Saturday, November 13, 2010

More bright-eyed optimism that ignores IQ

And is hence doomed to fail. He fails to ask WHY middle class parents talk more. It's because they have higher IQs and the strongest correlate of IQ is verbal ability. It is their inherited higher IQ that causes middle class children to do better generally, not the side effect of hearing more talk

BRITAIN'S Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has come up with an initiative that might just break the self-perpetuating cycle of educational disadvantage.

A few weeks ago he announced that the government would be setting aside pound stg. 7 billion ($11.3bn) during the course of the current parliament for a program called the pupil premium. Most of it will be spent on free nursery-level education for Britain's poorest children.

The aim is to narrow in the early years the vocabulary gap between the disadvantaged young and everyone else. As Clegg put it: "Children from poor homes hear 616 words spoken an hour on average, compared to 2153 words an hour in richer homes. By the age of three, that amounts to a cumulative gap of 30 million words."

The breadth of vocabulary that middle-class infants are exposed to has long been recognised as a significant factor in preparing them for success at school.

It's not just the sheer number of words or being familiar with an abundance of synonyms. A lot of our history, cultural assumptions and sense of humour are embedded in the mother tongue and can be almost effortlessly assimilated. A broad vocabulary emboldens young minds to extrapolate from the known to new, unfamiliar words and get a sense of what they mean. As well, it introduces the mind to niceties of distinction: for example, the difference between being "pleased", "not displeased" and "not best pleased" (which, for the benefit of younger readers, is a way of saying "not pleased at all").

There is a growing consensus that the most effective way to improve educational outcomes is by concentrating money and attention on the nursery. Recent research into child development at the University of London by Leon Feinstein found that the size of a child's vocabulary at 22 months is a reliable indicator of subsequent performance at school.

Middle-class kids probably aren't any brighter on average than their poorer age-mates Utter rubbish. Herrnstein & Murray exploded that optimism long ago], but their infant minds have usually been more assiduously stimulated when it matters most, early on.

The Spectator's Toby Young is a doting father who, as a columnist, takes a great interest in educational reform. In a recent piece, "Baby talk can close the attainment gap", he reflects in the light of his experience on a campaign just launched in Britain by the National Literacy Trust called Talk to Your Baby.

"You'd be forgiven for thinking it was dreamt up by a Notting Hill yummy mummy . . . It sounds absolutely barmy, the parenting equivalent of talking to plants, but in fact there's plenty of evidence to suggest that talking to children under three has an almost magical effect on their cognitive development and transforms them into more intelligent adults."

Young cites a study by a group of Harvard economists who found that children who've had a good nursery education earn, on average, $20 a week more than their peers by the time they're 27. Apparently that holds true even allowing for all the other usual factors, including social and economic status and the quality of their subsequent schooling.

Coming at the question from the other end, he cites a book by two educationalists at the University of Durham. One of their main findings is that the attainment of middle-class children doesn't vary much according to what school they attend. Generally they tend to do well even in poorly performing schools [Because they have higher IQs]. In a nutshell, a language-rich preschool environment and a domestic setting to match it can inoculate kids against the damage that substandard schools do to their classmates.

Young offers some rather endearing anecdotal evidence. "When my daughter Sasha was around six months old I read her Pride and Prejudice. Sounds pretentious and it is, but that's one of the advantages middle-class children enjoy over working-class children: their parents are willing to risk appearing pretentious if they believe their behaviour will secure their offspring a competitive advantage. And it worked.

"I have a video of Sasha scoring 100 out of 100 in a flash card test before her first birthday. By contrast, I read all three of her brothers Peepo! and none of them started talking until they were two."

Although reading Jane Austen to babes in arms might be taking things a bit far, the first books my generation's parents read us were often quite demanding and designed to captivate the reader as much as the child. I'm thinking of Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, The Magic Pudding, the nonsense verse of Ogden Nash and Oscar Wilde's volume of fairy stories. Each of those books has hidden depths and unsettling interludes where things are not as they seem. Each might serve as an introduction to irony.

Young's other point about the role of parental pushiness in securing a competitive advantage for their children is an important one. I noticed it early on, growing up on the raffish outskirts of Bellevue Hill in Sydney.

A lot of the neighbouring blocks of flats were occupied by Jewish immigrants from central Europe and I played and went to primary school with their children. There was scarcely a boy among them who had not settled on a choice of profession, with a modicum of parental nudging, by the time he was six.

Although my parents were people of cultured tastes and ambitious for their only child, my mother's teenage career on John Dease's The Quiz Kids program had given her an aversion to precocious infants and she flatly refused to teach me to read before I went to school. Long before I was literate, most of my playmates could read a little English, speak Yiddish and perhaps another European language, and were beginning Hebrew lessons.

As well, willy-nilly, most learned a musical instrument. While some of them complained of a pressure-cooker existence - and left me feeling like a cheerful underachiever - they had a head start in life that most parents now can only dream about.

My last four columns and this week's have all concentrated on what constitutes a great education and why so few of the rising generation have access to one. I fear it has been rather bleak reading for the most part, which is why I'm ending on a positive note.

Very early intervention to break the cycle of educational disadvantage holds out far more hope - especially for Aboriginal infants and the children of what used to be called the lumpenproletariat - than the public system ever has. It ought to be high on the productivity agendas of both the main parties.


Closing the Doors to Opportunity

The Obama administration thinks it knows best how to run health care, the banks, and the auto industry, so why not post-secondary education? And the best way to do so in Obamaland is to limit choice, which is exactly what the Department of Education has proposed in new rules affecting student loans.

