Friday, September 23, 2011

Exciting Schools

School spending has doubled over the past 30 years. Yet what do we get? More buildings and more assistant principals -- but student learning? No improvement. If you graph the numbers, the spending line slopes steeply, while the lines for reading, math and science scores are as flat as a dead man's EKG.

Why no improvement? Because K-12 education is a government monopoly, and monopolies don't improve.

And yet I'm happy to announce some good news: Cool things are starting to happen in classrooms.

I was surprised to meet kids who said they like school. What? I found school boring. How can it be that these fourth-graders tell me that they look forward to going to school and that math is "rockin' awesome"?

Those kids attend one of those new charter schools. Charters let them escape the bureaucracy of regular schools, including, often, teachers union rules. These schools compete for kids because parents can always choose another school. That makes them better.

Not every charter school is good, but the beauty of competition is that bad ones go out of business, while good ones expand. Then good schools teach more kids. Choice and competition produce quality. Anyone surprised?

Government schools rarely improve because no matter how bad they are, they still have captive customers.

The Harlem charter schools admit kids that bureaucrats label "at risk of failure." But these kids learn. And they do it at lower cost.

I visited another charter chain, American Indian Public Charter Schools in Oakland, Calif., that gets similar top results, also at lower cost.

"Kids in American Indian Public Charter Schools score so far above the average for the state for public school children that there isn't even a word for it," says Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.

Those schools use methods different from the charters in Harlem. For example, they pay some kids to tutor other kids.

Both charters do something that regular public schools rarely do: fire teachers. One charter principal calls it "freeing up a person's future." You cannot maintain quality unless you can fire people, said Deborah Kenny, founder of Harlem Village Academies.

While bad teachers might get fired, good teachers are given freedom.

"They can choose their textbooks, teaching methods -- as long as they, every quarter and every year, make sure that the students are learning what they need to learn," Kenny said.

In Harlem, 43 percent of eighth-graders pass state math tests. In Kenny's schools, 100 percent pass. So if charters work, why aren't there more of them? Because teachers unions hate them. The president of the Newark Teachers Union, Joseph Del Grosso, doesn't want charters in what he calls "his schools."

"Over my dead body, they're going to come there," he told me.

Because of that attitude, people who try to start charter schools often find that bureaucrats make it hard. But in one city, most kids now attend charters. How did that happen?

It happened because when Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, it also destroyed the school system. Some school reformers thought that might be a blessing.

"It was probably one of the worst school districts in the country," said Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana state superintendent of education. The state faced a choice: Rebuild the old system or build something new. It built something new. Opening charters became easy. Today, most kids in New Orleans attend charter schools, and test scores are better.

Ben Marcovitz started a charter school called Sci Academy. "We have complete control over the quality of our instruction."

At first, only a third of his students were proficient on state tests. Now, Sci Academy's test results are among the best in the city.

Competition drives schools to try different things in order to succeed. It's similar to what happens with consumer goods -- computers, refrigerators, cars -- that get better every year.

If charter schools do this well, imagine what a really free and competitive system -- one without compulsory tax financing and bureaucratic chartering procedures -- could do.

Our kids deserve a free market in education.


Trendy teachers cheat the poor and lay the groundwork for riots

Katherine Birbalsingh

WHEN I became a teacher some 12 years ago in London, I genuinely believed that the only way one could make a difference to the underprivileged was to work for the state. I believed the state education system stimulated social mobility.

But my time teaching in some of London's inner-city schools has taught me much. I have seen things you would never believe. As every year ticked by, I became more and more frustrated with the lies we teachers were having to tell the public. We had to pretend that our schools were better than they were in order to trick parents into sending us their children. Ninety three per cent of our children in Britain are educated in the state sector and there is a great divide between the private and state sectors.

The state sector is always trying to prove that it is just as good as the private sector, if not better. And because everyone knows, deep down, that this simply isn't true. Let's face it, British children are now rated 16th in the world for science, 25th for reading and 28th for maths, according to the OECD's 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. The 2000 PISA report ranked British children as fourth for science, seventh for reading and eighth for maths. We now spend more than 80 billion ($123bn) a year (double what we spent in the 1990s) on education and yet British schoolchildren have plummeted in the international league tables.

So I wrote a book, To Miss with Love, with the intention of it being published anonymously because I knew just how dangerous it was to speak to the truth. But then, before publication, I spoke at the Conservative Party conference in October last year about our broken education system, revealing some of my thoughts on what needs fixing. As a British teacher recently told me, there was nothing I said in the speech that teachers don't say everyday in staffrooms across the country. We simply aren't allowed to say it out loud. The state school system literally prevents its teachers from speaking their minds.

