Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Who cares about the poor in the education debate?

Have you ever noticed that when members of Congress argue with each other on national television, they do more than just disagree? They invariably seem to describe their opponent’s position using very different language than their opponent uses.

For example, a conservative’s support for pro-growth tax cuts becomes “tax cuts for the rich” to a liberal opponent. A liberal’s case for investing in people becomes “wasteful, big-government spending” to a conservative.

I once viewed these word twists as a mere debater’s ploy. But then I came to realize much more is involved. There are quite a few liberals who actually believe their opponents want nothing more than to cut taxes for the rich. There are more than a few conservatives who really believe that liberals favor wasteful government spending as such.

Psychologists might call this “projection.” Instead of trying to understand what other people are trying to say, the projector imposes his own world view on others — in effect, assuming that his reality is everyone else’s reality.

I assume something like this goes on in the minds of many sports fans. They act as though they have something in common with the athletes they root for. The home team winning becomes a surrogate for local values, customs and mores triumphing over foreign values, customs and mores. In reality there is no connection at all between the fans and the athletes other than the fact that the home team pays the players’ salaries.

There is a difference between football and politics, however. In football it doesn’t really matter who wins. In politics, it does matter. If you are at all rational, you want good policies to win out over bad ones.

You would think that academics whose professional job is to approach the world as scientists would be immune from the psychological tricks people play on their own minds. But you would be wrong. Academics can be among the worst offenders.

Writing at Health Affairs the other day, Princeton University economist Uwe Reinhardt described the current budget impasse in Washington by declaring that this country has been in:

"A long ideological war fought over the distribution of economic privilege in this country, a war that has been raging unabated for over three decades now. One side in this war believes that the current distribution of income and wealth in this country is fair, as it rewards generously those who contribute commensurately to the economy and properly gives short shrift for those who do not — e.g., unskilled workers… The opposing faction believes that the current distribution of income and wealth no longer is the product of a genuine meritocracy, and even if it were, that health care, education and legal care are so-called social goods to which rich and poor should have access on roughly equal terms, regardless of their own ability to pay."

Is this your understanding of what the fight is all about? It’s certainly not mine. I’ll save health care for another day and take up education.

There has indeed been a three decade struggle — involving hundreds of millions of dollars spent on referenda, lobbying, court cases and elections. Just about every large city in every state in the country has been in the thick of the battle, including Washington, D.C., the one city that is controlled by Congress.

Hardly anybody in this struggle uses words like “equality” or ‘distribution of privilege,” however. This struggle is all about liberating poor (mainly minority) children from bad teachers and bad schools. The specifics are varied. They involve taxpayer-funded school vouchers, privately-funded vouchers, public school choice, private school choice, tax credits for private schools, charter schools, etc.

In every case, the reformers are pitted against the teacher unions. The issue is always the same: are schools essentially a jobs program, serving the interests of the people who work there? Or is their primary purpose to serve children?

[I realize there are many other reform efforts underway, including massive spending by the Gates Foundation. These efforts generally are not controversial, however, and therefore involve no “struggle.” That’s because they almost never involve firing a bad teacher or closing a bad school. For that reason, noncontroversial reforms may amount to little more than throwing good money after bad.]

The three-decade-old school reform struggle is not partisan. It has attracted many people of good will. Some have been willing to spend millions of dollars of their own money on the effort, including the late Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate economist.

However, I would guess that 90% of all people actively involved on the reform side of the struggle are conservative Republicans. The opposing teachers’ unions give almost all their campaign contributions to Democrats. When the Washington, D.C., voucher issue came to a head in Congress, the Obama administration sided with teachers against students, along with almost all the Democrats on Capitol Hill.

I mention these partisan factors only because of Uwe’s very strong implication that the political left in this country supports equal educational opportunity while the political right does not. Not only is that observation wrong, if anything the reality is quite the reverse. Not only has the political left consistently supported unions against kids, I find no evidence of a belief in equal educational opportunity in their personal lives. Is there any liberal Democrat in Congress who sends his/her children to D.C. public schools? Or do they all send them to the very private schools to which they would deny poor children admission by means of a voucher?

What about liberal professors at Ivy League universities. Where do they send their children to school? Do they select institutions of privilege? Or do they send their children to the same schools ordinary parents do?

Most conservatives in this country do not profess to believe in equal educational opportunity. They’re not hypocrites. But many of them have been willing to give inordinate amounts of time and money in an effort to liberate those at the bottom of the income ladder from poor quality schools.

These days, the folks on the right are not the ones standing in the schoolhouse door, telling poor minority children they cannot come in. The ones doing that are at the other end of the political spectrum.


Third of British 11-year-olds fail to grasp the 3Rs: 200,000 pupils STILL struggle to read, write and add up

One in three pupils is leaving primary school without a proper grasp of the basics, official statistics reveal today. Around 200,000 still struggle to read, write and add up, despite billions of pounds poured into education under the last Labour government.

The figures, unveiled by the Department for Education, will raise fears that thousands of pupils will find it hard to cope with the secondary curriculum from next month and may fall even further behind.

