Friday, April 02, 2010

Is our children learning?

Excerpt from a very pessimistic REVIEW of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" by Diane Ravitch. Review by Peter Wood. The reviewer seems to ignore that kids DID once learn more than they do today.

I graduated in the late '50s from a small and undistinguished Australian country school with a knowledge of Latin grammar, German Lieder and a nodding acquaintance with poets from Homer through Chaucer, through Tennyson to G.M. Hopkins. I also learnt enough physics to see how transparently false Al Gore's global warming scare was. My son graduated from a good private school recently knowing virtually nothing of that. But he is now working on his Ph.D. in mathematics so it is not a shortage of ability that left him so uneducated.

Most children take education seriously when they see that it has some urgency in the larger culture. In America today, no one feels particularly abashed by not knowing stuff. “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” asks the popular Fox TV show. “So what if I’m not?” is the implied answer. It is OK for adults not to know the difference between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of the Bulge. We know that’s just “book knowledge” and could Google it if we really needed to find out.

Mark Bauerlein struck this chord in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), but he may have been too generous to generations past. America has a long tradition of adult dumbness, or at least numbness to the kinds of knowledge that don’t bear directly on earning a buck. “History is more or less bunk,” Henry Ford told the Chicago Tribune in 1916.

Our whole land-grant university system is laid on the foundations of a Civil War congressman, Justin Morrill of Vermont, who saw no need to teach the liberal arts. America’s most distinctive contribution to philosophy is the get-to-the-bottom-line school called pragmatism. Huck Finn was not alone when he reflected on the prospect of being “sivilized” by Aunt Sally and chose instead to “light out for the territory.”

If we chose to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into schooling, America might well do a much better job of it—but that is a highly unlikely choice for Americans to make. As a people, we are just not that interested in the tedious work of learning or teaching things that don’t appear to have direct application. We expect from schools more in the way of affirmation of popular conceits than the slow building up of knowledge.

A great many Americans actually want schools that promote faddish ideologies, though, of course, dressed up as cutting-edge insights. Right now, one of the most popular teaching videos in the country is a crudely anti-capitalist, pro-sustainability video, The Story of Stuff. We want schools that promote equality, which has come to mean mingling as much as possible the talented with the untalented and the enthusiastic with the bored. We want diversity. We want creativity. But we have never been of a single mind whether we actually want education.

Ravitch offers some terrific chapters on school-reform efforts in New York City and San Diego. These alone make the book worth reading, for they dispel forever the idea that well-meaning businessmen with all the institutional freedom and funding they could dream of can actually make much of a dent in America’s educational lassitude.

Ravitch’s critique of NCLB mostly hits home, too. President George W. Bush won support for his signature program by decoupling “standards” from content. States were required to test students frequently and report their progress, but individual states were free to establish their own standards. This became an invitation to aim low: you can’t miss when you are shooting at the ground. Schools also quickly figured out that the way to deal with a regime of testing was to establish their own counter-regime of “teach to the test.”

Hence, as Ravitch and many before her have pointed out, schools across the country sacrificed a balanced curriculum and thoughtful pedagogy to concentrate on teaching students how to score well on multiple-choice exams in reading and math. Ravitch is especially deadly on the rank impossibility that NCLB supporters had to profess: that by 2014 all students in all schools will be “proficient in reading and mathematics.” Or else what?

Ravitch remains, as she has always been, a good advocate of her ideas. She is least convincing, however, in her newfound defense of teachers’ unions and her turnabout on charter schools, which she now sees as draining away the more talented and motivated students from public schools. They may well do that. But I don’t see a compelling case that the students should sacrifice their only opportunity to get a halfway decent education just to advance the cause of classroom equality with kids who don’t care, kids who lack ability, and kids who haven’t been able to surmount the disorganized homes and culturally impoverished backgrounds that life has dealt them. We do indeed need to help these kids, but a one-size-fits-all public-school system hardly seems the answer.

“Accountability” has been the watchword of a reform movement centered on the not implausible idea that at the root of school ineptitude are many teachers, principals, and other administrators who do poor work year in and year out without ever facing significant professional consequences. They are protected by unions, by bureaucratic inertia, and by a school culture that fosters intellectual laziness.

The accountability movement attempts to rescue schools from this miasma by rewarding teachers whose students excel and punishing those whose students don’t. Ravitch’s most dramatic reversal is her change of heart on accountability, which she now sees as essentially a business concept misapplied to schooling. Students are not products to be quality-controlled, and teaching cannot be stuffed into accountability formulas without destroying the fabric of education.

There is certainly something to this. The widget-factory approach of some accountability-inspired reformers is deeply unappealing. Moreover, schooling really is a distinctive human activity with its own logic. Conflating it with other institutions inevitably leads to confusion. But the accountability mavens with whom Ravitch now parts company do have some powerful points of their own.

