Monday, July 09, 2012

Enforced conformity in class condemns boys to mediocrity

HENRY V is one of Shakespeare's most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older. But suppose Henry went to an American school.

By about the third week of kindergarten, Henry's teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry ''had another hard day today.'' By mid-year, there'd be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry's parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.

By primary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he'd jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He'd get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there'd be suspensions all around. First, Henry would withdraw. He'd decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he'd just disengage. In kindergarten, he'd wonder why he just couldn't be good. By high school, he'd lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.

Then he'd rebel. If the official high school culture was uber-nurturing, he'd be uber-crude. If it valued co-operation and sensitivity, he'd devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If university wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he'd exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He'd have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realise them. Day to day, he'd look completely adrift

This is roughly what's happening in schools across the Western world. The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don't fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.

Far from all, but many of the people who don't fit in are boys. A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse. By year 12, male reading test scores are far below female test scores. Psychologist Michael Thompson said recently that year 11 boys are now writing at the same level as year 8 girls. Boys used to have an advantage in maths and science, but that gap is nearly gone. Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems. As far back as 2004 an education journal noted that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D's and F's. Some colleges are lowering the admissions requirements just so they can admit a decent number of men. Even so, men make up just over 40 per cent of university students. Two million fewer men graduated from university over the past decade than women. The gap in graduate school is even higher.

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the US, but in all 35 member-nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can't pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he'll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can't pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is not that easy.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate co-operation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honour environmental virtues, but teachers who honour military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don't fit the ethos get left out.

Little Prince Hal has a lot going on inside. He's not the unfeeling, uncommunicative, testosterone-driven cretin of common boy stereotype. He's just inspired by a different honour code. He doesn't find much inspiration in school, but he should.


The British boy who was allowed to sit maths A-level papers TWENTY NINE times until he got enough marks to pass

A struggling teenager was allowed to take his maths A-level papers a staggering 29 times until he passed, it emerged today.

In a damning indictment of the resit culture, the student sat one paper for each of the six modules needed for the qualification.  He then went on take an astonishing 23 resits, an exam board chief revealed.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the exam board AQA, used the pupil as an extreme example of the retake culture surrounding A Levels, the Sunday Times reported.  He backs plans by exam regulator Ofqual to limit retakes to just one per paper as part of a huge shake up of A-level exams.

Speaking at the Westminster Education Forum last week he said 'resits have done serious damage' to the credibility of exam system, and refereed to the AQA pupil who finally gained the qualification in 2010.

Universities have added pressure to the proposals, where growing numbers of departments are refusing to accept results of resits  when offering places.

An analysis of last year's A-level results by AQA, one of the three main boards in England, has shown resits have boosted grade inflation.  Without the possibility of retakes, the proportion gaining A* or A grades would fall from 24.5 per cent to 19.6 per cent.  Those scoring B or above would have slipped from 50.3 per cent to 42.4 per cent.

Ofqual's proposals for new A-levels a tougher grading system and an end of january resits.  The AS-level could be scrapped entirely, marking a return to the two-year A Level.

The new A-levels would be phased in subject by subject over four years, with traditional disciplines likely to be prioritised. By 2018, all old-style  A-levels would be scrapped.


Australia: Blatant Leftist bias in national curriculum could damage our democracy

The draft shape of the national curriculum's "civics and citizenship" subject was released last month. It is blatantly ideological. It displays its progressive, left-of-centre politics like a billboard.

The national curriculum was announced by Julia Gillard in 2008 and is forecast to be implemented in Victoria and NSW sometime after next year. The curriculum authority is rolling out one subject at a time.

But from the start, the curriculum's politics were obvious. In its own words, it will create "a more ecologically and socially just world". The phrase "ecological justice" is rarely seen outside environment protests. Social justice is a more mainstream concept, but it's solidly of the left - it usually refers to "fixing" inequality by redistributing wealth.

Civics is a small subject in the curriculum, but a crucial one. The national curriculum wants to sculpt future citizens out of today's students. So the emphasis civics places on certain political ideas will echo through Australian life for decades. And when a group of academics tries to summarise the essential values of our liberal democracy, we should pay attention. After all, they hope to drill them into every child.

So what are our nation's values? According to the civics draft, they are "democracy, active citizenship, the rule of law, social justice and equality, respect for diversity, difference and lawful dissent, respect for human rights, stewardship of the environment, support for the common good, and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship".

It's quite a list. Some of the values, such as democracy and the rule of law, we all should agree on. But most are skewed sharply to the left.

Where, for instance, is individual liberty? The curriculum describes Australia as a liberal democracy but doesn't seem comfortable with what that means: a limited government protecting the freedom for individuals to pursue their own lives.

Conservatives should be troubled "tradition" is absent. Our institutions are the inheritance of centuries of experiment and conflict. To respect tradition is to value those institutions. Yet tradition only pops up when the draft talks about multiculturalism. It's part of "intercultural understanding". In other words, we are merely to tolerate the traditions of others, not value our own.

And liberals should be appalled at the emphasis on "civic duty". The curriculum could have said that individuals and families living their own lives in their own way is virtuous in itself. After all, people who do things for others in a market economy contribute to society as much as the most passionate political activist.

But instead the civics subject will pound into children that they should work for international non-profit groups to pursue "the common good".

This may be uncontroversial to the left but it is political dynamite. Liberals are sceptical of the common good because throughout history it has been used to justify nationalism, oppression, militarism, intolerance and privilege. It's one of the reasons liberals support small government. But the common good has been tossed absent-mindedly into the civics draft, alongside that other vague and loaded concept, social justice.

It gets worse. The suggestion we have a duty to be "stewards" of the environment comes straight from green political philosophy. It reduces humans to mere trustees of nature. This directly conflicts with the liberal belief that the Earth's bounty can be used for the benefit of humanity.

Politics drenches the entire curriculum. Three "cross-curriculum priorities" infuse everything from history to maths. They are: sustainability, engagement with Asia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

Perhaps on first glance the priorities don't seem too political. But the history curriculum will offer perspectives on "the overuse of natural resources" and "the global energy crisis". The English curriculum will teach students how to "advocate … actions for sustainable futures". The ideology here is so flagrant teachers might as well just tell the kids who to vote for.

And imagine the priorities were, instead, material progress, the Australia-US alliance, and British culture. Progressives would line up to condemn the curriculum's reactionary politics. Remember the outrage over conservative bias in John Howard's citizenship test? And that was just for migrants. The curriculum is for every Australian child.

The irony is that this iteration of the national curriculum wasn't Labor's idea. The Howard government set the ball rolling. The Coalition was unhappy how terribly left-wing state curriculums were.

So people who are pleased with the curriculum as it stands should think how it could be when an Abbott government takes over. We may hear again the same dark warnings about ideologues taking over the education system that we heard during the Howard years.

In theory, teaching all students the virtues of liberal democracy is a good idea. But if educationalists can't do so without imposing their own political values, we may be no better off than where we started.


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