Monday, October 17, 2011

Education: The civil rights issue that matters most

Look at all the dignitaries gathered for Sunday’s dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall. Hear them sing: “We Shall Overcome.” But if you believe overcoming should be more than a song, little children, better to march over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown and dedicate yourself to academic excellence.

Speaking at the memorial dedication, President Obama again mentioned “fixing schools so that every child gets a world-class education.” He’d already announced a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. So there is much to look forward to.

The nation’s 105 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — which produce most of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers and scientists — award about 36,000 undergraduate degrees each year. To help meet Obama’s goal, they’d need about 33 percent more students graduating each year.

But there’s a catch. “Many college freshmen at HBCUs are nowhere near college-ready when they arrive on campus,” Deputy Education Secretary Tony Miller said at an HBCU conference last year. “When incoming students have to spend their first year in remedial classes, it drives up HBCU dropout rates and burns up those students’ Pell grants.”

There’s something else: Just 8 percent of the nation’s public school teachers are African American, even though more than half of the students in the largest public school systems are black and Latino. Worse still, only 2 percent of the nation’s public school teachers are black men.

“We know that black teachers are more likely than their white peers to want to work in high-poverty, high-needs schools and are more likely to stay there than their white counterparts,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at an HBCU conference in 2009. “Every day, African American teachers are doing absolutely invaluable work in helping to close the insidious achievement gap.”

So where are the men?

Little children, notice how we make you celebrate great black male educators during Black History Month: Benjamin Mays at Morehouse, Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, Carter G. Woodson at Howard. But when it comes to putting a great black male educator in your classroom, suddenly it’s not that important after all.

The Obama administration is committed to reforming K-12 public school education, Miller said, and is “devoted to fixing the college pipeline, especially for disadvantaged students.” But at Sunday’s ceremony, Obama asked us to understand that “change does not come quick.”

Meanwhile, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, speaking earlier at the same ceremony, noted that the prison industrial complex has managed to set up a “cradle-to-prison pipeline” that’s been siphoning up young black men for years.

Little children, make no mistake about it: You have a tough row to hoe. Long after Occupy DC has decamped from the city and the protests over economic inequality have faded from memory, you’ll still have to occupy those classrooms and continue to struggle against educational inequity.

As an aside, you’ve probably noticed that it’s okay for adults to act out in the streets when we feel shortchanged but not for you to act up when cheated out of an education. March on anyway.

“I would say to you, don’t drop out of school,” King told students in his 1967 “Life’s Blueprint” speech. “I understand all of the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you are forced to live in — stay in school.”

Education might be the key to the Promised Land, but not every adult will help you get there. Just remember the brave youngsters who persevered in King’s day, little children, and don’t be afraid to march alone.


Bringing honesty back to the British exam system

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, was unsparing in his criticism of the status quo, which is seeing Britain sliding down the international league tables.

Thanks to decades of grade inflation, and an all-must-have-prizes mindset in too many of the country’s classrooms, we have a public examination system that is failing badly. Universities and employers find the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff increasingly difficult. Students are cheated because a system designed to sort by ability no longer does that honestly or fairly.

While exam grades have got better and better, our position in international league tables has become worse and worse. According to the OECD, we have “stagnated” while other countries forge ahead: at the age of 15, British pupils are roughly two years behind Shanghai’s. The long-term economic impact of this decline could be immense.

In an important speech yesterday to the exam regulator Ofqual, Michael Gove delivered a welcome blast of common sense. The Education Secretary was unsparing in his criticism of the status quo. He pointed out that an increasing number of universities are being forced to offer remedial courses for students who are unprepared for further study; that the Royal Society of Chemistry had noted a “catastrophic slippage” in school science standards; and that Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College London, has described GCSEs as offering “soundbite science” based on a “dumbed-down syllabus”.

The Secretary of State went on to question the validity of an exam system “that no longer allows us to distinguish the best candidates… we may soon have to invent a Milky Way of A double and triple stars simply to allow the top performers to stand out”.

Fortunately, Mr Gove’s proposals for ending this insidious drift towards mediocrity were equally trenchant. He suggested that the number of A*s awarded each year could be fixed, to set a genuine benchmark of excellence. Tougher marking might mean that some GCSE and A-level results actually dip – something that has not happened for almost 30 years. Yet as he rightly argued, it is better to be honest with our children and with ourselves by having an exam system that has integrity.

Mr Gove also floated an idea that could be truly revolutionary. He admires the system that has been introduced in Burlington Danes Academy in West London, in which every pupil knows where they have come in every subject, whether that is first or 101st. Parents have embraced the scheme, because it gives them information they have hitherto been denied. In turn, it allows teachers to be assessed on the basis of which of them add value, as shown by changes in the rankings. Of course, the teachers’ unions will loathe the idea – which is all the more reason to try it out.


Australia: A very different white flight

In the USA, whites seeking safety for their children move away from areas heavily populated by blacks. In Australia whites avoid schools heavily populated by East Asians -- because the Asians are smarter and the whites don't want their kids to feel discouraged

A "WHITE flight" from elite selective high schools is entrenching ethnic segregation in Australia's education system, according to a social researcher.

In a study of student language backgrounds in schools, Dr Christina Ho, of the University of Technology Sydney, found a clear pattern of cultural polarisation, with few Anglo-Australians in high-achieving selective entry government schools. Students from migrant families — mostly from Chinese, Indian and other Asian backgrounds — dominate the enrolments of the schools.

In Melbourne, 93 per cent of students at Mac.Robertson Girls High School and 88 per cent of pupils at Melbourne High School and Nossal High School are from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE), a category that also includes those from non-Asian backgrounds.

In Sydney, nine out of the top 10 highest performing selective schools have similar high percentages of LBOTE pupils, mainly from Asian backgrounds.

People who speak an Asian language at home make up 8 per cent of Australia's population, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Dr Ho said it was understandable why so many migrant families, put off by high fees in private secondary schools, flocked to public selective schools because of their outstanding academic results.

"Anglo-Australians' shunning of public selective schools is less explicable, particularly among those families with talented children who might achieve the required standard on the selective schools [entry] test," said Dr Ho, whose findings are published in the journal Australian Review of Public Affairs.

"The 'white flight' from these schools must partly reflect an unwillingness to send children to schools dominated by migrant-background children, which simply further entrenches this domination.

"If current trends continue, we risk creating highly unbalanced school communities that, rather than reflecting the full diversity of Australian society, instead constitute unhealthy and unnatural bubbles of segregation and isolation."

Dr Ho's study examined enrolment data given by all schools and education authorities to the My School website. The LBOTE data measures cultural diversity and, unlike birthplace, identifies second and subsequent migrant generations not born overseas but who are members of a cultural minority.

The principal of Melbourne High School, Jeremy Ludowyke, rejected suggestions that the school was not culturally diverse. "We don't see a white flight expressed in the pattern of applications to the school," Mr Ludowyke said.

About 60 per cent of his pupils have a parent born overseas. "Melbourne High and Mac.Rob have played a pivotal role in providing opportunities for newly arrived migrant communities. They're part of the success story of multiculturalism in Melbourne," he said.


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