Monday, August 01, 2011

Obama's Early Learning Challenge and Our Failed Education System

The Obama administration is seducing states with $500 million grants to get them to enroll kids into accredited, pre-kindergarten programs. The Early Learning Challenge (ELC) is yet another bribe under Obama’s “Race to the Top,” the $4.35 billion incarnation of an endless stream of education “reform” projects implemented since President Dwight D. Eisenhower catapulted education to national prominence in 1957 following Russia’s launch of Sputnik.

ELC is run jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education (DoE) and Health and Human Services (HHS). All grants will have been awarded by year’s end. While at least two states have already received windfalls for signing on ($700 million for New York and Florida), some 14 states’ education agencies are still dithering. They know only too well that carrots come with strings, many of them turning out to be unfunded mandates.

State Departments of Education are virtual clones of the federal parent, typically referred to as a State Education Agency (SEA); they receive pass-through money from the U.S. DoE plus revenues from state taxes. Every time an SEA takes federal bait, it loses more of its autonomy through federal oversight, although at this point it’s hard to imagine how much more state and local agencies have to lose. ELC follows a textbook oversight scenario, typical of federal agencies providing grant monies to states:

The federal department grades each state’s application according to a scale. Winners then use the grant money to implement their “own” proposed reforms — which must reflect the current administration’s political agenda — and federal officials judge how well each grantee is “complying,” often by sending their department's own inspection agents to the site. This is how the U.S. Department of Justice, for example, conducts its grant inspections for everything from the Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s anti-gang initiative grants. In the case of ELC, the Education Department’s Implementation and Support Unit’s agents complete on-site program reviews of each state receiving monies.

For concerned citizens seeking a sea change in American politics overall, it is important to recognize that modern schools are the single most influential factor in a child’s development — even before parents. This is mainly due to the fact that government encourages, bribes, and even intimidates parents into handing over their youngsters to be institutionalized (e.g., early childhood programs) as soon as possible, preferably prior to the age of reason, which generally is determined by child experts and theologians alike as being around the age of 7 years. The rationale behind ever-earlier childhood programs is that most parents are ill-equipped to do the job — i.e., lacking in the required skills, psychology credits, time, and resources.

However, once a parent enters the child into the system — be it a public or private entity (exception: non-accredited neighborhood co-ops) — government oversight kicks in, monitoring the child and evaluating parents to a greater or lesser extent. If you don’t believe it, try keeping your child home from school for a week without some exceptionally good reason and see what happens.

The first thing any pre-school program does is to address the child’s socialization skills — i.e., how he relates to others, whether he makes friends, how well he cooperates. Now, for parents who are below the age of 55 — so-called “Gen-X-ers” and "Gen-Y-ers” (or “Millennials”) — which means a majority of parents at this juncture — this may seem normal. But it is, in fact, a huge departure from earlier eras.

Prior to the 1970s (and especially pre-1955), parents were considered the child’s first and most important influence, whether they actually schooled their offspring or not. They wielded authority and served as role models (as per 1950s sitcoms Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best).

Thus did youngsters learn the dynamics of group interaction through the relatively small setting of the family. They learned what behaviors worked and which didn’t. Discipline typically was doled out with a mixture of tough love and tenacity. Talking back, tantrums, disobedience, surliness, unresponsiveness, refusal to share workloads and belongings, not “catching on” to day-to-day routines, and frequent run-ins with neighborhood children — all these were noticed by parents and set off the appropriate alarm bells without any help from “experts.” Mothers, in particular, worked hard with youngsters who displayed any of these tendencies so that, by the time such youngsters attended school, around age 6 or 7, the lion’s share of such conduct had been brought under control, even if a child still remained, in most teachers' judgment, “a handful.” Every child was seen as an individual, each displaying certain characteristics, but “packaged” differently.

The job of the teacher, always in collaboration with the parent, was to smooth out the rough edges that every child naturally possesses, so that by Graduation Day at age 17 or 18, the pupil would be capable of making life choices that incorporated the best of his or her innate talents, goals, and tastes so that any weaknesses were less apt to hold the student back.

Today all that has changed. Early education, in particular, is intentionally built around peer pressure, so that the child learns to value his peers more than he does his parents, teachers, or other adult authority figures. This attitude carries on into the teen years, college or trade school, and adulthood. Thus does the child adapt by adopting the kind of blind conformity that borders on homogenized thinking as opposed to individuality — a situation which, at least for America’s experiment in freedom, is disastrous.