The ostensible reason for the new "gainful employment" regulations is to curtail predatory practices by fly-by-night, for-profit trade schools that promise lucrative careers but deliver shoddy training. But the way in which the administration is going about solving the problem will cause more harm than good.

In hearings last month, the department heard from both opponents and proponents of the new rules, which would limit access to federally guaranteed loans by institutions whose graduates would end up with higher debts relative to earnings, as calculated by the Department of Education. Under the plan, students would not be allowed to use federal student loans to attend programs whose cost the administration calculates will require more than 8 percent of their estimated future yearly income to repay. And the department would limit eligibility for students to use federal loans at for-profit schools if 65 percent of the former students at those schools had failed to repay the loans in what the government considered a timely manner.

It is the kind of micro-managing and social engineering that the administration favors when it comes to problem-solving in every arena. Whatever the issue, the Obama-ites believe they know better than everyone else what is good for people. In this instance, the group most affected will be non-traditional students, minorities, immigrants and older, returning students who are already in the workforce. And the administration's target is for-profit schools, which the Ivy League graduates in the West Wing clearly disdain.

Many non-traditional students choose for-profit schools to learn a trade rather than attending liberal arts or even community colleges. These schools form an important niche in our post-secondary education system, one, ironically, that has become more important as secondary education has virtually eliminated vocational training as part of its mission. In a world in which we pretend that every high school student is college material, many kids graduate with no academic future and too few skills to earn a living at a trade.

The Obama administration recognizes the problem -- but their solution is to invest in nonprofit community colleges while at the same time demonizing for-profit schools that may offer a better alternative for many students. For-profit schools allow students to choose programs that focus on concrete job skills that also fit their lifestyle, offering online or evening courses or those that don't require attendance over a traditional school year to complete.

Students themselves should be the best judge of whether these programs are worth the investment -- not the federal government. But instead of applying market principles to test success or failure, the Obama administration proposes to gauge the programs' value by how quickly students repay their loans to the government.

The effect will be that many students who need federal loans in order to enroll in programs that will boost their skills and employability will now be restricted in the choices available to them. If a student wants to learn how to repair automobiles -- which, with the proliferation of computer-based systems in most new cars, requires far higher skill levels than in the past -- they'll be out of luck unless their local community college offers the course and at a convenient time. The same holds true for acquiring software and networking skills, learning dental hygiene or medical technology, much less becoming a chef. Indeed, few community colleges offer the breadth and scope of training available in for-profit schools.

The administration should be making it easier, not more difficult, for Americans to receive the training they need and want. And they should let Americans decide for themselves which programs best serve their needs. Instead, they're closing doors to opportunity for those students most in need.


Scandal of the £2.3m golden goodbyes given to incompetent British teachers

Incompetent teachers have been handed more than £2.3million in 'golden goodbyes' over the last five years, new figures have shown. Many councils have paid tens of thousands of pounds to ensure poorly-performing teachers quit their jobs but few staff have been fired outright for incompetence, an investigation revealed.

Just 273 teachers have lost their jobs in England due to concerns about their performance since 2005, according to an analysis by the Times Educational Supplement. Only 14 have been struck off the teaching register - barred from working in classrooms - in nearly a decade.

The analysis also shows how the chance of a pupil facing a poor-performing teacher is a postcode lottery due to wide variations in practice across the country. In 72 local authorities - almost half the total - not a single teacher was fired for incompetence in the last five years.

The revelations come 15 years after the then Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead made his incendiary claim that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. Commenting on the new findings, Professor Woodhead, of Buckingham University, said: 'This is a tiny percentage of the total workforce. 'It confirms, moreover, what we all know: incompetence pays.

'Incompetent teachers damage children's learning and the reputation of the teaching profession. 'When are those responsible going to face up to the problem?'

The TES figures, obtained from 123 out of 152 English councils under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that 3,253 teachers had been through school competency proceedings due to concerns about their performance in the past five years.

The process involves teachers being monitored closely as they seek to reach targets for improved performance and can result in dismissal.

While some areas put hundreds of teachers through competency procedures over the last five years, such as West Sussex, with 385, some areas, including Hampshire and Somerset, subjected just one to the disciplinary process. Across the country, 273 teachers were fired from their jobs or accepted severance pay and left. A further 550 resigned.

The fate of the other teachers subjected to competency proceedings is unclear. Some improved their performance or retired, while others simply moved schools, including to the independent sector.

One manager at a school in Herefordshire, who saw four teachers through the competency process, said: 'Three of these obtained jobs at private independent schools - which would be better suited to their teaching methods - and one at a further education college.'

The figures also showed that 38 local authorities paid out a total of £2.33million in severance pay and compromise agreements to teachers put on competency procedures. The biggest spender emerged as Darlington, which paid out £196,400. Six other councils - Warrington, Suffolk, Cumbria, Cornwall, Manchester and Worcestershire - each paid out more than £100,000.

In contrast, some councils said they had a policy of not paying out to those accused of incompetence.

Ministers are understood to be drawing up plans to overhaul the system for dealing with poorly-performing teachers.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the system should be overhauled so incompetent teachers can be fired within eight weeks. 'I don't think there is a massive group of dire teachers out there, but there are people who should not be teaching and they should be dealt with as quickly as possible,' he said.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, insisted the competency process was being abused. 'Heads are using it as a blunt instrument for inappropriate reasons,' she said. 'We get many reports that it's just an excuse for bullying.'

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: 'The vast majority of teachers in our schools are highly competent professionals who are committed to providing a good education for our children. 'But where teachers do not meet the standards expected, it is important that heads have the freedoms they need to tackle under-performance.'


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