Thursday, November 10, 2011

Failing Schools a Sign of Failing National Character

Learning's Labors Lost

Ralph Peters

During a workout last weekend, I watched and listened as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bemoaned our “crumbling schools.” Sorry, but it’s not our schools that are crumbling, Mr. Secretary: It’s our values. The wildly uneven, too-often-inadequate state of our Kindergarten-through-high-school system is a symptom of cultural cancer: We have become a slothful, self-indulgent, self-pitying nation of whining excuse-makers. We all want A’s for no effort. Our teachers and their students reflect our general culture of indiscipline and self-congratulation. Nor is it only the mopey-dopey left that has infected our public schools with a culture of mediocrity, when not outright failure. We all share in the blame (of which more below).

But we can’t even discuss the problem honestly and have to trim the conversation to keep it within politically correct patterns. Well, when yet another survey trumpets that the U.S. has fallen to sixth place in teaching math or science, or that we’re fifteenth in education overall, my reaction is “Okay, break those scores out by specific school locations.” Generally, our suburban and many small-town schools still deliver competitive (if less than optimal) educations. Our statistics skew sharply downward because of the appalling conditions in the inner-city and barrio holding pens and teacher’s-union bunkers we pretend are real schools.

Even within our generally slovenly culture, some sub-cultures—encouraged to wallow in cults of victimhood--do far worse than others. But we aren’t allowed to say it. We have to pretend that our national standing really is national. Yet, if it weren’t for the disgraceful conditions (and we can blame the left for these) that narcotizing “social” programs have created among minority populations, we would still be at or near the top in education.

Most well-to-do children, whatever their race, still have access to solid (if uninspiring) educations. But the left, for political advantage, has written off poor blacks and browns educationally—confining them in schools that are now about the unionized teachers, not the students.

And let’s be honest: Conservatives have made no serious attempts to reform those schools, either. All the left has to do is cry “Racism!” and we gladly turn our backs on our fellow Americans, pleased to have an excuse to do nothing about a national disgrace. (Teachers may hate “No Child Left Behind,” but that program was a sincere attempt to do something in an environment in which doing nothing had become acceptable.)

For different reasons, everyone (including the minorities themselves) has written off any serious efforts to give our underclass the elementary skills required to enter and survive in a 21st-century workforce. This human wastage, for which we all share some degree of blame, is unspeakably shameful and detrimental to our country’s future. We have to drag along those who could be pulling their own weight or even excelling. To borrow the title of a 1960s novel, Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares.

The broader problem is rooted in recent history: Two simultaneous developments have reduced the quality of teachers over the past two to three generations. First, equality of opportunity for women drained the talent pool. Without question, the transition of women from second-class to fully equal participants in society and our economy has been overwhelmingly beneficial: It has made our nation richer, more just and humane, and more fun. I can identify only a single downside: The often-brilliant women who taught me during my 1950s elementary-school years in small-town Pennsylvania became teachers because it was the best option (of very few) available to them. Those magnificent teachers were prisoners of a social system that denied them other opportunities. Their counterparts today are governors, senators, Navy pilots, CEOs, investment bankers, corporate managers…

Even for men, there were fewer opportunities in the middle of the last century. The explosion of wealth and the expansion of work we experienced over the last half-dozen decades also provided more choices for males, too. Thus, the pair of life-shaping English teachers I had in high school back in the 1960s—who survived on miserly pay—would be unlikely to be in the same jobs today. (Neither would survive in a contemporary high school, anyway, since their reading lists not only were demanding—from translations of Euripides and Sophocles, to James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence—but would outrage conservative parents who believe that “children” should not be exposed to great literature or reality).

The sad quality of so much instruction today has been brought home to me over the past dozen years. In honor of one of those English teachers, a man who died tragically young, I’ve given a small annual prize to the graduating senior in my old high school who wrote the best short story, essay or article. When the “best” efforts arrived in the mail for me to select the winner, none was ever of sufficient quality to have gotten an A from Mr. Boyer. Worse, the scrawled cover notes sent me by the English teachers themselves often were ungrammatical. My good intentions had become a travesty: Those “top” students not only weren’t required to write, but did not even appear to read much of worth.

We now have a system in which young people of lower intelligence and less ambition gravitate into the teaching profession, and in which unethical and irresponsible unions protect the worst of them. And the kids aren’t all right: Instead of getting a rigorous education, they get inflated grades to help them get into college (isn’t it remarkable that “responsible” parents are more apt to complain about a low grade than low standards?). “Every child gets a prize” is a formula for failure later on. Our system just delays sentencing until the kid hits the job market.

Beyond the lower quality of those who enter the teaching profession (with many individual exceptions, of course) we face the lack of serious content in the undergraduate programs that, theoretically, prepare them for the classroom. Teaching techniques and philosophies have replaced the fierce acquisition of knowledge, and this is inevitably reflected in the K-12 classroom. As a result, we have English teachers who don’t read seriously themselves; history teachers who have no meaningful grasp of history; and math teachers who don’t think it’s necessary for children to memorize multiplication tables.

In conversations with K-12 teachers over the years, I’ve consistently found them to be sincere and well-intentioned. I’ve also found most to be dumb as rocks.....

