Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Leftist educators as "true believers"

Teachers College Maintains The Planet

A beautiful example of true belief in action crossed my desk recently from the alumni magazine of my own alma mater, Columbia University. Written by the director of Columbia’s Institute for Learning Technologies, a bureau at Teachers College, this mailing informed graduates that the education division now regarded itself as bound by "a contract with posterity." Something in the tone warned me against dismissing this as customary institutional gas. Seconds later I learned, with some shock, that Teachers College felt obligated to take a commanding role in "maintaining the planet." The next extension of this strange idea was even more pointed. Teachers College now interpreted its mandate, I was told, as one compelling it "to distribute itself all over the world and to teach every day, 24 hours a day."

To gain perspective, try to imagine the University of Berlin undertaking to distribute itself among the fifty American states, to be present in this foreign land twenty-four hours a day, swimming in the minds of Mormon children in Utah and Baptist children in Georgia. Any university intending to become global like some nanny creature spawned in Bacon’s ghastly utopia, New Atlantis, is no longer simply in the business of education. Columbia Teachers College had become an aggressive evangelist by its own announcement, an institution of true belief selling an unfathomable doctrine. I held its declaration in my hand for a while after I read it. Thinking.

Let me underline what you just heard. Picture some U.N. thought police dragging reluctant Serbs to a loudspeaker to listen to Teachers College rant. Most of us have no frame of reference in which to fit such a picture. Narcosis in the face of true belief is a principal reason the disease progressed so far through the medium of forced schooling without provoking much major opposition. Only after a million homeschooling families and an equal number of religiously oriented private-school families emerged from their sleep to reclaim their children from the government in the 1970s and 1980s, in direct response to an epoch of flagrant social experimentation in government schools, did true belief find ruts in its road.

Columbia, where I took an undergraduate degree, is the last agency I would want maintaining my planet. For decades it was a major New York slumlord indifferent to maintaining its own neighborhood, a territory much smaller than the globe. Columbia has been a legendary bad neighbor to the community for the forty years I’ve lived near my alma mater. So much for its qualifications as Planetary Guardian. Its second boast is even more ominous – I mean that goal of intervening in mental life "all over the world," teaching "every day, 24 hours a day." Teaching what? Shouldn’t we ask? Our trouble in recognizing true belief is that it wears a reasonable face in modern times.

A Lofty, Somewhat Inhuman Vision

Take a case reported by the Public Agenda Foundation which produced the first-ever survey of educational views held by teachers college professors. To their surprise, the authors discovered that the majority of nine hundred randomly selected professors of education interviewed did not regard a teacher’s struggle to maintain an orderly classroom or to cope with disruptive students as major problems! The education faculty was generally unwilling to attend to these matters seriously in their work, believing that widespread alarm among parents stemming from worry that graduates couldn’t spell, couldn’t count accurately, couldn’t sustain attention, couldn’t write grammatically (or write at all) was only caused by views of life "outmoded and mistaken."

While 92 percent of the public thinks basic reading, writing, and math competency is "absolutely essential" (according to an earlier study by Public Agenda), education professors did not agree. In the matter of mental arithmetic, which a large majority of ordinary people, including some schoolteachers, consider very important, about 60 percent of education professors think cheap calculators make that goal obsolete.

The word passion appears more than once in the report from which these data are drawn, as in the following passage:
"Education professors speak with passionate idealism about their own, sometimes lofty, vision of education and the mission of teacher education programs. The passion translates into ambitious and highly-evolved expectations for future teachers, expectations that often differ dramatically from those of parents and teachers now in the classroom. "The soul of a teacher is what should be passed on from teacher to teacher," a Boston professor said with some intensity. "You have to have that soul to be a good teacher."

It’s not my intention at this moment to recruit you to one or another side of this debate, but only to hold you by the back of the neck as Uncle Bud (who you’ll meet up ahead) once held mine and point out that this vehicle has no brake pedal – ordinary parents and students have no way to escape this passion. Twist and turn as they might, they will be subject to any erotic curiosity inspired love arouses. In the harem of true belief, there is scant refuge from the sultan’s lusty gaze.

Rain Forest Algebra

In the summer of 1997, a Democratic senator stood on the floor of the Senate denouncing the spread of what he called "wacko algebra"; one widely distributed math text referred to in that speech did not ask a question requiring algebraic knowledge until page 107. What replaced the boredom of symbolic calculation were discussions of the role of zoos in community life, or excursions to visit the fascinating Dogon tribe of West Africa. Whatever your own personal attitude toward "rain forest algebra," as it was snidely labeled, you would be hard-pressed not to admit one thing: its problems are almost computation-free. Whether you find the mathematical side of social issues relevant or not isn’t in question. Your attention should be fixed on the existence of minds, nominally in charge of number enlightenment for your children, which consider a private agenda more important than numbers.