The riots in London did not come as a surprise to British teachers. We have not only been predicting that kind of general chaos for years, but we experience it on a daily basis in our schools. We have many Australian travelling teachers who enter our school system as supply teachers. Generally, they are shocked by what they see and experience in our classrooms. It is the same for German, French or Spanish teachers. The only visiting teachers who are used to our behaviour problems and low standards are those who come from the American inner cities. And riots, of course, are not unfamiliar to them. The difference between the American and British school systems is that the international community knows just how bad American schooling can be. But Britain still lives off its old reputation as the Mother Country, leading the Commonwealth and its empire in all that is true and good.

But the real truth is that not only does the state in Britain tie teachers' hands, but it does the same to parents, resulting in a breakdown of authority both in our schools and in our homes. Some parents try desperately to bring their children up properly and struggle. I have spent my career meeting parents who are brought to tears because of their unruly teenagers. Some say that they cannot discipline their children because their children threaten to call the police and cry abuse. Every time their child misbehaves, rather than being able to discipline them appropriately, they remember their neighbour or their friend or their cousin who was handcuffed in their own house and hauled away by the police, their children put into social care for a night, all because of some made-up story.

I remember one Jamaican woman pleading with me in school, desperately wanting to discipline her daughter but the parenting classes she was attending at the council suggested she use more praise. She said to me, "But how can I always be praising her when she gets so much wrong?" The "prizes for all culture" doesn't just exist in our schools. It is endemic in our society to a point where not only do we not question it, but those who have old-school values are forced to conform to the "gold stars for everyone" mantra dictated by the state.

The same thing happens at school. The bad children are constantly receiving prizes simply for remaining quiet or for turning up on time. The teachers, in order to win round the bad children, are taught by their line managers and teacher training institutions that praise is what is needed to motivate children. So we all use it to saturation point, devaluing the worth of the gold star. Meanwhile, the good children, who are left in the dark because no one notices, eventually become bad in an effort to gain some attention.

Eventually, the cool gangster lifestyle that these children have pumped into their minds six to seven hours a day from MTV takes over. Their understanding of "success" is not marriage, a job and a couple of kids. It is cars, women and bling. Our bookshops were not looted, and if you didn't have a sports or mobile phone shop on your High Street, you knew your community was probably safe. Who allows our children to watch so much MTV? The very parents who are exhausted because their children are spiralling out of control and yet are told by the council they should use more praise, or the single parents, encouraged to stay single by the state with promises of free flats and welfare cheques, who can't possibly juggle a full-time job, three or four children, a household and a life.

The schools struggle to keep order, partly because of the low standards of the education system but also because teachers are encouraged to constantly do group work and entertain the children. Children must never be bored, and if they are, or if they disrupt, it is the teacher's fault. Children are never held to account for what they do. Is it any wonder that some of them decided to show the police that they were in charge and went out looting?

State schools ought to promote social mobility. They should not simply perpetuate the class system and ensure that those who go to private schools are taught well, and only those taught in leafy suburb middle-class state schools stand a chance of a half-decent education.

Unfortunately a number of people with power believe that the way to improve education for our children is to ban tradition from our classrooms _ stop being so fuddy duddy and appeal to children by making things more "fun".

We believe it is unfashionable to have desks in rows and so some schools actually ban traditional rows in favour of always having desks in groups. Some schools abandon the more traditional academic subjects altogether and do not teach them at all. In an effort to raise their standing in the league tables, schools will have children take drama, PE, or media studies, abandoning, history, physics or French to do so, and our so-called progressive thinkers rejoice, saying that these subjects are more suited to certain children. It is funny how the children these subjects suit are never their own.

The tradition of competition which we celebrate in the world of sport has become unfashionable in the academic classroom and innovation requires that children never be given grades and are never allowed to know where they stand in comparison to their peers. Tradition in education has become a dirty word and is reserved for the elite while innovation is what is given to the poor.

The irony is that the rejection of all that is traditional comes from people who were themselves beneficiaries of a very traditional education but remembering some of their classes at school as being boring, are now trying to reform the education system for these kids to make it more interesting. So they can be very well meaning people. So, for instance, Richard Branson who famously dropped out of school at 15, thinks schools overeducate children, and stunt the early sparks of entrepreneurship. But what Branson forgets is that he had the most traditional of educations - having been educated at one of Britain's top private schools and yet he is the most extraordinary entrepreneur. And Branson underestimates just how much his education has contributed to his success. What Branson was able to take away at age 15 from school, far outstrips the standard of education that some of our Western youngsters are currently accessing even at university level. Some of our university degrees are the equivalent in standard to what children used to do at age 15 in school in the 1970s. Branson would probably find these degrees ludicrously easy.