Our schools are chockfull of teachers who, as graduates of ed schools, possess thin knowledge of the subjects they teach, are hostile to the civilization they are supposed to transmit, and are steeped in the nonsense of progressive pedagogy. It was bad enough when this meant teachers earnestly believed children are natural-born dynamos of intellectual inquiry. These days it means something even worse: that teachers should be eagerly promoting race and gender politics and the claptrap of leftist “social justice.” If accountability is a deadening doctrine in one sense, it is in the eyes of many Americans a way to constrain teachers from doing still worse. Ravitch is silent on this score.

Ravitch at several points smiles on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the one great exception in an era of educational incompetence. In the 1990s, Massachusetts developed and implemented school curriculum frameworks that were far and away the most rigorous in the country and that vaulted the state to the top of national standards.

I’ll immodestly own that I played a small part in writing those frameworks. But it is more to my point that Massachusetts now has a governor elected with the support of the teachers’ unions who is doing everything he can to compromise and eliminate that reform. At some level, Americans just can’t stand to have excellent schools; when we get too close to having them, we come up with an excuse for undoing them. As Kipling reminds us, “The burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.”

It is not that we want to relax into a state of complete natural ignorance. We just value some things more than we value schooling. The reformers are to be honored for wanting to change the equation in favor of more people knowing more important stuff. Many of the reformers, as Ravitch shows, have blind spots. All of them underestimate the difficulty. Ravitch herself, I suspect, still does. But she has made a useful reality-based contribution to the conversation.

My own view is that America will never be as good at schooling as some other nations that are more profoundly attached to learning for its own sake and have the benefit of being proud rather than ashamed of their cultural inheritance. We would do better for ourselves if we chose to emphasize a little more the thrill of outstanding intellectual ability and a little less the solace of multiculturalism and leveling equality.

We do breed a certain kind of exceptional student in our public schools—usually one who is ill at ease with the school itself and has by an early age diverged into lonely or geeky individualism. Our future scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and culture creators typically shape themselves against what the schools have to offer. I suspect we could do better by them—but then, we might have to give up some of that utopian dream in which all students can be proficient, and everybody gets to dance.


The profit motive has a place in the classroom

If businesses can help more children to learn we should let them make money – and hire and fire teachers

During a particularly fractious debate about schools reform, a Gordon person once said to a Tony person: “Delivering an education isn’t like delivering a pizza, you know.” “Ah no, it’s not,” replied the Tony person, sagely, “but it might be rather like making one.”

Actually, education isn’t remotely like either making or delivering a pizza. You could go so far as to say that education has got nothing to do with pizzas at all. The exchange does, all the same, contain two insights into education policy, one about the past, the other about the future.

What a tragedy that two intelligent people could have such a stupid conversation in public. This is the standard of argument you get when the two principals, for whom the pizza warriors were agents, are having an altogether more fundamental fight — a fight for control.

I was thinking of the pizzas during Tony Blair’s deft critique of the Tories at Trimdon Labour Club. It was a clever speech; whoever writes his stuff these days is a lot better than the last guy. But to hear Mr Blair heap praise on Gordon Brown was deeply frustrating for anyone who wishes their party well. As Mr Blair left the stage in Sedgefield, it was impossible not to recall the moment he shared an ice cream with Mr Brown during the 2005 campaign and wonder how much more might have been done, if only the pair of them had managed to make their extraordinary, and complementary, talents point in the same direction.

They might have averted the charge that their progress was bought at too great a price. They might have had a leaner State that bought more services and ran fewer. They might have built a system in which improvement was organic and therefore much more recession-proofed. The three sorriest examples are education, education, education.

There might, by now, have been many different types of school, catering for pupils with different aptitudes. The lines between public, private and voluntary sector would mean less. Private money and expertise would be common in state schools. Federations and school chains would be the norm. New schools would have sprung up, established and run by entrepreunerial teachers. Schools would all be independent entities, with the right to hire, fire and vary pay. They would use data to track their progress, like the pioneering Michelle Rhee in Washington DC.

There is some evidence of all of these things. The Prime Minister endorsed most of them in a speech on education two weeks ago. But it is far, far too late. It is the 59th minute of the 11th hour of a day in which your protaganists have been disrupting a conference saying that reforming schools is the equivalent of setting up a pizza parlour.

What the long scream between Brown and Blair has left undone, it will fall to the Conseratives to complete. Schools reform may yet become this generation’s utilities privatisation. Opposed all the way by the Labour party, selling the utilities — transport apart — worked. Nobody now wants to go back in time. Parties sometimes need to be taught a lesson by their opponents. If the Tories manage a revolution in schools, this attempt to change their party brand would be the tribute that Tory vice has paid to Labour virtue.

There is a serious risk that it might not happen, for the reason contained in the pizza row. We are unconcerned when wicked pen-pushers make a dirty profit from supplying our children with writing implements. But woe betide any company that offers to teach kids to read while turning a profit. I know, I know. Pens are not books and being able to write is not the same as learning to read. But we already permit companies such as EdisonLearning to manage schools. VT Group makes a living training school staff. Serco makes a healthy return managing the facilities. All of this is profit that comes out of the public grant.

