Saturday, August 29, 2009

LA Unified School District chooses private-sector competition

One of the nation’s largest and most troubled school districts finally got desperate enough to try something new to rescue its schools: private-sector competition. The Los Angeles Unified School District approved a plan to turn 250 of its schools to the private sector for management as charter schools, after winning a battle with the teachers union. Union officials threatened to take the school district to court, while Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa practically dared them to try:
In a startling acknowledgment that the Los Angeles school system cannot improve enough schools on its own, the city Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday that could turn over 250 campuses — including 50 new multimillion-dollar facilities — to charter groups and other outside operators.

The plan, approved on a 6-1 vote, gives Supt. Ramon C. Cortines the power to recommend the best option to run some of the worst-performing schools in the city as well as the newest campuses. Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissented. …

The action signals a historic turning point for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has struggled for decades to boost student achievement. District officials and others have said their ability to achieve more than incremental progress is hindered by the powerful teachers union, whose contract makes it nearly impossible to fire ineffective tenured teachers. Union leaders blame a district bureaucracy that they say fails to include teachers in “top-down reforms.”

“The premise of the resolution is first and foremost to create choice and competition,” said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who brought the resolution, “and to really force and pressure the district to put forth a better educational plan.”

As a former Angeleno, I can say that this is both long overdue and absolutely stunning. Los Angeles has been in control of liberal doctrinaires for decades, at the school district, city, and county levels. Having the LAUSD adopt a platform of privatization and choice would be akin to California electing a Club for Growth conservative to statewide office. If it wasn’t impossible, it certainly seemed like it.

However, everyone knows that this is a move borne of desperation. The liberal-doctrinaire policies in LAUSD have long failed the students within the system, and the district has tried just about everything else within those paradigms. The only option they rejected was the union’s proposal to turn control completely over to them, which got almost no support from a board clearly seeing the union as part of the problem, if not the biggest part of it.

The union says they’ll take LAUSD to court to block the plan. Villaraigosa, no conservative stalwart, responded:
Shortly after the vote, Villaraigosa savored a political and policy victory at district headquarters in downtown L.A.

“We’re not going to be held hostage by a small group of people,” Villaraigosa said, referring to the teachers union and other opponents. “I’ll let you infer who I’m talking about.”

Villaraigosa wants to run for higher office, probably governor, at some point in time. He can build some credibility as a moderate by taking on the teachers union at LAUSD, but the unions will not forget it when it comes to Democratic primaries. He assumed considerable political risk in backing privatization, but saw it as the right thing to do.

Now we will see how choice and privatization works on a wide scale in one of the most underperforming districts in America. The union wants to prevent it at all costs, because they know it succeeds everywhere it’s tried.


Evidence that British girls cheat more in school

Coursework is wide open to cheating

Boys have moved ahead of girls in GCSE maths for the first time since Labour came to power, after coursework was abolished in the subject. Coursework is being cut or dropped from many other subjects next year, which could help boys — in recent years the underdogs — to catch up with girls. Today’s GCSE generation is the first to be educated entirely under Labour.

Pupils celebrated another improvement in results yesterday, with more than two thirds of exams marked at grades A* to C for the first time, and more than a fifth at A* or A. But boys’ performance in maths reignited the debate about whether coursework or an exam is a fairer method of assessment. Twenty years ago, before the introduction of coursework, there was concern about girls lagging behind boys.

Mike Cresswell, head of the AQA exam board, said that this was this first time that boys had done better than girls at GCSE maths since 1997. He added: “The obvious speculation is that it reflects the removal of coursework from GCSE maths. It’s well established that girls outperform boys at coursework.”

Coursework crept into most subjects after GCSEs replaced O levels in 1988. In maths it became compulsory in 1991 and eventually accounted for 20 per cent of the final grade. But a report by the qualifications regulator in 2006 said there was “striking evidence” that maths teachers did not consider coursework to be a reliable or valid way of rating pupils. [I wonder why?]

The number of pupils taking maths rose this year because of an increase in candidates entered for the exam a year early. Exam chiefs said that the scrapping of Key Stage 3 tests, which were taken by 14-year-olds until last year, had freed up curriculum time. More pupils took individual science subjects, a change welcomed by scientists. Biology entries were up 18 per cent on last year, chemistry by 20.3 per cent and physics by 21 per cent, despite the GCSE-aged population shrinking by 3.5 per cent on last year. The Royal Society said: “At a time when the UK needs to ensure a healthy supply of scientists, that we have more students better prepared to pursue science post-16 is great news.”

The proportion achieving top grades in science subjects fell slightly. A report this year by Ofqual, the exam regulator, said that parts of GCSE science had become too easy. Exam boards reacted to the report by adjusting their marking.

However, there was more bad news for modern languages, which have been in decline since 2004, when the subjects stopped being compulsory after the age of 14. French was down by 6.6 per cent, from 201,940 candidates last year to 188,688. More than 340,000 candidates took the subject in 2002. German declined by 4.2 per cent, to 73,469, and Spanish stalled at 67,000. There was a small increase in Arabic, Polish and Russian. Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that the decline was a matter of concern. “This is precisely the opposite of what should happen in a world where national boundaries are less and less important,” she said.

The gulf at top grades between independent and state schools widened in yesterday’s results. Fee-charging schools enjoyed a 2.5 per cent rise in A and A* grades, but comprehensive schools’ A and A* grades rose by only 0.9 per cent.

A small number of candidates were the first to be awarded a Diploma, the new two-year qualification. It will be taken by about 12,000 teenagers next year, but about 200 pupils took their Diploma in a year instead. The higher-level Diploma, equivalent to seven good GCSEs, is ranked A* to C, with no D or E grades. None of the 91 students who took it in one year was awarded an A* or A grade, more than half got a C and more than a quarter failed.


British High School science students get a mark for naming an illegal drug

New dumbing-down row over this year's exams

Pupils taking this year's GCSE science exams were awarded marks for simply being able to name an illegal drug. And those taking languages were allowed to take a cue card to prompt them in their oral tests. The latest revelations are sure to intensify the debate over the 'dumbing down' of the exam system.

Watchdog Ofqual revealed in March that rigorous science standards had been compromised by reforms to the exams. But it warned improvements towards a more acceptable standard will be gradual and that this year's results will still be tainted. Science exams were changed to make the subject more 'relevant' to teenagers, but Ofqual said some questions were no longer challenging enough.

Now an analysis of this year's papers has renewed criticism that some questions are not a sufficient test of pupils' knowledge, particularly in the sciences. One chemistry question asked candidates, for two marks, to give an example of 'a legal recreational drug' and 'an illegal recreational drug'. Meanwhile, a physics question asked what uses there were for microwave energy, other than in mobile phones. It comes just days before more than 500,000 teenagers across the country discover their GCSE results.

