Monday, November 07, 2011

The past shows what is possible -- and what has been lost

As Fred Reed says below, education has indeed changed mightily since the '50s. I left school at age 16 in 1959 but by that time I knew the words of several Schubert Lieder and had been introduced to Bach and Dvorak. I could get by in German and was familiar with Latin grammar. I knew who Hannibal was and who Publius Cornelius Scipio was. I knew words like "inchoate". I was familiar with the works of poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson and Blake, had read some Chaucer in Middle English and had heard of Homer. I knew quite a few chemical formulae and was familiar with Newtonian mechanics ... etc.... etc. And I was taught all that in an obscure government school in an obscure Australian country town. I undoubtedly absorbed it better than most but the point is that I was taught it. All of my teachers and my fellow-students were white -- JR

With the regularity of sunrise, editorials raise alarums over the sorry state of schooling in America, wondering year after year why students are so abysmally ignorant. Why the puzzlement? The reasons is that Americans don't want education. They would rather have polio. If they saw education coming down the street, they would crawl into the storm sewers to avoid it, and epoxy the manhole covers down for a better seal.

They like the appearance of schooling, yes. They pay exorbitantly for degrees, grades, titles. Substance be damned. This is why many seniors in high school can barely read, and graduates of universities do not know when WWI took place.

How did this come about? There are 26 letters in the alphabet, 52 if you count upper case. That comes to 5.2 a year for ten years. A parrot could learn them. Yet functional illiteracy flourishes in Amerca.

When my daughters were three, they could read Dr. Seuss and sound out words like “transportation,” which they had no idea what meant. Why could they do this? Because their daddy sat down with them and said, “C says “kuh,” A says “Aa,” and T says “Tuh.” Kuh-Aa-Tuh, cat. Ain't them some apples?” They agreed about the apples, and were off and running. Mission accomplished, without a carrier to stand on. Age three.

How in God's name can you keep kids in school for twelve years and prevent their learning to read? We're talking genius here.

Schooling children was once thought routine. When I finished the fifth grade in Robert E. Lee Elementary School in the Virginia suburbs of Washington—this would have been about 1955—I could add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions, do long division and multiplication, and knew grammar cold: direct and indirect objects, appositives, linking verbs, participles. I would like to attribute this to my incomparable brilliance. The problem with this laudable understanding is that all the other kids could do these things too. The teachers had taught us. It was what schools did.

Children learned because of a social consensus that they should do so. In those far-off days, the white population, then the only one that mattered, agreed on certain things. For example, parents believed that correct English was desirable, and that their little monsters should learn it. They believed that numeracy mattered. That grades should reflect performance, period. It worked.

Problems of discipline did not exist because of, again, consensus. Society thought, parents thought, the schools thought, and the children thought that children should be respectful of teachers and do as they were told. This was not authoritarian. There were always the class clowns—I may know somewhat of this—but everyone, including the children, knew where the limits lay.

The teachers participated in the consensus. They were mostly intelligent women not yet fem-libbed into being useless lawyers, and embodied the masculine focus on performance over feeling good about oneself. This allowed the passing on of civilization. The prinicpal was usually a man, and a fairly formidable one. He easily kept adolescent boys in line. Their fathers also bought the consensus, a point not lost on teens.

Then, roughly during the Sixties, consensus died. The reasons were race and the discovery by the young that they could demand what they found laborious to earn.

Forced integration was perhaps the first crack in the dike. The black children came from a culture utterly alien to that of whites, having very different academic expectations and speaking a dialect hardly a word of which resembled standard English. They read and calculated grade levels below the whites, did not regard General Lee and Stonewall as quite the heroes the whites did, and had little interest in the literature and history of Europe, which after all was not where they came from. They sank instantly to the bottom of their classes. Explain this as you will, blame whom you will, but it happened. So much for consensus.

The chasm was too deep for solution. The difference in language was particularly grave. Yet, curiously, there was nothing inherently black about the degraded English now called Ebonics: Blacks in Mexico speak standard Spanish, in France, standard French, in England standard English. But not in America.

The choice was to flunk or accomodate. The latter was chosen. The consensus on academic standards was broken.

So was the consensus on courtesy and what constituted civilized behavior. The courts decided that foul language was a part of the culture of blacks, and consequenly legitimate. So was horrendous grammar. Thus if a black student said to a teacher, “You be a muhfuggen bitch,” she could not respond, “No, William, you should say 'You are a muhfuggen bitch.” It would be cultural imperialism.

This approach, intended to protect blacks, of course embodied a profound contempt, and in particular the observably false belief that they could not learn to read and speak English. Condescension and self-awareness seldom cohabit.

Concommitantly, the exodus of bright women into biochemistry left the schools in the hands of dull-witted and little-read women, often of recent blue-collar origin, who, having had no experience of either education or cultivation, fell into psychobabble and ploughed the fields of self-esteem. Teachers who had not read the classics, and in many cases had never heard of them, could have no idea why these things might matter. Masculine influence having evaporated, they turned the schools into hothouses of niceness, anti-violence, hostility to boys, and cloying political correctness.

