Monday, September 13, 2010

Relationship Between Religious Practice and Education

Available research compiled by the Family Research Council demonstrates that religious practice in the home has a significant positive effect on a child's level of academic achievement.

According to Religious Practice and Educational Attainment, a synthesis paper produced by Family Research Council Senior Fellow and Director of the Marriage & Religion Research Institute (MARRI) Dr. Pat Fagan, "Education is widely recognized as the way to maintain the well-being of those born into the middle class. It is also a powerful tool to raise individuals out of poverty. If religious practice were to have a significantly positive role in education, then the practice of religion would have profound implications for world economies and societies." The paper details both the direct and the indirect effects of religion in the home on educational accomplishment.

Religious practice directly affects a student's ability to perform. Students involved in religious activities have higher GPAs by 14.4 percent than those not involved, and spend more time on their homework. Additionally, religion is one of few readily accessible institutions for lower-income families, making its effect on children's academic success particularly significant. Religious activity remains important in higher education, where over 75 percent of students who become more religious during their college years perform above average.

Student success is also affected indirectly by religion, through the various "pathways" that Fagan details in this paper. The pathways include both internal, personal dynamics and external, communal networks.

On a personal level, religious practice assists in internalizing norms that encourage academic attainment, in developing work habits and high personal expectations of achievement, and in reducing behavioral risks.

The paper also details the external pathways through which religious practice at home enhances scholastic performance, one being that internalized norms that encourage achievement are taught and reinforced through family interaction. The company of religious peers encourages academic focus while discouraging risky behavior. Churches and religious schools offer community and solidarity, supplementing sometimes-sparse student resources and offering mentorship. Planned religious extracurricular activities have the added benefit of eliminating unstructured "hanging out," which, in abundance, is correlated with poor academic performance.


The War on Academic Achievement

Judged by all the billions of dollars now flowing into "education reform," it appears that Washington, and especially the Obama administration, is obsessed with improving academic achievement (see, for example, here). The billions are certainly real enough, but the intent is just the opposite.

Rhetoric aside, the Obama administration, like Bush II's before it, is profoundly opposed to brainpower. Our "commitment" to academic excellence is a cruel joke -- we love stupidity and hate smart kids. Tellingly, not even "conservatives" who bemoan America's educational decline will admit this awkward reality -- they, too, are passengers on this reform gravy train heading to the bottom.

Consider a small item that appeared in a blog regarding the Jacob Javits Talented and Education Act, an Act whose title suggests helping young Einsteins and junior Keplers become America's future scientists and engineers. The program has always been financially uncertain, even occasionally canceled, and the current plan was to roll its $7.5-million annual appropriation into the Institute for Education Sciences, where no guarantee exists that the funds would go for high achievers.

Still, it might be argued that since super-smart kids are few in number and hardly require lavish facilities, even $7.5 million would help. This is a truly embarrassing lie that sheds enormous light on how Washington regards America's brainpower.

First, compare the proposed $7.5 million to the $11.5 billion that the national government spent in fiscal 2010 for disabled school-aged children. Given this staggering ratio, a visiting Martian might conclude that American schools consisted of a huge mass of disabled youngsters and an infinitesimal handful of smart ones. If we include all the other multi-billion-dollar programs targeting the least able, e.g., Head Start ($7.23 billion in 2010) and Title 1 ($13 billion that is now part of No Child Left Behind), one would never guess that the intellectually gifted actually exist (by definition 5% of all students). Imagine if a private firm embraced this grossly upside-down investment strategy. Our overseas rivals are probably convulsing with laughter.

Second, the Javits program, title aside, is not targeting smart kids -- just the reverse. It attempts to uncover gifted children among minorities conspicuously absent in traditional, test-driven gifted programs. This uplift-the-bottom mission is explicit:

"The major emphasis of the program is on serving students traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, particularly economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient (LEP), and disabled students, to help reduce the serious gap in achievement among certain groups of students at the highest levels of achievement."