A nation will not get leadership, or “thinking outside the box”; it will not get innovative ideas or engage in healthy debate on issues-of-the-day as long as children are inculcated with this type of conformity — mislabeled “compliance” and “teamwork” — because what it morphs into is conformity of thought, not merely adherence to traditional norms. To modern parents, this may seem like splitting hairs. To our Founding Fathers, as noted historian Henry M. Wriston said in a 1952 commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania, it was the difference between self-determination and blind submission, the difference between innovation that leads to a high standard of living and a nation’s stagnation.

Today, we are rapidly losing the competitive edge and innovative spirit for which our nation was once famous. A major reason is 40 years of narcissism and psychotherapy passed off as education. It permeates our culture despite the few private schools that still attempt to invoke rigorous standards.

The typical graduate today emerges from school believing that being called a liberal Democrat is high praise. Its opposite, according to a joint National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) study, reprinted in an American Psychological Association bulletin, is to be “dogmatic,” “authoritarian,” “paternalistic,” “inflexible,” “rigid,” and possibly mentally ill. What our naïve graduate does not know is that these unsuspected Marxist leanings will summon the siren song of egalitarianism. But should he (or she) ever deviate from the Party line, that song will descend like a hammer.


Investing in their children's future: UK parents 'biggest spenders on private schooling in Europe'

Parents in Britain spend far more educating their children privately than those in any other European country, a study has revealed. In a damning indictment of our state system, 11.3 per cent of school funding in the UK comes directly from the pockets of parents – almost double the level in France.

The figures indicate that families are increasingly unhappy with the quality of our state schools – pushing them to opt out and pay expensive private fees.

By contrast, just 6.2 per cent of school funding in France comes from parents, compared with 4.8 per cent in the Netherlands, 3.2 per cent in Italy, and just 0.1 per cent in Portugal. Even in the U.S., household spending accounts for just 8.6 per cent of funding.

The results reflect not just the numbers of British children going to private schools, but the higher fees they are charged compared with Continental ones.

The report, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, also showed that money for education from private sources – including business funding for academy schools – soared under Labour, rising from 11.3 per cent to 21.9 per cent between 2000 and 2007.

Around 510,000 children in the UK are privately educated, with average fees at almost £4,200 a term. Top schools charge around £30,000 a year, however.

Fears over discipline and a dumbing down of the curriculum are thought to be driving the disenchantment with the state system.

Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, West Yorkshire, said: ‘Parents who send their children to private schools are not all rich and snobbish. They are people who make enormous sacrifices because they do not think state schools are up to scratch.

‘Private schools are popular because of the ethos they have which state schools are seen to lack. It’s to do with discipline, standing up when the teacher comes in the room, turning out nice people who treat people with respect. ‘And there’s the fact that exams have been dumbed down so much.’

Margaret Morrissey, of campaign group Parents Outloud, said: ‘There is a problem in cities, where parents have little confidence in inner city schools and so have to give up on something else and pay for their children to go private. ‘Part of this is the perception that the increasing number of children whose first language is not English would hold their child back.’

The OECD report also found that students in Britain pay more towards their university education than in any other European country – even before the huge rise in tuition fees unveiled earlier this year.

And parents here also have to contribute far more to their children’s nursery education.

In total, across all forms of education from age three to when students graduate from university, British households pay 21 per cent of education costs – with the Government contributing less than anywhere on the Continent.

The comparable figure in France is just 7 per cent, according to the report. The OECD figures are from 2007, the latest ones available for all countries.


Values in dispute: secularism and tolerance in Australian education

By theologian Joel Hodge

Religious education in schools remains a vexed question for our society that no longer knows what to believe - or perhaps knows too well what it believes (or at least, certain sections of the population do), particularly as some turn towards more activist forms of agnosticism and atheism. For example, in Victoria, certain groups, including The Age, continue to protest against religious education in its present form (e.g., The God Complexity, The Age, 24/7).

These "secular" or atheist groups are arrayed against religious education for various reasons. Some of these reasons coalesce around certain arguments, particularly to do with tolerance and secularism. Since these groups and The Age rarely define tolerance and secularism in any depth, it might be worth reflecting on the use of these terms for the current debate. I will give a succinct rendition of these arguments, and analyse the problems with these arguments.

Firstly, tolerance: it is argued that Australia is a multi-religious, multicultural society that should not impose certain religious beliefs on people, but should be tolerant of different beliefs, with the implication that different religions should be studied alongside each other. The first point that one should note about this argument is that it is a belief: tolerance is a belief and value that structures how we see and behave toward each other. No-one can scientifically prove tolerance to be a valid or fool-proof way of running a society. Certain facts can be argued in its favour, but in the end, it can only be believed as a good and fruitful way of relating and acting (as it is in the West, though not necessarily in other places). I personally believe that tolerance can be a positive force in some circumstances, though it is not enough to have a successful society. Tolerance often sounds more like forbearance to me, rather than real acceptance of and engagement with the other.

