Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why aren't right and wrong on the curriculum?

You know the problem with students? They get encouraged to think too much. Take Edward Woollard, who pleaded guilty to dropping a fire extinguisher from the top of Conservative Party headquarters during a riot in protest at education cuts. It was very fortunate, a ­complete fluke in fact, that the police officers ­gathered below did not suffer serious injury.

And Woollard is certainly bright enough to know better. He is studying politics, classics and ­philosophy at Brockenhurst College, near Southampton. So how does this happen? Here’s how.

Last week one of our boys came home with his head full of the Columbine school massacre. He’s 13. The subject was part of religious studies, which have been expanded to include modern, moral and ­philosophical issues, as well as ­matters of faith. No problem with that. We’re a secular society. It became apparent, however, that in the course of the discussion there was worrying ambiguity.

Too much mitigation, not enough condemnation. The killers had been mocked and bullied, he told us ­earnestly, they were outcasts, they had issues with the student group. And this is true. Columbine, its ­prelude and aftermath, is a vast and complex subject even now. Less complicated, though, is the simple fact that shooting people is wrong.

Yet, as ridiculous as this may sound, in the class debate perhaps not enough time had been spent emphasising the obvious. There will have been wonderfully enlightening discussions around the many issues raised by a teenage killing spree, but they needed underpinning.

Terrorists have motivations, too, but it would be truly dangerous to discuss the 9/11 attacks without first making clear that they cannot be justified.

Of course kids know that violence is wrong. But at 13 there is a lot to compute. Cause and effect is ­testing, so sometimes you have to start at the beginning. Leave that tiny grey area, and who knows what naïve logic will fill the hole?

It wasn’t so long ago, following another RE lesson, that crucifixion was advanced as a proper punishment for murderers. Nail some sense into them, as the campaign slogan might read. Mind you, anyone standing on that ticket for election round our way would probably get in.

This follows on from the recent moon landings debacle. Fake, we were informed definitively by one of our children. This one had watched a programme in school. We remained very calm as we explained that roughly 400,000 people were involved in the Apollo space programme, including ­labourers, technicians, engineers and scientists.

If the whole thing was rigged, and a face-saving video was then knocked up by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and a few spooks with a camcorder in a back lot somewhere in Florida, that is some secret that’s been kept for 40 years. By the time everyone was paid off, plus family and acquaintances, it would ­actually be cheaper to send somebody to the moon than create the lie.

The next week, the class did indeed study the many conspiracy rebuttals about the landings. By which time it was too late. Given seven days to run with the nutjob version, half the students still believed it was a hoax. Too much thinking, you see. Not enough black and white.

We’re now teaching history that doesn’t exist in the mistaken belief it promotes thought. That is how we end up with students like Edward Woollard, who cannot get to grips with the laws of gravity as applicable to a fire extinguisher and a copper’s head; students who fail to realise that random manslaughter might be a disproportionate response to ­having your grant cut.

We think we promote debate, discussion, and a better education with our modern concepts, and the aims may be sincere enough, but some of it bears more than a passing resemblance to Jerry Sadowitz’s introduction to his short-lived television series. ‘And tonight on the show that tackles the real issues,’ he said, ‘Jews and Nazis: so who’s right?’


Military men as teachers in British schools?

As everyone who has ever been to school will testify, teachers who can’t keep order in the classroom fall at the first hurdle and have precious little hope of passing on much worth knowing to their pupils.

To his credit, Education Secretary Michael Gove has grasped the extreme importance of this fact — and this is clearly what lies behind his imaginative scheme, outlined on ­Wednesday, to give veterans of the armed forces a ­fast-track into teaching.

It’s not hard to follow his reasoning. What our schools desperately need is more ­discipline, he reckons — and that’s one thing they really know about in the services.

So why not sign up a few colonels, air commodores — and perhaps the odd Regimental Sergeant Major — to knock some obedience into the ’orrible little men (and, increasingly, ‘orrible little women) who cause such ­disruption in the classroom, blighting their schoolmates’ chances of learning?