General thinking around school being boring makes it possible for us to have reached a stage where teachers are no longer expected to teach and instead they must be facilitators of learning with constant group work going on, where the teacher is rarely standing in front of the class, but instead moves amongst the children who are all busy doing something. The idea here is that "doing" is more interesting than "listening". And that might very well be true. But the problem comes when we think that "doing" needs to happen most of the time. This means that the teacher, a great source of knowledge, almost becomes redundant as a fountain of knowledge and instead becomes a bit of a referee. We don't value the importance of teaching knowledge for the children to then do something with. Innovation is considered to be only "doing" - a complete rejection of all that is traditional.

The problem is that we all underestimate the knowledge that we have and use everyday. Try to read any article in the newspaper and you'll find that there is an assumption of background knowledge. Recently, I read an article about Carla Bruni. To understand just the title and subtitle, one would have had to know who she was, that she is married to Nicholas Sarkozy and you'd have to know that he was the President of France, what being a president means, and, indeed, you would have to know what France is - is it a city? Is it a country? Is it in Europe? You may laugh, but I have, as a teacher had conversations with 14-year-olds in which they simply don't understand the difference between France and Paris. For them, it is all the same! I can't tell you the number of times I've had conversations with kids about Winston Churchill where they think he's "that dog" off the insurance advert.

Ordinary people don't realise just how little some of our kids know. What we also forget is that the very thing that got us to where we are now was the kind of education that we had - our teachers actually teaching us knowledge, so that we know the difference between Paris and France, us sometimes being bored in lessons and learning the discipline to struggle through - how many people in business clinch a deal because they know the soft skills of being polite, know how to sit through a boring lecture, and are able to concentrate enough to still pick up what is necessary to impress the client? It is through the study of tough rigorous academic subjects that soft skills are often acquired. Traditional educations are not bad. And most of the progressives perpetuating this in our schools have benefited from one themselves. In other words they climb the ladder to the top and then unwittingly pull the ladder up from under them.

So in the past 30 years, the concept of teaching knowledge in our classrooms has nearly disappeared altogether. Teaching historical facts or lists of vocab which rely on memory skills is considered old-fashioned. Instead, we think it better to inspire children to be creative through constant group discussion and project work. But background knowledge is absolutely essential to enable children to capture new ideas. For instance, when cars were first invented they were called horseless carriages. So to understand the new concept of a car, one had to have knowledge of horses and carriages, and the idea of something being "less" something else. In fact, modern neuroscience has shown that in order to grasp new concepts, pupils require a great deal of background knowledge.

As background knowledge is provided unequally in different homes, it is our duty in schools to level out the playing field. In some homes children are lucky enough to have tutors employed, conversations over dinner about the day's news events and, as such, they can pick up facts about history, geography as they go. But instead of ensuring that all of our children should have access to that knowledge in school, we turn away from knowledge acquisition which is considered boring and teach skills like being empathetic or forming a point of view through what is a very seductive and seemingly better way of teaching. It seems more "fun" and the progressives like the idea of finally breaking free from the restriction of their own educational backgrounds.

So putting desks in rows in considered archaic, rote-learning is abandoned completely, even the idea of classrooms having walls is rejected _ encouraging chaos all around _ and our children quite literally are leaving school without basic knowledge in subjects such as English, maths and history. A recent study from the University of Sheffield showed that 20 per cent of the children leaving school in Britain are functionally illiterate. Schools, quite simply, need classrooms. And classrooms, in turn, require walls. When I first told my father that we were spending billions of pounds on schools building walless classrooms, he was baffled. You see, he grew up in poverty-stricken Guyana where he went to a school that had no walls because they couldn't afford them. So for us to now spend billions recreating what the developing world is trying to move away from seems like lunacy. But that's exactly what we're doing.

If we want to equip our children with the power to change the world, they must first have knowledge of it and understand it. Unfortunately the "progressives" think that somehow knowledge is right-wing and boring. But this is simply not true. What makes Tony Benn, the well known British socialist who has campaigned against injustice all over the world, such a great speaker, or what gave Ian Flemming such a creative mind that he should create James Bond? What ensured that Churchill would be an inspirational leader, moving back and forth between the Liberal and Conservative parties? What ensured that Obama would be the first black American president? Their very traditional educations! Thomas Jefferson had a classical education but was so forward thinking that he signed the Declaration of Independence and Mark Zuckerberg is obsessed with Classics but is the founder of the transformational and innovative Facebook. What made these people into successes was the traditional educations that they had, the inspirational teachers who taught them, the love of learning that they picked up with their walled classrooms, desks in rows, with the teacher teaching at the front.

