Friday, February 11, 2011

Lack of realism betrays students

The threat of more school closings in New York brought an unruly mob atmosphere to the large public hearing held by the Department of Education this week. The throngs of teenagers screaming “We Don’t Care” is emblematic of more fundamental issues than their not wanting to hear any speechifying by Cathy Black, Bloomberg’s unpopular new appointment as Chancellor. While it may be true that some schools are failing their students, it’s more germane that “students” are failing at school.

When you have an escalating non-graduation rate, an under-reported functional illiteracy rate and growing problems of drugs and violence within the school boundaries, you know that high school is not the place to start making changes. A slew of social problems has created a population of young people, many of whom are incapable of academic work. Their fundamental math and reading skills are so blunted that they have little chance of success at advanced subjects yet we go through the pretense of forcing them through a high school curriculum they have little chance of mastering.

Instead of reverting to more drill work for honing these skills, our educators have gone in the opposite direction of more creative projects, deluding students who haven’t learned grammar or sentence structure into the pretense that they have something interesting to say and sufficient tools for that expression.

Changing the names of high schools to lofty-sounding titles such as “High School of World Cultures,” “The New Explorers High School for Films and Humanities,” “High School for International Business and Finance” is an insulting scam as these institutions have equally egregious graduation rates and aren’t leveling with students about their own severe academic shortcomings.

Catholic schools have traditionally done better with low-performing students by emphasizing structure, discipline, authority and uniforms – all of which create an atmosphere of respect for the classroom and its teachers. What students in public school have learned is the opposite – that teachers can be challenged and even physically attacked, that students are entitled to their rights and their opinions, that an atmosphere of bedlam is often tolerated though it precludes any hope of actual learning.

For those students who manage to graduate and get into community colleges, there is intensive remedial work that must be done. This realization must be very disheartening to students who had been pushed along in a system that just wants to get them out because it can’t handle the enormity of the problem.

Earlier this week, an article reported on the statistical impossibility of something that has been observed in many schools – the absence of numerical grades of 62, 63 and 64. Schools don’t want to fail kids even when they deserve to fail because they are in the business of self-preservation and don’t want to be closed for poor performance. So the cycle of students who can’t do the work and schools which pretend that they can continues until a culture clash erupts with the students and their parents facing off against an administrative reality from which they’ve been unhelpfully shielded.

There are no easy answers to the problems facing New York City schools or those of other large urban areas. More underclass students are entering school with such glaring vocabulary gaps that by five years old, they are already way behind and unlikely to catch up.

Dumbing down the existing curriculum is not a good answer, nor is sugar coating failing work and pretending that it passes. Compounding all of this is our politically correct atmosphere that stifles the honesty necessary to make changes. We are forced to act as if all kids have the same equal opportunity to succeed. They don’t because life is not a level playing field and many kids start out getting an unfair roll of the dice genetically and environmentally.

They’d have a better chance of compensating for that bad fortune if we rethought our pedagogical philosophy in grade school and made sure that children who can’t read or write or count are not promoted to grades where those skills are pre-requisites. We have made some progress in tackling the nutritional aspects of diet in school cafeterias and lunchrooms. What we demand that our younger students learn at school must be as nutritious as the milk that builds bones. Without that foundation, nothing else will work.


NY School Says Scarf Is Gang Wear

A 9-year-old girl and her parents are upset because of how they say her elementary school is treating her. The debate: Is her attire just head wear or is gang wear?

Vivienne Diaz, 9, is in third grade at Wantage Elementary School in Sussex, N.J. She says she has been wearing a scarf on her head pretty much since the beginning of the school year to keep her hair out of her face. But she says suddenly her teacher had a problem with it because it could be gang-related. "She just came up and said 'Can you roll it up because it looks like a bandana and gangs wear bandanas'," Diaz said. [Gangs wear pants too]

Vivienne's parents were outraged after they discovered what happened Monday morning when Vivienne was getting ready for school.

The school is in a rural farming community. "It's an elementary school...third grade through fifth grade," her father Ed Diaz said. "Demographically, this is just absurd."

Diaz says the principal told him the situation was cut and dry. Diaz says, "I was shocked. I think it's ridiculous. I think this is one step way beyond where the government wants to tell people what to let their children wear on their head."

At the end of the school day Tuesday, the school sent a copy of its dress code policy home with Vivienne. The policy says hats, hoods, visors, headband, and other headgear are forbidden.