At first sight, it looked to me like an ­excellent idea. But the more I’ve thought about it since, the less sure I am. I cast my mind back to my own school days, when I was taught by quite a few veterans of the Second World War and others who had been in the forces afterwards, either as ­regulars or on national service.

Certainly, some of them were highly effective in keeping order. I’m thinking particularly of a PT teacher, an ex-paratrooper, who would punish us for wearing dirty gym shoes by ­forcing us to do sit-ups until every muscle in our bodies screamed in protest (all right, in my case that was after only about three).

For more serious offences, such as ­whispering or smirking, he would rap us on the forehead with his bare knuckles, with such force that our heads ached for hours afterwards.

I’ve often thought that he’d be behind bars if he tried that sort of thing these days — and how we all would have cheered if he’d been carted off in a Black Maria. But though I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone, it has to be said that his methods worked. As a rule, our gym shoes were dazzlingly white for his lessons and his orders were obeyed in terrified, stony-faced silence.

But I had other former servicemen as ­teachers who were little better at keeping order than I turned out to be, years later.

For example, there was one amiable old buffer of a Latin master, an ex-Royal Navy, whose lessons we regarded as an hour off from proper school. All we had to do was prompt him to recount one of his wartime reminiscences (an ­oft-repeated favourite was the occasion when he accidentally dropped a live shell between his warship and the quay where it was moored) and for the rest of the lesson we could run riot while he burbled away.

Now and then, he would break off his ­anecdote to yell for silence, but we took not a blind bit of notice. Indeed, it was because I was making so little progress under the ex-serviceman that I was moved down a stream, to be taught by one of the most effective disciplinarians in the school — who had never been in uniform.

I don’t know what it was about him. He wasn’t physically imposing in any way, he never raised his voice and he certainly never hit us. Yet we instinctively respected him — and just by lifting an eyebrow, he could do more to bring a class to order than many an officer with a lifetime’s ­experience of giving commands on the parade ground.

It all comes back to natural authority and I think this may be where Mr Gove is making his mistake. Certainly, Britain’s armed forces are a byword for discipline of a hugely impressive kind.

But this is institutional discipline, ­underpinned by a rigid chain of command, centuries of tradition, endless square-bashing — and, in the last resort, a wide range of unpleasant punishments for insubordination, from latrine cleaning to the cells.

Mr Gove’s new recruits to the classroom won’t find any of that in an inner-city ­comprehensive, where the ­institutional ­balance of power has shifted relentlessly away from the rights of teachers to impose ­discipline and towards the rights of pupils to behave exactly as they please.

On the parade ground or the battlefield, servicemen can expect the instant respect and obedience owed to their rank. But in a school, teachers have to inspire respect, by sheer force of personality, if they want to be obeyed.

Of course, some former soldiers, sailors and airmen have bags of authority, quite ­independent of their rank. But then so do many people in other walks of life, from businessmen to broadcasters and even, dare I say it, the odd politician.

Isn’t Mr Gove perhaps over-optimistic if he believes that servicemen, in their nature, must be better than civilians at enforcing discipline?

Indeed, I’ve known one or two ex-soldiers who have found civilian life hard to cope with, thrashing around like fish out of water when they’ve left the Army and all its ­certainties behind them. One of my wife’s brothers-in-law springs to mind. Fine chap. Major in the Scots Guards. Served with great distinction in Northern Ireland.

But throughout his adult life, he’d grown so used to squaddies snapping to attention and saying ‘Yes, Sir!’ that he found it ­distinctly disconcerting when he left the Army, married my wife’s sister and started having to get used to the word ‘No’. Somehow, I just can’t see the likes of him trying to control a class full of bolshie ­British schoolchildren — never noted as respecters of rank.

But we shouldn’t reject Mr Gove’s scheme out of hand. If it means there will be more male teachers to act as role models for boys in our increasingly feminised education ­system, that can only be a good thing. And the same applies if it leads to a revival of competitive school sports.