The Conservative schools spokesman Michael Gove said: 'Since the last curriculum changed, experts have warned that science GCSE is no longer as rigorous as it should be. 'We have seen questions that are not a proper test of scientific reasoning crop up in exam paper after exam paper. 'It's important we keep up with other nations that are pulling ahead in maths and science and making sure that our students sit exams that properly stretch and test them.'

The Mail revealed last month that eminent scientific bodies which investigated science GCSEs had found there are questions that have 'no relation to science' and that vital maths is 'woefully represented' in question papers.

The questions emerged in an analysis by the Tories as they announced plans to create an online library of exam papers from past years. Their findings also reveal how pupils are not required to commit key scientific formulae to memory. This year's GCSE physics paper supplied a list of basic equations to help pupils with calculations, whereas those taking the International GCSE were expected to have learned the formulae by heart.

Elsewhere, candidates were allowed to take a cue card with up to five headings into modern language oral examinations. There was no literature or extensive translation in modern language GCSEs to test the extent of their fluency. The archive also shows that the 2009 biology exam contains papers as short as 45 minutes. By contrast, the IGCSEs, which are increasingly offered by private schools, are typically one hour and 15 minutes long.

Multiple choice questions appear in the physics GCSE, but not in the IGCSE.

Almost half a million 16-year-olds a year fail to achieve five GCSE passes that include the core subjects of English, maths, science and a language, it has emerged. Fewer than a quarter finish compulsory schooling with the basic set of qualifications - down from nearly a third in 2001.

Tory spokesman Nick Gibb said: 'These are the core academic subjects that are highly valued by universities and employers. The fact that the number of children-attaining these GCSEs has fallen year on year since 2001 is a terrible indictment of the Government's record.'

The figures, obtained by the Conservatives, showed the proportion with five passes fell from 30.4 per cent in 2001 to 23.7 per cent last year. GCSE results released on Thursday are expected to show yet another set of record-breaking performances. Pupils are predicted to pass one in five exams at A* or A.


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.”


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Charter choices

On the surface, the Obama administration's threat to withhold federal "stimulus" dollars from states that refuse to lift their caps on charter schools looks like a victory for public school choice. Isn't an end to statist restrictions on innovative charters what supporters of school choice have been advocating for years? Well, yes, but those advocates would be well-advised to look below the surface at the likely conditions that will accompany massive federal aid, as Phil Brand's perceptive column advises ("Don't look for the union label," Opinion, Wednesday).

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called repeatedly for imposing tight "accountability" on charter schools as part of the aid deal -- and closing those that fail to rise to their standards. They have issued these declarations while openly inviting teachers unions to be part of the chartering (or dechartering) process. Meanwhile, the unions are busily trying to unionize the teaching staffs of some of the nation's most successful charter schools.

Charter schools already have a far higher level of accountability than do conventional public schools. They are accountable to parents, who may pull their children out if they are dissatisfied. The second key to successful charter schools is the ability of strong principals to reward productive teachers and fire incompetent ones. Parental choice and "at will" employment are antithetical to the unionized model Mr. Obama is embracing. Let all buyers beware.


Why don't British High School students apply for university AFTER receiving their final exam results?

Nice to see that someone is questioning the idiotic British system. As far as I know, every other country in the world times admissions to occur AFTER final exam results are known. Can it be so hard in Britain?

Celebratingstudents An outsider looking at the British university system this summer would be shocked, and understandably. Hundreds of thousands of students are hoping to go to university this autumn, but because exam results aren't out until five or six weeks before term starts, it's chaos. UCAS reports today that 141,000 students are looking for a place through clearing. How stressful; how depressing.

In the past, A levels were for the elite, not for everyone. Now so many more people take them and then apply for university (the number of applicants is up from 405,000 in 1994 to 588,000 in 2008 and higher still this year), that the system appears to be creaking. There simply aren't enough places for everyone.

Wouldn't it take some of the stress away if students applied for university after they received their results? It would certainly get rid of the clearing chaos.Clearing was never meant to be as competitive as it is today.

Obviously there are problems, many logistical. Exams would probably have to be taken earlier and university terms started later, at least for freshers. But there have been so many changes to education in recent years (not least a whole raft of new qualifications) that surely, if a change is really worth doing, it could be made to work. Others worry that places would be offered solely on results, and not take extra-curricular activities into account. I'm sure this could be overcome if some thought were put into it.

All this isn't new. Back in 2004, the Schwartz report called for PQA (post qualifications applications) while just a few weeks ago, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), argued that "a sense of urgency" needed to be injected into the discussions'. This, he added, was especially because it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who tend to under-estimate their grades.

One problem, of course is money, and the other is the will to do it. Many universities don't want to make changes - they're happy with things as they are, and, the top universities in particular, always get good students so feel no sense of urgency. For the students however, I think it does make sense, and could be a real help. Perhaps it's time to say farewell to the chaos of clearing.


Primary school maths failures on the rise in Britain

Leftist destruction never ceases

The number of seven-year-olds failing to master basic maths skills increased this year despite government efforts to drive up standards. The results of this year’s national tests also show that almost one in four boys is unable to write by seven and one fifth have a low reading age. The equivalent figures for girls show slightly more than one in ten (13 per cent) are falling below the standard in writing and one in ten have a low reading age.

The teacher assessments showed that 89 per cent of pupils reached Level 2 in maths — the minimum level expected of the age group — down from 90 per cent last year. Since 1948 the number of good readers in primary schools has nearly doubled

The statistics from the tests, formerly known as SATs, also showed that achievements in speaking and listening, reading and science have stalled for the second year in a row. Writing has improved by one percentage point this year to 81 per cent, according to figures published by the Department for Schools. The figures are based on assessments carried out by teachers in England’s primary schools, including results from tests in maths, English and science.

Over 100,000 pupils failed to reach Level 2 in writing and 55,400 did not make the grade in elementary maths.

Diana Johnson, the Schools Minister, said that high standards were being maintained, but admitted that the drop in maths results was “disappointing” “Almost nine out of ten of our children are hitting the expected level, but some are not quite there which is a concern because numeracy and literacy skills are so essential to learning,” she said.

Ministers have been attempting to raise standards in the early years amid fears children who fall behind at the beginning of their school career will continue to lag behind later on. Earlier this month the results of this year’s tests for 11-year-old showed that two in every five children are leaving primary school without reaching the required level in English, maths and science.

Ms Johnson said children who do not reach Level 2 “must not be left behind”. “We are ensuring additional support will be available for those who don’t hit the expected level including one-to-one tuition and increased support for children with special educational needs.” Maths programmes have been introduced to help those struggling with numeracy, she added.

