Tuesday, December 21, 2010

American Education, Curbing Excellence

America's primary and secondary schools have many problems, but an excess of excellence is not one of them. Not only do our weak students fare poorly in international comparisons, so do our strong ones. Mediocrity is the national norm.

The very best students are the ones most likely to do things of great benefit to the rest of us -- cure malaria, devise revolutionary inventions, start the next Apple or plumb the secrets of the universe. But we don't always put much importance on helping them realize their full potential.

A case in point is Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill., a racially and economically mixed suburb of Chicago that is home to Northwestern University. It recently decided to eliminate a high honors freshman English course aimed at challenging the top students.

Henceforth, these youngsters will be grouped with everyone else in a regular "honors" class in humanities. Next year, the same may be done with biology. Your kid is an honor student at ETHS? Heck, everyone is an honors student at ETHS.

It's hardly the only school in America where grouping students according to their ability is in disrepute. There is a widespread impulse to treat all kids as equally able and willing to learn. But the results often fall dismally short of the hopes.

When the Chicago public schools scrapped remedial classes for ninth graders and put everyone in college-prep courses, "failure rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not improve and students were no more likely to enter college," according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Among average and above-average students, absenteeism rose.

The danger in putting the brightest kids in general classes is that they will be bored by instruction geared to the middle. But their troubles don't elicit much sympathy. Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless told The Atlantic magazine, "The United States does not do a good job of educating kids at the top. There's a long-standing attitude that, 'Well, smart kids can make it on their own.'"

But can they? Only 6 percent of American kids achieve advanced proficiency in math -- lower than in 30 other countries. In Taiwan, the figure is 28 percent.

School administrators in Evanston insist the change is aimed at making the curriculum more demanding, even as they make it less demanding for some students. Thanks to the abolition of this elite course, we are told, "high-achieving students" will profit from "experiencing multiple perspectives and diversity in their classes to gain cultural capital."

In other words, racial balance will take priority over academic rigor. Blacks and Hispanics make up nearly half of all students but only 19 percent of those in advanced placement courses and 29 percent of those in honors courses.

This is because minority students at Evanston, which has an enrollment of nearly 3,000, generally score lower on achievement tests. Putting all students together is supposed to give everyone an equal opportunity.

But if you have a fever, you don't bring it down by breaking the thermometer. The low numbers of black and Hispanic students are a symptom of a deeper problem, namely the failure of elementary and middle schools to prepare them for the most challenging course work. Evanston has had a big racial gap in academic performance for decades, and there is nothing to gain from pretending it doesn't exist.

Schools that group (or "track") kids by ability generally get better overall results. Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, notes in a recent report, "Middle schools with more tracks have significantly more math pupils performing at the advanced and proficient levels and fewer students at the needs improvement and failing levels."

Why would that be? Teaching is not easy, and teaching kids with a wide range of aptitude and interest is even harder. Grouping students by ability allows the tailoring of lessons to match the needs of each group. Putting them all together is bound to fail one group or another.

Shortchanging gifted teens creates the risk of another unwanted effect: inducing their parents to leave. Families in Evanston can always move to neighboring suburbs with good schools, or they can opt for several fine private and parochial alternatives. Average students don't gain from being in the same classes as exceptional ones if the exceptional ones are not there.

We as a society have not been very successful at turning average students into high achievers. Maybe we'll have better luck doing the opposite.


School sports U-turn: British government forced into embarrassing back-track after public outcry at cuts

The Education Secretary has performed a U-turn over his controversial decision to cut funding for school sports. Michael Gove, who announced plans to scrap the School Sports Partnerships scheme earlier this year, has now agreed to invest £112 million in a network of 3,600 sports teachers until the London Olympics in 2012.

His climbdown came after his plans to scrap the £162 million-a-year scheme was met with criticism by headteachers and prominent athletes including heptathlon gold medallist Denise Lewis and diver Tom Daley.

Announcing his compromise yesterday, Mr Gove said he has found £47million to fund the scheme until the start of the academic year in September. At that point 100 nationwide competition managers and 300 further education sports coordinators will be axed.

But £65 million will be spent to the end of the 2012-13 academic year for 3,600 PE teachers to spend one day a week on school sport. They are currently funded for two days a week.

David Cameron told Mr Gove to change tack when it emerged that the number of young people doing two hours or more of sport per week increased from 25 per cent in 2002 to more than 90 per cent now, demonstrating the success of the sports initiatives.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had also demanded a partial reprieve, saying scrapping partnerships could harm the pledge to use the Olympics to increase participation in school sport.

The funds will also pay for encouraging take-up of competitive sport in primary schools and securing a fixture network between schools. Mr Gove said: ‘I want competitive sport to be at the centre of a truly rounded education.’

Labour education spokesman Andy Burnham Mr Gove’s ‘overruling’ was ‘a warning to this Tory-led Government that it cannot simply do what it likes’.


Australia: School bully victims paid $1m in NSW

A poor substitute for discipline

SCHOOL bullying victims have received almost $1 million in compensation from the Department of Education since January last year. One student who was harassed over 10 years won $500,000 in a court settlement, while two children were paid more than $15,000 each after their arms were broken by bullies. Another boy was paid more than $4200 because he claimed harassment by teachers caused him to fail his HSC.

The claims, which include both physical and severe psychological injuries up to September 30, were obtained under freedom of information laws by the Opposition.

The figures show students whose claims were settled by the department received less than those who went to court. A student who claimed to have been assaulted and that bullying caused a psychiatric illness was given $11,636.

The claims coincide with the Child Death Review Team this year that revealed several students committed suicide in 2009 after being bullied. One boy who claimed to suffer from gender identity disorder was "teased and threatened" at school.

Another boy was driven out of school by "taunts" in the lead-up to his suicide, while a third boy was also the subject of "taunts and bullying" while at his school.

The compensation claims show staff won payouts of more than $5000 between them over bullying cases, including ongoing sexual harassment in the school workplace and bullying and victimisation by a superior.

"These documents confirm that bullying is rife in our public schools, with both students and teachers feeling the brunt of it," Opposition education spokesman Adrian Piccoli said yesterday. "What is worse is the state is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims from students and teachers that have been victims of bullying. "Bullying can leave its victims with severe and lasting physical and psychological damage, and it must be stamped out immediately."

A spokesman for Education Minister Verity Firth said there were 26 claims which were "a tiny proportion" of staff and students. "We have given principals the power to impose strong sanctions to counter bullying, including suspensions of up to 20 days," he said. "NSW public schools are among the safest places in the community for young people, and serious incidents of violence are rare."

The department has introduced a web guide for parents on cyber bullying, including tips on how to prevent it.


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