But God help any ex-servicemen-teachers who expect automatic obedience — let alone disciplinary support from the ­education system.


Michelle Rhee Revisited

These are interesting times for education reform in America today. A lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling for "reform," but no one seems to know what "reform" really looks like.

The issue reached new levels of salience just a few weeks ago when "Waiting for Superman" - the new Davis Guggenheim documentary following five students and their futures in charter schools - opened to nationwide critical acclaim.

There's no question this country must have a serious debate on what reform is needed in our education system. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), U.S. students in 10th grade rank 28th in math and 22nd in science out of a total of 39 countries in proficiency.

Once the hotbed of innovation, medical and technical advancements, America is now sucking the exhaust fumes of revving machines such as India, China and other advancing nations. We are beyond arrested development. We are regressing. It's one thing to grasp this reality. It's quite another to do something about it.

That's why the departure of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in the wake of a new mayor in our nation's capital is such a major loss, both for the reform movement and the District's future.

Following the primary loss of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, it was fairly evident that Miss Rhee's head would be first in line on the chopping block. Her reform initiatives aggressively pushed overhaul over the status quo, which upset many in the education community. She was moving too fast for them to keep up, and certainly too quickly for them to cut her off.

For too long, education "elites" have repeatedly bashed pioneers such as Miss Rhee for their views. When asked why they oppose them, teachers unions can't nakedly admit, "Because it disrupts the status quo[...]" or "It undermines our power." So instead, they proffer phrases that sound more benign and well-meaning. "We welcome proposals for reform," they numbly chant, "but only if they are inclusive of our ideas."

Read another way, that means if the unions aren't at the table with their thumb on the scale to guarantee outcomes, there ain't no way reform is gonna happen.

It's almost mafia-like in the school systems in the District and other struggling big cities. If you try to do things differently, Rocko and Paulie pay a visit to help you get back in line. Sadly, Michelle Rhee was politically gunned down by her opponents for standing up and saying we ought to look for a better way of teaching kids in the District.

In many respects, education policy is a backward-thinking topic in government circles today. At a time when public institutions are struggling to make ends meet and squeezing even more productivity from every resource, policymakers seem all too eager to simply throw more money at an issue that has clearly shown cash isn't the magic cure-all for advancing education excellence.

According to the Heritage Foundation, federal, state and local education spending combined exceeds $580 billion annually, roughly 4.2 percent of our nation's gross domestic product. Yet while inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has more than doubled since 1970 (more than $10,000 per student per year), academic achievement has stagnated while graduation rates have flat-lined.

Michelle Rhee understands that truism. Hers is a philosophy that will be a model, not a martyr, for education in the years and decades to come. For it's only a matter of time when the silent majority of parents and community leaders rise up and start asking the critical question of the education establishment, "Is that all I'm getting for my tax dollar [...] a child who struggles to read at a 5th grade level when they're about to graduate from high school?"

Yes, parents play a role, and we'll discuss that in another column at a later time. But for this moment in time, Miss Rhee deserves her moment in the sun - one that will mark the latest evolution of education policy in the United States.

The Obama administration understands what Miss Rhee was trying to do. Just ask the president's education secretary, Arne Duncan, who favored linking teacher evaluations to student test scores, dismissing under-performing educators in favor of teachers who were as excited as the student they taught to be in the classroom and shared the joy, and glory, of watching a child learn.

Let's be clear, Miss Rhee's efforts on behalf of education weren't isolated to that profession alone. Now more than ever, a solid education means a lifetime of solid work. Not just a job, but a career. Our future economic recovery depends on the young minds our teachers educate every day.

Further, our continued dominance as the world's only economic superpower hinges on that same foundation. If we are not properly educating the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs so they can create the next software innovations or next iPad, the Chinese are all too eager to fill that void.

As she gave her final public address as chancellor recently, Miss Rhee told reporters her future remained unclear. What is clear, however, is a reform-minded legacy the District would do well to keep in place long after her departure. The rest of the country knows it needs to head in that direction. It would be nice for the District to actually lead in something, for a change.


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