She pointed out that the gender gap is an international phenomenon. “We are hopeful that the introduction of schemes such as ‘boys into books’ and ‘reading champions’, which encourage boys to read more, will address this.”

Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said that the results reflected the “upward trend in standards”. “Sustained and continued hard work and commitment by pupils and teachers is being rewarded,” she said. “These results demonstrate that pupils are being given a good start on their educational journey.” [She must be the only one who thinks so. The idea that standards are rising is contrary to all the evidence]


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gates Foundation seeks education's magic pill

Ever since Americans sent their children to one-room schoolhouses, parents have known what makes a good school: an inspiring, organized, creative teacher. But researchers haven't been able to quantify what exactly makes a teacher effective and how to tie that to student achievement.

Now the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — an influential voice in education policy today — hopes to end that confusion. Nine years and $2 billion into its work to improve America's public schools, the Seattle-based foundation is turning its focus to teacher effectiveness. "We've been sort of looking around for the silver bullet for education reform, and actually the answer has been right under our feet the whole time," said John Deasy, deputy director of the foundation's education work.

Over the next five years, the foundation plans to spend another half a billion dollars in its quest to figure out what qualities make the best teachers and how to measure those qualities in the classroom. The project has two parts: research to develop and test methods to rate teachers and experiments at a handful of school districts around the nation to try out new ways of recruiting, training, assigning and assessing teachers.

Among those asked to submit proposals for a share of the money were school districts in Atlanta; Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Prince George's County, Md.; Tulsa, Okla., and a group of Los Angeles charter schools.

This week, the foundation chose five finalists: Hillsborough County, Memphis, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles charters. Final decisions will be made this fall. The other five districts will be considered for smaller grants to pay for parts of their effective teaching plans.

Their ideas, which were presented in Seattle earlier this month, focus on teacher training, putting the best teachers in the most challenging classrooms, giving the best teachers new roles as mentors and coaches while keeping them in front of children, making tenure a meaningful milestone, getting rid of ineffective teachers, and using money to motivate people and schools to move toward these goals. "It really is about an effective teacher for every student every year of their school career," said Vicki Phillips, director of the foundation's K-12 education program. "If we did that, we would make the kind of progress that we have all long dreamed about in this country."

Foundation officials said they were impressed with how thoughtful the districts were in their proposals and how clear it was that teacher's unions, school officials and elected school board members worked together to come up with the ideas.

Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said the process propelled his district forward. "I'd say we made almost 10 years of progress with our union in three months," he said. "It was like a door had been opened that we didn't know was in the wall any more."

Before getting involved in the Gates grant proposal process, Pittsburgh had focused on other school reforms like closing troubled schools, improving principal training and fixing curriculum to make it more rigorous and more consistent across the district. Teachers were next on the agenda.

Roosevelt speculated the transformation would continue with or without money from the foundation, although some of their ideas would take considerably more time to accomplish without the cash.

Districts chosen for the project will agree to use the foundation's research findings to influence their reform efforts, said Tom Kean, a Harvard researcher and foundation deputy director who is in charge of this part of the project.

Among the research ideas the foundation wants to explore is one that involves making digital videos of teachers in thousands of classrooms. Researchers will track elements of teacher performance and compare that information with student test scores.

The nation's largest teachers union expressed cautious optimism about the foundation's efforts. John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, said he was glad to see someone putting money into research about teacher effectiveness, since there hasn't been much independent analysis combining teacher pay and student achievement. "We all want great public schools for every student. It's rather complex how to get there," Wilson said.


450,000 British children failed by 'coasting' schools

More than 450,000 children are being taught in "coasting" schools that are failing to stretch their pupils, according to the Government's own assessment. Official data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that a total of 470 secondary schools, many located in middle-class suburbs and shire counties, are "resting on their laurels" instead of pushing pupils to get the best grades. They have been designated as "coasting" by the Department for Children, Schools and Families under new criteria introduced last year.

The figure represents 15 per cent of secondaries in England and is far higher than initial estimates. With an average of 975 pupils per secondary school, it suggests that 458,000 children are affected.

Parents will be concerned that passable, even respectable, overall exam results at hundreds of schools mask poor progress which allows individual pupils to fall behind or underachieve. In some local authorities, including Hertfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Hampshire, Essex and Staffordshire the number of coasting schools is in double figures. In Lancashire, 29 schools fit the criteria.

The Government defines schools as coasting if they display one of more of a list of indicators. These include pupils starting school with good SATs results but going on to get poor GCSEs, "unimpressive" pupil progress, static exam results, disappointing Ofsted ratings, "complacent" leadership and lack of pupil tracking and early intervention.

The extent of school complacency is revealed as 600,000 teenagers await their GCSE results, published on Thursday. While the proportion of A* to C passes is expected to rise beyond two thirds, thousands of pupils will fail to secure the grades needed to get a job or go on to sixth form, or will scrape C grades when earlier promise indicated they should do better.

An analysis by the Conservatives of the subjects taken by GCSE students published tomorrow will show that schools are allowing pupils to drop "hard" subjects like modern foreign languages. Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, said: "It is very worrying that the Government figures show that there are so many schools which are simply not doing well enough. "The current league table system leads weaker schools to concentrate on a small number of pupils rather than focusing maximum amounts of energy on raising standards for all pupils. "The Government may have identified a significant number of schools in need of help but they still do not have a coherent policy in place to raise standards for the pupils affected."

A total of 470 schools, across 121 of England's 150 local authorities, have met the criteria for the Government's Gaining Ground initiative, aimed at coasting schools. The breakdown from the Department for Children, Schools and Families shows the north west had the most schools in the category, with 94, followed by the east of England with 59.

Officials believe that coasting secondaries in rural counties lack the "competition" that fuels higher expectations in some urban schools. In a bid to boost performance, the 470 secondaries will receive between £10,000 and £50,000 a year extra. The £40 million funding pot will pay for more training for teachers and academic support for pupils.

If improvements are not made within two years, the schools face intervention from local authorities who can replace their governing bodies or force them in to federations with more successful secondaries.

Some schools and local authorities involved in the initiative have criticised the "coasting" label, however, and fear it may lead to a drop in applications and make it harder to recruit good teachers. Jonathan Hewitt, Lancashire County Council's head of quality and improvement, said: "Although some of our schools are receiving support as part of the Gaining Ground programme, they do not necessarily fall into the category of coasting schools." Surrey County Council and Education Leeds said the nine schools in each authority involved in the initiative had "volunteered" to take part.

Iain Wright, the schools minister, said: "These schools are not failing schools - they will have acceptable, or sometimes even good results, but may not be fulfilling the potential of their pupils. The Gaining Ground programme supports these schools to help them link up with other schools to improve performance and access additional resources to raise their ambition and improve pupils' progress. "

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of education and employment at Buckingham University, said: "For school where progress is not being made, we need to look at the intake, the quality of teaching and leadership and other factors."


British education is now an all-round failure

When the NHS was attacked by the Republicans in the US this month, all sorts crawled out of the woodwork to 'love' the NHS. Those of us --that is most of us - who know it's not perfect and needs more than money to fix it, will still defend it. The same thing would not happen with education. An 'I love state education' campaign is fairly unimaginable. Those who don't love it go private and have little knowledge of it beyond scaring each other at dinner parties about half-feral children with incompetent teachers.

Now, though, the pressure on kids is enormous and in a recession the figures are truly frightening. One young person in six is not in education, employment or training. This, combined with children leaving primary school barely able to read, is a catastrophic legacy of our current system.

The nostalgia for grammar schools, basically the Tory policy, ignores all the children who went to secondary moderns and were knowing fodder for manual industry. These jobs no longer exist or British people don't want to do them.

The New Labour-obsession with measuring, targeting and centralising has done nothing to reduce the gulf between those born to succeed and those born to fail.

Just as we feel we should be healthy but should be looked after if we fall ill, we should surely desire a society where we can learn as much as we want to, when we want to, not just to become individually wealthier but because education is enriching in itself. I am all for people getting three years of their lives to read and mess about in. Most degrees are not a preparation for the workplace and it is wrong that colleges are forced to market degrees as vocational.

The current utilitarian approach to education is not working. It is literally not producing work either for those at the bottom of the heap or graduates. Unfortunately-many young people have absorbed the celebrity mantra of 'getting it if you want it bad enough'. But even with a good degree, many find it hard to get as far as that first job interview.

We know education is the key to a more equal society but have chosen not to know it. Wanting your own child to be more equal than other people's has been redefined as normal, as good parenting rather than a fearful and selfish preoccupation.

Jenny Diski, in her wonderful book The Sixties, takes a clear-eyed view of where child-centred learning led. She was a teacher and she also set up a free school. She recalls how she learnt by rote and singsong, and concludes that once you've got the basics under your belt, you have the rest of your life to sit back and learn as you wish.

The Thatcher/ New Labour backlash against all this has been a drive to efficiency and measurement. But of what? For what? Diski writes: 'We forget what pleasure we had from irrelevance, from the strange and the half-understood, and even from the difficult.'

What is difficult is worth learning. What is difficult is mounting expectations and few jobs. What is difficult is watching the golden girls leap with joy while the less golden slink into Jobcentres unable even to fill out the forms.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Strapped American colleges keep leaders in luxury

From the many windows of her stone mansion, MIT president Susan Hockfield enjoys a commanding view of sailboats gliding along the Charles River. When Northeastern president Joseph Aoun steps outside his five-story brick town house, he finds himself just across the street from Boston Common.

Their counterparts at other private colleges reside in luxury as well, many on centuries-old estates surrounded by well-tended gardens and lawns cared for by loyal staffs. The homes, many provided by universities as part of their presidents’ compensation, are the ultimate perk in this college-rich region, but one that increasingly appears to represent a bygone era.

Now the opulence risks standing out amid frozen faculty salaries, widespread layoffs, and slashed programs. While the houses often serve an important ceremonial role and it is questionable how much money could be saved by their elimination, the very mention of them has elicited low-level grumbling on campuses and anxiety among university officials over the Globe’s request to tour them.

“It seems terribly unfair that people who are being laid off can’t even afford to make their modest mortgage payments, while people at the top are living in luxury,’’ said Desiree Goodwin, a Harvard library assistant who has seen dozens of workers lose their jobs across campus. “They’re not really being open about the kind of lifestyle they’re trying to maintain while making these cuts.’’

Goodwin acknowledges she’s never had the occasion to set foot in Elmwood, the 1767 home of Harvard president Drew Faust. The pale yellow 12-room Colonial and its carriage house sit behind a white fence on Cambridge’s Tory Row, where wealthy families loyal to the crown lived before the revolution.

The interiors of these homes remain a mystery even to many on their respective campuses. And when a reporter requested entry into eight of the residences, many of which do not pay property taxes to their municipalities, the doors to all but one remained resolutely closed.

Some schools’ public relations teams expressed concern that it wouldn’t look good to show off their presidents’ luxury quarters amid penny-pinching times. Those thoughts also crossed the mind of Wellesley president Kim Bottomly, but she ultimately concluded, “We have nothing to hide.’’

Last week, she opened her estate to a reporter and a photographer, even allowing a glimpse at her bedroom, which overlooks Lake Waban.

“I’m living here as a custodian of history,’’ Bottomly said of the 1854 home where Wellesley’s founders resided. “I’m proud to be able to show off the first building on campus.’’

Her colleagues were not as open. MIT and Harvard reported that their presidents simply were “not around.’’ The presidents of Tufts and Boston universities should be afforded a measure of privacy, said their spokespersons.

More here


A state school in Waterlooville, Hampshire, has been accused of potentially creating a "back-door selection" system by introducing a compulsory 'eco-friendly' uniform costing about £100. Oaklands Roman Catholic School in Waterlooville has introduced the uniform made from recycled bottles which can only be bought from the school or from the Schoolwear Shop in nearby Havant.

Other schools also have some degree of exclusivity, where logoed polo shirts or jumpers can only be bought from the school or one shop.

MPs have raised concerns that such expensive uniforms could deter poorer families from sending children to their chosen school...

Parents have pointed out that supermarkets like Tesco can supply entire uniforms for only £3.50.

More here

Britain's education system condemns children to second-class lives

Former education minister George Walden breaks his silence over our education system, saying the lack of selective state schools condemns children to second-class lives

I shouldn't be writing this. After resigning as an education minister, then from Parliament, I vowed not to talk about education, and have turned down radio and television invitations to comment. Life is short, and the education debate, phony to the gills, seemed to be going nowhere. And nowhere is exactly where we have got in the last 15 years.

Reforming education, a friend sighed on my appointment, was like trying to disperse a fog with a hand grenade: after the flash and the explosion, the fog creeps back. So it proved under Thatcher, and so it has been under Blair and Brown.

In books I wrote after resigning, We Should Know Better and The New Elites, I said it wasn't just that comprehensives kept the poor in their place, while protecting escapees to the private sector from competition from below. No country where the wealthiest, best-schooled and most influential people had no stake in its education system could evolve a high-level state sector, and we would be no exception. Talk about improving standards to the point where no one would want to go private was a prime piece of educational bull.

That was 13 years ago, and it looks like I got out of the edbiz just in time. Our up/down, two-tier, comprehensive/private system is today more clearly kaput than ever, and Westminster's attempts to keep Humpty Dumpty together with ever more cash and legislative bits of string are an all-party waste of time. This year's A-level pass rate – we'll be at 100 per cent soon – is just part of the charade. In truth, we are going backwards. Sats are the perfect example. Labour, the teachers, Tory trendies and "arts community" complain that they stifle creativity. So why did we ever have them, together with a centrally imposed national curriculum? Because the teaching profession, in thrall to egalitarian fantasies and Flopsy Bunny teaching techniques, had failed in its primary duty to teach children to read and write and count.

Now the talk is of scrapping testing, at a time when studies have shown that the qualifications of the average teacher remain scandalously low. So how can we rely on them to teach the basics? Meanwhile, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, encourages a return to the touchy-feely illusions of the Sixties and Seventies with his emotional intelligence lessons. In independent schools, such as the one he attended, they manage to educate the whole person, spelling, creativity and all, but in comprehensives it can only be one or the other.

Under Labour, confidence in examinations has finally collapsed. GCSEs in private schools are ten a penny, expectations in maths and science in dizzying decline, A-levels mean little to the best universities, and private schools are understandably contemplating the International Baccalaureat. So while Labour proclaims that A-level scores show that our children are getting smarter, we look set to become the only Western country with one examination for the rich and a less demanding one for the rest.

If it was all about resources, as Labour used to cry, then the "output" of our schools would have virtually doubled, in response to massively increased spending. There has been damage limitation and improvements here and there, and good teachers struggling against the odds, but measured against the needs of a changing world, education in Britain remains a running disaster.

The failure of the comprehensives has sent social mobility reeling backwards. It is right that clever, well-educated children from comfortable families should rise to senior positions, and wrong to try to block their ascent by doing away with the charitable status of independent schools, or interfering with university admissions. But it is equally wrong that expensively educated mediocrities should be over-promoted in so many areas.

In universities, after sensible reforms, it was the Tories who began the great decline. Turning the polytechnics into universities was a first step in the comprehensivisation of higher education, a policy intensified by Labour. Its cram-them-in massification of the sector has helped downgrade the value of degrees in employers' eyes. If only the tens of thousands of jobless graduates in low-grade studies in English, media and photography or contemporary art had learned something useful in polytechnics, they could have been in work.

Why is there so little honest discussion about the failings of the system, and their causes? Because the debate on education is mendacious and hypocritical to the point where it demeans our public life. The rot starts at the top, with the issue of selection, to which all political leaders are opposed. The fact that they were selectively educated themselves is not the point; what matters is how they use the power and the influence their privilege helped give them.

The deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, a well-born lady and fiery egalitarian, sent her children to selective schools. Asked to explain herself, this grande dame of the Left simply stamps her little feet, waving away questions about her integrity as plebian insolence.

Contemptuous of middle-class aspirations, David Cameron is against selection, too. As his deferential spokesman David Willetts put it, selective grammars entrench advantage. Like most Tories, Willetts sent his children to private schools, highly selective places in the financial, academic, and sometimes social sense, that certainly "entrench advantage." So did I. But I don't spit in the eye of people who want something similar in the state sector. Tory policy is to smile on selection for those with money to buy it, and outlaw it for the 90 per cent for whom a private or grammar school education is out of bounds.

In much of the media, it is the same. The Daily Telegraph is an honourable exception, but few papers are prepared to give selection an honest hearing. In private it is a different matter. The former editor of a national daily, now an ubiquitous columnist, writes tirelessly against it. His child went to Winchester. Close inquiry is scarcely necessary to discover the secondary schools preferred by highly paid BBC executives, though the tenor of their programmes is staunchly pro-comprehensive.

The solidarity-in-hypocrisy of our new elites in politics and the media helps ensure that nothing changes. Recently we have learned that the number of state-school A-level candidates doing media studies has increased four-fold under Labour, while hard subjects like physics are increasingly the preserve of the private schools – 7 per cent of the total. While we fail to exploit all our talents, hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese are being more rigorously taught. We should do the maths while we can about what this means for our future prosperity.

A Chinese minister for education once asked me whether it was true that we put pupils of different abilities in the same class. Inscrutability is a myth: his face was agape with incredulity when I explained the comprehensive system. The truth is that education in Britain is not primarily about learning, it is about social class. Antique class-consciousness on the liberal Left seems set to ensure that, when hyper-competitive Asians dominate the globe, we go down as the last of the anti-elitist Mohicans.

The gap between state and private schools brings cultural condescension and top-down exploitation. The Tory education spokesman Michael Gove has deplored the amount of intelligence, eloquence and ingenuity used by people selling trash TV to those less well-schooled than themselves, and their "efforts to appear street". We've heard less of this recently. Perhaps his boss David Cameron – a former PR man for Carlton TV, had a word?

I am not being cynical: the cynics are the well-heeled and well-schooled who fob off the masses with a sub-standard education and a pap culture. Nor am I defeatist. Solutions exist, and I know when they will come about. They will involve modern forms of selection (see Germany) to ensure that non-academic talent is encouraged, the voluntary opening-up of independent day schools to all the talents, the restoration of something like the polytechnics to give prestige to advanced vocational studies, and the privatisation of the top universities.

Such is our gift for inertia that it will only happen when the Asian economies impinge unrelentingly on every aspect of our lives. My guess is 10-15 years. Until then we can expect a lot more dishonest debate, which I look forward, eagerly, to sitting out.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Why Won't Yale Identify the 'Experts' Who Advocated Pulling the Illustrations of Muhammad?

Why is Yale hiding behind the decision of anonymous "experts" to defend its decision to pull all illustrations of Muhammad from Jytte Klausen's forthcoming book, The Cartoons that Shook the World? What does it have to hide? Who was behind the decision?

Yesterday's New York Times reported Yale University Press's (YUP) decision to pull both the Danish cartoons of Muhammad along with all other illustrations of him slated to appear in Klausen's book, which examines—remarkably—the very controversy the 12 cartoons sparked in 2006, five months after their publication in the Danish newspaper Jylland- Posten in September, 2005.

The Times said that YUP and Yale University "consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous" that no illustrations should appear. It quotes John Donatich, YUP's director, as saying the experts recommendation to withdraw all images of Muhammad was "overwhelming and unanimous."

Not only is Yale withholding the identity of the experts from the public; it refused to share them with Klausen herself. According to the Times, Klausen was told she could read a summary of the experts' opinions "only if she signed a confidentiality agreement that forbade her from talking about them." She refused and called it a "gag order."

A Yale spokeswoman added that some experts wished originally to keep their identities secret, although some "subsequently agreed to be identified."

The American Association of University Professors issued a strong statement condemning YUP. The first line sums up their opinion of what Yale's actions, in effect, say about its commitment to academic freedom: "We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands." Inside Higher Ed, a web-based publication, today published a statement released by Yale--perhaps in response to the AAUP statement--defending its actions. Note the attempt to shift responsibility away from Yale and onto the backs of the experts:
As an institution deeply committed to free expression, we were inclined to publish the cartoons and other images as proposed. The original publication of the cartoons, however, was an occasion for violent incidents worldwide that resulted in over 200 deaths. Republication of them has repeatedly resulted in violent incidents, including as recently as 2008, some three years after their original publication and long after the images had been available on the Internet. These facts led us to consult extensively with experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies. All confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence, and nearly all advised that publishing other illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in the context of this book about the Danish cartoon controversy raised similar risk. We recognize that inclusion of the cartoons would complement the book's text with a convenient visual reference for the reader, who otherwise would have to consult the Internet to view the images

This statement smells of cowardice and compromise. We wanted to do the right thing, it claims, and publish the illustrations which, after all, are the subject of the book. But after we spoke to these experts (and you can't just ignore the advice of experts), we figured we'd skip out on our obligations to our author and readers and hide behind their advice, which we appreciate an awful lot.

It may also reveal an internal disagreement at Yale, with YUP personnel who favored inclusion of the illustrations overridden by higher administrators fearful of appearing insensitive to Muslims or being held responsible for any violence resulting from the publication of the cartoons.

If that's the case, let me invite anyone with access to the list to send it my way ( Confidentiality—and satisfaction—guaranteed.


Oxford admission tutors discriminate against private pupils

Resulting in many high achieving students now being unable to get a place in a university

Oxford academics have admitted they routinely “discount” the grades of privately educated applicants in an attempt to increase the numbers of places they award pupils from state schools. The university staff told researchers that when assessing the GCSE grades of applicants, they assume those who are privately educated should score A*s and so mark them down if they score “only” an A.

One tutor interviewed for the study, funded by Oxford and two government bodies, said he saw it as part of his job to “compensate for the failures of civil society” by tempering the privileges of private schooling. The research, to be published next year, comes amid fresh concern over “social engineering” by universities, sparked by last week’s A-level results.

Two pupils at Bury grammar school for girls in Greater Manchester were rejected by all their chosen universities despite winning six and five As respectively. Oxford turned down Amelia Al-Qazzaz, a privately educated physics candidate with 10 As from Stockton-on-Tees.

The study casts fresh light on the attitudes of tutors beyond the published admissions criteria, which give extra credit to candidates from poorly performing schools and with other disadvantages.

Anna Zimdars, the researcher, interviewed 23 tutors in 2005-6. She described “broad consensus” on a “discounting weight” against private school applicants. She concludes: “Tutors’ discretion appears to be at least part of the explanation of the bonus in admissions decisions for state school applicants ... and the discounting of the performance of private school applicants.”

A separate study by Zimdars and two other sociologists — Professor Anthony Heath and Thomas Ogg — backs the tutors’ approach. They find that to have an equal chance of a first-class degree, a privately educated student at Oxford would need eight A*s at GCSE compared with six A*s and two As for those from state schools. The academics say this justifies slightly lower offers to state school applicants to Oxford, where this year 44.6% of new admissions were privately educated.

Mike Nicholson, its director of admissions, said the findings were out of date, as Oxford had adopted new methods for taking into account students’ backgrounds. “These studies rely on fairly old data and from 2006 Oxford made changes to ensure consistent and transparent admissions practice. One of the changes was to agree and publish a policy on using contextual information,” he said.

Roberta Georghiou, co-chairwoman of the main independent school universities’ committee, said: “All selection processes take into account previous education, but crude generic discrimination against any kind of school is wrong.”

The task of choosing candidates has been made harder by the surge in A grades at A-level to 26.7% of all papers sat. A 10% rise in applications has not been matched by new places. The scramble through clearing was shown when 3,000 candidates applied for 25 vacancies at Southampton. Those without a place include Philippa Scott, 18, a pupil at Bury girls’ grammar. She was rejected by Cambridge, Durham, Bristol, Warwick and University College London (UCL) despite scoring six As at A-level. “I don’t really know what else they wanted,” she said. Scott, who applied to study English, has no argument with Cambridge. Of the others only Durham gave any explanation, saying her personal statement may have let her down. [She's probably better off not wasting her money studying such a useless subject as English. Such courses are just a frivolity. And I say that depite the fact that my own best subject was always English. She would probably learn more useful stuff by waitressing]

Georghiou, also Scott’s headmistress, said another pupil had been turned down by all her chosen universities for medicine despite having five As. “The answer from most is that they are oversubscribed. That is not a proper answer, it just acknowledges it’s a lottery.” She added: “If another youngster is in difficult circumstances, I want them to be given a chance, but if they have knocked Philippa off because their grades have been [artificially] enhanced, it doesn’t seem fair.”

Universities which rejected Scott said many well qualified candidates were turned away. English is a popular course. At Bristol, 23 applications chased every place; at UCL, 20.


Dumb teachers mean dumb students in Australia

Lack of discipline in the classroom has made teaching an unattractive occupation in Australia so finding capable teachers in maths and science is often impossible. Many teachers dragooned into teaching Maths and science have virtually no background in it.

AUSTRALIAN primary school students are worse at maths and science than pupils in Latvia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania, new figures show. An exclusive analysis of the Trends in International Maths and Science Study rates Australia behind at least 14 of 36 countries.

The report comes as the State Government announced $46 million to hire 200 specialist maths and science coaches to improve teachers' skills and students' results.

Almost one in 10 year 4 students in Australia are failing maths, compared with 3 per cent of Latvian students, 5 per cent of Kazakhstan students and 6 per cent of Lithuanian students. Seven per cent of Australian year 4 students have no basic science skills, while Lithuania and Kazakhstan both had a 5 per cent failure rate and Latvia 2 per cent. The US and England also had less students failing maths and science.

A quarter of Australian primary school teachers do not use a standard maths text book when teaching, while 98 per cent of teachers in high-performing Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong stuck to a rigid curriculum.

Education consultant and maths teacher Russell Boyle said governments failed to attract enough qualified maths and science teachers. "It just does not make sense, something has to change," he said. Australian Education Union state president Mary Bluett said students were missing out because of a "chronic" shortage of maths and science teachers.

Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said as well as the 200 specialist coaches there would be $7.6 million to encourage high-performing maths and science graduates to become teachers.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

The write stuff

Higher education has destroyed young Americans’ ability to express themselves on the page—or in their own minds

One student shouted indignantly, “I thought this was a course in public speaking!” There were murmurs of assent. I explained that, all things being equal, one’s thoughts were best written out before they were spoken. But the 30 or so members of the class remained upset. They wished to “wing it.”

That is the essence of the contemporary zeitgeist, which preaches spontaneous efflorescence born of inspiration issuing from a well of authenticity and soaring on the exuberant wings of conceit. It is the philosophy of ejaculation and orgasm and no Catholic guilt. These young people had not been taught to edit. They had not been taught self-criticism. They had been reared in an environment of self-esteem, even when this went unexamined and was unearned. And when they returned a week later with the fruits of their labors, I was appalled. I took the papers home and spent two afternoons and two evenings past midnight editing them.

I had to contend with an illiterate heaping of multisyllabic social-studies mush whose meaning was either obscured or contradicted by other heapings of academic mush, as indecipherable as they were ungrammatical. Illicit inferences lurked under false premises like salamanders under rocks. Logical connections did not exist. Non sequiturs were thick as chiggers. Do not mention grace or style. Of the 28 papers I labored through, only in two did I detect talent buried in the rubble. I had never seen anything so hopeless.

When I handed my University of South Carolina students their edited work, several shot up their hands and demanded to see me after class, to which I readily agreed. I sat down with each of them in chambers behind the lecture hall and went over the papers sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. This took a lot of time. I had scrawled in the margins, squeezing my comments between the typed lines of the text. I had tried to be charitable, but because of the limitations of space, I had to be blunt.

One fellow had nothing to say about the shoddiness of his work, except to ask me belligerently, “How much does the final speech weigh?” “Fifty percent,” I said, reminding him, “You are aware of that, it’s on the syllabus.” “Well, it’s unfair,” he protested hotly. “This could ruin my 4.0 average! You do that, and I’ll complain to the dean!” He stomped out, leaving me to marvel that anyone so deprived of the ability to express himself could fly such academic banners. 4.0!

When I proceeded to go over the essay of another young man, his voice caught in his throat and he broke down. I was taken aback. We hadn’t proceeded beyond the first page. His wasn’t the worst effort, either. But he wasn’t protesting my criticisms. To the contrary. “You’re right,” he kept repeating, tears flowing, “It’s awful. I can’t write my thoughts down. They come out a mess, I know!” And then he related a scandal. Not in four years of high school and three years of college had a single teacher expressed concern about his writing or offered to edit it. When he said this, other students spoke out to confirm cognate experiences. “What can I do now?” this young man asked me despairingly. “I graduate in two months!”

The dimensions of his doom and that of these other young people hit me with full force. Not once in their educational lives had they been taught to impose order on chaos, that being contrary to the central dogma of liberal-arts education in our country today. There is no such thing as choosing, as distinguishing between the false and the real, discriminating between good and bad. The cost of this heresy to our nation is beyond calculating: for two generations our businesses, professions, universities, and politics have been populated by moral illiterates who reject reason.

The art of writing is the soul of reason, from which all civilization has spun. If one cannot give expression to one’s thoughts, one is reduced to grunts. These young men and women were to be graduated in two months’ time. Yet they were functionally illiterate, as the saying goes—a hideous euphemism for being thrust into the adult world intellectually crippled. Several other students who crowded around me now claimed that never had they had their written work reviewed. I was incredulous. “Never?” “Not once!” came their reply. Two or three then claimed that in nearly four years of college they had never been required to write an essay. Examinations were multiple choice.

I had no answer for them. The laziness of the faculty disgusted me. Some of these students were studying to be teachers. My anger burned. It was not their fault that they were unable to think or write their way out of a paper bag. A whole generation was being defrauded. The final day of the course I advised my students that their parents should join in a class-action suit against the state’s Commission of Higher Education, and at the end of the second term, I resigned.

In the past 70 years, the American Dream has been reduced to owning one’s own home and other materialist satisfactions. No other dimension of human existence is allowed. That, of course, was never the American Dream. The American Dream was to be free. But one does not say these things in the Age of Obama, when government is no longer perceived as the handmaiden of tyranny. Paper money replaces gold, vice virtue. Sociology replaces merit, earmarks candor. Euphemistic language replaces plain speech with sentimentalized softening. Public figures do not lie; they misspeak. They do not cheat or transgress the law or do moral wrong; they make mistakes.

Communication suffers in this culture of moral and intellectual relativism, where standards, like the coin of the realm, are debased. One can be illiterate and graduate 4.0. Reality becomes virtual. Hard true thought —the primal condition of writing— which can be offensive, difficult, and unpopular, is rendered by academe in language of such bureaucratic opacity that, it is hoped, no one will be able to penetrate it, to discover that it is hollow, that Nero is wearing no clothes. Reality is euphemized, extenuated, attenuated, temporized, dishonored. One is not born to this; one is obliged to acquire the vice of fungible truth in our decadent society and our deeply corrupted educational system.

I do not exaggerate. Eugene Genovese, the grand onetime Marxist historian, has written a tender memoir on his recently deceased wife, Betsey Fox, whom it was my privilege to know. In the course of his reminiscence, Professor Genovese remarks that it required graduate school for his wife’s prose to be ruined. She was 11 years younger than he and a budding Marxist scholar when he was already an established figure on the red-hot Left. He had been impressed by her college papers from Bryn Mawr, but when she went on to Harvard for advanced studies, her papers lost all charm, directness, and style. Academic bloviations took the place of the hard-hitting analytical energy that she had given evidence of as a younger woman and for which she would later become renowned as a polemicist. He ruminated:
I reminded myself that most graduate schools seemed dedicated to the transformation of the English language into gibberish. In place of clear, straightforward prose, budding geniuses in graduate seminars have to impress their professors with the profundity that only bad writing and vacuous ‘theorizing’ can communicate.

With her husband’s help, Betsey Fox soon got out from under the baneful influence of academe. American scholars and professors of the liberal arts —along with sociologists, economists, and theorists of any discipline— may be the only class of intellectuals in which their ordinary social chitchat is superior to their polished prose. They are capable of saying, “Will someone shut the damn door?” or “Who let the cat in?” But when they write for publication—that is, for the admiration of their peers —our intellectuals seem to strap on impenetrable dullness like chain mail.

A certain defensive posture explains the vice. It is difficult for us laymen to understand the degree to which academics are twerps, nerds, doofuses, and dweebs, not to mention moral cowards. Academics who are not protected by tenure are terrified of exposing themselves as the second-rate minds that most of them are, as sloppy, lazy, superficial, and mean-spirited pseudo-scholars to whom the discredited concept of truth is of less concern than what is politically de rigueur. So they rig their prose out in dense, nearly impenetrable syntax. Relative clauses become cherished long-lost cousins. Hairsplitting becomes more important than getting anywhere. Our academics become unable to shut the damn door or put out the cat or parse a sentence or respect the sequence of a syllogism.

They are afraid of putting on plain display their biases, the ordinariness of their minds and spirits, so they take cover in jargon. Sure, to not one person in ten million is given originality of mind. An Albert Einstein or a Stephen Hawking does not come along every other day. Not one person in several hundreds of thousands is even given a first-rate intellect. We must accept the humbling edict of fate and console ourselves: we are all genetically unique and our experiences are also almost always singular. It is virtually impossible for us to sieve any subject through our consciousness without endowing it with a special, even an original, slant. We should take confidence in this biological singularity and never betray it by worrying over whether the stockholders will like what we say, or fearing that our analysis will not please faculty lounges at Harvard or Chicago or Stanford, or fretting that our opinion will fail to find favor with the establishment, whatever it may be. We must be true to ourselves if we want to write.

Do you wish to wrest order out of chaos? I pray you have not attended college or taken classes at some writing school. Instead, go to work, travel, starve, meditate, fall hopelessly in love and have your heart broken. The deadening hand of academia, of corporate culture, of Beltway correctness destroys not only one’s native ability to discriminate but also one’s powers of expression.

Writing gives thinking shape. It suffers fools badly. It discerns design where none is apparent: the writer’s founding assumption is that order, right order, exists. To write is to develop a nose for posturing and an aversion to the false. It is to be in awe, to apprehend the structure of the universe in the loneliness of the human heart. Writing is a gift, which does not believe for a moment it is unearned, unless no merit can be ascribed to the submission.


Are American universities giving you what you pay for?

During the economic slowdown, prices usually fall. But there's just one sector of the economy that's bizarrely insulated from reality: Academia. Tuition, room and board at Sarah Lawrence College just hit $53,166 per year. That's like buying a C-Class Mercedes every year - without the car. Other colleges are comparable, with even state school tuition rising to levels some parents find impossible.

We figure it's worth it. Universities offer students not just a degree that's valued in the marketplace, but a chance to broaden their interests and deepen their souls; to gain a solid grounding in the fundamentals that made our civilization. That's the theory. But what if universities began to neglect this basic charge, and instead turned into featherbedding, unionized factories that existed to protect their overpaid workers fire? What if these factories botched the items customers paid for, and spent their energy generating oddball inventions no one wanted?

That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein, whose American Enterprise Institute paper "Professors on the Production Line, Students On Their Own" explores the secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.

Laboring on the age-old axiom "publish-or-perish," thousands of professors, lecturers, and graduate students are busy producing dissertations, books, essays, and reviews. Over the past five decades, their collective productivity has risen from 13,000 to 72,000 publications per year. But the audience for language and literature scholarship has diminished. Unit sales for such books now hover around 300.

At the same time, the relations between teachers and students have declined. Forty-three percent of two-year public college students and 29 percent of four-year public college students require remedial coursework, costing $2 billion annually. One national survey reports that 37 percent of first-year arts/humanities students "never" discuss course readings with teachers outside of class. 41 percent only do so "sometimes."

Prestigious professors frequently have little interaction with students at all. Students must seek out professors in scanty office hours-at most, three hours per week.

Meanwhile, the research these professors are turning out--at least in the humanities--is increasingly obscure and often politicized. When dealing with well-studied writers like Faulkner or Melville, they pursue ever more oddball interpretations. Or professors switch gears and write about popular culture.

Too many universities have given up on providing solid guidance to students' choice of courses. Graduates of Ivy League colleges can emerge without having ever read Hamlet, the Bible, or the Declaration of Independence. At the pricey Sarah Lawrence College, a typical course on four canonical U.S. authors is "Queer Americans: James, Stein, Cather, Baldwin." Many leading schools offer similar fare.

It's essential to carefully scope out each college. Call the admissions office and ask the student/teacher ratio, and the percentage of classes taught by graduate students. Is there a core curriculum of solid classes in Western culture, American history, and great works of literature? Ask a professor how highly teaching (versus research) is valued in tenure decisions. After all, the teaching is what you're paying for. Leave the tab for all that research to those 300 people who actually buy the books.


No places for many would-be British university students

Further education colleges risk being swamped by school-leavers who narrowly missed the A-level grades that they needed for university and who want to retake the exams, The Times has learnt.

More than 140,000 university applicants were still awaiting an offer from any institution yesterday, although the clearing process is expected to go on for another week. The figures confirm fears that thousands of young people may not find a place on a degree course.

Further education colleges contacted by The Times said that they had had a surge in inquiries from frustrated school-leavers. Some of these colleges are already at capacity after a government rebuilding programme went over budget and left many institutions with half-finished sites.

Only a day after the A-level results were published, 383,000 people had been accepted by universities, 5,205 of those through the clearing process. While this is 33,000 more than at the same point last year, there are also thousands who have been less fortunate. This year 142,000 applicants do not yet have any offers, almost a quarter more than at the same stage in 2008.

Many colleges contacted by The Times said that they had received considerably more inquiries than at the same time last year. Pat Bacon, president of the Association of Colleges, said that some of the colleges offering higher-education courses were expected to pick up students through the clearing process. In terms of further education, though, she said: “There are some issues about capacity overall, not least because alternatives such as places in adult apprenticeships haven’t in recent times been a government priority.”

Some further education campuses are now more like building sites — with students being taught in temporary classrooms — after they were encouraged to apply for funds to revamp and extend their buildings under the Building Colleges for the Future (BCF) programme. The project pledged millions of pounds that it did not have, as no one at the Learning and Skills Council was keeping a running total. Only 13 colleges out of more than 160 affected have been shortlisted to receive emergency funding, if they reduce their overall costs.

There is some evidence to suggest that more school-leavers will choose to go on gap years this year and return to higher education next year after applying early. They aim to use the 15 months to work as well as travel, so that they can earn money and hone their employability skills. The head of Ucas, the admissions service, suggested yesterday that the clearing process might be equally competitive next year.

Anthony McClaran said: “We’ve now had two years of a 10 per cent increase in applications. The only thing that might affect it [future growth] is the downturn in the number of 18-year-olds in the population.” Mr McClaran said he expected the clearing process this year to last not much longer than a week. Since clearing opened, the Ucas helpline has handled almost 20,000 phone calls and there have been almost 1.5 million clearing-vacancy searches, double the number at the same point last year.

The most popular course searches were for law, economics, psychology, history, business and management. More than 160,000 students have gone online to check their clearing status, and the whole process is now fully automated.