Traditional education in Britain these days is reserved only for the rich. Yet tradition is what has given us our most explosive revolutionaries. Stokely Carmichael who led the Black Panthers and was a major player in the civil rights movement in America dropped gang life, so inspired was he at his science specialist school and so busy was he reading Darwin and Marx. Mandela went to an elite Methodist mission school. Revolutions are created with traditional thinking. That doesn't mean you can't ever do any type of group work, or can't ever go on to a computer. But it should not be a fight to have a school system where our poorest children should have access to an education that includes knowledge-acquisition, competition, a non-prizes for all culture, high standards of behaviour, and in an environment where everyone reaches for the very best.

This is where I believe there could be a real role for free schools in our inner cities in Britain. Our Conservative government has brought out these new proposals, copying the free school movement in Sweden and the Charter school movement in America. This month, our first batch of free schools opened - there were 24 of them. As free schools are free to do what is best for their children and do not have their hands tied behind their backs by the state, they are able to reject the cultural pressure that is felt in some of our ordinary state schools, and do something different. They are free to provide children with the tradition that is found in our better private schools.

They can offer an extended day, lessons that are about knowledge acquisition, and competition to drive up standards. They can provide classrooms with desks in rows and they can offer the more traditional subjects - and by this I don't mean Latin necessarily - I simply mean the opportunity to do Spanish or history or the chance to study biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects. The tradition of benchmarking children can be upheld, standing at assembly and holding high standards for uniform and behaviour can simply become part of the norm. In fact, bringing traditional thinking of this kind is to trail blaze and indeed be innovative. How wonderful it is that the free school movement should allow individuals in any community, to take responsibility, to know what issues face their particular community and to have the freedom to set up a school that can do something positive and new.

So I am trying to set up a free school in the depths of south London to do exactly what I say is needed, and educate these children in such a way so that riots like the ones we witnessed last month will not happen again. The ordinary people of south London - the poor, the single-parent families - are desperate for another choice of school in the area because there aren't enough school places and they know how generally awful the schools are. Yet there are those from the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Workers Party who oppose us. There are those, and it has to be said, they are the middle classes, who can afford to make up for their state school's issues by employing tutors at home - who want to stop free schools from opening because they hate the idea of individuals taking away responsibilities and power from the state.

The only way our poorest children can succeed is for them to receive the same quality of education as our richest. They need the privilege of a traditional education - the type of education that most of us, it not all of us in this room have been lucky enough to have had. There is a quote that I love which sums up what I am saying: The education that is best for the best is the education that is best for all. Why did the riots happen? Because 20 per cent of our young people are functionally illiterate and do not know the difference between right and wrong. Because the education that is best for the best is kept only for the very few.

I only wish that these problems were confined to Britain. But I believe that in the West, these trends are to be found everywhere, and no doubt in Australia too. Some countries, such as Britain, are simply more advanced in their decline. My advice to all of you is to learn from our mistakes in Britain. Do not go down the trendy and very tempting route of believing that all that glistens is gold. I believe in conservative values precisely because they conserve what is traditional. If Australia learns from the hideous mistakes that Britain has made, I am certain that the old-school values that we have lost in Britain will ensure your country's future success.


First-class? Top-level British degrees up by 34% prompting fresh concerns over grade inflation

The number of students graduating with a first-class degree has risen by a third over the past five years, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation.

About one in seven graduates now obtains the top qualification, calling into question the worth of some degrees.

Almost 47,000 students gained firsts in 2009-10 compared with 34,825 in 2005-6 – a rise of 34.5 per cent, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. At the same time, almost half of graduates were awarded a 2.1 in 2009/10. Numbers gaining 2.1s have risen by 14.4 per cent – from 137,235 to 156,950 – over the same period. By contrast, there was only a 2.9 per cent increase in the number of graduates achieving a 2.2.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said degrees have been subjected to ‘extraordinary grade inflation’ since the expansion of higher education in the 1990s.

Calling for a ‘starred first’ degree to identify exceptional students, he said: ‘Grades are inflating to the point that the classes aren’t going to be useful to future employers. They are going to have to take into account the university and the A-level results to distinguish between applicants.’ ‘I suspect what we will have to do is what has already been done in A-levels and GCSEs, which is to have a starred first.’

Universities have been trialling a graduate ‘report card’, aimed at giving a more accurate picture of students’ achievements. But the new Higher Education Achievement Report – a six page document – continues to list graduates’ overall degree classification.

There have been claims some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism in a bid to help institutions climb league tables. University whistleblowers have also alleged external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

The Commons select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills noted different institutions demanded ‘different levels of effort’ from students to get similar degrees.


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