This needle-in-a-haystack commitment is taken seriously, though evidence of any successes is scarce or nonexistent. In 2006, for example, Page, AZ received $340,000 for "Buried Treasure," a project that sought to uncover gifted children equally across the school district's demography -- i.e., gifted quotas. Meanwhile, Denver, CO got $123,000 for "Take Five," which involves coordinating efforts among multiple government agencies and university faculty to increase the number of gifted children from low-income and/or minority groups. Iowa educators received $319,000 to help the "twice exceptional child" -- that is, the youngster who is both intellectually talented and learning disabled. Countless similar grants to uncover disadvantaged students who might be gifted have been awarded to schools in Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Wyoming.

Third, not content to deprive smart kids of federal money, Washington, beginning with George W. Bush but continuing with Obama, is forcing states to starve their already puny gifted programs. This is accomplished not by outright prohibitions on helping smart kids; that would be too obvious.

Rather, Washington's mega-billion-dollar bribes coerce states to uplift the bottom, including closing racial gaps, if they want to keep the money flowing, and since Washington provides no financial incentives to help brainy kids, gifted programs are cannibalized (documented here). So putting Young Einstein back into Math 1 is perfectly rational for cash-starved school districts. The only losers are the poor (and probably white or Asian) parents of intellectually talented kids, a constituency with no heft in today's political battles.

This carnage began with Bush's No Child Left Behind and continues unabated. In 2002, Michigan aid for the gifted fell from $4 million a year to $250,000. In Illinois, funding collapsed from $19 million per year to zero, while New York also dropped to zero from $14 million. Oregon's commitment likewise dropped to zero after years of funding. In Connecticut, one in four school districts abandoned gifted programs altogether. In Missouri, the state subsidy for gifted went from 75% to 58% of local outlays. By 2006, eight states offered nothing, while another six states spend less than $500,000 -- not even a pittance in today's educational world.

Finally, the education establishment loathes programs for the gifted (see, for example, here). These classes are uniformly attacked as elitist, exclusionary, racially segregated, and, oddly, subverting the education of less talented students -- as if education were a zero-sum game, so if a smart student advances, a less able student necessarily falls behind. Many professional educators even dispute the very idea of some people being smarter than others.

Others flat-out lie. Carolyn Callahan, who heads up the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, claims that blacks and Hispanics are excluded from gifted programs since they lack adequate pre-schooling and decent nutrition (somebody should tell her about Head Start, food stamps, and subsidized school meals).

Even erstwhile champions of gifted education embrace the egalitarian fantasy. Del Siegle, the president of the National Association for Gifted Children, called for modifying No Child Left Behind at the group's national convention so as to provide more help for minority gifted children. If we include ACLU lawsuits attacking gifted programs for their lack of diversity, it's a miracle that any still exist.

What permits the U.S. to maintain its current intellectual edge is that it imports brains almost as heavily as it imports oil. Visit any top research university (or Silicon Valley) and observe students in the hard sciences who are disproportionally Asian, Russian, or Indian immigrants, or the children of those recently arrived (for example, see here).

In 2006, 35% of all Ph.D.s went to foreign-born researchers, but non-citizens earned 43% of the doctorates in science and engineering and 70% of the Ph.D.s in electrical, civil, and industrial/mechanical engineering. In other engineering fields plus math, computer science, and physics, the figure was "only" 50%. Among university science and engineering faculty, 19% are born overseas; in engineering, this figure was a little more than a third. The Kaufman Foundation tracks this "foreign" contribution to American industry, and it is indisputable that we survive thanks to imported brains (here).

Like foreign oil, this cannot last. China and Japan now try to keep top scientific talent home, and our European rivals, Australia and New Zealand, are actively recruiting those who once automatically came to the U.S. In a decade or so, the homegrown talent may have to suffice, and all the wages of neglect will come due. Will today's low achievers save us in 2030? Perhaps only a miracle, such as civil strife in China, will restore the flow of brains, much as German refugees in the late 1930s reinvigorated American science.

