Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Texans turn to home schooling

The first day of school will be different for the Blane family this year. Parents Eric and Melissa won’t have to pack their children’s lunches or send them to the bus stop this morning.

The Blanes of Montgomery County have joined a growing number of Texans forgoing public and private schools, deciding to home school their 11-year-old son, Cory, and their 8-year-old daughter, Madison. “It’s a desire we have to be the ones who are teaching them and motivating them,” said Melissa Blane, who will be the children’s primary teacher. “We’ll be starting bright and early.”

Melissa Blane plans to kick off her school year today to coincide with the return of roughly 4.5 million students to Texas public schools. Since 2007, state lawmakers have forbade school districts from holding classes before the fourth Monday in August.

Tina Robertson, a mom who runs New Beginnings, a support group for parents new to home schooling, lovingly chuckles when they follow the traditional start date. “Guess how much I care about August 23rd?” she asked the parents gathered for a meeting Friday night at a bookstore in The Woodlands. Robertson doesn’t care at all. She plans to take her own three children, whom she has taught since kindergarten, to the park today. She said she teaches them year-round. “Home schooling is a lifestyle,” Robertson said. “The line between learning and living gets blurred — and it should.”

Over the past five years, the number of Texans opting to home school has grown about 20 percent to an estimated 120,000 families and 300,000 children, according to the Texas Home School Coalition. “The economy does have an impact on folks,” said Tim Lambert, president of the coalition. “We saw families last year who had their kids in a private school, times were tough and they couldn’t afford to do that anymore, but they didn’t want to put them in a public school.”

The most recent survey of parents by the National Center for Education Statistics found that families primarily opted to home school because they wanted to provide religious or moral lessons to their children. Other top reasons include parental concerns about safety, peer pressure and the academic instruction at traditional schools.

Parents in Texas are not required to register with any agency or to get their curriculum approved. Legal rulings have upheld that parents simply are supposed to have a curriculum that teaches reading, spelling, grammar, math and good citizenship.

The Blanes said they wanted to start home schooling several years ago, but they were worried that Melissa wouldn’t have time to teach while also helping Eric with the family light-fixture business. Finally, Melissa Blane said, they decided to “pray and rely on the Lord.”

Her home office will do double-duty as a classroom, with computers, a desk and a bulletin board on the door. The children can read in their bunk beds if they choose, but they will have to change out of their pajamas and do their hair every morning.

Their son is excited, Melissa Blane said, while their daughter is concerned about missing her classmates. “She’ll still have time for friends,” the mother said, adding that their schedule will include field trips with other families who home school.

The Rangel family of Houston also plans to try home schooling this year, with their 3-year-old daughter, Sophia. She’s too young for pre-kindergarten, but mom, Angela, wants to give her an early start and to test whether home schooling works well for the family.

“Since I went to private school my whole life, I really had wanted her to go to private school,” Angela Rangel said. “I have looked into it, and the one that I like, there’s a waiting list, and it’s very pricey. It kind of depends on where we are income-wise. My husband and I are leaning more toward home schooling.”

Rangel spent the weekend converting an apartment attached to their home into a classroom. One corner houses the library; posters about colors and shapes line the walls; and supply boxes with crayons and glue sit on top of a small table with two red chairs.

She doesn’t expect the school day to last more than an hour and a half, beginning with a Bible lesson and working up to learning to read. Rangel plans to begin class at 8:30 a.m. today.


Final High School exam results: Yet again, the education system has failed Britain’s teenagers

Soggy-minded adults are responsible for an educational culture that flinches from all forms of grading or selection

Year after year, we fail the test. And it’s a test not only of intellect and memory, but of nerve, of honesty, and of will. As the A-level results are published and the nation’s teenagers rejoice, their elders lower their eyes in the shameful knowledge that, once again, they have let down the young.

Make no mistake: the annual controversy about grade inflation is about the failure of adults, not of pupils. Which is why Michael Gove’s declared determination to do something about this debauched educational currency is – potentially – one of the best reasons to support the Coalition.