The Coalition has already pledged to drive up poor standards with a focus on arithmetic and the ‘synthetic phonics’ reading scheme, where children learn the 44 letter sounds and how they blend together.

There will be a toughened up literacy test for 11-year-olds in spelling, grammar, punctuation, handwriting and vocabulary from 2013. And a reading test is also being introduced for six-year-olds next year. Currently, children sit three exams in reading, writing and maths during the final May of primary education. The results are then published in Key Stage Two national league tables in December.

Last year, 35 per cent failed to reach the expected standard, known as ‘level four’, in all three tests. The figure is expected to be about the same this year.

But Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said there may be ‘a bit of improvement this year’ as schools pay more attention to the measure. ‘The Government distinguishes between performance measures and accountability measures,’ he explained. ‘This combined figure (for reading, writing and maths) is a performance measure and therefore public information. Schools recognise this is being presented so they’re putting more effort into it.

They would pull out the stops if it became an accountability measure.’

Last year, the proportion of pupils passing English, combining the reading and writing paper, was 81 per cent. This was up from 80 per cent in 2009, but no better than in 2008. In the reading paper, just 84 per cent of pupils hit national targets, down from 86 per cent in 2009 and 87 per cent in 2008. Results in writing increased from 68 to 71 per cent. The proportion of pupils reaching the standards in maths rose from 79 to 80 per cent. Overall, 65 per cent of children reached ‘level four’ in reading, writing and maths, up from 62 per cent in both 2009 and 2008.

Previously, all 600,000 Year Six pupils used to take science SATS and the results were also used to compile school league tables. But now a representative sample takes the test. Last year, 81 per cent achieved ‘level four’.

This year’s national curriculum tests were hit by controversy as almost 2,000 headteachers reported problems, raising concerns that pupils had been let down by poor marking. More than a third of heads questioned by the National Association of Head Teachers said that the problems with marking were ‘severe’ or ‘outrageous’.

Reaching the required ‘level four’ in maths means 11-year-olds should be able to do basic tasks such as multiply in their heads. For reading, they should understand themes and refer to the text when explaining views. Pupils should also be able to use grammatically complex sentences and spell accurately.

Last year, Ofsted estimated the cost of delivering Labour’s literacy and numeracy programmes since 1998 at £4.5billion.


Australian church school bans lesbian partners

STUDENTS at a leading Perth girls school have launched a campaign for the right to bring same-sex partners to their school formal.

A group of more than 40 past and present St Mary's Anglican Girls School students have confronted school authorities and started a Facebook campaign to argue for better gay rights. But they say school bosses are refusing to back down and have told them that bringing a same-sex partner to the school ball is "inappropriate".

WA Equal Opportunity Commissioner Yvonne Henderson said the school could be breaching the Equal Opportunities Act by discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Kia Groom, 24, who graduated from St Mary's in 2003 is leading the campaign. She said she formed the online group St Mary's Anglican Girls School Diversity this month. She said "there are students at the school who don't feel comfortable" and the school policy was "damaging".

Other former students claimed the school chaplain, who is a member of the Facebook group and supported acceptance of gay students, was fired for being "too different" and "open-minded".

St Mary's declined to answer questions when contacted several times this week.

Ms Groom said gay rights had been raised many times at the school and each year students had elected representatives to approach the principal about bringing same-sex partners to the formal. And each year they were denied. Students were now determined to change the policy ahead of the next formal early next year. "To me that is just unacceptable and it just shocked me ... there was no further explanation as to why," Ms Groom said.

"As a result, my school ball experience was fairly sub-par because I didn't get to spend the night with who I wanted to ... the whole thing was tarnished."

Ms Groom, who is bisexual, said coming to terms with her sexuality was made more difficult by the school. She said it tried to "nip lesbian behaviour in the bud".

Association of Independent Schools of WA executive director Valerie Gould said schools could make their own policies.

The Education Department said it supported healthy growth and development of students and ensured people were treated fairly in public schools.

But Ms Yvonne Henderson said though there were some exceptions for religious schools, anyone had the right to lodge a complaint if they felt they had been treated "less favourably". "Our stance is the Act and the Act makes it quite clear that it is unlawful," she said.

Gay and Lesbian Equality WA co-convenor Kitty Hawkins said other public and private schools had similar policies. Some public school students were required to meet school heads to "prove they were gay" or in a same-sex relationship before being allowed to bring a same-sex partner.

"I understand that many single-sex schools wish to foster environments where they are able to mix with other genders, but this is still an inadequate reason (to exclude same-sex couples)," she said. "Same-sex attraction and trans-genderism are not contagious and allowing one or two same-sex couples to attend a dance together will not insinuate that the entire year will then follow suit."

Ms Hawkins said same-sex couples and trans-gendered students were bullied and teased, which often led to mental illness, self-harm, substance abuse and even suicide. "Schools public or private have an obligation towards their students to ensure that they are able to learn within an environment that is safe, respectful and accepting," she said. "To bar same-sex couples from a dance sends a strong message. For a young person in such an environment, this can be devastating."


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