Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Arne Duncan Gets a Failing Grade This Time

One of the few bright spots in the Obama Administration has been its efforts regarding public education, an arena in which the federal government has become far too invasive. Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have taken on ever so slightly some of the education bureaucracy – a startling development, considering that the education unions threw $50 million or more at Obama’s campaign and those of other Democrats. Obama had made some statements about challenging the educational establishment in The Audacity of Hope, but somehow it seemed like empty campaign rhetoric. So amidst this glint of optimism, it was profoundly disappointing to hear that Duncan laid a giant egg in his recent statements about the length of the school year.

At first glance, Duncan’s comments to the National Press Club were appealing. The Secretary spoke candidly about how the country has to get serious about education. He joked about kids going to school 13 months a year, but also thoughtfully observed that we must introduce significant reforms into a public education system that, after all, originated over a century ago when America had an agrarian economy. He said “In all seriousness, I think schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and 11-12 months of the year.” Continuing this theme, he added “This is not just more of the same. There would be a whole variety of after-school programs. Obviously academics would be at the heart of that, but you top it off with dancing, art, drama, music, yearbook, and robotics, activities for older siblings and parents, and ESL classes.” He also pointed that, where students attend school for 25-30 days more than we do, the countries are beating us. Considering the source, this tough talk was unexpected.

Then reality set in, and it should be obvious that there are two very compelling reasons that this proposal is so far off base. Yes, there are other countries whose children attend school for longer periods, and this needs to be considered as part of our educational reforms. We must also keep in mind that curriculums are more complicated today. The most sophisticated math taught in the high schools of forty years ago is now taught in 7th or 8th grade, and this increased complexity is reflected in the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry.

Mr. Duncan’s proposal does not confront the crux of the problem with today’s system. For many generations, Americans were taught in this “agrarian economy” system and actually received an education. They could read, write, add, and subtract. They read classic literature, could speak a foreign language, and knew history, especially American history. The students graduating today can do almost none of this, and adding 25-30 days to the school calendar will not change that fact.

Last year, a friend of mine told me about one of his new employees, a recent graduate of a major university. He was appalled by how poorly the young man wrote a simple business letter. A year later, my friend still reviews all of his outgoing correspondence. This may seem like one person in a large society, but that would not be the case. This corroborates the observations of almost everyone in my generation, who are horrified by the inability of so many young Americans to write and communicate -- not to mention their near non-existent knowledge of history or geography.

Contrast this with a recent viewing of a video of the Rat Pack. In 1966, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. performed for a charity event in St. Louis. Near the end of the show, Sammy pleads “Can we just do this song?” Immediately – and obviously unrehearsed – Frank and Dino jump in from different sides of the stage, turn to Davis, and say “It’s ‘May we?’ Sammy, ‘May we?’” These two palookas, neither of whom completed a full year of high school, knew proper English 45 years ago. Today, many high school graduates can barely form a sentence, let alone know whether it is proper English.

It isn’t for lack of resources. We have been pouring billions into the school system with very disappointing results, and we are repeatedly being misled as to how much money is spent. Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute analyzed the expenditures of school districts across the country and found they routinely omitted health and pension costs for teachers, capital budgets for the schools, and a myriad of other necessary expenditures. In fact, the real costs per pupil are 50% to 150% higher than the average cost claimed by the districts. For example, the stated per-pupil cost for L. A. Unified is $10,053 when it is really $25,208. In Beverly Hills, they say that they spend $11,205 per student, but actually pay out $20,751.

More money and more time will not cure the problem that has been created by a system not aimed to serve the customer – the child and the parents of the child. Until Mr. Duncan reforms the system to serve the need of the customers – not those of the employees or bureaucrats – he could have the kids sleeping at the school and their education will not improve.

The other flaw with Mr. Duncan’s suggestion is that it smells of the nanny state. Let’s have the kids at school 12 hours a day, 12 months a year, under the supervision of government/union employees – so they can be further indoctrinated by the state and barely see their parents. The parents can watch them in plays and wrestling matches, but will only see them at home in their beds. Why don’t we dispense with parents and just have breeders, and then have the state care for the children?