And yet, if a company wins a contract in which it promises, on pain of no payment, to teach children to read, the politicians — Tory as well as Labour — think that a principle of scholarly detachment is being breached. But is there really any vital violation if, in return for the gift of literacy, a company gains a capped profit, just like a utility? Electricity companies keep the lights on, partly because keeping the lights on is what they do and partly because a regulator is checking up on them. As long as the standards demanded are clear and rigorously policed, the existence of profit is not the difference between good and evil.

It might, though, be the difference between present and absent. There is not an infinite supply of public-spirited parents, teacher buyouts and philanthropic capital. Charities that run schools cannot be expected to stump up the capital, and it is obvious that the supply of public money has dried up. It is only if a firm can expect a profit that it can be told to provide the start-up capital itself.

Even if enough providers can be found, there could be serious trouble ahead with the workforce. If you don’t do Easter or if you decide to cancel it, try to catch the proceedings of the teacher union conferences, which may be playing on an obscure cable channel. Some of the leaders are ready to add their weight to the industrial militancy of Unite and the RMT. The cocktail of cuts to existing budgets and encouragement of competition could easily lead to a serious breakdown of communication between a Conservative government and the teaching unions.

There will be a lot at stake for the Labour party in these circumstances. The quality of education at the bottom of the pile needs new schools, new teachers, new ways of working, underpinned by strong government — audit, inspection and a tough failure regime. The paradox of market reforms to the public sector is that they create a new, but extensive, role for the State. It is to be hoped that the Conservatives don’t think the Big Society (answers on a postcard) can step in here.

If the Conservatives do fail, the cause of public service reform on the Left will dwindle. It is hard for people with a partisan leaning to wish success on their oppponents. It’s harder still when you know you ought to have done this yourself. It’s yet harder again to know you might have finished by now if you’d only been capable of avoiding those silly arguments about delivering pizzas, which you knew, even then, were a surrogate for a much bigger dispute that would go on and on and on, until both of them were gone.


"Nothing can be done" about sexual abuse in British grade school

An education authority took two years to investigate claims that a six-year-old girl had been sexually abused by classmates, it was alleged yesterday.

The girl, who claimed that she was being stripped and abused on a daily basis by up to 23 tormentors aged between 6 and 10, has since been moved to another school. No action has been taken against the other children involved.

Keith Towler, the children's commissioner for Wales, described the delay as a "shocking failure" and said: "The bottom line is the family will never know what happened to their child."

The claims were made by the girl’s mother, who told BBC Wales that she found out that her daughter was being abused from the mother of another child who was also being bullied. She said: "I said. 'It's OK, you can tell mammy' and then it all started to come out. Her eyes were like marbles of fire.

"She was telling me things I think every mother dreads to hear from their daughter. It was horrendous what she'd gone through. Every day she was being stripped. She was being physically and sexually abused every day and every day she cried out for help and nobody ever came."

The mother said that the school was sympathetic but claimed that the bullies' ages and a lack of evidence meant that no action could be taken. The mother added: "They said the children couldn't be suspended. Because they had sexually abused my daughter and they were only six years old, they were victims themselves and wouldn't be suspended."

No details of the school or the education authority have been revealed to protect the girl's identity, however it is understood to be in South Wales.

It was only when the girl was moved to another school and her mother began legal action against the local education authority, which cannot be named, that the serious case review was ordered. The review claimed that it was "very difficult to establish the extent, degree and involvement of specific children" and that they were all "under the age of criminal responsibility". The inquiry recommended changes to anti-bullying policies and the way incidents were recorded.

Mr Towler said: "Clearly there are issues with the serious case review system and there is consensus the current serious case review arrangements are not working effectively. "The Welsh government has heard those calls for change and is responding." He said that the Assembly had set up two bodies to improve procedures.

Mr Towler added: "The establishment of the Welsh Safeguarding Forum aims to ensure that safeguarding is achieved at a national, regional and local level. "This forum’s work is critical in ensuring the system is strengthened and that joint working is improved to safeguard our children. "This forum and the advisory group must address the ineffective system which will result in change in practice.

"We cannot find ourselves in the same position again where the system is failing some of our most vulnerable children. "Clearly there are issues with the serious case review system and there is consensus that the current serious case review arrangements are not working effectively.

"The Welsh government has heard those calls for change and is responding. I will not yet be undertaking a review but instead will be working with practitioners and other relevant officials on two groups which the deputy minister for social services has convened.

Neelam Bhardwaja, president of the Association of Directors for Social Services in Wales, said: "If there are these number of children involved, it begs the question where did that behaviour arise from? Why are these children behaving in this way and are they from abusive situations themselves, which they need protecting from?"

A Welsh Assembly government spokesman said that it took "its roles and responsibilities around the safeguarding of children very seriously". [Utter bulldust!]


1 comment:

Robert said...

Neelam Bhardwaja, president of the Association of Directors for Social Services in Wales, said: "If there are these number of children involved, it begs the question where did that behaviour arise from? Why are these children behaving in this way and are they from abusive situations themselves, which they need protecting from?"

Or, could it be, that all those kids are acting on and trying out all that they have been taught about sex at such a young age?