Tuesday, December 22, 2009

College prof: Christian crosses like swastikas

A student says a Dallas public community-college teacher compared crosses to swastikas while explaining a school ban on religious items made in ceramics classes.

Liberty Legal Institute sent a Dec. 15 demand letter on behalf of Joe Mitchell, a retired General Motors employee, Dallas resident and student, to Eastfield College in the Dallas County Community College District. The complaint accuses the school of an "unconstitutional attack on religious expression in the classroom."

Mitchell, 69, said the college has banned crosses, menorahs and other religious items from the ceramics classes. According to his complaint, James Watral, chair of the ceramic department at Eastfield College, filled in for the regular ceramics instructor on the first day of a spring 2009 class. "As Mr. Watral was giving students a tour of the pottery department, he took them to a shelving area where ceramics pieces are stored prior to being fired in the kiln," the complaint states. "Mr. Watral then pointed to a cross and stated in front of the entire class with contempt: 'I don't like that.'" "I felt humiliated and that my spirituality was being demeaned," Mitchell said in a statement. "The whole point of art is to express who you are."

He began enrolling in non-credit ceramics classes at the community college three years ago. Mitchell enjoys making crosses and distributing them as gifts to graduates, churches and charities. He said he was able to make a few crosses that semester, but he was forced to hide them behind larger pottery pieces so they would not be visible.

Mitchell said instructors and administrative staff told him on several occasions this year that he is prohibited from making his crosses. Then the college adopted a "no symbols" policy, and Watral distributed a memo to all ceramics students and instructors to inform them of the rules. The memo prohibited creation of any "religious items" and "seasonal pieces – Christmas, Easter, Valentines, Halloween, ornaments, etc." "[T]he making of such pieces at Eastfield College demeans the goals of the ceramic program at EFC," it stated.

Mitchell stopped making his crosses and filed a complaint with the art department, arguing that the policy discriminates against people of faith. Mitchell had a meeting with Watral, and Watral apologized for "making the offensive remark about the cross," the complaint states. But Watral then sent out a revised memo that prohibited "religious items that are replicas" rather than prohibiting all religious items. The new rules still prohibited "seasonal" items and purportedly required students to submit a written proposal each time they wished to create a cross or other religious item.

"Mr. Mitchell brought a ceramic cross to the meeting as an example of the things he wished to make," the complaint states. "When Mr. Watral saw it, he physically recoiled in disgust, throwing his arms up into the air."

During the fall 2009 semester, Mitchell said he was constantly asked by his instructor whether he would be creating religious projects. He created a ceramic Israeli Coat of Arms, including a Menorah, to give to a Jewish friend. After the piece had been fired, he said his instructor, Chris Blackburst, asked if she could take a look at it. "She told Mr. Mitchell that it 'should never have made it through [the firing process]' due to the religious content," according to the complaint.

She then purportedly told Mitchell that he would need to buy his own kiln if he wanted to continue making religious art. She handed him two crosses that he had made and said the ceramics department would not fire them. Mitchell said she then asked him if he considered a swastika offensive. He responded, "Of course."

"She then proceeded to compare the cross to a swastika," his complaint states. "She stated that many individuals view the cross as an offensive symbol in the same was that many people are offended by swastikas, and that his crosses would therefore not be fired by the department."

Another student identified only as E.D., claims the department told her to "expand her horizons" when she constructed a cross in ceramics class. She said the adjunct professor teaching the course specifically said she could make any item except a cross. E.D. said Watral phoned her and told her to "pick up her damn crosses" from the school. But she said when she went to retrieve them, they were destroyed.

"It appears the Eastfield College art department has no room in the inn for artistic religious expression such as that of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci," said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation at Liberty Legal Institute. "Hopefully they will change their mind."

The college claims the rules are to require students to make unique projects and avoid duplicate assignments, not to inhibit artistic freedom, Dallas' WFAA-TV reported. The college said its legal counsel will review the policy.

Liberty Legal Institute's legal demand letter requires that the college advise the group in writing on whether students will be allowed to create religious art in the class by Jan. 23. "Unfortunately, not everyone has the Christmas spirit or even a basic understanding of religious freedom," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute. "The government cannot ban crosses and religious symbols."


Pen and paper exams 'could be axed' in Britain

This is reasonable enough as long as the ability to write an essay is retained and tested

Traditional “pen and paper” exams could be scrapped in favour of computer-based tests, according to the qualifications watchdog. Ofqual – set up by Gordon Brown to regulate test standards – said examiners had to make “the best use of technology” as part of a modern assessment system. In its annual report, the regulator also said computerised exams should be encouraged as part of a plan to crackdown on cheating. Tests can easily be created with different questions and multiple choice exams can appear in a random order to stop candidates copying from pupils sat nearby, it said.

Any rise in computer-based tests would inevitably lead to a reduction in the use of pens, pencils and paper in the classroom, as pupils are taught using the same system employed in the exam hall.

Last night, head teachers welcomed the development which they said would boost children’s vocabulary. But parents’ groups said it risked created a generation of pupils that “relied on spell-checkers” instead of developing their own linguistic skills and could lead to a decline in handwriting.

In the report, Kathleen Tattersall, Ofqual chief regulator, said the organisation had a duty to “encourage those who provide assessments to look forward so that the qualifications system remains relevant to society”. “Other performance standards, therefore, might relate to how assessments are carried out to effect a transformation from examinations that are largely paper-based to those in which candidates respond using computers,” she said. “We need to ensure that the means of assessment are fit for their purpose and make the best use of technology.”