In the past, Mr. Duncan has seemed like someone willing to confront the true problems of our school systems – systems that have been administered by Democrats for over fifty years in every major metropolitan area, and consistently run into the ground with the help of their union buddies. Until he assaults the real villains in this debacle, he should not start romanticizing about a utopian future where the state controls our children from nursery school.


Who'd be an 18-year-old today? My generation's lies have wrecked their dreams

Comment on the low educational standards and credentialism in Britain today

What happens when a regime decides to brainwash a population, making them believe the most pernicious lies? With luck, the people eventually rebel and scream 'No!' - but not before much misery has been endured.

Let's not delude ourselves that lies are only told in totalitarian states. We're telling them right now to the very people who are this country's future: our young adults. When will they rise up and shout defiance - rejecting all the lies they have been told by successive governments?

I'd like to think it might happen sooner rather than later. That is, if today's 18-year-olds are not beaten down by gloom over the bad hand they've been dealt. They've been told for years that they must go to university - so there they are, competing desperately for fewer places than ever on the basis of A-level grades which have been systematically inflated.

As the Mail reported yesterday, that means thousands of those who receive three A grades - supposedly the highest level of achievement - must hope to sneak into what Tory minister David Willetts euphemistically calls 'less competitive' institutions.

Those who do secure a precious place then face crippling student debt. To cap it all, there's an uncertain job market for graduates - as well as for everyone else.

Never mind the longer-term worries about getting together the money to buy a house and save enough to start a family, or even - heaven forbid - build up a nest egg for their retirement.

All this lies in wait for our school leavers, while the world bombards them with demanding junk culture and plenty of worries, but little guidance or inspiration. Worst of all, no one teaches them how to cope with the real world.

Who would be an 18-year-old in 2010? My generation was so much luckier. On my bookshelf is a paperback of the selected poems of the Russian activist Yevgeny Yevtushenko, with the year I bought it written inside - 1969.

As a mini- skirted student, I approvingly ticked the famous poem Lies, which begins: 'Telling lies to the young is wrong.' Today I find myself rather embarrassed by that knowing tick because I knew so little - I was a complacent part of that very generation which has let this one down so badly. 'We never had it so good - but we have handed on so much that is bad to young people who deserve better.

When I first read Yevtushenko's poem, nobody had ever lied to me. My small, girls' grammar school gave me a challenging, academic education. As a student at University College London, I benefited from one- on- one tutorials, a generous local authority grant and an almost cast-iron guarantee of work.

Oh, but we found much to complain about. From the exam system, to the Vietnam war, to the capitalism on which the very prosperity of the West was founded - it was all up for noisy protest. We chanted 'We shall fight and we shall win' about a war on the other side of the world, in which no British soldiers were getting killed - as they are today.

No wonder young people today sometimes look at all the ' summer of love' posturing and think: 'How ridiculous.' Really, they ought to be angry - because that posturing has an ongoing effect on their lives.

I've often looked back with nostalgia at all that was good in the values of my generation - an idealism that sincerely wanted to make the world a better place. But Yevtushenko writes 'Forgive no error you recognise/ it will repeat itself, increase' - which is why I am not going to make excuses for what we got so wrong, the way our ideals folded in on themselves to create downright lies about what was possible.

Yes, there is a world recession, but that cannot explain away the mess these young people have inherited. How can it be separated from changes that have happened in the past 30 years - since we privileged baby-boomers took control?

One problem is those laissez-faire attitudes to education which have their roots in the radicalism of the Sixties, and go on betraying today's hopeful young. Another is the liberal-left mentality which refused to teach spelling, grammar or mathematics in case it created inequalities.

This was finally given the ultimate badge of respectability by Tony Blair when he declared ten years ago, with colossal vanity, that 50 per cent of young people should go into higher education.

Imagine if he had decreed that half of young people should excel (to competitive level) at a sport of their choice - and to do so, they would receive the intensive training to 'follow their dream' (as the absurd modern phrase puts it).

