and the body has become a Left-wing front dedicated to maintaining the pretence that schools under Labour are getting better all the time. I do not support wholesale retribution against Labour placemen should we have a new government, but the future of Christine Gilbert – Ofsted chief and wife of Tony McNulty, a Labour MP and former minister who recently had to apologise for financial irregularities – should surely lie outside her present field.


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