Friday, August 05, 2011

Schooling Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon is a walking, talking public service reminder to immunize your children early and often against La-La-Land disease.

In Damon's world, all public school teachers are selfless angels. Government workers and Hollywood entertainers are impervious to economic incentives. And anyone who disagrees is a know-nothing, "corporate reformer" ingrate who hates education.

Last week, the liberal box-office star addressed a "Save Our Schools" march in Washington at the behest of his mother, a professor of early childhood education. He attacked standardized tests. He praised all the public school teachers who "empowered" him and unlocked his creative potential by rejecting "silly drill and kill nonsense." Speaking on behalf of "an army of regular people," Damon decried the demoralization of teachers by ruthless, results-oriented free marketeers whom he mocked as "simple-minded."

What Damon's superficial tirade lacked, however, was any real-world understanding of the deterioration of core curricular learning in America. Students can't master simple division or fractions because today's teachers -- churned out through lowest common denominator grad schools and shielded from competition -- have barely mastered those skills themselves. Un-educators have abandoned "drill and kill" computation for multicultural claptrap and fuzzy math, traded in grammar fundamentals for "creative spelling," and dropped standard civics for save-the-earth propaganda.

Consequence: bottom-basement U.S. student scores on global assessments over the past two decades. Blaming the tests is blaming the messenger. The liberal education establishment's response to its abject academic failures? Run away. This is why the Save Our Schools agenda championed by Damon calls for less curricular emphasis on math and reading -- and more focus on social justice, funding and "equity" issues.

Out: Reading is fundamental.

In: Feeling is fundamental.

After his drippy pep talk absolving teachers of any responsibility for America's educational morass, Damon then lashed out at a young libertarian reporter who had the audacity to ask him about the negative impact of lifetime teacher tenure. "In acting there isn't job security, right?"'s Michelle Fields asked Damon. "There is an incentive to work hard and be a better actor because you want to have a job. So why isn't it like that for teachers?"

It's elementary that people will work longer and harder if they know they will be rewarded. There's nothing anti-teacher about the question. (And before teachers-unions goons go on the attack, I am the child of a public school teacher and the mother of two children in an excellent public charter school by choice.) But Damon's hinges came undone when confronted with the mild question.

"You think job insecurity makes me work hard?" he retorted. "That's like saying a teacher is going to get lazy when she has tenure." Gathering all the creative potential he could muster, Damon unleashed crude profanities on Fields. "A teacher wants to teach," Damon fumed with his mother next to him. "Why else would you take a sh**ty" salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really loved to do it?"

Never mind that most out-of-work Americans would find nothing "sh**ty" about earning an average $53,000 annual salary plus health and retirement benefits for a 180-day work year.

Damon went on to deride standard, mainstream behavioral economic principles as "intrinsically paternalistic" and "MBA-style thinking." And when the young reporter's cameraman pointed out that there are bad apples in the teaching profession as in any profession, Damon called him "sh**ty," too.

Tinseltown stars can afford to put emotion over logic, progressive fantasy over practical reality. The rest of us are stuck with the bill. And those whom bleeding-heart celebrities purport to care most about -- the children -- suffer the consequences of bad ideas.

Interminable teacher tenure in America's largest school districts, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, has produced a rotten corps of incompetent (at best) and dangerous (at worst) educators coddled by Big Labor. As the D.C.-based Center for Union Facts reports, "In many major cities, only one out of 1,000 teachers is fired for performance-related reasons. ... In 10 years, only about 47 out of 100,000 teachers were actually terminated from New Jersey's schools."

By contrast, as the educational documentary "Waiting for Superman" (produced by avowed liberal turned reformer Davis Guggenheim) pointed out, one out of every 57 doctors loses his or her license to practice medicine, and one out of every 97 lawyers loses their license to practice law.

In Los Angeles, it's not just meanie tea party terrorists making the case for abolishing teacher tenure. When the Los Angeles Times exposed how the city's tenure evaluation system rubber-stamped approvals and ignored actual performance, the district superintendent admitted: "Too many ineffective teachers are falling into tenured positions -- the equivalent of jobs for life." USC education professor Julie Slayton acknowledged: "It's ridiculous and should be changed."

Pop quiz: Would multimillionaire Matt Damon apply the same warped employment practices and dumbed-down curricular standards to his own accountants that he champions for America's public school teachers? Film at 11.


Elite ISN'T a dirty word as Eton headmaster says it's time to reclaim tarnished term and celebrate success

Society should not be ashamed of elitism, the headmaster of Eton College has insisted. Tony Little believes the term should be ‘reclaimed’ because striving for excellence is vital for success in all walks of life.

He says that elitism has become mistakenly confused with ‘social exclusion’. The headmaster of Britain’s most exclusive school, where fees are £30,981 a year, agreed that Eton was ‘elite’.

He added: ‘But what we need to do is reclaim the word elite. ‘We live in a very strange society where it is possible to talk with impunity about elitism in football, but not in medicine or plumbing or other aspects of life. I would like the plumber I engage to be an elite plumber, and I want to see an elite doctor – it’s to do with excellence. ‘And we are unashamed that excellence is at the heart of what we do. The word has become muddied of course by the notion of social exclusion and that is an important issue.’