The reality of varying levels of natural ability would have quickly scotched that nonsense . Instead, the one- size-fits-all mantra did great harm to young people who should be celebrated for richly varied talents and skills, which need to be harnessed in different ways.

Everybody across the political spectrum told the young to aim high, aim for a degree - even if that meant creating ludicrous 'qualifications' which couldn't possibly lead to paid employment. With this went a criminal neglect of those most in need of attention - the working-class child who needs to be stretched.

Who was 'assisted' by the gradual erosion of standards? A teaching profession (I'm sorry to say) grown too attached to child-centred shibboleths and not enough to the red pen of constructive criticism. Who was served by grade inflation?

Head teachers, infected by the 'target' mentality of New Labour, whose empire-building vanity was fed by 20 hapless pupils going off to study Mickey Mouse courses - rather than one lad finding a rare apprenticeship in an honourable trade.

Universities expanded without resources, which meant they needed to sting far more foreign students for fees, and the numbers game meant that the recent generations of students lacked real attention from their tutors. When my own son dropped out, nobody noticed. My daughter (doing an English degree at Warwick) had far less teaching than I had.

We have sold out the young by telling them that aiming high is the same thing as becoming a student. Wouldn't it be better to encourage many of these desperate A-level students to learn a skill - or enter a job through the menial back door? Plenty of high-fliers began by making the tea.

Why does everything from carpentry to nursing now require high- flown paper qualifications? The Cathedral at Chartres was build by people with no City & Guilds or B.Techs - or lengthy architecture degrees, either. Florence Nightingale did not think she had to have a degree in nursing to save lives.

Missing out on university is only a real loss if you have an absolute passion for an academic subject worthy of study. This is the truth which young people should grasp - and celebrate.

Let them rebel against the one-size-fits-all pressure and think outside that particular box. Let them realise that none of this is their fault. Let them be valued as individuals, not numbers.

As for we who are older - it's time we agreed with Yevtushenko that instead of offering our children the lie of impossible dreams, we should be honest and 'Say obstacles exist they must encounter/Sorrow happens, hardship happens'. And if we don't? Then (in the poet's words) 'our pupils will not forgive in us what we forgave.'


Australia: Difficult school gets a capable principal for once -- so the bureaucrats fire her

They should have stood up for her but were too gutless

SUSPENSIONS have almost tripled and truancy has doubled at Coober Pedy Area School since the ousting of principal Sue Burtenshaw. Figures obtained by The Advertiser, have shown an alarming decline in student attendance, with almost half the school's 230 pupils not attending on a regular basis.

In 2009, 31 students were suspended under Ms Burtenshaw, who was removed from her role this year following complaints over her tough stance on students and treatment of parents. But under the leadership of interim principals this year, behaviour has "swung out of control" with 86 students suspended and three excluded while only half-way into the school year.

Figures show that in May and June, student absences ranged between 86 to 124 students a day, compared to 36 to 66 students at the same time last year under Ms Burtenshaw.

Coober Pedy Area School assistant principal Kym Taylor has chosen to speak out on the issue, saying the school is in a "state of chaos" following the departure of Ms Burtenshaw, who joined the school in 2008 after the school had employed seven principals in nine years. "The school is in a state of chaos with kids not coming to school, children not staying in class and running in and out of classrooms, and swearing at teachers," Ms Taylor said.

"What we are doing is creating a generation of children at risk here. "We had policies in place, but because the policies were implemented by Sue and some people didn't like (them), there is now nothing in place."

After a six-month investigation into alleged misconduct, Education Department chief executive Chris Robinson announced last month that it was in "the best interests of the students, staff, community and Ms Burtenshaw that a new principal be appointed to Coober Pedy Area School".

But Opposition education spokesman David Pisoni said he found it "extraordinary" that a principal who was able to improve attendance, reduce suspensions and improve NAPLAN results was removed from the school in the "interest of the students".

Education Minister Jay Weatherill said: "We now have a principal appointed for the rest of 2010 and are working to ensure there is a permanent principal appointed as soon as possible to start next year."

Ms Burtenshaw has appealed the decision.


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