To invoke an old cliché, with friends of academic excellence like Bush II and Obama, who needs enemies?


British schools must be braver with the children

Spending a childhood wrapped in cotton wool is no preparation for adult life, argues Toby Young

When I think of some of the things I got up to as child, I shudder with horror. At the age of 12, for instance, I decided it would be fun to take a sailing boat out into the Atlantic. It was fun, too, until the boat capsized. Then there was the time, aged 14, that I "borrowed" the 400cc motorcycle belonging to my sister's boyfriend. As the needle of the speedometer passed 100 mph, I remember thinking that I should probably be wearing a helmet.

When Michael Gove called for a return to a "Dangerous Book for Boys" culture in England's schools I don't suppose he had joy-riding in mind. But these sorts of adventures undoubtedly proved valuable experiences on the road to maturity. According to the Education Secretary, risk-averse teachers and litigious parents have led to children being brought up in an over-protective environment. "We need to change our bubble-wrapped culture," he said yesterday.

So is the Health and Safety Executive going to be added to the flames in the bonfire of the quangocrats? Unfortunately not. But Lord Young of Graffham has been asked to review health and safety legislation to see if it can be made less restrictive. One suggestion is that claimants in compensation cases would need to prove reckless endangerment instead of just negligence in order to receive a payout.

At the moment, the amount of red tape teachers have to wade through in preparation for a school trip of any kind is ludicrous. A ghastly official document entitled "Standards for LEAs in Overseeing Educational Visits" includes 93 rules and regulations covering everything from "non-licensable adventure activities" to "having a plan B pre-assessed in case Plan A has become too hazardous".

Then there's the fact that "educational-visits co-ordinators" are obliged not to discriminate against disabled pupils when arranging trips. The Disability Rights Commission has produced no fewer than two codes of practice relating to this. (Are two enough? Why not 20? Can't be too careful about this sort of thing.)

In light of this, perhaps it's not surprising that the last official "school trip" my seven-year-old daughter went on was to the local branch of Pizza Express. I'm not making that up. Happily, no one choked to death on a slice of quattro formaggi.

One of the most powerful arguments against this degree of caution is that it leaves children unable to assess risk and that, in turn, leads to reckless behaviour. According to Dr Amanda Gummer, a psychologist who advises the British Toy & Hobby Association, a completely safe childhood is actually more dangerous than one containing its fair share of bumps and scrapes.

"Children who have all elements of danger removed from their lives grow up to think they are invincible," she says. "This doesn't just affect the accidents they might have when riding a bike or exploring a river, but it has a knock-on effect in terms of drug culture and gang violence." I'm not entirely convinced by this. It amounts to saying that the reason children shouldn't be cocooned in cotton wool is because it's less risky than exposing them to danger.

Surely, the best way of tackling the culture of health and safety in schools is not to appeal to parents' risk aversion but to challenge it. I want my children to grow up to be confident, happy adults, not cautious little wet noodles who daren't say boo to a goose. That means venturing a little further afield on school trips than the nearest fast-food restaurant.

I'm hardly alone in this. A survey of over 2,000 parents of primary school children commissioned by Play England found that three-quarters of them thought schools were too concerned with health and safety. We need to dismantle the whole edifice of mollycoddling rules and regulations so our children are free to play proper, old-fashioned games even if they involve risk of injury. How can we expect them to stick up for what they believe in as adults if they're not allowed to play British Bulldog in the playground?

Of course, Michael Gove won't find this easy, not least because Britain is no longer a sovereign state. Many of the "elf and safety" rules are enforced by the European Union rather than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For instance, article two of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights states: "No person shall be denied the right to an education." That may make it possible for the parent of a wheelchair-bound child to sue a school that organises an activity he or she can't participate in, depending on how broadly the word "education" is interpreted.

Nevertheless, we need to do as much as we can. As things stand, the absurd over-protectiveness of our schools is in danger of creating a nation of milksops.


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