His comments come amid concerns that mediocrity has been institutionalised in state schools by encouraging teachers to neglect the brightest pupils, alongside a ‘prizes-for-all’ culture. A recent report by the Policy Exchange think-tank revealed that teachers focused on bumping up pupils from a grade D to a C, rather than those in other grade divides, to improve their rankings in school league tables. And in Key Stage Two results released this week, the number of 11-year-olds exceeding the standard for their age group fell in English, with a dramatic slump in reading prowess.

Mr Little, interviewed for magazine publisher Archant Life London, rejected claims that Eton is restricted to the wealthy and privileged. He said: ‘Eton is more of a mixed clientele than most people would appreciate. For example, 20 per cent of our boys come here with significant financial help, so there is a wider range of backgrounds than I expect people would be prepared to accept or understand.’

Financial help at the school in Berkshire, where most of the 1,300 students enter at age 13, comes in the form of scholarships and means-tested bursaries which can be up to 100 per cent of the fee.

Mr Little said: ‘It’s not just the people who can’t afford anything. ‘It’s the people who used to be able to afford it who now can’t. We are talking about swathes of Middle England – the GP, the country solicitor – who would now find it nigh impossible, unaided, to match the fees of a place like Eton.’

Mr Little wants Eton to have ‘needs blind’ admission in future, which would further widen access to less well-off families. A handful of independent schools currently aim to fund enough bursaries to achieve this, among them St Paul’s School in South-West London.

However only the wealthiest institutions, with wide networks of former pupils in highly-paid jobs, have a realistic chance of raising the millions to fund bursaries for any pupil who needs them.

The Eton admissions process involves testing students’ skills and abilities, evaluation of a report from the pupil’s current school and a face-to-face interview. Five assessors with no knowledge of family financial circumstances then decide who will be offered a place.

Mr Little said: ‘We are ‘‘needs blind’’ in the sense that we look at boys purely in terms of their calibre as candidates to come to Eton. ‘But we are only ‘‘needs blind’’ up to the limits of our bursary pot. That’s what we are working on, to try to build up more money.’


More universities to be created under British government plan

Specialist colleges with just 1,000 students will be allowed to call themselves universities for the first time under Government reforms being published today.

More than a dozen small-scale institutions – often specialising in media, the arts, education or agriculture – could win the right to full university status as soon as next year, it is revealed.

Currently, higher education colleges must attract at least 4,000 full-time students – at least 3,000 of whom must take degree courses – before winning the prestigious title. But the Coalition is proposing to slash the minimum threshold to just 1,000.

Ministers claim the move will improve the status of many small-scale colleges that can already award degrees to undergraduates.

It is likely to herald the biggest expansion of universities since more than 60 former polytechnics and higher education colleges were awarded the title by the Conservatives in the early 90s.

The reforms come as part of wider proposals to create more competition and diversity in English higher education. It follows the publication of alternative plans to grant full degree-awarding powers to private colleges and give students greater access to subsidised grants and loans to take part-time courses.

But the move is likely to anger traditionalists who fear a further expansion in the number of full universities risks devaluing the status of the higher education system and making it even harder for employers to differentiate between institutions.

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said universities should be required to teach a range of courses. “What worries me slightly about some of these higher education colleges is that they are very highly specialised,” he said. “An important criteria for me is whether the spread of the courses offered is what you would expect from a university. “It is an essential part of the university experience to learn one subject but interact with a wide variety of students specialising in a number of different fields.”

But David Willetts, the Universities Minister, told the Telegraph: “I want to see a more diverse higher education sector without in any way sacrificing higher education standards.”

Ministers will set out proposals in a consultation document being published today to introduce “wider access to [the] university title for smaller institutions”.

Under plans, higher education colleges with 1,000 full-time students – at least 750 of whom are studying for a degree – would be able to apply for the university title.

Those able to qualify include institutions such as Norwich University College of the Arts and University College Falmouth, which specialise in art, design and media courses, and Bishop Grosseteste University College, which specialises in education and teacher training. Others include agricultural and veterinary science colleges such as Harper Adams and the Royal Agricultural College.

In all, it is believed the title could be extended to around 14 institutions. Those eligible for the change already have degree awarding powers and carry out Government-funded research.

Prof Peter Lutzeier, principal of Newman University College, Birmingham, a Catholic institution specialising in a range of academic subjects, welcomed the change. “While we operate in the same way as universities – conferring our own degrees comparable in quality to those from full universities – we are currently prevented from using the universally-understood term of ‘university’ due to size alone," he said.

"This creates a real perception challenge that means smaller higher education institutions have to spend additional time and resources educating students and employers about the nature and quality of their institution, as well as finding it more difficult to develop international links due to a perceived ‘lack’ of full university status.

“This state of affairs is not only confusing for the public but is also something of an anachronism given that many of our most prestigious full universities actually operate on a smaller, collegiate system. "The collegiate approach is widely praised for allowing students to benefit from high levels of one-to-one tuition and support so why should newer institutions effectively be penalised for following a similar model?"


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