The second point that one can notice about modern tolerance is that it is a belief that subjects other beliefs to it. In other words, it equalises different beliefs or social forces by subjecting them to its form of belief. In the case of "religion", it subjects the more prevalent forms (such as Christianity) to itself in order to control them, and then, equalise them with smaller forms. It may just to give smaller belief systems a chance to profess what they believe. This is not what modern tolerance is only about, however. It involves a power-play by the dominant elite to subject those social movements and beliefs to itself.

This second point, then, leads to my third point: tolerance is usually not real tolerance in our society, and because of this, we apply tolerance selectively for particular gain. For example, in the realm of sport, we allow many different sporting expressions in Australian society, however we do not reduce the more dominant forms, such as AFL, to the level of the less popular forms, such as bowling or synchronised swimming, by giving them the same media exposure or forcing children to learn and play them, out of tolerance. If we did, we would probably have widespread civil unrest. Real tolerance is not subjecting everything to the same playing field, but allowing different religious and cultural forms to exist in their own way. Do we really do this in Australian society? Do we really allow different religio-cultural forms, such as New Zealanders, or Hinduis, or Arabic cultures, to exist in their own form? No, because there's an existing culture, language, belief system, and way of life in Australia to which other cultural forms adapt themselves.

Therefore, for the religious education debate, the argument about tolerance can be seen as a ruse to subject a certain dominant belief system (Christianity) to another, atheist secularism. Modern secularism has no great respect for different religious forms, but wishes to equalise and subject all of them to its agenda. This does not mean that "religion" can't be studied in some form in schools. I think it should, but we should be clear what religion is: it is not just Christianity or Islam, but involves studying all belief systems that structure how we think about ourselves and how we act toward each other, which could include forms of modern secularism, nationalism and sport.

Now to the second term that is used widely in the "religious education" debate: secularism. We are repeatedly told that we live in a secular society and that our education system is secular. Yet, the term "secular" is rarely defined. Often it is used to mean "anti-religion" (which really means certain forms of religion such as Christian) or "anti-sectarianism". Professor Peter Sherlock has given a short and insightful history of the debate over Christian education and secularism in Victoria schools (on the ABC religion & ethics page) that might help some to have a better appreciation of the complex history of this debate.

The way that secular is used in modern Australia usually means the exclusion of religion, specifically Christianity. Yet, the problem with this argument is that there is no way to properly define religion to the exclusion of other belief systems, such as nationalism, capitalism or sport. Furthermore, secular has not always meant "anti-religion". In some sense, it has meant the carving out of a space in which politics and religion are separate. However, we should note that in modern times the state took on particular powers in doing this, and over time, this has meant other incipient belief systems have taken over education and culture, such as forms of nationalism.

The final point to make in regards to this "secular" push is that it sees itself as defending a certain secular legacy against religious aggressiveness, which should not be allowed in the public realm. For example, the Christian educators in schools are made out by certain media agencies to be radical proselytisers imposing their beliefs on children. While this can happen, this kind of argument is unjust to the ordinary people trying to positively contribute to Australian society by affirming that children are loved, not just by imperfect humans but by their maker, God. Furthermore, it is a straw argument constructed to make out religious people as aggressors and secular people as righteous defenders. This kind of conflictual dualism is unhelpful to the debate and should be abandoned.

The defensiveness of certain groups in the religious education debate seems ultimately to do with the beliefs and values underlying Australian society. Each side to this debate has beliefs and values they wish to put forward, and we should be honest about this. Though this is not always the case, one of the problems with the state education system, as John Howard intimated, can be the lack of coherent and consistent beliefs and values that provide a foundation for children and society. This problem is an element in this debate that people often ignore (and contributes to the defensiveness of some). Christian churches (and others) have defined values that they offer, to which many parents are increasingly attracted as is shown by the growth in Christian schools and support for religious education (which, by the way, makes The Age's argument about moderate Christians turning against religious education dubious).

Nevertheless, some of the fear of Christian beliefs should also be better dispelled by Christians because, while Christianity does provide an over-arching framework for understanding our lives, it is not (and should not be) a closed system. God is often taken as the final answer, but God is just the beginning of a journey into the mystery of existence; one that Christians profess has to do with an open and affirming love which can orient us, but not control or overwhelm our freedom.

Therefore, we need to examine our beliefs in this debate much more deeply and not use smokescreens to cover our real intentions and agendas. In this way, we might be able to find common ground.


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