Saturday, April 03, 2010

Teachers Unions: Don't Work Too Hard!

Jaime Escalante -- the math teacher who became famous for teaching even the poorest kids calculus in a failing Los Angeles school -- died this week at age 78. His story shows not just what can be accomplished by great teachers, but also what damage unions can do.

Escalante got national attention when 14 out of 15 of his students at a low-ranking Los Angeles school passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. By 1987, 73 students from the school passed the AP calculus exam -- more than all but six other schools in the country. After a movie about his success, called "Stand and Deliver", was released in 1988, Escalante became an icon for showing that even the most disadvantaged kids could learn complex subjects if given the right instruction.

I would think that any reasonable education system would reward Mr. Escalante. But this is a unionized public school we're talking about. As Reason Magazine reported several years ago:

One assistant principal threatened to have him dismissed, on the grounds that he was coming in too early (a janitor had complained), keeping students too late, and raising funds without permission.

Can you imagine if a private school operated like that? Sadly, the story gets worse.

After Stand and Deliver was released, Escalante became an overnight celebrity... This attention aroused feelings of jealousy. In his last few years at Garfield, Escalante even received threats and hate mail. In 1990 he lost the math department chairmanship, the position that had enabled him to [teach students from 9th grade on, so that they would have adequate preparation once they got to his calculus class.]

But Escalante kept teaching, sometimes with classes of 50 students or more.

Calculus grew so popular at Garfield that classes grew beyond the 35-student limit set by the union contract. Some had more than 50 students. Escalante would have preferred to keep the classes below the limit had he been able to do so without either denying calculus to willing students or using teachers who were not up to his high standards. Neither was possible, and the teachers union complained about Garfield's class sizes. Rather than compromise, Escalante moved on.

School officials were unapologetic. One official said: "We were doing fine before Mr. Escalante left, and we're doing fine after." The result? Over the next five years, the number of students at the school passing AP calculus tests plummeted from 85 a year to just 11.

It is impossible to record all the innovations that unions have destroyed. But unions are clearly one reason that even though America spends more money on education than other countries, American students score near the bottom on international tests.


British children in crowded classes

This is just the usual teacher nonsense. Good teachers can easily handle much larger classes than what teacher unions push for. There is a case for small classes among the very young but not otherwise

Children are still being taught in “hideously overcrowded” classrooms after 13 years of Labour, according to teachers. Some pupils are being asked to share classes with 35 other children in a move that threatens to undermine education standards, it was claimed. The National Union of Teachers said “reducing class sizes” should be the number one priority for any incoming Government.

In 1997, ministers pledged to cut classes for five- to seven-year-olds. Under current legislation, schools are banned from teaching infants – Key Stage 1 pupils – in lessons of more than 30.

Speaking at the union’s annual conference, Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said it was hoped that cuts to classes for the very youngest pupils would filter through to older year groups. But she said many children were stuck in lessons of “34, 35, or 36”.

“There are still classes that are hideously overcrowded,” she said. “We cannot say [ministers] have not fulfilled their pledge on Key Stage 1 classes, but that was never enough and the aspiration that this would simply roll on through has not happened.”

Almost six in 10 NUT members responding to a union survey said that reducing class sizes should be the top priority for the Government – irrespective of the outcome of the general election. Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary, said that cuts to school budgets in some areas meant primary school classes were being merged.

He cited one school in Gloucestershire that had been forced to put children in a lesson of 36. “Pupil numbers have been falling so they have had to combine two smaller classes into a class of 36 because they have not got the money,” he said. “Clearly that damages the education of those children.”

The union has already launched a campaign demanding that the average class size is cut to 20 by the end of the decade.

Figures last month showed at least 210 state primary school teachers were regularly leading lessons of at least 41 children last year. In addition, around one-in-eight pupils in England were in classes of more than 30, it was revealed.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "Over the last 10 years we have massively increased the number of adults teaching children. “Over 98 per cent of infant classes are under the statutory limit and the average size is 26.2.

“We expect local authorities and schools to take their legal responsibility to limit class sizes very seriously. There can be no excuses for any infant class that is unlawfully over the legal limit.”


Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail

Comment from Australia

THE belief that regular praise will improve the self-esteem of students has backfired, with educators urging over-anxious parents to let their children fail so they can learn from their mistakes.

Parents were also doing too much for their children who were becoming less resilient and unable to cope with failure. Some were even too scared to put up their hand in class and risk giving the wrong answer.

As new research shows that members of Generation Y are entering the workforce with an inflated sense of their abilities, principals are warning "helicopter parents" against putting too much pressure on children to be successful, which could discourage them from risking failure.

Rod Kefford, the headmaster of Barker College, has warned: "We are creating a generation of very fearful learners and the quality of our intellectual life will suffer as a result."

Today's students are let down lightly by teachers and wrapped in cotton wool by some parents. But in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for teachers to tell students bluntly that they had given a wrong answer. "Then someone invented the concept of self-esteem," Dr Kefford said. "In some ways it has been the most damaging educational concept that has ever been conceived.

"We couldn't do anything that would upset or harm the self-esteem of students, which was very fragile, we were led to believe … That is when we stopped our proper work in the character formation in young people. If we are serious about building resilience, we have to let them fail. It is only through our failings in the learning process that we learn anything." He said schools needed to give children the confidence to risk failure to encourage more creative thinking.

"[Through] this fear we have of ever allowing them to fail, we are selling them short as human beings and as future adults," he said. One of the first empirical studies on generational differences in work values shows Generation Y or the "millennials" (born between 1982 and 1999) are entering the workforce overconfident and with a sense of entitlement. The research, led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University and published in the Journal of Management, shows this generation wants money and the status of a prestigious job without putting in long hours. When they do not get the marks they expect at university or rise quickly enough in their jobs, they turn into quitters.

"More and more students are reaching university not knowing how to do things for themselves. Parents think they are helping young people by doing things for them but they are actually making them less independent," Professor Twenge said.

"It is now common for parents and teachers to tell children, 'you are special' and 'you can be anything you want to be'." While such comments are meant to encourage students and raise their self-esteem, experts say they can inflate students' egos.

"Feeling special often means the expectation of special treatment," she said. "Your parents might think you're special but the rest of the world might not. This can be a difficult adjustment."


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