This year’s debacle has two aspects, intimately related. The first is that more than 8 per cent of candidates received the new A* grade: to achieve this, they had to get more than 90 per cent in their final year examination. This means that already, in its launch year, the proportion of candidates gaining the new elite grade is the same as those awarded an A – the previous highest grade – in 1965.

In other words, A* is the new A. If the system is left to itself, the new super-grade’s value will diminish steadily in the years to come, compelling the introduction of an A**, an A***, an A****… well, you get the picture.

Second, there is a grievous mismatch between the demand for university places and the supply of teenagers looking for them. More than 180,000 were scrambling for last-minute places this weekend, many considering the option of pursuing higher education abroad. A measure of disappointment, of course, is intrinsic to the system. Competition for places at university is just that: a competition. And, by definition, not everybody will succeed.

More worrying is the impact that grade inflation is having on the fairness of the selective process. When 27 per cent of all A-level candidates gain an A or A* and the overall pass rate rises for the 28th year, how are universities supposed to distinguish between applicants?

The case of Ben Scheffer, the Brighton College schoolboy who could not find a university place in spite of A* grades in maths, economics and physics, and As in further maths, chemistry and German, is an extreme example of a common phenomenon. So many applicants to university have the highest grades that it becomes impossible for institutions to distinguish between them.

Like citizens of the Weimar Republic pushing wheelbarrows full of marks to buy a loaf of bread, today’s school-leavers are forced to sit ever greater numbers of A‑levels to distinguish themselves from the crowd – and even then have no guarantee of securing a university place.

I disagree profoundly with those who say that teenagers today have it easy. When I was a sixth former, we were only expected to take three A-levels, and that struck me as plenty. A quarter-century later, it is perfectly common for 18-year-olds to take seven or even more: a monstrous amount of work with which to fill your sixth-form days, with no certainty of a college place at the end of it.

Teenagers know perfectly well (or at least intuit) that the A-level “gold standard” disappeared long ago and make the best of a wrecked system to distinguish themselves by any means necessary. The Baby Boomers and Generation X don’t know how lucky they are. This generation is infinitely more resourceful and stoical than its immediate predecessors.

To give Mr Gove due credit, he has been urging root-and-branch reform of A-levels (and classroom assessments in general) since becoming Shadow Schools Secretary in July 2007. In Opposition, he appointed Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, to investigate our system of tests and qualifications – an inquiry which concluded in March that “the usefulness of the system has been eroded by the politicisation of assessment outcomes” and “universities’ loss of confidence in A-levels as a certificate of readiness for university study”.

Now, in office, Mr Gove is conducting his own review, much influenced by the best sections of Sir Richard’s report: AS-levels (the first half of A-levels) are set to be abolished, as are the infantile “modular” courses that have afflicted Western civilisation for far too long. Universities will be closely involved in the overhaul of A-levels, and – one hopes – will play a much greater part in their future administration and the maintenance of this particular academic currency.

As the Sykes Report argued, behind the debasement of the A-level “gold standard” lies politicisation – not only in the direct sense that politicians always want to announce good news and increased tractor production, but in the subtler respect that political culture pollutes all systems of calibration and measurement. In the case of A-levels, an insidious “group-think’’ intervened and tore the currency to shreds.

Part of the contamination was caused by New Labour’s obsession with targets and central control – an obsession that led to the A-level scandal of 2002, in which the then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, clashed in public with Sir William Stubbs, the chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, over a grading fiasco (the resulting Tomlinson Report was all but ignored by the Blair administration).

Deeper still is the horror of academic selection that is enshrined in the comprehensive school system, but leaks into the nation’s education at every tier. Tony Crosland’s war on the grammar schools did not just destroy the principal engine of social mobility in this country’s history. It encouraged a fear of educational competition generally, and an unstated belief that all must have prizes.