Anyone who has encountered—and had to hire—young job-seekers fresh from university these days faces identical applicants (right down to the flip-flops worn to the interview) bursting with self-confidence to the point where it almost stains the rug, but who, once hired, often have no work ethic, no frames of reference, and inadequate preparation for basic tasks. For one example about which I can speak first-hand, masters programs from “top” universities turn out aspiring journalists who cannot spell, punctuate or construct a topic sentence, and who cannot analyze problems dispassionately, but who have wildly inflated expectations as to what they are owed in the workplace and by society.

As for high-school graduates…well, the opportunities for them are disappearing every day. Nonetheless, we must find ways to reduce the drop-out rate. A young person who lacks even a high-school diploma is doomed to be a burden on society throughout his or her life. At present, though, there are few short-term disincentives to dropping out—and young people think short-term. Were it up to me, I’d also make a high-school diploma a requirement to receive a driver’s license or to receive any government benefits.

Unfair? Absolutely not. All rights beyond the most elementary human rights must be predicated on the individual’s reciprocal responsibility to society and the state.

All that said, there can be no question but that the greatest share of the blame for the intellectual impoverishment of K-12 education lies on the political left, which has made poverty a viable lifestyle choice; politicized curriculums; lowered standards disastrously; defended unions that elevate the welfare of teachers above the success of students; made self-esteem a more important goal than learning; and fought to keep minorities “down, dumb and Democratic.”

In the Year of our Lord 2011, the United States spends far more money per capita on education than any other major country—and gets less in return. Beyond all the politics and webs of self-interest, the reason is as simple as two plus two equals four: We’ve taken learning out of education.


British Math teaching is so bad that teenagers leave school dangerously ignorant

Maths teaching is so poor that teenagers can leave school dangerously ignorant, an exam board chief has claimed. Many are unable to calculate a 25 per cent discount or a correct dosage of medication, he said.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, launched a scathing attack yesterday on the national maths curriculum in schools, a subject his organisation tests. He said employers can no longer assume that a grade C, or higher, in GCSE maths guarantees a reasonable level of competence. ‘Many [school leavers] are stumped by 25 per cent discounts or 33 per cent extra free,’ he said. ‘And they don’t understand the dosage of medicines. This puts them at a massive disadvantage in life and can even endanger them.’

His comments follow a survey of 566 employers by the CBI which found 35 per cent were unhappy with youngsters’ numeracy.

Mr Dawe believes that the problem is rooted in the limited scope of the maths national curriculum. He said: ‘Pupils can do simple sums. But outside school, they have calculators and computers to do this. 'What pupils and school leavers cannot do is work out what sums to do to solve a problem. They don’t understand how to ask the question.’

James Fothergill, head of education and skills at the CBI, said: ‘There’s currently a gap between the standard of maths achieved by many school leavers and the skills that employers require. ‘We need to see young people who are confident with mental arithmetic, working out simple percentages, ratios and fractions and being able to spot errors and rogue figures which are essential for work and everyday life.’

'We need to see young people who are confident with mental arithmetic, working out simple percentages, ratios and fractions and being able to spot errors and rogue figures which are essential for work and everyday life.’

This year a staggering 28 per cent of 16-year-olds failed to get A* to C in maths. To remedy this Education Secretary Michael Gove has said pupils will have to study the subject until they pass, or leave school. In 2015 the compulsory school leaving age will rise to 18.

A Department for Education spokesman, said: ‘It’s crucial that pupils master the basics in maths at school. ‘The UK is sliding down the international league tables in maths and we’ve got to reverse this trend if we expect our students to have the core skills that universities and employers demand.

‘That’s why we’re encouraging more maths specialist teachers for the state sector and prioritising funding for graduates with a 2:1 or first class degree in maths and sciences – so that we can drive up standards in schools across the country’.


Australia: Independent school starts fee war

AN independent school has fired the latest salvo in Sydney's "school wars" as debate heats up over whether families should be given more choice between government and private schools.

Mamre Anglican School at Kemps Creek is claiming a national first by slashing fees by 10 per cent in 2012 to help low-income families and lift enrolments - which have already soared 60 per cent over the past three years.

While debate rages over whether governments should encourage more choice in education, new independents such as Mamre Anglican are luring families away from both public and other private schools.

A national inquiry is under way into school funding but, whatever recommendations emerge, governments will have to make a call on the extent to which they bolster under-funded public schools or bankroll the growth of private schools.

Low-fee Anglican schools are booming in suburban growth corridors, strategically buying up land, heavily marketing in existing schools - and now cutting fees.

Enrolments at Mamre - which charges $3380 to $4480 a year plus $660 to $980 for excursions, camps and transport - could reach 300 next year and 500 down the track.

"The board of the school has taken the decision to lower the fees of the school by 10 per cent for 2012, I would think we would be the only school in Australia to do this," principal Vic Branson said yesterday.

"We are doing so because of a thorough demographic study which indicated ... the community would struggle with our present rate of fees and because we are already growing. We want others to join our school with its innovative programs. We feel that lower fees would encourage new families."

Mr Branson said the newly renovated school was attractive to families, with sport development and gifted and talented students programs, and recently placed 14th out of 250 schools in the Mathematics Olympiad.

Mamre takes students from kindergarten to Year 10.

Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation chief executive Laurie Scandrett said Mamre's reduced fees would bring it "into line with competitors".

The corporation has 16 schools in the Sydney Diocese and more are in the pipeline.


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