One week last spring, the entire math homework in fifth grade at middle-class P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan consisted of two questions:
1. Historians estimate that when Columbus landed on what is now the island of Hati [this is the spelling in the question] there were 250,000 people living there. In two years this number had dropped to 125,000. What fraction of the people who had been living in Hati when Columbus arrived remained? Why do you think the Arawaks died?

2. In 1515 there were only 50,000 Arawaks left alive. In 1550 there were 500. If the same number of people died each year, approximately how many people would have died each year? In 1550 what percentage of the original population was left alive? How do you feel about this?

Tom Loveless, professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has no doubt that National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards have deliberately de-emphasized math skills, and he knows precisely how it was done. But like other vigorous dissenters who have tried to arrest the elimination of critical intellect in children, he adduces no motive for the awesome project which has worked so well up to now. Loveless believes that the "real reform project has begun: writing standards that declare the mathematics children will learn." He may be right, but I am not so sanguine.

Much more HERE

Foreign language study in British schools

The BBC asked “Should British pupils give up studying French?” However, the key issue isn’t whether or not children should be learning French, but the fact that schools are encouraging children to take easier subjects so that the school scores well on the league tables. Crucially this is not always to the advantage of the children, especially if they plan to apply to elite universities.

Independent schools tend not to do this because their reputation requires that they take greater interest in their pupils. In contrast, many state schools are taking the easy way out. Without radical reform of the education system, the government will only be able to choose between the blunt tools of either compulsion or league tables. Both have undesirable unintended consequences.

Others in the article echo my point. For example, the language learning expert Paul Noble states that "the core reason is because pupils know French is difficult to pass, and difficult to get something out of it”, while Michel Monsauret, attache for education at the French Embassy in London, points out that subjects such as religious studies are on the increase because they are perceived to be easier. Mr Monsauret correctly states that “languages are taught more extensively at private schools in the UK, and their pupils go on to dominate places at Oxbridge and the other best universities."

Predictably the National University of Teachers (NUT) is appalled: “The policy drift on modern foreign languages is unforgivable”. Children, according to the NUT, aren’t adequately equipped for life in a global society. A bit rich coming from an organization set up to protect the interests of teachers even when against the benefits to parents and children; an organization that is the biggest impediment to reform. Asking the NUT what is best for children is like asking a turkey what should be eaten at Christmas – the goose will always be cooked.

Whether one’s child should be taught French, German, Cantonese or Chamicuro should be solely that of the parents. Of course, they will be limited by what is being offered, which is an argument for a dynamic and competitive system – one driven by the free market, not bureaucratic oversight. That learning a language involves no literature shows how bankrupt the teaching is many of our schools. As such, the lamentations of Aida Edemariam and others are frankly irrelevant.

The teaching of French – or lack of it – is symbolic of the wider failure of bureaucratic control of the education.


British schoolboys 'being held back by women teachers' as gender stereotypes are reinforced in the classroom

Women teachers are holding back boys by reprimanding them for typically male behaviour, according to a study out today. They are reinforcing stereotypes that boys are ‘silly’ in class, refuse to ‘sit nicely like the girls’ and are more likely to indulge in ‘schoolboy pranks’.

Women teachers may also unwittingly perpetuate low expectations of boys’ academic achievement and encourage girls to work harder by letting them think they are cleverer.

Schools should avoid dividing pupils into ability groups because the practice often results in girls dominating the higher-achieving tables, concluded the Kent University research.

The study of primary schools in the county suggests that under-performance among boys in most national exams could be linked to lower expectations.

The research mainly implicates women teachers, since nearly 90 per cent of primary school teachers are female. It warned that school staff find boys’ play, such as wielding toy guns, ‘particularly challenging and difficult’. Boys are punished and urged to conform to a more feminine style of play instead of being taught how to play responsibly with their preferred toys.

Bonny Hartley, the study’s lead author, said: ‘By seven or eight years old, children of both genders believe that boys are less focused, able, and successful than girls – and think that adults endorse this stereotype. There are signs that these expectations have the potential to become self-fulfilling in influencing
children’s actual conduct and achievement.’

Girls as young as four think they are cleverer, try harder and are better behaved than equivalent boys, her study found. By the age of seven and eight, boys also believe that their female classmates are more likely have these qualities.

For the study, 238 children aged four to ten were presented with a series of scenarios such as ‘this child is really clever’ and ‘this child always finishes their work’. They were then asked to point to a picture of a boy or a girl to say which they thought was being talked about.

The findings show that from the first year of school girls said their sex was more likely to record better conduct and achievement. From the age of eight, boys were also more likely to say that girls had better performance, motivation and effort, self-control and conduct.

In the second part of the study – being presented today at the British Educational Research Association annual conference at Warwick University – the children were asked if adults believed boys or girls were cleverer and better behaved.

From an early age, girls believe grown-ups think girls have better conduct and achievement. Boys develop the same beliefs around the age of eight.

The study drew no distinction between the beliefs and classroom practices of male and female teachers. Further research by the same team will consider the specific gender stereotypes held by teachers.


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