The 11‑plus [exam taken at age 11 to assess eligibility for selective schooling] is spoken of like polio, a scourge upon the young that has been wiped out by the march of progress. We inhabit a culture in which it is apparently acceptable for children’s educational future to be determined by catchment area, but not by academic criteria. Infantile as it is, there is still a collective flinch from all forms of grading or selection. How much easier for soggy-minded adults for all children to get As at A-level – or, in due course, A*s.

As in so many aspects of its programme, the Coalition’s task here is cultural before it is administrative. It has to introduce afresh the idea that if all have prizes, none do. And that if ever-increasing numbers of candidates get the highest A-level grades, the university application process will become nothing more than a lottery, an arbitrary process of selection between candidates with straight As for a limited number of places. This may be a bitter pill, but it is not teenagers who are reluctant to swallow it. The pupils are not the problem. It is time for the adults to start acting like grown-ups.


Australian Muslims Push for Islamic ‘Perspective’ in School Curriculum

Recently the Australian Curriculum Studies Association and the University of Melbourne’s Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies issued a booklet, “Learning From One Another: Bringing Muslim Perspectives into Australian Schools,” which maintains that “every Australian school student would be taught positive aspects about Islam and Muslims — and that Australia is a racist country.”

Presumably every Australian child should be taught about the fabled past of Islam and imagine the worst of Australia in order to avoid the challenges Islam poses to this peacefully integrated nation.

The report contends that there is a “degree of prejudice and ignorance about Islam and Muslims,” conditions that Australian students should oppose as they embrace diversity as the standard of civic duty. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are mentioned as famous names synonymous with traditional Islamic ideas, but there isn’t any reference to terrorism.

The truly remarkable dimension of this report is that a largely immigrant community, comprising a small minority, is demanding that classes be taught from its perspective rather than the perspective of the nation to which most chose to come. Australia is demonized as racist while the real challenges posed by Islam are overlooked. Moreover, it is precisely the communal values and institutions in Australia that made it a worthy destination for immigrants in the first place.

Most tellingly, Australia’s so called “racist impulses” were fomented by radical Islamists responsible for the death of 100 Australians in Bali and terrorist plots in Australia itself in which at least twenty people have been jailed.

According to the report, “most Muslims are outspoken in their criticism of terrorism regardless of the perpetrator. This is because Islam only allows for a just war. … From their perspective, the enemies of Islam are the terrorists and they are the warriors of the faith.” In addition, the authors of this booklet contend that “morally, Australia is not a good place to rear children,” citing as evidence drugs and illicit relations. They argue that these conditions militate against integration. It is also an argument employed for their own system of law, sharia.

What this adds up to is a minority intent on changing the environment in which it finds itself rather than seeking an accommodation with the prevailing norms. It seems to me the authors of the report have failed to address several obvious questions: If Australia is an undesirable place to raise children, why emigrate there in the first place? If sharia is the legal code you prefer, why not move to a nation where this code is in place? Why should the Australian school system comply with the requests of this Muslim minority?

It seems to me imprudent that the demands in the booklet are made at all. Suppose a Jewish minority in Iran argued that Talmudic law should be introduced across the board for this group. By any reasonable standard this request would be rejected. There simply is no reason for the Australian government to balkanize itself and, in the process, legitimate a minority hostile to law, custom, and tradition.

That integration of minorities may tolerate a degree of loyalty and affection for the “old country” is understandable. But there isn’t any justification for altering the school curriculum in the adopted nation. If anything is the case, Muslim students will be handicapped if, by virtue of a diversity standard, they learn about Islam but remain ignorant about the nation in which they reside.

Moreover, since Western nations have made an effort to welcome Islamic immigrants through programs that engender understanding, it seems to me reciprocity is warranted. But is it possible to promote women’s rights in Saudi Arabia? Or does the school curriculum in Pakistan include a history of constitutional provisions? Do Syrian schools incorporate the history of the Kurdish minority into their school curriculum?

What the Australian Muslim minority wants is what Australia can not grant: capitulation to a state within a state. A separate Muslim school system or one that emphasizes the unique aspects of Muslim life would be a first step toward the dissolution of Australia. No wonder there is pushback. Who would expect anything else?


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