Top British universities may be forced to take fixed quotas of state pupils

Leading universities will be forced to take fixed quotas of students from state schools in exchange for the power to charge tuition fees of £9,000, under Coalition plans announced yesterday.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, ordered a government watchdog to "focus more sharply" on institutions, such as Oxford and Cambridge, that have struggled to increase the proportion of places they give to working-class candidates.

He told Sir Martin Harris, the Director of Fair Access, to set targets for individual universities and said they could include benchmarks for "the percentage of students admitted from state schools or colleges".

Any university that failed to do enough to meet its targets could be stripped of the power to charge fees above the basic level of £6,000. Serious breaches of an agreement between Sir Martin and a university could see institutions fined up to £500,000, the minister said.

Private school head teachers condemned the proposed measure as "dangerous" social engineering, warning that it would put the world-class reputation of Britain's best universities at risk. The move would punish talented pupils from private schools who would lose out simply because of their background, they said.

Senior Conservatives described Mr Cable's blueprint as "wrong-headed and shameful".

Under the previous government, Labour ministers became increasingly reluctant to discuss whether universities should take more students from state rather than private schools, preferring instead to speak about candidates from "under-represented groups".

The Coalition's reforms explicitly set out how universities could be given targets for taking more state school candidates.

The Liberal Democrats have been criticised by students and some of their supporters, who are disillusioned that the party's MPs backed plans to triple tuition fees from £3,290 to a maximum of £9,000 from next year. Lib Dem MPs signed a pre-election promise to oppose fees, but were forced to compromise after agreeing to join the Conservative-led coalition.

In an attempt to mollify his critics, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader, demanded that universities should ask for lower A-level grades from working-class students than those from more affluent families. Yesterday, Mr Clegg said:

"Universities can and should do more to ensure fair access. Social mobility in this country has stalled. "It will only improve if we throw open the doors of universities, especially the most selective, to more bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds. "We must ensure that our great universities – often the gateway to the professions – make active and measurable progress to widen participation and advance social mobility."

The Coalition's plan is part of a drive to protect sixth-formers from deprived backgrounds from the worst effects of higher tuition fees.

Every university that wants to charge more than the new basic fee of £6,000 will be required to sign an agreement with the Office for Fair Access, detailing how they will provide more opportunities to working-class students.

In a letter to Sir Martin, the ministers said universities should be judged on how successful they were at ensuring more students from deprived backgrounds were given places. Some students should be offered places "on the basis of lower entry qualifications" than would normally apply. Universities should also waive a proportion of the fees for the poorest students.

"The Government believes that progress over the past few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate, and that much more determined action now needs to be taken,” the minister said.

Universities charging fees of more than £6,000 a year must renew their agreement with Sir Martin annually. Their performance will be assessed against “appropriate benchmarks”, which could include cutting drop-out rates and increasing “the percentage of students admitted from state schools or colleges”.

In 2008-09, Cambridge was set a government “benchmark” to take 70 per cent of its students from state schools but only managed 59 per cent. This week, the university announced that it would be willing to agree to a state school intake target of 63 per cent but any higher would be “not achievable”.

Conservative backbenchers have signed a Commons motion in protest at the reforms. Graham Stuart, the Tory MP for Beverley and Holderness, and chairman of the education select committee said: “Penalising universities for refusing to drop their standards is shameful. "To suggest that they have some sort of bias against children from poorer backgrounds is a profound insult. "We need to improve the quality of schooling, not dumb down the entry requirements for universities.”

Independent school heads reacted with dismay to the plans. David Levin, the head of the City of London School, warned that the measures were “very dangerous”. “A number of independent schools have students from very deprived socio-economic backgrounds,” he added.

Dr Wendy Piatt, the director-general of the Russell Group of leading research universities, said: “Admission to university is and should be on the basis of merit. "Any decisions about admissions must respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.”

Tim Hands, master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, said the reforms would introduce “quotas by any other name”. He warned that universities would no longer be free to recruit the best candidates. “Our universities are of global importance because of their high standards. We are now suggesting that their high standards should be compromised by political interference.”

The Universities Minister, David Willetts, insisted that he did not want to see universities forced to accept “crude quotas”. “It would be wrong to say we are going to put in the bin all applications from private schools,” he said.


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