The report said the main criticism of “e-assessment” was that it was easy for pupils to cheat. But she said there were “techniques to combat cheating that are much easier to operate in e-assessment” than paper-based tests, including altering the questions in each exam.

Many exam boards already mark tests on-line and the latest intervention could lead to a charge towards a completely computer-based assessment system.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “We’re glad Ofqual is looking at different ways pupils can take exams and tests. It’s right that assessment keeps up with the 21st Century, but exams and tests must be fair and can be accessed by all students.”

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “In a few years’ time people will look back on pen and paper tests as old-fashioned. I actually think the art of writing is improved by using a computer because you can easily edit your work.”

But Margaret Morrissey, from the campaign group Parents OutLoud, said computers “inhibited children’s ability to think”. “We cannot develop a generation that relies solely on spell-checkers,” she said. “If children rely too much on machines to do everything for them it will destroy their handwriting, spelling and grammar.”

Ofqual’s second annual report also appeared to warn of the danger of exams skewing the curriculum. It follows warnings from schools that they are forced to “teach to the test” to boost their league table position. “Our principle is that qualifications, tests and assessments must facilitate good learning, not dominate or distort it,” said the document. Ofqual also appeared to issue a warning to the Government not to tinker with the qualifications system. Constant change "destabilises the system", said the report.


Israeli grade-schools faltering

Israel should cherish the feeling of producing Nobel Prize winners, because in the future they will be even harder to come by. The education system is failing today's children and tomorrow's society, according to research conducted by Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

In its forthcoming annual report on the state of Israel's society and economy, the Jerusalem-based Taub Center will present a first-of-its-kind comparison between Israel and 25 advanced economies in every exam given over the past decade. On Sunday, the center released a preview of the section of the report dealing with education, which showed Israel consistently ranking at the end of the list of Western countries and presenting a growing trend of severe gaps between top and bottom performers.

"Over the past decade or so, each couple of years, we get hit by different exam results, each time its with a different number of countries and each time the rankings change, so it's hard to get any idea of where we are," Ben-David said. "We decided to put some order in all of this. What we did was take the same 25 OECD countries that serve as a benchmark for us and compare Israel to them in a consistent way. When we did that, we found some pretty interesting things."

Ben-David and his team crunched the numbers from the results of two international scholastic evaluation mechanisms that are taken by students around the world every four years - the Programme for International Student Assessment tests, which were taken in 2002 and 2006, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests, which were taken in 1999, 2003 and 2007. The results showed that the average levelin Israel was consistently lower than every one of the 25 countries they compared it with.

The study also showed increasing inequalities among Israeli students. "Our educational inequality within Israel is simply the highest in the Western world, bar none," said Ben-David. "There are smallergaps between Beverly Hills and Harlem students in the United States than there are between our best and worst achievers here in Israel." "By creating the largest education gaps in the Western world," he said, Israel is "sowing the seeds today of high income gaps tomorrow."

The "frosting on the cake," as Ben-David referred to it, was the performance of Israel's top achievers. According to the study, even they consistently fall behind the rest of the Western world. From the 25 countries examined, only Italy's top performers performed more poorly than Israel's.

Ben-David said that the truth was actually even worse than the tests indicated, because the sample of the Israeli students taking the tests were skewed upwards. "None of the results include Haredim. In light of the fact that they do not study core curriculum in any meaningful manner, you can expect that all of these problems would be much worse," said Ben-David. "We exclude more kids out of these samples than any other country."

"For a country whose entire population is barely greater than that of metropolitan Philadelphia, which is sitting in the heart of one of the world's most inhospitable neighborhoods [the Middle East], these findings indicate existential problems in the next generation - unless a comprehensive reform of the educational system is adopted, and soon," he said. "This is really all about national priorities. What do we really care about? What is most important for this country? I think that most people would agree that education should be at the top of the list," he said.

The problems, according to Ben-David, are threefold and perhaps surprisingly, budgeting isn't one of them. The same results that exist today after the education budget was cut, existed when the budget was relatively higher than in many of the other countries. Ben-David blames the situation on other things.

First, he said, Israeli kids study the wrong things. Israelis pay for more instructional hours than many of the other countries, but those hours aren't spent on core curriculum subjects that will serve the students in their competition with OECD students, Ben-David said. He gave examples of Tel Aviv high schools luring students in by offering courses in law, medicine and biotechnology, when they should focus on mathematics and reading and writing skills. He also pointed to the religious schools that, because of their focus on the religious studies, can't offer what's necessary in terms of core subjects.

The second element Ben-David pointed to was the overall quality of the teachers. "We have some excellent teachers. We have teachers who would do well in any occupation that they chose. However, we also have roughly two dozen teaching colleges in Israel and they produce the mass of our teachers. Their entrance requirements are below the entrance requirements of nearly every university departmentin Israel.

"So how could we possibly expect the caliber of teachers that go to these places to be on a level that could bring our kids to the universities that they themselves couldn't be accepted to?" Ben-David asked.

Finally, he said, the education system does not give principals enough power to shape their faculty. "Principals do not have the authority to reward their best teachers or fire the poor performers. As a result, teachers who should probably not carry on teaching, continue to do so despite the good of the children."

The study shows a trend that should concern anybody who cares about Israel's future, Ben-David said. "The past and the future are diverging," he said. "During the same decade in which Israel garnered more Nobel Prizes per capita in the sciences than any other country, the achievements of its top high school students were near the bottom of the Western barrel," he said.

"Within another decade or so, these same children in these same countries will be competing for real in other arenas that will determine their livelihood. The level of the basic toolbox that Israel is providing its children will put them at a severe disadvantage that many will be unable to extricate themselves from," Ben-David said.


No comments: