Saturday, February 20, 2010

Education: Too Important for a Government Monopoly

The government-school establishment has said the same thing for decades: Education is too important to leave to the competitive market. If we really want to help our kids, we must focus more resources on the government schools. But despite this mantra, the focus is on something other than the kids. When The Washington Post asked George Parker, head of the Washington, D.C., teachers union, about the voucher program there, he said: "Parents are voting with their feet. ... As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we'll have teachers to represent." How revealing is that?

Since 1980, government spending on education, adjusted for inflation, has nearly doubled. But test scores have been flat for decades. Today we spend a stunning $11,000 a year per student -- more than $200,000 per classroom. It's not working. So when will we permit competition and choice, which works great with everything else? I'll explore those questions on my Fox Business program tomorrow night at 8 and 11 p.m. Eastern time (and again Friday at 10 p.m.).

The people who test students internationally told us that two factors predict a country's educational success: Do the schools have the autonomy to experiment, and do parents have a choice?

Parents care about their kids and want them to learn and succeed -- even poor parents. Thousands line up hoping to get their kids into one of the few hundred lottery-assigned slots at Harlem Success Academy, a highly ranked charter school in New York City. Kids and parents cry when they lose.

Yet the establishment is against choice. The union demonstrated outside Harlem Success the first day of school. And President Obama killed Washington, D.C.'s voucher program.

This is typical of elitists, who believe that parents, especially poor ones, can't make good choices about their kids' education.

Is that so? Ask James Tooley about that. Tooley is a professor of education policy who spends most of every year in some of the poorest parts of Africa, India and China. For 10 years, he's studied how poor kids do in "free" government schools and -- hold on -- private schools. That's right. In the worst slums, private for-profit schools educate kids better than the government's schools do.

Tooley finds as many as six private schools in small villages. "The majority of (poor) schoolchildren are in private school, and these schools outperform government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost," he says.

Why do parents with meager resources pass up "free" government schools and sacrifice to send their children to private schools? Because, as one parent told the BBC, the private owner will do something that's virtually impossible in America's government schools: replace teachers who do not teach.

As in America, the elitist establishment in those countries scoffs at the private schools and the parents who choose them. A woman who runs government schools in Nigeria calls such parents "ignoramuses."

But that can't be true. Tooley tested kids in both kinds of schools, and the private-school students score better.

To give the establishment its best shot, consider Head Start, which politicians view as sacred. The $166 billion program is 45 years old, so it's had time to prove itself. But guess what: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently found no difference in first-grade test results between kids who went through Head Start and similar kids who didn't. President Obama has repeatedly promised to "eliminate programs that don't work," but he wants to give Head Start a billion more dollars. The White House wouldn't explain this contradiction to me.

Andrew Coulson, head of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Reform, said, "If Head Start (worked), we would expect now, after 45 years of this program, for graduation rates to have gone up; we would expect the gap between the kids of high school dropouts and the kids of college graduates to have shrunk; we would expect students to be learning more. None of that is true."

Choice works, and government monopolies don't. How much more evidence do we need?


Cookie-cutter elites required by the Ivy League

"There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. An ideal four-year preparatory program includes four years of English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American and European history; and four years of one foreign language." -- (From Harvard College Admissions)

Next year my son will be applying to colleges, so we are currently collecting information about colleges he might apply to. One thing that strikes me is the degree to which the elite liberal arts colleges almost all want the same thing in their applicants —a standardized record of academic accomplishment whose production will have consumed most of the educational opportunities of four years of high school.

Consider the passage quoted above. Despite the initial disclaimer, the description of an "ideal four-year preparatory program" implies a pretty uniform picture of the ideal student. It is a picture that any reasonably intelligent and hard-working student should be able to fit —provided that he is more interested in getting into Harvard than in getting an education.

Reading? Four years of English will include lots of it, almost all selected and required by someone else —a pretty good way of persuading a student that reading is something only to be done when someone makes you do it. Science? There are, perhaps, high school age kids who are interested in every science offered by their school, or at least able to fake it. But they are less likely to make a real world contribution than the enthusiast who reads up on relativity and quantum mechanics when he is supposed to be studying Dickens —and thinks biology is icky.

Studying a language is for some people an interesting intellectual activity; speaking a foreign language can be a useful skill. But the world is full of interesting things to do and skills to learn. This particular skill is well short of essential for someone living in the middle of some three hundred million English speakers. So why make it the key to Harvard —in preference to the ability to build furniture, or write sonnets, or survive in the woods?

It is a poorly hidden secret that the reason professors give multiple choice tests is that, whatever their limitations as a tool for measuring learning, at least they are easy to grade. The attitude seems to have trickled down to the admissions officers. Make sure there is a check mark in each box. If too many applicants manage it, they can always be ranked by SAT scores. Perhaps give an extra point to an applicant who seems to actually know something outside the curriculum or care about something other than checking boxes.

If all else fails, flip a coin. Perhaps I am being unfair—I have not discussed my reaction with any admissions officers. But reading those web pages leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


Australia: English teachers who don't know grammar

Grammar guide an 'education disaster'. The errors do seem to be bizarre. The author obviously knew nothing about grammar but just made it up as she went along. There is no logic or system in what she wrote -- JR

One of the world's most respected authorities on grammar has written to every school principal in Queensland, warning them of an error-strewn grammar guide distributed by the state's English Teachers Association. University of Queensland emeritus professor Rodney Huddleston says he was forced to write to schools directly because the English Teachers Association of Queensland refused to acknowledge or correct the 65 errors he had identified in its teaching guide on grammar, printed as a series of eight articles in its magazine.

In the letter, Professor Huddleston says the guide, called Grammar at the Coalface, "contains an exceptionally large number of errors -- over 60 in 15 1/2 pages of relevant text -- many of them very serious and basic, and including major misrepresentations of functional grammar". "It would be an educational disaster if teachers were to base their classes systematically and comprehensively on the Coalface Grammar," he says. "If students gave Coalface answers in tests and examinations, they would be marked wrong and generally regarded as lacking basic knowledge of grammar. "It is incontestable that it contains a great many errors, and I can see no justification for ETAQ's refusal to warn members of the dangers of using it as a teaching resource."

Professor Huddleston's view is supported by the former president of the Australian Linguistics Society, Randy LaPolla, who said Professor Huddleston was the "foremost expert on the English language and the grammar of the English language in the world".

Professor Huddleston, one of the principal authors of Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, first raised the errors in 2007 after the grammar guide appeared in the English teachers' magazine Words'Worth. As reported in The Australian in June 2008, Professor Huddleston wrote to the author, Lenore Ferguson, the magazine editor at the time, outlining the errors.

Dr Ferguson said at the time they were differences of opinion rather than errors, and the only mistakes she acknowledged were "mishaps" that had occurred in the editing process. Almost three years later, Dr Ferguson and the ETAQ still refuse to correct the guide, although the association has posted on its website until next month Professor Huddleston's critique and Dr Ferguson's response.

In her response, Dr Ferguson says the grammar guide "is now old business from a practitioner viewpoint" and "most of us have moved on". She says her intent was to provide a practical guide drawing on different types of grammar that would be useful in classrooms, but Professor Huddleston had replaced her "practical framing with a theoretical one and evaluates my articles from this superimposed perspective".

After being contacted by Professor Huddleston, Professor LaPolla, in his capacity as president of the linguistics society, wrote to Dr Ferguson in July 2008 urging her to publish corrected versions of the articles. In the letter, Professor LaPolla says his criticisms are the same as Professor Huddleston's, which were justified and not due to a different theoretical stance. Professor LaPolla told The Weekend Australian the mistakes in the grammar guide were basic errors and it was "bizarre" that school teachers in Queensland were telling Professor Huddleston he was wrong.

One of the errors cited by Professor Huddleston is "Sam's" -- as in "Sam's folder" -- being classified as a possessive pronoun, rather than the possessive form of a proper noun. Another example is the phrase "set of", as in "a set of bowls", being described as an adjective, which Professor Huddleston says is not a grammatical unit but a noun followed by a preposition.


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