The Sixties had triumphed, had instilled the idea that if mention of incompetence were forbidden, the effort of becoming competent could be avoided. These are not fevered imaginings. From a piece I wrote for Harper's in 1981:

“The bald, statistically verifiable truth is that the teachers' colleges, probably on ideological grounds, have produced an incredible proportion of incompetent black teachers. Evidence of this appears periodically, as, for example, in the results of a competency test given to applicants for teaching positions in Pinellas County, Florida (which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater), cited in Time, June 16, 1980. To pass this grueling examination, an applicant had to be able to read at the tenth-grade level and do arithmetic at the eighth-grade level.Though they all held B.A.s, 25 percent of the whites and 79 percent of the blacks failed. Similar statistics exist for other places.” l

Thus the student's project on Italian Americans I saw on a wall in a middle school near Washington, honoring Enrico Fermi's contributions to, so help me, “Nucler Phisicts.” On the wall. Uncorrected.

And so we now see rigorous study as an unreasonable imposition. The pretense is sufficient. A new consensus forms. Even in what were once universites almost everyone gets As, and students, if so they may be termed, graduate in a state of darkness, knowing nothing of history, geography, literature.

Of the standards of earlier times, only a blisterish sensitivity remains. To correct anyone's English is to provoke fury and cries of “Elitism!” this being generally conceived as worse than pederasty or shoplifting.

And if you proposed to reinsitute the curricula of 1955, only Jews and Asians would abstain from the lynch mob. How far we have come.


Fifth of Britain's trainee teachers cannot do sums or spell... and one had 37 resits before passing basic maths test

One in five trainee teachers cannot do simple sums or pass basic spelling and grammar tests. One in ten have failed their final-year numeracy and literacy tests twice in a row, while dozens have needed an astonishing ten attempts.

One clearly innumerate trainee was allowed 37 resits to get through the maths paper.

Critics said yesterday those who take multiple resits should not be teaching and will have a detrimental impact on their pupils. From next year, Education Secretary Michael Gove is limiting the number of retakes to just two.

Trainees have to pass basic skills tests in literacy, numeracy and ICT (information and communication technology) before they qualify for the classroom. The pass mark is a modest 60 per cent.

The latest figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools reveal that in 2009/10, a fifth of trainees failed both the numeracy and literacy tests first time round.

Some 6,957 failed literacy and numeracy on the second attempt, while 1,508 failed either discipline on their fifth attempt.

More disturbing still are the vast number of resits some trainees have been granted before passing. One took 37 tries to pass numeracy and 57 would-be teachers passed only on their 19th attempt.

Standards have fallen during the last five years. Of the 32,717 trainees who passed their numeracy test in the academic year 2003/4, 83.6 per cent did so first time. And of the 33,412 trainees who passed their literacy test, 86.4 per cent did so at the first attempt.

Last year the figure was 80 per cent for both. Under Mr Gove’s plans, woefully poor trainees will no longer be allowed in the classroom.

His policy would have weeded out 1,963 for poor literacy and 2,939 for poor numeracy last year. But critics say his crackdown does not go far enough.

Passing the numeracy test has been a requirement of Qualified Teacher Status since 2000. Passing tests in literacy and ICT were made compulsory the following year.

Students sit the online tests in the final year of teacher training. They were originally allowed just four or five attempts to pass. But Labour scrapped the rule in 2001 to allow unlimited resits.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: ‘It’s shocking we have allowed people to become teachers who don’t fully grasp our language or handle numbers and who we have let slip through the net on the 37th attempt.

‘The nature of tests is that ... people will be able to fluke them, which means they pass but have no proper understanding of the subject – much like with driving tests. Three attempts will reduce this possibility, but it does not go far enough.’


Australia: Vicious little thugs in class of chaos as principals and teachers are abused, threatened or bashed in NSW

PRINCIPALS and teachers are abused, threatened or bashed daily in schools by violent students, angry parents or intruders with a grudge.

Almost 460 serious incidents including 130 violent acts against school staff were logged during term one and term two this year in reports to the Department of Education and Communities.

The reports, obtained under freedom of information laws, show educators receive death threats, are forced to disarm weapon-wielding students and sometimes are injured and hospitalised in attacks.

While some of the most serious incidents involve intruders or angry parents, teachers are also threatened and assaulted by badly behaved students in class.

Some children become so out of control at school they throw furniture, smash windows and assault teachers by biting, kicking and hitting, forcing a number to seek an apprehended violence order for protection. Among the cases documented in reports to the department:

A TEACHER was hit in the back by a rock; and

A THREAT was made during a classroom confrontation to use a hacksaw blade from the industrial arts room.

The Department of Education and Communities said the safety of students and staff was its "top priority".

"Close to 90 per cent of the state's schools regularly report no such incidents and the great majority of the remaining 10 per cent report only one incidence of violence each school semester, with the bulk of these not being serious enough to result in anyone being charged by police," a spokesperson said.

"Schools receive information via students' enrolment information which assists them to safely support students once they are enrolled and to contribute to the safety of everyone in the school community.

"Where required, schools implement behaviour support plans for individual students to promote effective learning and manage factors that may impact on behaviour."

Teachers Federation senior vice-president Joan Lemaire also said schools were overwhelmingly safe places but added she was "deeply concerned" about any violence that occurred.

The federation has complained about inadequate staff and resources to cope with problems in some schools and has concerns some students with behaviour issues are still being enrolled without a thorough risk assessment.

Four years ago a survey of beginner teachers found bad behaviour by students was driving many out of the job.


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